A hidden gem of the Pacific Northwest, little Bellingham, Washington, is a pretty college town just a handful of miles from the Canadian border. But “the City of Subdued Excitement” is more than just a place for a home for Western Washington University — it’s a wonderland for outdoors-loving folks of literally every stage of life. Could it be the bayside beacon of your dreams?
Here are some things to know about Bellingham before you up and move there:
Bellingham is less than 100 miles north of Seattle — so it’s really no surprise the two share a similarly rainy climate. And while BHam averages just slightly less rainfall than (almost 35 annual inches, compared to Seattle’s 36 to 38, depending on the year and the weather patterns), it’s still definitely a factor when planning your great outdoor escapades.
flickr user masonite burn
With no football team at Western Washington University and no major league within an hour’s drive, Bellingham residents are really, really into one sport: Roller derby. The Roller Betties, as they’re called, are so popular, they’re divided into four teams — and going to the bouts is a big social event. There are also the Bellingham Bells, but…you know, their games are really only an excuse to snack with your friends in the middle of a hot summer day.
It’s pronounced “HAY-gen”
And yes, you’ll shop there more often than you want to. This store is everywhere in Northern Washington and during the fall, they have some of the best apples around. Just make sure you say it right.
It’s great for people with kids…
Educational opportunities are everywhere in Bellingham. Not only are many of the public schools pretty highly ranked, there are also multiple private schools, which feature lower-than-average student-to-teacher ratios, which is a good thing. And for outside-of-the-classroom learning, there’s the Whatcom Museum and its little sister, the Children’s Museum. The City of Bellingham even has a preschool program of its own.
…and young, child-free people…
D. Sharon Pruitt from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, USA, Wikimedia Commons
Due to its high population of college students, there are lots of affordable rentals in Bellingham, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. The average one-bedroom apartment in Bellingham rents for about $710 per month — compared to in Seattle’s $1,200, a figure which is expected to jump as much as 7% this year.
Nearly 13% of Bellingham’s population is over the age of 65, and there’s plenty for them to do there. The Bellingham Senior Center is always hosting fun events, and there’s even a really swanky former hotel located right downtown that now serves as an assisted living facility.
They only have deals. Oh, and tons of expired food and weird old cereal and close-out apparel from Target. But deals!
Ben Gibbard doesn’t live here anymore
Yes, Death Cab for Cutie did get their start while living in Bellingham, but all of those fine gents have moved on. You can, however, hang out on the corner of Railroad and Holly if you like, or visit all of the places in “Return to Bellingham“.
…neither does Ted Bundy
But he sure used to hang around the Waterfront Tavern, a story that local oldsters love to chitty-chat about.
…but Ryan Stiles does!
And someone you know will definitely have at least met him once. Stiles, who is best known for his role on “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and “The Drew Carey Show,” opened The Upfront Theatre, a favorite first-date spot for nervous college students.
Image: Flickr user sleepy hammer
The ice cream to end all ice creams, you’ll probably end up face-first in a scoop of lavender or rose within your first week. Located right downtown, Mallard (and no, there is no “S” on the end, so stop trying to make “Mallard’s” happen) is the jam for people of all ages, and definitely for those visiting from out of town.
You’ll probably work for the City
Because Bellingham doesn’t have a ton of industry — aside from keeping Bellingham operating — most people work for the government. Or in bars.
College radio rules the airwaves in Bellingham, as Western Washington students and community members alike operate KUGS, an award-winning radio station, most hours of the day. On any given day, you can hear reggae, local rock, electronic music, shoegaze, and the Grateful Dead.
Anything that isn’t in the city proper is considered “the County.” People who live “in the County” are quick to let you know that it’s a hassle to get downtown, and people who live in the city will be quick to roll their eyes about having to go “out to the County.”
Packed with a mystical sauce that keeps one-time Bellingham residents flocking back to town as often as possible, Casa Que Pasa’s potato burrito is the stuff of legend. And if Casa is closed, just head around the corner to the Horseshoe (more on that later), where you can get one 24/7. But be warned: Like your first love, you’ll never forget the potato burrito.
Despite copious steep hills, everyone in Bellingham rides bikes. Riding your bike home from a bar is considered a “safe” alternative to driving (even though it is not and is definitely still illegal). And because the bus in Bellingham has a limited schedule on Sundays (Yeah…about that…), cycling is the ideal way to get around for half the weekend.
The City of Bellingham is home to multiple breweries — you can barely throw a stone without hitting a craft beer. Most notably, there’s Boundary Bay Brewery, whose ubiquitous “Save the Ales” hoodies can be seen on just about every dad in town. Stop in for the oatmeal stout — but stay for the mac and cheese.
On any given day of the week, any local can tell you exactly which bar has the very-cheapest well drinks. And they’re seriously cheap — think $1.50 and up. 80’s Night? Reggae Night? Two-Dollar Tuesday? Everyone’s got a drinking calendar in this town.
In addition to Boundary Bay, Bellingham has a vibrant night-life of locally-revered bars that basically everyone goes to all of the time. Included in that list are the Ranch Room, which is adjacent to the historic Horseshoe Cafe (noted for its 24-hour menu and colorful waitstaff), the Beaver Inn (you’ll know if you were there by the stench of popcorn on your clothes the next day), Cap Hansen’s (order a Peruvian Bear…um…actually, just say “Peruvian Bear” and you’ll be in for a good time), and the Up and Up.
Ski to Sea
If you’re employed at almost any major establishment in Bellingham, your employer might ask you to join the company Ski to Sea team. A seven-leg relay race that takes place every Memorial Day between Mount Baker and the Bellingham Bay, you may be asked to cycle, row, ski, or do any other number of physically-demanding activities. Some people take it very seriously.
The MHB Statue
Located on Western’s campus, this statue is actually called “The Man Who Used to Hunt Cougars for Bounty” and has quite a story behind it…but most people know it as the “Man Humping Bear” statue, made famous by a limited-run t-shirt sold by a local bookstore.
Bargainica is what’s up
Cheap beer, cheap organic grub, cheap almond butter — you name it, and Bargainica, located in the back of the larger Terra Organica natural food store, may or may not have it.
Ugh. No one from Bellingham calls residents “Hamsters.” Please don’t do that thing.
Don’t expect to pull up to the Costco for a tank of reasonably-priced gas without ending up in line behind someone with Vancouver plates filling up can upon gas can with out cheap(ish) American petrol. One disgruntled resident even proposed an Americans-only shopping hour. It did not go over well.
The Blue Book is a bundle of savings
The Big Blue Bonus Book is a coupon book that Western students get and boy, does it have a lot of coupons. But you don’t even need to be a student to get one — just go buy some stuff at the Western Bookstore, which has all kinds of treasures.
“Calling naked” can save you some scratch
One of the Blue Book’s coupons is for Pizza Time and promises pizza lovers $1 off their order if they “call naked,” which means all you have to do is tell your pizza guy that you’re naked. Nudity is not required — however, your delivery guy might show and say “it’s Pizza Time!” which is never not delightful. Almost everyone has a story about “calling naked.”
There are enough used bookstores to keep even the most literary folks occupied on the cheap. There are also fancy bookstores, like Village Books in Fairhaven. Speaking of Fairhaven…
Fairhaven is a place
Halfway between a neighborhood and its own separate township, Fairhaven is mostly a spot for tourists, but has plenty of great local attractions, too, like that fish-and-chips place in the double-decker bus, which is the perfect eatery for a gloomy Sunday.
It’s not Seattle
Bellingham is not Seattle. One of the town’s most legendary local bands, Yogoman Burning Band, even wrote a song about how much Seattle sucks.
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