Bold statement, I know! But after a visit to Friday Harbor, on a small island just off the Washington coast, you might be calling it your favorite town in America too.
In September 2018, Lance and I jumped at the opportunity to add a bucket list adventure the week before I was in Seattle for a work conference. We were ecstatic over the idea of seeing wild orcas in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). The two of us are 90’s babies- aka a part of the Free Willy generation that played this movie on repeat. With Seattle as our starting point, I began researching best whale watching locations in the PNW. Soon enough I found not only the top in the area, I ended up finding one of the best whale watching hubs in the world. We had our eyes set on the San Juan Islands! Straight from the airport, we rented a car and drove the hour and a half north to Anacortes to catch the ferry. After about a 45-minute cruise to San Juan Island, we were unloaded into Friday Harbor. With only about 2,000 residents, stepping into Friday Harbor was like stepping into a vintage postcard of America. You might say it was love at first inhale of the salty air.
But what makes Friday Harbor special enough to be considered my favorite town in America? A place doesn’t earn that sort of praise on just beautiful landscape or top-notch wildlife viewing alone. It’s about the whole entire experience! Sure a town might have the most awe inspiring forested hike, but you found yourself staying in a dingy nightmare motel. Or, say you spent the entire day oohing and aahing over wildlife viewing, but all you managed to eat for lunch was a bag of chips from the gas station. Quality travel is all about the entirety of an experience. No questions asked; whale watching is what brought us to Friday Harbor. But the town itself is certainly what will have us coming back time and time again. Friday Harbor is hands down my favorite town in America!
When you find yourself exploring Friday Harbor, here’s what I recommend:
*Of course, my top recommendation is to go whale watching; here are my Top Ethical Whale Watching Tips in San Juan Island, Washington.
- Visit in the shoulder-season: A major factor in my love for this town was our timing. Visiting in the middle of September meant that busy summer crowds had departed, while we were still lucky enough to have the warm sunny weather remain. Plus, businesses were still open as usual – they had yet to reduce their hours for the off-season. We couldn’t have asked for a better combination of small town peace and quite mixed with accessible shopping and dining.
- Grab a quick bite at the Cheesecake Café & Bakery: Whether you need a quick snack or an afternoon beer to enjoy, I say pull up a chair at the Cheesecake Café. You can’t miss this bright red building right on the water. It’s the first thing you’ll see in Friday Harbor coming off the ferry. Lance and I found our million-dollar view of the docked boats, from two barstools on their patio. We enjoyed local beer and cider, all while inhaling a plate of hot French fries.
- Stock up at King’s Market: Before leaving to check into our rental, we filled a shopping cart at King’s Market right in the center of downtown. Our original plan was to buy important staples so that we could make some of our own meals during our stay. Travel excitement got the best of us, and we ended up buying mainly wine and snacks. King’s is the perfect local small town grocery store residents and visitors depend on. It was established in 1929, join the tradition and swing by to fill up a cart yourself!
- Holiday cheer at Christmas Spoken Here: Right outside of the walkable downtown we spotted a garish shop off our route. We knew from the army of wooden Christmas decorations out front that this would be one of those hidden gem sorts of places. What we didn’t realize was the eccentric owner would want to chat about anything and everything, since Lance and I were the only ones in the shop. After realizing we had been trapped in conversational limbo for nearly an hour, we picked our favorite orca ornament and said our long goodbyes. Definitely one of those you had to be there moments. Looking back, I don’t know if the ornament reminds me more of whale watching or of our shopping experience at Christmas Spoken Here.
- Lunch with a view at The Market Chef: I always choose al fresco dining over eating indoors. Finding this café right up the hill from the harbor was a jackpot. After quickly ordering inside we snagged a sunny table out front. Can’t remember exactly what we ate, I know it was tasty, but I can definitely remember the view of watching the Ferry Terminal as we enjoyed our lunch.
- Browse Serendipity Used Books: Right next-door from The Market Chef is a tiny old house turned bookstore. Peering at their stocked shelves you could easily tell we were in the PNW. Book after book was all about the coast, and most seemed to cover all topics of local marine mammals. On a whim, I bought a book on orcas, to take back to our private hot tub to read as we whale watched. Serendipity, like most used bookstores, is packed with hidden treasures. I recommend digging in and finding yourself a relaxing read while you’re on the island.
- Eat at Mike’s Café and Wine Bar: I really make a point to not repeat dining experiences while we are traveling- for me it’s all about trying new places. I can’t ever remember dining at a restaurant twice in one trip, well until we ate at Mike’s at least. This fully plant-based restaurant is located just across the street from King’s Market. We pulled ourselves up a spot at the bar, partially for the atmosphere, but also because it was packed with locals each night. When you go, don’t rush; enjoy every bite of their fabulous vegan menu.
- Have a drink at Downriggers: I had read mixed reviews about Downriggers, some said it was the best food on the island, while others mentioned it was way too overpriced. Either way, their menu was a bit too fishy for our vegan taste buds, so we went for the cocktails. Neither of us were mentally prepared to enjoy the two most flavorful cocktails of our lives. I had a creamy Coconut Margarita (1800 coconut tequila, cream of coconut, house made sour) and Lance sipped the whiskey colada (Revel Stoke pineapple whiskey, orange juice, cream of coconut, pineapple juice). It was like we sitting on the beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico sipping our cocktails.
- Shop local art at the Island Studio: This collective gallery space was packed with local artwork. There was photography, pottery, prints, knits, and anything artistic. It’s the kind of place that you can feel good supporting and spending money at. And that’s exactly what we did! We found the perfect block prints that embodied our experience in San Juan Island: orcas, the ferry, and Lime Kiln State Park.
Friday Harbor is the perfect example of a quality travel experience that encompasses the whole. I sort of laugh to myself, remembering back to my first thoughts of this town when I began researching for this trip. I had the impression that it was going to be “too big” for what we were looking for. Wow, I could not have been more wrong… Friday Harbor is the perfect size for a stroll, and filled with all the local family owned businesses you’d want to encounter.
Whale watching might have brought us to the island,
but the charm of this town is what will have us coming back time and time again.
Small town America, you have some stiff competition coming out of Friday Harbor, Washington!