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Welcome to the City of Subdued Excitement: Bellingham, Washington!
I moved here five years ago to go to college at Western Washington University. Like many Bellinghamsters, I left only to return two months later. People call that the Bellingham Curse. You’ll leave but always come back because no place is as good as Bellingham.
Bellingham is often described as a little version of Portland, Oregon. It sits in a quiet area between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, and draws people in because of its proximity to those cities, to ski-worthy Mt. Baker, to the nearby bay and lakes, and to hiking destinations. Bellingham has grown a lot in recent years but it still has an environmentally conscious, friendly charm. We have a gazillion great restaurants here, and Bellingham breweries win lots of awards for being super delicious. Bellingham is a city that often feels like a liberal safe haven, but like any city there are still pockets of homophobia, especially in the hands of private landlords and church communities where discrimination is easier to hide or justify. But all in all, the vast majority of people are accepting and friendly, and I feel a sense of community and safety among the queer folks.
The Greatest City In The World
The neighborhoods in Bellingham are roughly divided into North Bellingham and South Bellingham, with some gray areas in between. For the most part, North Bellingham has families and South Bellingham has college kids. Even though Interstate 5 runs straight through the city, people in Bellingham don’t like to drive far and may complain if they have to go somewhere that involves the freeway. Or Meridian Street. Or Sunset Drive.
I’ve spent almost all of my time in South Bellingham and have found it to be a very gay-friendly area, mainly because of its proximity to Western Washington University. Downtown is particularly gay-friendly, although rent on apartments or houses is often more expensive there. Happy Valley, which overlaps the South Campus housing area, is on the cheaper end for apartments. Fairhaven was its own city a long time ago but is rapidly growing into a cute (ahem, gentrified) commercial area. It has a ton of adorable shops, including two independent bookstores, but the houses and apartments down there are crazy expensive or have years-long waitlists. As for North Bellingham, I’ve heard that the Columbia neighborhood and Sunnyland are pretty gay-friendly. Of course, there will be pockets of homophobes anywhere but for the most part, you’ll probably feel comfortable holding your significant other’s hand anywhere in Bham.
(Not Actually The Greatest City In The World)
As a white and cis queer lady, I cannot speak to the specific experience that trans people or queer people of color have in Bellingham. The city is predominantly white, and people of extremely varying income levels are dispersed across the city in close proximity, which I would imagine creates particular tension for trans people and people of color, but I cannot describe specific incidents.
The two main problems I do see in Bellingham, which both intersect with race and class, are homelessness and the cost of housing. People who experience homelessness tend to leave in the late fall and come back again in the early spring when the city warms up. There are attempts to help people experiencing homelessness, like the Lighthouse Mission that provides food and shelter, but an ultimate solution may be out of reach for now because of Bellingham’s second big problem: the cost and availability of housing.
There are new, swanky apartments downtown and in Barkley and in Fairhaven. Meanwhile, there is a housing scramble from June to August, when the students leave or rearrange. The apartments that are available in these months are moderately priced. If you live with roommates, you can expect to pay between $400 and $500 per month for your share of rent. But if you need a place to live from September to May, your pickings are slim. Trying to move outside of the college cycle is stressful because the only places available are gorgeous and expensive. Your best bet if you’re moving to Bellingham in the off-season is probably to get into a college student’s illegal sublet until September.
Veggie Burger In Paradise
Bellingham food is the best food. Every time I have a friend come visit me, I have a hard time not just taking them to food place after food place. Their visit is essentially, “Oh, great, you’re in town! Where do you want to go for dinner? Wait but also dessert. And brunch.” Bellingham is a great city to be vegetarian: almost any restaurant will have more than one vegetarian option, and many restaurants also have vegan choices. Bellingham has quite the brunch scene, which I did not have time to go into here. Really, this list is just a few great places to eat in Bellingham. You can check out reviews of many Bellingham restaurants on this blog.
The Black Drop
300 W Champion St
Monday to Friday: 7am to 7pm
Saturday: 8am to 5pm
Sunday: 10am to 4pm
The Black Drop is a coffee shop downtown with dozens of fun, tasty drinks like the Bee’s Knees (a honey and rose latte) and Fat Elvis (a banana peanut butter mocha). The baristas there are always so friendly and a lot of people go here to study or for OKCupid dates — plus they host fun events like the Blackout, with karaoke and spiked coffee drinks!
1309 Railroad Ave
Sunday to Thursday: 7am to 9:30pm
Friday and Saturday: 7am to 10:30pm
Fiamma sells a fantastic array of burgers, including a handpacked veggie burger. Fiamma is a hip, inviting restaurant with a rotating variety of fun seasonal drinks and food specials. They also sell beer, cider, and wine and have amazing seasonal drinks. Like any good Northwest restaurant, they have a great salmon burger. But my favorite is the B “Ham” burger, with prosciutto, a sunnyside egg, and shoestring fries.
Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro
1107 Railroad Avenue
Sunday to Wednesday: 11am to 10pm
Thursday to Saturday: 11am to 11pm
Boundary Bay not only brews great beer, but also has a delicious array of food and house-made root beer! Boundary is a warm and welcoming restaurant that has local bands come to play pretty often. It’s the kind of place lots of people go to celebrate graduation or when their parents come to town. As for food, everything I’ve ever eaten there has been incredible, but a lot of my vegetarian friends love their yam enchiladas.
Leaf and Ladle
1113 N State St
Monday to Friday: 11am to 8pm
Leaf and Ladle is primarily a lunch location. They sell delicious salads, soups, and sandwiches with fantastic meat, vegetarian, and vegan options. Their menu changes pretty regularly with what’s in season, but they have a vegan wrap that is delicious. I also like their turkey and apple panini. Leaf and Ladle is fast and fresh with a chill attitude — if you are so inclined, they also sell beer and cider to go with your meal.
1530 Cornwall Avenue (inside Terra Organic & Natural Foods)
Monday to Friday: 11am to 8:30pm
Closed Saturday and Sunday
Inside what is essentially the food court of Terra is Makizushi, where you can get delicious and fresh sushi for not too much money. It can take a while to get your food, because they make each plate to order, but it’s so worth it. Makizushi doesn’t have its own seating area, but you can eat in the seating area right outside the storefront, which is surprisingly quiet despite being beside a grocery store and is a great workspace with free wi-fi.
1200 Harris Avenue, Suite 100
Monday to Saturday: 8am to 4pm
Shirlee Bird is a really cute hole-in-the wall cafe in Historic Fairhaven. Their specialty is the waffleini, a panini made of waffles, filled with chutney, cheese, and/or peanut butter. It sounds weird but it’s so good! The atmosphere is really friendly and inviting, and I always feel free to stop in for a quick drink or stay awhile and chat.
Mallard Ice Cream
1323 Railroad Avenue
Sunday to Thursday: 11am to 10pm
Friday and Saturday: 11am to 11pm
Do you want avocado ice cream? How about Earl Gray? Sour cream? White ghost pepper? Rose? Don’t worry, they also have old favorites like vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, plus a host of non-dairy choices that are just as sweet. It’s a fun and colorful hang-out, and it has gender-neutral bathrooms where the doors are painted like a unicorn and unicycle!
Sit Right Here And Have Another Beer In Bellingham
Okay, but really, beer. People don’t really drink big beer brands here. Beer is such a big deal in Bellingham that it has its own page on the tourism website. This year, Bellingham breweries won 13 awards at the Washington Beer Awards and 2 awards at the World Beer Awards. Bellingham has also been named the city with the snobbiest beer drinkers. Craft beer is a thing people are proud of here. Off the top of my head, I can think of four new breweries that have opened up in the last two years.
If we’re putting really rough distinctions between fanciness of the breweries, I’d say Boundary, Chuckanut, Kulshan, and Aslan are more “drink with your dinner” places, while Wander, The Local, K2, Structures, and Stones Throw are more typical pubs. A number of breweries are dog-friendly, too! Please note that in Bellingham, people wear roughly the same thing to a fancy location as they would to a casual location, and the only real difference is the vibe inside. We like our flannels and leggings, thank you very much.
Aslan Brewing Co. (1330 N Forest Street)
Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro (1107 Railroad Avenue)
Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen (601 W Holly Street)
Kulshan Brewing Company (2238 James Street)
K2, Kulshan’s second location (1538 Kentucky Street)
The Local Public House (1427 Railroad Avenue)
Stones Throw Brewing Company (1009 Larrabee Avenue)
Structures Brewing (1420 N State Street)
Wander Brewing (1807 Dean Avenue)
I Like The Nightlife, Baby!
Bellingham has a nice array of bars downtown that are fairly reasonably priced. I feel comfortable kissing, holding, or dancing with my girlfriend in most bars, although the nightclubs (Glow, the Royal, the Underground, and Rumors) can feel unsafe depending on who’s in the crowd that night.
1119 Railroad Avenue
Monday to Sunday: 4pm to 2am
Rumors is Bellingham’s only “gay bar,” although they call themselves a gay-friendly alternative nightclub rather than a straight-up gay bar. Rumors is intended for queer folks and straight folks, and a lot of queer women I know don’t feel comfortable there. The recent paint job makes it more inviting, but the vibe inside still feels more focused on gay men than gay ladies. Still, they throw awesome events, especially during Bellingham Pride weekend, and are the only bar with a dance floor on this list.
