Do a Little Sightseeing in Your Own Hometown

Isn’t it strange how we travel halfway around the globe to check out a hot new museum, while ignoring attractions in our own backyard?

I grew up in Delaware County, Ohio, a place with few claims to fame. One of them is the Olentangy Indian Caverns. Even though the caverns are lavishly advertised throughout Central Ohio; even though I passed by the entrance literally thousands of times growing up; even though I had friends who were tour guides at the caverns during summer break; and even though I went to a high school with the same name…I have never set foot inside.

As summer 2021 progresses, we’re in a strange limbo of waiting patiently for normalcy so we can head back to Europe. But in the meantime, now that things are opening up, it’s the perfect opportunity to “play tourist” closer to home — to finally visit some of those sights you always meant to see, but just haven’t gotten around to. Recently I toured an outstanding museum in my own neighborhood, and it felt very good to do a little sightseeing in my own hometown.

The National Nordic Museum opened in 2018 in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Old-timers fondly recall an earlier iteration, the Nordic Heritage Museum, which filled dusty display cases in an old brick elementary school with assorted Scandinavian bric-a-brac. It was endearingly humble and low-tech, as dry and crusty as decade-old stockfish.

The new version is still endearing, but in every other regard it’s a substantial upgrade. Visiting this collection’s bold, modern, purpose-built new home was a revelation. It’s my very favorite kind of museum: combining real artifacts with substantial information, and harnessing technology to set the mood and deepen your understanding of the topic, without being gimmicky. The National Nordic Museum made me nostalgic for some of the great museums I’ve enjoyed over the years in Europe, while at the same time, proud to have one just as impressive here at home.

After you watch a video briefly introducing the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Finns, Icelanders, and Sámi, a long staircase leads up to the main exhibit. This comes in two parts. First, you learn the story of the Nordic peoples — their history, their land, their culture, and their values — culminating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when millions emigrated to North America. Having toured national history museums in each of the Nordic capitals, I was impressed by how thoughtfully this exhibit handled such a sprawling and complicated topic — distilling thousands of years of history into something concise and digestible, without oversimplifying.

Across a skyway that spans the sleek and modern atrium is the second part of the main exhibit. Here you learn the stories of what happened to those Nordic immigrants upon arriving in a new land. Many passed through Ellis Island before fanning out across the continent. These new arrivals settled in places like the Upper Midwest, Canadian Prairies, and Pacific Northwest, where they pursued many of the same vocations they’d brought along from their homelands: farming, forestry, mining, fishing, and so on. A beautifully produced video interviews Pacific Northwesterners with Nordic roots (and with names like “Nordstrom”), who explain how the values of their ancestors have shaped who they are and how they live in the present day.

And that’s the great success of the National Nordic Museum: It’s not just about dates, artifacts, and geographical factoids. Rather, it psychoanalyzes what it means to be Nordic, and how Nordic-ness has woven itself into the fabric of Ballard, of Seattle, of the Pacific Northwest, and of the United States. Perhaps I’m biased — both being part-Norwegian and living just up the street — but if I were writing up this museum for a Rick Steves guidebook, I’d award it our coveted “three pyramids” ranking.

This wasn’t my first visit to the museum. Just a few months before the pandemic, around Christmas 2019, I had toured the exhibit for the first time. I was so moved by the museum that I made a donation to install a plaque honoring my great-grandparents.

Andrew and Louise Monson left the fjordlands of western Norway and, after a brief stint in North Dakota, made their way to East Everett, Washington, where they built a farmhouse on a bluff with distant views of Puget Sound. Their family expanded and spread out, eventually putting down roots all over Washington, Oregon, and beyond.

On my recent visit, I brought my parents along — partly to enjoy the exhibit (which we did), but also to surprise them with that plaque. Out in the museum garden, tucked between a Finnish log-cabin sauna and a replica Viking longboat, we found the names of the ancestors who are the reason we’re here.

I grew up in Ohio, but my Dad always kept me in touch with my Pacific Northwest and Norwegian roots…which is probably, semi-subconsciously, part of the reason I moved to Seattle after college. Touring the National Nordic Museum reminded me, in a beautiful way, of the deep connections I enjoy with my great-grandparents and with the adopted community where we all ended up. And I’ll definitely be back.

What about you? Have you taken advantage of the Great Reopening to finally make time to see long-overlooked sights near you? Is there some attraction close to home that you’ve always been meaning to check out?

14 Replies to “Do a Little Sightseeing in Your Own Hometown”

  1. We went to the Art Institute in Chicago for the Monet exhibit, a Sistine Chapel exhibit of Michelangelo works and a Van Gogh experience. Can’t wait to go across the pond though.

