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Seattle is one of those cities that’s straight up synonymous with music. Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Heart, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis just scratch the surface of the city’s various scenes over the last 80-odd years. That deep history led to the Experience Music Project opening up in Seattle Center, a museum, interactive music space, and gift shop that celebrates the sounds that shape our lives.
As great as the EMP is (you can legit go there and lay down tracks in a studio with your crew) it’s just a surface-level look the Seattle’s rich musical history. It’s a repository and a damn good one. But if you long to dive deep into the history of one of these subcultures — grunge being the obvious first choice and the sun that the Emerald City’s sound revolves around — you’ll have to go further. You’ll need to travel to the dirty, bleach-soaked, scruffy source and see the city’s music haunts with your own eyes.
Where to start? The below six entries are all venues that have proven themselves over time. These are the hallowed halls the likes of Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, and Eddie Vedder cut their teeth in. Just a quick note before we dive in — we’re not including any classic venue that’s no longer a music venue. So places like OK Hotel and The Vogue (currently an apartment complex and hair salon, respectively) missed the list. This is where to get your old school fix while seeing live shows. Maybe you’ll even discover what’s next.
The Crocodile was a venue that popped in the right place at the right time. Doors opened in April of 1991 just as the grunge scene was taking off. Pretty much every major, minor, and forgotten band from the late 80s/early 90s scene played The Croc. The place was a big enough mainstay in the scene that supergroup Mad Season played their first ever gig there back in ’94.
Today, The Crocodile is still going strong with a constant flow of alternative, indie, hip hop, and electro acts taking the stage.
Average price: $10-$20
Nearby eats: Biscuit Bitch is the spot in Seattle for biscuits and gravy. Grab an order piled high with bacon, shredded cheese, and jalapenos to sustain you all night.
Find it at: 2200 2nd Ave.
Re-Bar is famed for being the spot where Nirvana had their album launch party for Nevermind. They got so drunk that they were kicked out of their own launch party. Like. Freakin.’ Rockstars.
These days, Re-Bar is home to great parties, eclectic acts (both music and performative), and a great bar vibe. And you can still rent it out if you ever need to throw your own album launch party.
Average price: $10-$20
Nearby eats: Kedai Makan is the perfect late-night spot for dope Malaysian food. Grab a fermented duck egg and some spicy fried frog legs before hitting the bar.
Find it at: 1114 Howell St.
El Corazon (Off Ramp Cafe)
Off Ramp Cafe is an essential spot for Seattle Sound history. Pearl Jam played Ten for the first time on this stage. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, and TAD were all playing on similar bills night after night. This was the place to be back in the day.
Today, Off Ramp is El Corazon and has a more metal and hardcore vibe with local, national, and international acts dropping by to shred. It still rocks hard most days of the week, though.
Average price: $10-$30
Nearby eats: The 5-Point Cafe is an iconic dive bar and eatery a few blocks down Denny Way from El Corazon. If you drop in for happy hour, you can grab a cheeseburger and fries for $3.50.
Find it at: 109 Eastlake Ave. E
Central Saloon — sometimes called the Central Tavern — was where Nirava played its first Seattle show and where the founders of Subpop first heard and “signed” the band. The Central also happens to be the oldest bar in Seattle and comes with a killer vibe and ample cheap booze.
Central is still going strong with a local list of acts filling its calendar. This is where to hang if you want to check the best of the local scene coming up.
Average price: $5-$10
Nearby eats: The Berliner Doner Kebab is late-night drunk food for the soul. It’s also right next door! Hit it up for a late-night kebab with all the fixing.
Find it at: 207 1st Ave.
Neumos (Moe’s Mo’Roc’N Café)
Neumos got its start in 1994. The grunge “scene” had already started to wane by then and the next generation of musicians was taking the stage, think Ben Gibbard and the next wave of indie rock. This joint may have missed the big moments from Nirvana and Pearl Jam but it more than made up for it by being “the” place to hear music from Seattle over the last 25 years.
Neumos pretty much has a gig going on every day of the week. Though be warned, shows are often sold out so plan accordingly.
Average price: $20-$30
Nearby eats: Lost Lake Cafe & Lounge is the perfect mix of hip bar and greasy spoon diner. This joint is open 24/7 meaning you can dip in for a plate of pancakes or a killer burger after any show.
Find it at: 925 E Pike St.
Okay, we get it. This is a classic music hall. Not exactly rock ‘n roll. But bear with us. This is where Chris Cornell would play when he did acoustic sets. This is where Mad Season did their last show. Benaroya Hall is built for sound and Seattle’s best musicians know it.
Benaroya Hall has a long list of calendar dates that focus mostly on classic gigs. However, if you want to hit to Hall and hear Seattle’s homegrown rockers, make sure you’re in town for Seattle Children’s Hospital Benefit Concert. You get to rock out to Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains while giving money to a truly important cause.
Average price: $30-$100
Nearby eats: Gelatiamo is the perfect place to indulge in Italian ice cream before or after seeing a big show at the hall.
Find it at: 200 University St.