Just a few minutes into my visit to Pike Place Market, a bottleneck of dawdling tourists eyeing sleek cucumbers and pints of berries like they'd been sent from outer space sent me looking for space.
I didn't make it up the Space Needle during my visit.
Nor did I seek out the flagship Starbucks.
What I did find, however, was the neighborhood of Fremont.
Before arriving, I'd looked online for hotel rooms near downtown Seattle. But even the hostels were full, and the downtown hotels were far beyond my budget. So I decided to give Couchsurfing.com a try.
I posted a request for advice in the Seattle group, asking for leads on an inexpensive hotel that was clean, well-located and had some character.
Soon, a Seattle member named Byron e-mailed back: "I've totally figured out a win-win situation for you!"
His friend Sophia, he said, had been trying to rent out her empty mother-in-law suite. It had a separate entrance in a great part of town, Byron said. It wasn't furnished, but there was an air mattress and fresh linens and towels. And Sophia wouldn't feel comfortable taking more than $50 a night.
Byron continued with his advice for the best coffee near Sophia's house (Lighthouse Roasters). "It's totally, quintessentially Seattle," he wrote, "And the only restaurant I would truly miss if I left Seattle is Paseo." A Caribbean restaurant in Fremont, Byron said, with the best Cuban sandwiches in town.
When I arrived in Seattle, Sophia, a friendly thirtysomething, led me to the basement unit of her green bungalow. My air mattress was waiting in a large open room — along with a full kitchen, washer and dryer, and a spacious bathroom. And while I didn't see much of Sophia over the weekend, I got to know her 'hood.
On Saturday morning, I headed straight to Lighthouse for my first Seattle coffee. It was hard to tell whether the yard signs demanding "Change" or the Tibetan prayer flags strung from porches were more prevalent on the streets of Fremont.
Outside the coffee shop, locals with newspapers in their laps chatted on a bench. Inside, someone was emptying beans into a huge roaster. And a guy with crazy red hair behind the cash register joked with a customer, and sing-songed his way through orders to the baristas. "One double tall vanilla latte, one double tall latte, one medium Americano," rang off the metal bar like an anthem to caffeine.
My latte, silky smooth, had a flower swirled into the crema. I sat at the bar to enjoy it while reading the "Best of Seattle" in the Seattle Weekly.
The Best Weed Control, according to the paper, was a company called Rent-a-Ruminant that employed goats to take care of blackberry bushes engulfing the backyards of Seattleites "like a scene from The Blob." I marveled at a city where abundant blackberries were a nuisance.
At a garage sale nearby, a local massage therapist was giving away old National Geographic and Wired magazines and charged me 50 cents for a Mark Twain paperback.
I wandered the steep streets of Fremont, popping into retro record shops and plucking free blackberries from bushes lining the sidewalks.
For lunch, I hit Paseo — the Cuban joint Byron had boldly recommended to a Florida girl. And, like a ruminant in a berry patch, I devoured the best Cuban sandwich ever (the Midnight Cuban).
At a festival that night, I got into conversation with a Boeing employee.
"Oh no," he said, "you don't just show up in Seattle and discover places like Paseo and Lighthouse."
Thanks to Couchsurfing.com, I did.
Terry Ward is a freelance writer in Orlando.