  2. We just saw Immersive Van Gogh in San Francisco this week, with lunch out on Pier 39.
    Not really my hometown (I’m in Sacramento) but close enough.
    Looking forward to more traveling soon I hope.

  3. I toured both Scandinavian museums. The old one was small but nice. Visiting Seattle without a car, we took 4 buses to get there. The new museum is beautiful! It was only 1 bus to get there. My grandfather and family came over from Sweden in 1890’s. We will visit it again and highly recommend it. The cafe had good food too!

  4. We decided to go east to Nashville,TN not only to experience country music but see the only full scale replica of ancient Parthenon & the Golden status of Athena Parthenos. We’ve been to Athen many many years ago & was sad to see the original Parthenon is mostly all ruins. Seeing Nashville’s version brought back the Ancient Greek mythology to life. The replica is so incredible we left the premises in AWE !

  5. We live in Arizona, so headed to the Grand Canyon! Although I’ve been there several times, staying at the El Tovar Hotel was on my bucket list. The old hotel was fantastic and the evenings were nice and cool with a glorious star show! We also visited Bearizona near Williams. If you are ever in AZ, both places are definitely worth visiting!

  6. We’ve been enjoying our City park with spectacular rose garden, fish pond and waterfowl refuge. We didn’t really appreciate how lovely it is until our options to travel elsewhere dwindled. We walk there every day now and thoroughly enjoy it. By the way I visited the Nordic museum in Ballard 5 years ago and just loved it along with the Scandinavian bakery in the area.

  7. A recent road trip to Asheville NC from Atlanta offered up the discovery of NOAA’s weather data archive and the social reform-minded photography of Lewis Hine at the jewel box Asheville Museum. Just as delightful as the array of folk crafts showcased with live demonstrations at the Folk Art Museum on the Blue Ridge Parkway was an exhibit celebrating the design, planning and jobs created by this natural wonder of a parkway. Twas a totally refreshing sojourn in company of a creative college friend.

  8. We are fortunate in Buffalo, New York, to have two homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Darwin Martin House is actually a complex of several buildings designed by Wright and lovingly restored to its original condition over the past twenty years. Graycliff Manor was the summer home of the Darwin Martin Family, and that, too, has been restored. Both properties have a variety of tours for visitors, and they are led by highly qualified docents. For visitors interested in architecture, Buffalo has a wealth of structures designed in various architectural styles.

  9. My husband and I are Philadelphians and were about to attend a swim meet to watch our grandson in a tournament at a Philadelphia college pool. I had been doing genealogy of my husband’s ethnic German family and knew that the family had settled in a then-German section of the city, a few blocks from where the swim meet was being held. I plotted all the places where his grandparents lived. After the meet, we visited each site. The highlight for us was the barbershop his grandfather once owned. It was easy to find because 100 years later, it is still a barbershop! The current owners were delighted that we stopped by. They posed for pictures, told us their ownership story, enjoyed hearing Grampop’s story and seeing the pictures of the old shop. What a wonderful day.

    1. Marvelous! Thanks for sharing! My grandfather had a barbershop that’s still a barbershop in suburban Philadelphia (but it’s not quite been 100 years!)

  10. So glad you posted this article on the Nordic museum in Seattle. Now living in Portland Oregon, I wasn’t aware it existed. I am a Jacobsen with family from Ballard and worked there right out of.college. I can’t wait to get back to Seattle and visit there.
    Monaree Jacobsen Deller

  11. The Los Angeles area has an amazing array of museums. The Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley has a very interesting exhibit about the FBI that we recently visited. Very well done. Also, went to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana for the Disney Archives exhibit. Learned some new things there.
    The museum I am really looking forward to going to is the Wende Museum (of the Cold War) in Culver City. We went before it moved to its new location and hope to see much more than they were able to display.
    A curious mind can find something interesting anywhere, from home to exotic locale.

  12. Hello from a fellow Ohioan! I currently live in Denver and love exploring the parks here. Most have gems, like the Robert Burns statue in City Park or the crazy graveyard history behind Cheeseman Park. Haven’t seen a ghost…yet.

  13. I really enjoyed everyone’s comments; thanks for posting. I am not of Norwegian background, but my husband has some Danish in his background. The El Tovar Hotel near the Grand Canyon sounds like it would be worth a visit. I was not aware this existed either. As someone mentioned: “A curious mind can find something interesting anywhere, from home to exotic locale.” I’m going to remember this comment for sure, while thinking of all the places to visit right here in our own US!

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