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Space Needle Elevator Operator Derien Mattingly's Guide to Seattle


A Space Needle Employee’s Guide to Seattle
Hi, I'm Naomi!

Seattle-based writer Naomi Tomky explores the world with a hungry eye, digging into the intersection of food, culture, and travel. She is an Association of Food Journalists and Lowell Thomas award-winner, and her cookbook, The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, was declared one of 2019’s best by the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow her culinary travels and hunger-inducing ramblings on Twitter and Instagram.

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Derien Mattingly lives her professional life in 41-second intervals. That’s how long it takes the elevator she operates to go from ground level to the top of Seattle's most iconic structure: The Space Needle. In that time, she gives her passengers an introduction to the city, a briefing on what they’re looking at, and instructions on where to catch the ride back when they’re done looking around. On the way down, she’s a guidebook come to life, answering any question a visitor fires at her—about the city, what they’ve just seen, and how they should spend the rest of their visit.

When she started half a decade ago, she quickly learned that while knowing how the elevator worked was essential, knowing the answer to every little thing about the entire city was just as important. One ride she gives a complete history of Key Arena, another advice on where to go for lunch, and on another she offers her thoughts on the weather that night. For those not lucky enough to be in Mattingly’s elevator, she answered a few questions for us about the best Seattle has to offer.


Best time to visit the Space Needle

“It depends on the time of year,” Mattingly says. “During the summer, typically right when we open and right before we close. Summer hours are 8am to midnight, so if you're an early bird or night owl, those are really good times.” Bonus: tickets for those time slots are also cheaper. “Otherwise you just gotta be patient,” Mattingly adds. “We have a lot of other cool things to do in the area, so you can buy a ticket an hour or two in advance; go check out the Chihuly Garden, the Pacific Science Center, or the Children's Museum [which is right next door]; and then come back to us so you don't stand in line the whole time.”

Unexpected Space Needle views

For a view few others see, Mattingly recommends standing on the observation deck’s risers, leaning back against the glass, and looking up. “You can see the flag flying and the top of the Needle itself. That's a lot of fun, especially when we have the specialty flags up, like the Pride flag or the 12th Man flag ... You don't realize how large these flags are on top of a building, but it’s the size of a minivan.”

A group of travelers looking out over Seattle from the Space Needle observation deck
The Space Needle observation deck offers 360-degree views over Seattle and its surroundings. Photo: jack-sooksan / Shutterstock

Favorite lesser-known Seattle spots

The water tower in Volunteer Park is one of Mattingly’s favorite Seattle spots. “It takes just a little hike to get up there, if you're not used to the stairs, but it's a really cool hidden view.” She also recommends the Pinball Museum in the International District. “I like getting the day-band 'cause you can go in and out all day. So I'll go and play and then we'll get some food—there’s great Asian food of every kind [in the area]—and then you go back and play some more.”

Seattle neighborhoods to explore

“I enjoy West Seattle,” Mattingly says. “It's rather walkable, there's not a lot of big hills, and you can go down to the water, have some good chowder and fish and chips and all that jazz, and then have a bonfire on the beach. I actually recently told [a Space Needle visitor] where to get firewood. They were like, 'We're kind of running out of time and money. What can we do?' I'm like, 'Do you have $5? Buy a bundle of wood and go to Alki.'”

Pike Place Market at twilight
Pike Place, which opened in 1907, is one of the oldest markets in the US. Photo: happycreator / Shutterstock

Best places to take the family

“I like taking them to Pike Place Market,” Mattingly says. “What a lot of people don't realize is the market is four levels. I've asked people and they’re like ‘Yeah, we walked through the market.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, how long did it take you then?’ ‘About 20 minutes.’ No, you didn't. You missed the guts. You gotta go down the stairs.”

“There's this really cool magic shop, and there's another little place down in the bottom corner that sells random stuff from rummage sales and storage units that have been abandoned. I found a book from the ‘20s [for] 50 cents.”

One thing people don’t realize about Seattle

“It doesn't rain all the time,” Mattingly insists. “It just kind of drizzles on you sometimes, and if you walk fast enough, you stay dry—you can always tell people that don't live here because they're the ones with umbrellas.” “If it says 90 percent chance of rain,” she adds, “that's literally maybe 10 minutes in the middle of the day and then it won't rain for the rest of the day, so it really doesn't impede exploration.”

Wooden beam-framed buildings in Leavenworth, Washington
Leavenworth's downtown resembles a Bavarian village in southern Germany. Photo: Andriy Blokhin / Shutterstock

Best day trips from Seattle

Leavenworth is Mattingly‘s personal pick for a day getaway. “It gets really busy during the tourist season, but it's one of the only places I've found that we can go and actually be in the water and not be cold. We go down to the KOA and there's this awesome little tubing company that has a shuttle that takes you down to the company. The float is awesome, and then they'll pick you up and bring you back to the KOA. It’s cheap and easy, and then you go get a bratwurst and beer. It's great.”

More ways to explore Seattle

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Hi, I'm Naomi!

Seattle-based writer Naomi Tomky explores the world with a hungry eye, digging into the intersection of food, culture, and travel. She is an Association of Food Journalists and Lowell Thomas award-winner, and her cookbook, The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, was declared one of 2019’s best by the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow her culinary travels and hunger-inducing ramblings on Twitter and Instagram.

Keep exploring
See all Seattle tours
284 tours & tickets
Things to do in Seattle
See all things to do in Seattle
Oysters on ice at Pike Place Market, Seattle
How Seattle Became an Oyster Town (and Where To Slurp Them)