With the mountains to the east, the water to the west, and plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation, it’s no surprise that tourists flock to Bellingham when they’re looking for an idyllic escape. This bohemian college town boasts an array of quaint coffee shops, quirky eateries, cool music venues, and a thriving art scene that rivals those of more metropolitan areas. Across Bellingham Bay, the city offers magnificent views of the San Juan Islands, which can be easily accessed via ferry with a short drive south to Anacortes. Plus, just north lies the Canadian border and Vancouver, where a wealth of big-city attractions are at your fingertips.
Made up of the Central Business District and the Lettered Streets neighborhood, Downtown Bellingham is a walkable section of the city sprinkled with cozy art studios, rustic pubs, award-winning bistros, and a handful of historic theaters. Once a month from May through September, enjoy a range of local artisans, food vendors, live music, and games at the fun-filled Commercial Street Night Market. Throughout the summer, find music events and theater at the outdoor amphitheater in peaceful and pristine Maritime Heritage Park.
Once its own city, the historic district of Fairhaven is noted for its 19th-century architecture, vintage boutiques, lively restaurants, and one of the best independent bookstores in the United States. Stroll the tree-lined streets in search of the perfect cup of coffee, frosty beer, or eccentric souvenir. Throughout the year, the neighborhood also hosts art walks, farmers’ markets, sidewalk sales, and festivals with themes ranging from steampunk to Christmas.
On the southeast end of Bellingham is Lake Padden Park, a sizeable green space with hiking trails, picnic areas, playgrounds, and fishing spots. Set off on a stroll along the main loop that goes around the perimeter of the lake, or enjoy some solitude on some of the less-trodden trails on the east end of the park. Keep your eyes peeled for mallard ducks, buffleheads, and cormorants who call the lake home.
Running parallel to Western Washington University, Sehome Hill Arboretum is a spectacular park offering 180 wooded acres (73 ha), 5 miles (8 km) of hiking trails, and an observation tower overlooking greater Bellingham and the Bellingham Bay. On a nice day, find students learning about nature in this rich natural setting on the benches in the Outdoor Classroom.
Bursting with hidden natural treasures just waiting to be discovered, Whatcom Falls Park is an outdoor-lover’s paradise with hiking and biking trails, a rushing creek, a small set of waterfalls, and a swimming hole surrounded by moss-covered, craggy cliffs. The western edge of the park abuts glassy Lake Whatcom, around which you can find numerous beaches and docks for boating, kayaking, paddleboarding, and canoeing.
First established in the 1850s and incorporated in 1903, Bellingham retains much of its original architecture, providing an enchanting atmosphere that takes you back to yesteryear. Stroll through the Downtown and Fairhaven neighborhoods to catch sight of the late 19th-century and early 20th-century structures that have earned their place on the National Register of Historic Places. See the beautifully restored Mount Baker Theatre, the charming Queen Anne cottages lining the Lettered Streets, and the Victorian brick relics in the six square blocks of Fairhaven’s historic district.
After a walking tour through the picturesque neighborhoods, set off for a scenic ride along one of the county’s two iconic highways—Chuckanut Drive or the Mount Baker Highway. Running for about 20 miles (32 km) beginning at the south end of Fairhaven, much of Chuckanut Drive hugs the shoreline, offering breathtaking views of sparkling bays and the San Juan Islands in the distance. The Mount Baker Highway, stretching from northeastern Bellingham into the North Cascades National Park, is a tranquil route lined with towering evergreens and big-leaf maple trees. In the park, the vast wilderness of conifer-clad mountains, frosty glaciers, and crystal-blue lakes is a favorite spot of outdoor explorers all throughout the year.
Lying just an hour-and-a-half drive away from Mount Baker, Bellingham is a top destination for outdoor enthusiasts looking for world-class hiking, skiing, and snowboarding. Mountain bikers from around the world come to ride the singletracks at nearby Galbraith Mountain, while Bellingham’s numerous parks boast plenty of trails for those whose preferred activity is on 2 feet. The Whatcom, Padden, and Samish lakes, as well as the Downtown marina, are all optimal spots to enjoy watersports and boating. If you’re looking to get close to wildlife, a cruise from Bellingham to the San Juan Islands can offer unforgettable views of sea lions, harbor seals, and the majestic Orca whales that are native to the Northwest.
Home to the country’s second-highest number of arts businesses per capita, Bellingham is an ideal destination for thinkers, creators, and avid learners. The Downtown arts district is where you’ll find the Mount Baker Theatre, the Pickford Film Center, the Upfront comedy theater, and the Whatcom Museum, which is dedicated to the art and culture of the Pacific Northwest. If you’re visiting Bellingham on the first Friday of the month, the neighborhood also hosts the Downtown Art Walk, featuring galleries, studios, and shops that showcase the talent in and around the city. Any time of year, you can stroll the campus at nearby Western Washington University to see one of the most impressive outdoor sculpture collections in the nation, with work by renowned artists such as Isamu Noguchi, Alice Aycock, and Bruce Nauman.
Bellingham is certainly not lacking in diversity when it comes to its culinary options, which include more than 80 eateries serving up everything from Italian and French to Indian, Cajun, and Thai. Many of the region’s restaurants highlight locally farmed and fished ingredients like wild Pacific salmon, grass-fed beef, artisan cheese, and cow-to-cone ice cream. For a truly decadent experience, board the Victoria Star 2 for a dinner cruise through Bellingham Bay. Dine on famous Northwest Dungeness crab while taking in stunning views of the postcard-worthy coast.
For those who imbibe, Bellingham is also a prime destination for getting your drink on, especially if you’re a fan of beer. Recently named the Snobbiest Beer City in America, Bellingham boasts a remarkable collection of award-winning breweries and taprooms. In fact, the metropolitan area now has more breweries per capita than the nearby suds-centric cities of Seattle and Portland.