1017 N State Street
Open every day, 4pm to 2am
Every time I go into Redlight, I see some queer ladies on a date. So, I’m just going to roll with it and call Redlight a queer lady location. The main room is fairly dark, with candles on the tables. There’s also the red room, which is lit with red lights and was a meat locker back when Bellingham’s downtown was the industrial area. Redlight has a full bar and a great array of house drinks in addition to local beer, wine, cider, and mead. Plus, they have board games, like Cards Against Humanity and Ticket to Ride, which you may or may not convince your girlfriend to play outside in November.
Honey Moon Mead & Cider
1053 N State Street Alley
Open Monday through Saturday, 5pm to 11pm
With live music most nights a week and kick-ass mead and cider brewed on the premises, Honey Moon is an awesome place to go on a date or to just chill out with your friends. Honey Moon has live music most nights, and they typically encourage everyone to buy food or a drink in lieu of a cover at the door. Honey Moon used to be a sailboat repair shop, so it has super high ceilings and a secondary pair of doors that they usually leave open in summer to let fresh air in. Honey Moon is a relaxing but fun bar, and people under 21 are allowed in and can eat the amazing food (people over 21 are also advised to try the amazing food).
Gettin’ Down On The Farm
Bellingham is a city that cares deeply about the environment and is surrounded by farms. In addition to a myriad of natural foods and local produce markets (the Community Food Co-op, Goods Produce, and Terra Organic Natural Foods to name a few), Bellingham has two weekly farmers markets. Both farmers markets feature live music, with buskers at the Saturday market and frequent performers at the Wednesday market. Even if I don’t buy anything, I love going down to see the hubbub when I have free time.
The Saturday market runs from April to Christmas from 10am to 3pm, with once-a-month winter markets in January, February, and March. The market is downtown at the Depot Market Square and features lots of local produce, lunches, local crafts, coffee, and breakfast. This is probably what most Bellinghamsters think of when they hear “the farmers market.”
The Wednesday market runs from June to August from noon to 5pm. It takes place in Fairhaven, on the Village Green behind Village Books. The Wednesday market is much smaller than the Saturday market, but still brings local produce, lunch items, and local crafts to the table.
I’m Changing My Major To Joan
Bellingham is so much more than a college town, but that’s what brought me and so many others here. I went to Western Washington University, but there are also two community colleges and another four-year college in town.
Western Washington University is a state school offering bachelor’s, master’s, and certificate degrees. Western is a liberal arts school known for its teaching program, and known for the fact that it doesn’t have a football team or sororities and fraternities. It’s relatively queer-friendly, with a floor in one of the dorms just for queer folks. With a population of about 15,000 undergrad and grad students and a relatively (ha) low tuition and small class sizes, Western is considered to be a great bang for your buck.
Northwest Indian College offers bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees, and certificates. NWIC is the only accredited tribal college in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and 75 percent of their students come from federally-recognized tribes. They offer degrees in environmental science, early childhood education, Native studies leadership, and others.
Whatcom Community College offers associate’s degrees and certificate degrees and is a good place to get a transfer degree. A lot of students also complete nursing degrees here. I’m told they have a decent-sized GSA and gays feel pretty happy there.
Bellingham Technical College offers more specialized associate’s degrees and certificates in areas like welding, fisheries sciences, culinary arts, nursing, and others.
Sports Go Sports
There are several general interest teams, like the men’s baseball team the Bellingham Bells, and many clubs and teams through the four colleges in Bellingham, but there are a couple queer-lady-focused sports teams.
Bellingham Roller Betties — This is the roller derby team! They play at the Sportsplex and partner with the local non-profit Pass the Hat, which helps families with medical expenses during a tragedy. You can get in on the action by doing Booty Camp in August and joining the team or by going to see a bout.
Western Washington University women’s rugby — The rugby team is a club at Western’s campus, so you have to be a student to join the team, or you can go see them from spring to fall at Western’s Wade King Turf field.
Happy, Healthy, Strong and Calm
Bellingham Planned Parenthood is located at 1530 Ellis Street. They’ve recently updated their forms to be much more gender inclusive.
Sean Humphrey House provides housing, counseling, meals, and medical management services to low-income people living with HIV/AIDS.
Tell Your Sister That She’s Gotta Rise Up
Queer Resource Center at Western Washington University — Along with a library of LGBT books, videos, and other resources, Western’s QRC provides a safe place for Western students to discuss queer issues. They also throw together a bunch of fun events on campus, such as the ice cream social, dances, discussion panels, speakers, and poets.
Queer People of Color Club at Western Washington University — This club meets to socialize and to discuss issues specific to being queer people of color. To find out the next meeting time and location, visit the Ethnic Students Center at Western.
