Not that long ago, Bellingham, Wash., was essentially a glorified rest stop between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.—the best place for a pee break before you inevitably got stuck at the border crossing.
But that wasn’t always the case. In the early 1900s, Bellingham was a major hub of industry, with canneries, coal mines, railroads and lumber mills positioning it to become one of the Pacific Northwest’s great cities. While that dream died during the Great Depression, Bellingham has quietly grown in the past few decades into a thriving arts and culture center, and it also happens to have one of the best craft beer scenes in the country.
Today, this port city has all the charms of a secluded, small town yet also the energy and amenities you’d expect from a buzzing metropolis. Crumbling historic buildings stand alongside glassy new hotels and condominiums. You can spend an entire day roaming the urban landscape or slip into nature by paddling through Bellingham Bay or hiking across nearby Chuckanut Mountain Park.
The whole time, you’ll always be a stone’s throw away from a small producer of beer. Kudos to Boundary Bay Brewery, one of Washington’s oldest, which planted a seed that grew into a forest of nearly 20 breweries in Whatcom County.
Check In at Hotel Leo
The 1883-built Hotel Leo (1224 Cornwall Ave., 360-746-9097, thehotelleo.com) encapsulates much of what makes Bellingham special, and it’s conveniently located in the center of town. The long-fashionable and busy lodging destination is now split between residents and guests who share a library, gym, mini movie theater, cafe and bar on the premises. You can almost feel the presence of the railroad and coal barons that once filled the building when Bellingham was a boom town.
Pet Some Kitties at Neko Cat Cafe
Ease your travel anxiety with a cat-themed selection of beer, wine, cider or seltzer and then settle in with a fur baby at Neko Cat Cafe (1130 Cornwall Ave., 360-656-6217, nekocatcafe.com). This spot offers the hippest way to either wind down for the night with a drink and a kitten in your lap, or get amped up with an espresso and a ball of yarn for a night of zoomies at the nearby clubs and restaurants.
Embrace the Darkness at Structures Brewing
Bellingham has a thriving music scene thanks to Western Washington University, independent record label Black Noise, a pair of recording studios and a collection of venues dedicated to live performance that serve as a convenient tour stop for artists traveling between larger markets. Structures Brewing (601 W Holly St., 360-656-6186, structuresbrewing.com) taps into the city’s musical influences by embracing goth-metal aesthetics. Its New Wave brews strike the right chord with mustache-twirling beer snobs and young, crusty punks alike. Though Structures is beginning to go mainstream by opening a second family-friendly location on Holly Street (the original North State Street taproom is temporarily closed for a remodel), the founders haven’t forgotten their dark, edgy roots. Now you can take the kids out for diner burgers and dogs at the new pub and take a selfie with a pentagram and taxidermied skull, just like the pagans would have it.
Journey to Europe at Otherlands Beer for Brunch
Sunnyland is a quiet neighborhood north of downtown dotted with homes and business parks. Recently, a host of new breweries have moved in, nudged by rising rents in the commercial district. One of those is Otherlands Beer (2121 Humboldt St., 360-746-8118, otherlandsbeer.com), which is easy to miss since it’s sandwiched between two houses on a side street. But this is a can’t-miss stop because of the pub’s vegetarian Eastern European-inspired menu and stellar beers. Set the table with latkes, shakshuka and a gyro, which pair well with the specialty rustic lagers and farmhouse ales.
Craft Meets Industry at Wander Brewing
Consistently undefinable, low-key Wander Brewing (1807 Dean Ave., 360-647-6152, wanderbrewing.com) is arguably the best brewery in Bellingham. After quenching their wanderlust in their younger days, founders Chad and Colleen Kuehl opened Wander in a 1920s-era shipbuilding warehouse and helped kick-start the city’s craft beer renaissance in 2014. There’s virtually no separation between the brewhouse and taproom in the high-ceilinged building, which has steel trusses and a pulley that once hoisted huge ships overhead. Expect everything from IPAs to fruit beers to stouts, with regular rotating food trucks in the beer garden.
Get a Pick-Me-Up at Elizabeth Station
Any great craft beer scene needs an equally impressive beer bar and bottle shop selling local offerings that can stand up to the best competitors from around the world. Elizabeth Station (1400 W Holly St., #101, 360-733-8982, elizabethstation.es) does that and more. The store regularly pairs with breweries to make collaboration beers, features a large draft list, hosts community events, and serves 11-inch Neapolitan-style pizzas that have developed their own fan following. This is the craft drinkers’ living room.
Catch the Sunset at Taylor Shellfish Farms
These oysters are known far and wide thanks to their quality and prevalence on menus, which include those at two of their own Seattle-area oyster bars. But the actual Taylor Shellfish Farms (2182 Chuckanut Drive, Bow, 360-766-6002, taylorshellfishfarms.com), just outside of Bellingham, has long been a hidden gem. It’s worth the drive down the coastline onto a sketchy, one-way gravel road and over the railroad tracks. That’s where you’ll find a working farm with oyster beds, tractors and a washing station. Line up at the stand to order fresh oysters plucked from the Puget Sound, then take the plate of bivalves along with a local beer or bottle of wine down to the pier. Get to shucking and watch the sunset on the bay. It will feel a lot like heaven.
Pump Up at Kulshan Trackside
Tucked among the rusty vestiges of a paper mill and a chlor-alkali plant on a waterfront once dominated by heavy industry lies one of the greatest beer gardens and outdoor concert venues in the Pacific Northwest. Kulshan Brewing’s Trackside (298 W Laurel St., 360-389-5348, kulshanbrewing.com/trackside), scheduled to reopen for the season in late spring, sits next to a bicycle pump track, where kids pop wheelies while parents head to the beer garden to roll out lawn blankets and catch a concert. The 25,000-square-foot space also has a variety of vendors in its shipping container village, including food trucks and ice cream stands, creating a festive atmosphere that lasts all summer.