With so much rich beauty and unique charm in one little town, a person new to the area might need a little help getting familiar with all of the things that Gig Harbor is recognized for. As a 25-year resident of this town and avid fan of all that it has to offer, I’ll help you learn the most essential things that Gig Harbor is known for.
From the world-famous Narrows Bridge and interesting festivals, to gardening and art culture, this town is bound to surprise you.
1. Vibrant Arts Scene
For a small community, it’s surprising how varied and cohesive the arts scene is in Gig Harbor. Eight art galleries, numerous dance and performing arts studios, established winter and summer arts festivals, and the active and popular Paradise Theater are just some of the expressions of the arts in this area. Paradise Theater operated for over 20 years and used to do live theater in the outdoor Meadow on Peacock Hill. Unfortunately, due to the lock-down in 2020, they closed permanently but groups are already forming to start new live theater options and plans are in place for a large arts center to be established.
The arts have a long history in this town and, going back to the 80’s, it has been known for its art galleries and wine walks. For nearly 30 years the Peninsula Art League has given artists support and connection through events, meetings, art studio tours, and festivals. The membership features painters, potters, sculptors, quilters, photographers, writers, jewelry designers, and other types of creatives.
There are many places to study dance and music and the community strongly supports these performers. Gig Harbor has always supported the youth and that shows in the arts community.
These various groups, artists, and organizations are currently working on a vision for a Gig Harbor Regional Arts Center.
2. Boating Mecca
Early in the history of Gig Harbor there were no roads and boats were the main transportation.
With a quantity of lumber at hand, this led to the traditional fishing life in Gig Harbor being joined by two burgeoning industries — lumbering and boat building — which would become the village’s chief occupations.
Gig Harbor is known as a destination by boaters throughout the sound. The Harbor’s opening sheltered by a large spit opens up to a lake size bay with many marinas. This makes it a comfortable and scenic destination for boaters and a popular past time for residents.
With no end of bays, islands and inlets, there is more waterfront property in this area than any place in Washington state. It is a natural draw for people who love boating and the water.
When time allows and the weather is favorable, being out on the water even for a few hours makes me feel like I just took a vacation. The feeling can’t be beat and always makes me thankful to live in such a beautiful part of the world.
3. Small Town Vibes
If the city is not your thing, then you may want to check out Gig Harbor.
A big attraction to both living and visiting here is how the local leaders have managed to control growth and urban sprawl. The city is growing by leaps and bounds but, by keeping commercial growth limited to certain areas, it has kept the feel of a small town. There are still areas featuring farms, agricultural properties and historic homes. Many of the families of the original settlers like the Skansi’s, the Uddenberg’s and Spadoni’s still live, and do business, in the area.
The downtown does not allow large commercial retailers and is full of small local businesses. The Tides Tavern is a personal favorite and a well-known hangout for locals. It has been owned by the same family for 45 years, the building itself, being originally built in 1910 as a general store. It is just one of many locally-owned businesses that give the Harbor a small-town vibe.
4. The Tacoma Narrows Bridges
One of the most unique features about this area is that the main access consists of crossing twin, tall suspension bridges over the narrowest section of Puget Sound. This drive features incredible views but also has a one way toll that has been added since the construction of the second bridge in 2007. Prior to that the bridge traffic was a terrible bottle neck and sometimes even closed due to accidents or weather. Traffic flows freely now with 4 lanes in each direction.
The first bridge built here in 1940 is famously known around the world as “Galloping Gertie” because of a strange phenomenon that led to the bridge’s collapse only 4 months after its construction. It turned out the winds blowing over the water actually harmonized with the bridge’s resonant frequency (think of the opera singer breaking glasses by singing the right note), causing the bridge to “gallop” and eventually collapse.
This event sparked the discipline of studying harmonic resonance in engineering and forever changed how structures were engineered in the modern world!
It was another 10 years before the single suspension bridge was finished. During that time the main access to the Olympic Peninsula was via ferry with a landing right in downtown Gig Harbor.
5. The Active Life
Gig Harbor is a draw for people who want to be out doors and see trees, water and the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
You will find many parks, walking trails, golf courses, and places to fish, waterski, and kayak. It really has something for anyone that wants to be active in the outdoors. Soccer and baseball is a huge subculture here and you will find parks with tennis courts and volleyball areas.
The Cushman Trail is a much-loved 6.2-mile pedestrian and bike trail that runs along the Highway 16 corridor winding through woods and local business areas. People walk their dogs here and it is made comfortable with restrooms and seating areas along the route.
6. Lighted Boat Parade and Christmas Tree Lighting
Most small towns have a Christmas tree lighting but not many have a lighted boat parade to accompany it! My family just loves this and it’s a great outing for all ages.
The landlubbers get in on this one with a lighted car parade featuring mostly vintage cars. There is a huge vintage car collector scene here and they are always looking for an excuse to get their favorites on display. Nearly every big Gig Harbor community event has a vintage car element.
There are many city docks to view the parade from including the main Skansie Brothers Park where the tree is located. In recent years the community put up a fight to get their traditional nativity put back under the tree after the city removed it due to pressure from activists. Tradition is important in a small town and it was great to see the community find their voice.
7. Garden Culture
An active retirement community and a history of agriculture have created a strong gardening culture in Gig Harbor. It is known for its garden tours, master gardeners, community gardens and local specialty nurseries.
There are still many active small farms where you can purchase fresh eggs and other items. The only Wilco in the region is in Gig Harbor, as a result, and we have a great farmer’s market for locals to sell at.
The parks district, and other groups, host gardening workshops to keep the community engaged and help newcomers find their green thumb.
8. The Annual Blessing of the Fleet and Maritime Gig Festival.
Visitors come from all over the region for this traditional boating festival that includes artist booths, live music, a vintage car show, and The Maritime Gig Parade, just to name a few attractions. Locals line up ahead of time to get a good seat and fill the Skansie Park at the center of town. Events also take place at the Skansie Net Shed and Harbor History Museum. Events like this take you back to the “small-town America” roots of the community.
9. Live Music
Gig Harbor has a very active music scene. Almost any night of the week you can find live music somewhere in town. Most of the time it is a local open mic but all year long there are events featuring live music.
Concerts in the park are one of the most popular draws for Gig Harbor crowds and are well attended right in the heart of downtown at the beautiful waterfront Skansie Brother’s Park. Local groups like The Beatniks and the Shy Boys have long history and a strong following.
10. Being a Historic Fishing Village
The original residents of the Harbor were the Twa-Wal-Kut band of the Puyallup Tribe, they had a longhouse and permanent camp at the head of the harbor.
They were later joined by a few white settlers, mainly Croatians who picked up their tradition of net fishing in the Harbor. This is why it is home to so many historic net sheds.
Both tribal members and white newcomers made their living by fishing. They fished for salmon in season, of course, but also ling cod, red snapper, flounder, and eel.
You can learn more about these families here. I love living in an area where you will meet people engaged in the community who have streets and parks named after their family, like John Skansi, who helped establish the net shed museum and recently ran for city council. This rich history of community involvement is what makes it a vibrant small town.