Bellingham Pride Families Facebook Page — This page is a group for queer parents in Bellingham to offer advice and support on raising kids and on life in general.
Support Group for Parents of Transgender/Gender-Nonconforming Children — This group meets in the top floor of Fairhaven Bike and Ski Building (1108 11th St, Suite 304) on the second Sunday of every month from 3:30 to 5:30pm.
Take Me To Church
Being a religious queer person is a unique kind of hard. Like bisexuals, religious queer people have two groups of people telling them they don’t belong in the other group. Bellingham is not a very religious city, but the most homophobia I’ve heard about has happened in religious communities. I go to St. Paul’s and no one cares if my girlfriend and I hold hands during services. May you find peace here or elsewhere, and please leave a comment if you know more information.
Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship, 1207 Ellsworth Street
Beth Israel Synagogue, 2200 Broadway Street
Center for Spiritual Living, 2224 Yew Street
Christ the Servant Lutheran Church, 2600 Lakeview Drive
Garden Street Methodist Church, 1326 N Garden Street
St. James Presbyterian Church, 910 14th Street
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 2117 Walnut Street
First Congregational Church, 2401 Cornwall Avenue
First Lutheran Church, 2750 McLeod Road
The following groups are not accepting religious institutions, and I don’t recommend attending their services as an LGBT person.
Campus Christian Fellowship (CCF), Western Washington University
Collide (religious women’s ministry)
First Presbyterian Church of Bellingham, 1031 N Garden Street
The INN (Western Washington University group), 1031 N Garden Street
I’m Feeling Myself
310 W Holly Street
Tuesday: 9am to 6pm
Wednesday to Friday: 9am to 7pm
Saturday: 9am to 6pm
Honey does a bunch of different services, from haircuts to waxing to color. They’re also a Green Circle Salon, meaning they’re committed to keeping as much of their waste out of the landfill as possible and collect money to help with other environmental efforts.
124 W Holly Street
Tuesday to Saturday: 9am to 7pm
What I love about Jake’s is they charge for haircuts based on hair length, rather than charging for “women’s” and “men’s” haircuts. They also have a bowl for meter change and serve beer while you wait for a haircut. As a woman, I was intimidated to go in there at first, but they are super welcoming to people of all genders and gender presentations.
Old Gold Tattoo Parlor
1222 N State Street
Monday to Sunday: 12pm to 8pm
Old Gold is a classic tattoo shop. They play hardcore music in a way that might be intimidating for some people, but everyone there is super welcoming. A bunch of my friends have gotten tattoos here, particularly from KC Lange, although I’ve heard all of their artists are phenomenal.
Laughing Buddha Body Piercing
1409 Commercial Street
Open by appointment
This Laughing Buddha the only piercing-only shop in Bellingham. They have a great variety of jewelry and work hard to make sure you know about caring for and cleaning your piercing.
Have You Read This Ish?
Bellingham doesn’t have a specifically queer bookstore, but Village Books seems to work to integrate queer books into its stock, particularly in the young adult section. If you’re looking for something to read, there are a couple of alternative publications that come out regularly. One is The Betty Pages, written by Bellingham drag queen Betty Desire. The other is Cascadia Weekly, an alternative newspaper with a good scope on local events and a satiric look on local news. You can find both at various spots around town.
This Business Of Art
Bellingham has a pretty strong art scene, and there are many organizations around town that work to promote the arts, as well as several museums and theaters. Here is a smattering of arts groups around town that are alternative or otherwise too fun to not mention.
Make.Shift is an alternative art and music venue downtown. They’re located at 306 Flora Street and are open from Tuesday to Saturday from noon to 5pm, in addition to special events.
Art Walk is an event in which downtown businesses display local artists’ art and everyone is merry. It happens the first Friday of every month from 6 to 10pm.
The Bellingham Circus Guild is a group that holds events like Vaudevillingham and classes in circus arts.
The Upfront Theater was established by Whose Line Is It Anyway?‘s Ryan Stiles, who lives in Bellingham and who you occasionally run into at the grocery store. The Upfront does improv, stand-up, and many other comedy shows.
Bellingham Pride happens in July to avoid conflicting with Seattle, Vancouver, and even Portland’s Pride celebrations, although unfortunately that makes the event a lot smaller because many college students have vamoosed for the summer. It’s a small but delightful group of events from Friday to Saturday, including a family picnic in Bloedel Donovan Park, dance and drag show at Make.Shift, a festival, and a parade on Sunday. Other businesses get into the action too, including drag shows at Rumors and events at local churches.
Bellingham is the best city I’ve ever lived in, and when I move away, I will miss the community and positivity that seems to thrive here. Despite its problems, Bellingham is one of the most queer-friendly cities in Washington, and I’m proud to call it home.