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Five Best-Kept Tourist Secrets of Bellingham, WA

Updated on May 25, 2010
Bellingham on a clear day and Mt. Baker in the distance
Bellingham on a clear day and Mt. Baker in the distance

You can consider yourself pretty lucky if you live in a city that attracts thousands of tourists a year and has been named the second best place “to reinvent yourself” by AARP. Bellingham, only 25 minutes south of the Canadian border by car, boasts astounding green spaces, a lovely waterfront on the Puget Sound with San Juan Islands in the distance and memorable views of the snow-capped Cascades, particularly Mt. Baker. Coupled with the locals' addiction to coffee (Bellingham ranked 4th in the Western United States with 2.1 coffee shops per 10,000 people, right behind San Francisco and the greater Seattle area), this city represents a great tourist destination in the Pacific Northwest and, truly, one of those places to live many can only dream of.

There are some local secrets, however, many tourist guides, visitors offices, and websites do not advertise much .... yet. After eight years of living in this magnificent place, I have discovered nooks, crannies, and faces of Bellingham I will now share with you, in hopes you will keep them secret but quietly check them out when you make your way up to our beautiful corner of the world. So ... hush now.

Big Rock Garden

This is a hard-to-find, lush, small park on Sylvan Street, at the top of Alabama Hill. A tiny gem of less than three acres, this park offers not only meandering walking paths, a canopy worthy of the rain forest with azaleas and rhododendrons ablaze in the late Spring, and peekaboo views of Bellingham, but also a rather impressive collection of outdoor art. There are a few outstanding pieces by local artists that celebrate natural materials, Native American influences, and the puzzling questions our generation of humans has to face. My favorite, an expansive, very three-dimensional piece of stone, granite, and bronze raises awareness about child poverty and hunger. The almost too realistic images of two extremely malnourished children in rags facing a third spot in which only the tiny footprints of a child already departed are visible never fail to make me shed a tear. It is hard to find a peaceful place that lets you celebrate nature, architecture, art, and human values at the same time – but Big Rock Garden does so, every time. Check out this link to get a small taste of what awaits you:

On to brighter and tastier things …..

Boulevard Park by the bay
Boulevard Park by the bay
Bellingham Bay sunset from Boulevard Park
Bellingham Bay sunset from Boulevard Park

Woods Coffee at Boulevard Park

Did I mention we hang on to that coffee up here for dear life? Well, in a place with approximately 168 days of measurable precipitation per year (can you say rain, folks?) a warm coffee cup often keeps you going. Small coffee stands have nearly saturated the market but also created a new aspect of our local culture. This Woods Coffee Northwest structure exhibits extensive woodwork, high ceilings, a stone-covered fireplace, and local artwork. Forget the coffee – all you need to know is that the deck seating by the outdoor fireplace overlooks Bellingham Bay, and that the sunsets in this setting are to die for! Put your feet up, bite into a yummy Mocha Chip muffin, and the world will seem like a very fine place.

If you need to walk off all that coffee and muffin, you should then head south on the ….

Fish 'n' Chips from the Fairhaven (still decidedly British) double decker
Fish 'n' Chips from the Fairhaven (still decidedly British) double decker

Boulevard Park Over Water Walkway & South BayTrail

Ok, folks, it's a fancy name but the term “bridge” just does not cut it. This bay trail boasts a wooden walking bridge very popular with joggers, dog lovers, and couples out for a stroll in the fresh breeze. It will take you from Boulevard Park, alongside the Chrysalis Inn (fancy massage, anyone?) to charming Fairhaven. I should warn you: this area is generally abuzz with tourists during summer, but the slow pace inherent to this area, the leisurely spread out eateries, and the artsy, small-town stores take the hectic out of life. Have a seat at the Fairhaven Green to enjoy a gelato that would make Italians jealous. Indulge in eclectic outdoor music or stay for a free-of-charge Fairhaven Outdoor Theatre movie showing during the summer months. Or, if you feel like having a laugh, run and get some tickets for ….

