In October 2018, I took a short trip to Walla Walla, Washington, a small town in the southeast corner of the Evergreen State. I wanted to see this popular little town, which has a population of about 35,000 (perhaps 65,000 in the county), because all of my travels are usually to big cities and I live in a large metropolitan area. It was time to see the countryside. Flying over the southeastern part of Washington, I could tell that I was heading for someplace entirely different.
Southeastern Washington From Horizon Air
But spending a few days in a place where I could go everywhere I wanted without getting on a freeway or public transportation was a real treat. So were clean air and open spaces.
Farmlands on the Outskirts of Walla Walla
Walla Walla’s historic downtown has been refurbished and its streets have nicely painted and modernized clothing boutiques, furniture shops, restaurants, cafes, and even two bookstores–one new, one used, within walking distance of each other. Public art decorates a few corners and the entrance to the city library, which, along with two churches, stands at the gateway to the downtown.
Downtown Walla Walla–Free Parking!
The real draw for Walla Wall is its many, many tasting rooms, which bring to this small downtown the wines of some of the 120 local wineries–yes, 120 wineries. There are 10 tasting rooms on Main Street alone. This farming area once known for the Walla Walla Sweet Onion is becoming a destination for wine aficionados, and if it’s more than tasting that you want, many of the testing rooms are at the wineries, where the vineyards can be seen.
Cayuse–One of the Many Tasting Rooms in Downtown Walla Walla
Walla Walla’s downtown isn’t just about wine. The town itself won recognition as a Great American Main Street in 2001 after its transformation of what was a rundown main street, and ten years later, USA Today selected the town as the “friendliest small city” in the U.S. Incorporated in 1862, the city was once slated to be the capitol of the state of Washington, which would have created an entirely different future for this warm, laid-back town. But that designation went west to Olympia instead.
Walla Walla also has the oldest continuously operating symphony west of the Mississippi. The Walla Walla Symphony was founded in 1907, and has been led for the past 30 years by conductor Yaacov Bergman. This year, the symphony will be playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” among other favorites.
Fort Walla Walla and the Kirkman House Museum are other minor draws. The Kirkman House Museum, not far from the downtown, is a restored 1880 mansion with an interesting history. After serving as home to the Kirkman family for 40 years, it then became a dormitory for Whitman College and then as an apartment house with 12 separate units.
The drizzly day I was there, the house was hosting a textile crafts display by local weavers, spinners and knitters–appropriate for a house that was built by British textile salesman. I wandered the many rooms, nothing that Mrs. Kirkman owned many hats, which would be typical for a wealthy British woman.
Doll on the Upstairs Landing at Kirkman House
But it’s a small place. Walla Walla has a regional airport that serves the entire county and beyond; even folks from Milton-Freewater, a few miles south across the Washington-Oregon border, have to take advantage of the mere two flights daily to Seattle and the two flights from Sea-Tac back home. That’s it. Walla Walla is truly country.
All around this quaint little city is a large agricultural area. Not only are there acres of vineyards, but fields of wheat, lavendar, onions, asparagus and strawberries.
This lovely rural area also offers recreational space. Bennington Lake was my favorite place–a small lake surrounded by trees that in October were just beginning to turn. Grasslands stretch for miles around, and there are trails for hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
Wildflowers around Bennington Lake
While the open fields are golden brown by fall, the many parks that dot the city are emerald green. Pioneer Park, one of the largest and nicest, has acres of lawn, a play area for children, pickleball courts, a rose garden and an aviary featuring exotic birds. Pioneer Park is a “don’t miss” spot.
Pioneer Park made for a lovely view from the front window of the house that I rented through Airbnb from a talented, Italian-born architect. He and his partner had renovated this spacious two-bedroom home and made it a terrific rental. He continues to work on it; like a lot of the homes in town, this century-old cottage has a basement with space for at least two more bedrooms and a bathroom. Many other homes in the area were getting facelifts as new blood moves into Walla Walla and the town starts to gentrify.
An Updated Bungalow Near Pioneer Park
For a small town, Walla Walla has a lot to offer. Two universities and a community college make it an ideal family town and keeps the average age low. The beautiful, park-like campus of Whitman College is one of the city’s major institutions.
Whitman College is situated in a park-like setting, surrounded by one of the nicest residential neighborhoods in the city. The college is named after Marcus Whitman, a missionary who came to the area in 1836 to establish a mission in an effort to convert the local Native Americans to Christianity. He and his wife were killed by a tribe after an epidemic that the tribes blamed on the white newcomers, but his name lives on in several of the buildings in town, including the main hotel.
A Creek Winds Through the Whitman College Campus
The Whitman College campus features multiple pieces of sculpture, which are mapped out in a brochure offered by the Visitor’s Center for those who want to stroll the campus and view this varied collection of public art. The sculptures vary widely, from a totem pole to modern abstract metal. My favorite was a piece inside the Fouts Center for the Visual Arts that was made by Lisa Anne Rasmussen, a Whitman grad, as a memorial to her father, a former professor at the college for thirty years. The piece is comprised of some of her father’s work.
Memorial Sculpture to Former Professor Richard Rasmussen by his daughter, Lisa
Walla Walla has four seasons. While summers are hot, they don’t last as long as those in Central California. By October, temperatures can drop into the 50s and 60s and you may see a few days of rain. Christmas is likely to be white, but not heavy. The rain and snow bring back the lovely green of the parks, which are just one of the things that make Walla Walla such a lovely place to visit.