The Upfront Theatre

Located at 1208 Bay Street (the short block between Holly and Chestnut), the 85-seat Upfront Theatre was established to exercise muscles you forgot you had. Yes, laughter is at the heart of this small venture and its mission to offer finest live improv comedy in an intimate setting. At $10 (and only $5 on Thursdays) ticket prices are ridiculously cheap, if you ask me. Remember Ryan Stiles from Whose Line Is It Anyway? (Yes, I mean the tall guy with the funky shoes). As a resident of Bellingham, he decided to stake a claim and established this venue in 2004, thereby furthering local and Canadian talents with a preference for giggles. Here's a sample:

Need I say more to endorse this place? No? Then we can move on to the ….

Mt. Bakery

I had to close with an eatery, didn't I? Mt. Bakery in Downtown Bellingham features European-style outdoor seating, but due to street and sidewalk traffic, I would recommend you find a table inside and enjoy the local art displays that never cease to amaze here. Then turn your attention to the menu and learn a little about the art of slow food. Did I say "slow food" - the antidote to fast food and modern life? Local ingredients dominate the items on the menu. Coffee and loose-leaf tea varieties are served in charming, mismatched real china. I couldn't tell you whether it is the motherly Belgian woman who seats you, always with a pat on the back; or the amazingly light crepe creations with Nutella made in-house; or the smells and sounds and shouts wafting over from the busy kitchen; or the neighborhood feel oozed by other visitors and the locals hanging out at the front door just for a friendly morning chat ... but this place feels like home and vacation all at once. One thing I do know for sure: their Opera Cake and the Caramelized Lemon Tart are positively sinful.

I hope I have left you drooling for Bellingham with this promise of thought-provoking artwork, fresh air, green walking trails, comforting zips of espresso, a stiff breeze, world-class entertainment, delightful local food, a slower pace, joie de vivre, and landscapes you simply have to see to appreciate them. And remember ..... psssst, don't tell anyone!

Bellingham Visitors Map:

Tranquil moments - Over Water Walkway and bay views
Tranquil moments - Over Water Walkway and bay views


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    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      10 years ago from Georgia

      Wonderful! Thanks for the trip!

    • Zollstock profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Germany originally, now loving the Pacific NW

      Thank you, Alexander Mark - this place really is something. And don't wish for an entire year of rain until you've been around when it pours (and I mean pours) for days on end ;-). The community comes alive here during summer and early fall when outdoor activities and gatherings aren't impeded by precipitation.

    • Alexander Mark profile image

      Alexander Silvius 

      11 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      Sounds beautiful. I especially like the restaurant with the European flair, I'll check it out one of these days. You make it sound enticing, except you only have rain half the year? I love rain, and wouldn't mind if it rained 360 days a year! I'm afraid I'll have to go farther north :-)

    • Zollstock profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Germany originally, now loving the Pacific NW

      Thanks for stopping by, Jayme Wium. Tourism, as I am sure you are aware, is important for local economies and also for human education and relaxation purposes. But I have learned that it can't be forced -- some places simply have a certain magic that makes you want to let down your hair and breathe deeply. Bellingham does this for me, and I hope you have discovered similar spots in your own backyard to do so as well.

    • Jayme Wium profile image

      Jayme Wium 

      11 years ago

      thanks for this. found it very interesting. Here in SA our tourist attractions also draw quite a few visitors but we are still "getting there". Love traveling and your post has been great to read!

    • Zollstock profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Germany originally, now loving the Pacific NW

      Thanks for taking a look, Linda, and feeling - at least slightly - tempted! ;-) Beautiful places make writing worthwhile!

    • Zollstock profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Germany originally, now loving the Pacific NW

      Gypsy Willow - It really is delightful, and the reinventing bit worked for me. Thanks!

      Peggy W - Glad your lips are sealed ;-) - thanks for stopping by!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      11 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Sounds delightful and I'll for sure keep it a secret. LOL

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 

      11 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Sounds delightful, I could do with a bit of reinvention!


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