by Lee Foster
The small-town but cosmopolitan aura, the friendliness of the citizenry, the lovely hillside parks (especially the Rose Garden in Washington Park), and the sweeping sense of history (Lewis and Clark’s expedition passed here) are dominant impressions of Portland and its people.
If you ask Portland residents to sum up why they like to live here, they tend to say, “Portland is small enough to be friendly, big enough to have culture, and the great outdoors is close by.”
Oregon offers many pleasures for the traveler, and Portland is the gateway. Oregon is an exceptionally clean and manicured state (the state parks are cultivated rather than wild gardens). Everywhere one is struck by the sparse number of people, an antidote for travelers from more congested areas (there are just over 640,000 people in the city.)
Most visitors arrive by driving in on Interstate 5, north from California and south from Washington, or Interstate 84, which enters Oregon from Idaho. The Portland International Airport lies on the northern edge of the city.
The most intriguing historical story of this region is the legendary voyage of Lewis and Clark in 1805 to the mouth of the Columbia River, charting a passage to the Pacific Ocean. The subsequent opening up of the Oregon Trail for pioneers and the taming of the Columbia River are further elements of the story. To see all this, make a trip west to Astoria and east to Bonneville Dam and the Columbia Gorge. The name Portland originated as a reference to one of the founders fond memories of Portland, Maine.
Portland Main Attractions
The downtown and the parks in the western part of the city are first suggestions for Portland explorations.
The best view of the Portland skyline emerges if you walk along the path on the east side of the Willamette River. Walk out on the Morrison Bridge to get the classic view of the downtown skyline with the riverfront park below it. Stop and linger midway across the bridge. A barge may be passing, requiring that the bridge raise itself. River traffic is an essential part of the local economic activity.
Later, take the path down to the Hawthorne Bridge, then possibly beyond to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). The views in the morning, as the sun rises, are superb. You see the clean skyline of the city, possibly with a blue sky background if you are lucky in this cloudy community. In the foreground is the Tom McCall Waterfront Park on the west side of the river, alive with joggers, walkers, and bikers. Portland is small enough so that you can enjoy these views with a moderate walk.
Back in the center of the city, everything can be reached on foot. This is a good strolling town of moderate size. Portland will remind you of Seattle. Both have rectangular downtowns with grids of streets rising up hills from the water. Both have nearby mountains as scenic backdrops. Stop in at the Portland Visitor Center, Salmon and Front streets, for a map of downtown and some suggestions for exploring.
Several theme walks present themselves. Portland is a city of fountains, so you might want to see the Salmon Street Springs (near the Visitor Center), then Ira’s Fountain, and finally the Skidmore Fountain. Along the way you could stop for a drink at the mini-fountains called Benson Bubblers, placed in the downtown by a city father who thought that pure water rather than beer would benefit the workers. Between these fountains are well-kept pocket parks in the downtown area, such as Terry Schrunk Plaza.
For a cultural sites walk, proceed to the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon History Center, both of which are worth a stop. The Art Museum includes a permanent exhibit of Northwest Coast Native American art and the History Center boasts among its holdings a covered wagon from 1845 that made the pioneering journey to this new territory over the Oregon Trail. At the History Center be sure also to see the collection of Native American basketry and the Maritime Gallery, showing ships that worked the Columbia River.
While walking, you’ll become aware of the attractive office buildings of the downtown area. Some of these offices, such as the Georgia Pacific headquarters at Sixth and Salmon, have elaborate sculpture accouterments. The Portland Building, with its mythical Portlandia figure, is post-modernist architect Michael Graves’ signature on the downtown area. The pinkish monolith known as the U.S. Bank Building is a further architectural landmark.
Pioneer Square is the brick commons of the city, a focal point, where you might want to linger over a Starbuck’s coffee (Starbuck’s has the coffee house on this choice site and quite a few other sites in the city. When Starbucks won the rights to open a coffee shop at this choice location, it was only the fourth ever Starbuck’s location). From Starbuck’s Coffee you can survey the scene. On the steps at Pioneer Square, office workers will brown-bag at lunch time. In the evening you can sometimes catch a free concert.
I took a guided walking tour through the downtown at 6 a.m. one morning and found it immensely informative. My guide pointed out many design details that I had missed while exploring on my own. The downtown trolleys have real-time arrival signs on digital screens, with the GPS device on the trolley. When I looked either way at crosswalks, I could see down vistas of six blocks or so, and that was a conscious effort of design to keep the facades of buildings uncluttered. The “blocks” are miniature, so don’t consider 10 blocks the same as in Chicago or New York. My guide showed me an abundant number of downtown sculptures, such as “Expose Yourself to Art” and “Animals in Pools,” an effect of the one percent rule requiring developers to fund public art.
The Old Town area consists of a vigorous Chinatown and some rougher environs, but adjacent, near the Burnside Bridge along the waterfront, is a Saturday (and Sunday) phenomenon known as the Saturday Market, which is strong on crafts and food.
The entire downtown area is easy to navigate, partly because a Vintage Trolley can take you on an open-air ride, including a jaunt across the river to get views of the city.
Slightly away from downtown is an institution known as Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside. Maybe it’s the rain, which promotes reading. Maybe Portland people love learning and are inherently bookish. Maybe the proprietors are just crazy about books. Powell’s Books is right up there with the superlative bookstores of the U.S., such as Tattered Covers in Denver. Powell’s has acres of books and the technology to tell you exactly what they have to sell. If it’s in print, expect to find it at Powell’s. Some observers rank Powell’s as the largest bookstore selling new and used books in the English-speaking world.
Until you can make a visit, numbers help convey the immensity. The store is open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, with 220 unionized staff putting in 7,500 hours of time each week. Over a million books on four floors are sold in 110 major categories, all gathered in color-coded rooms. The employees tend to stick around. As one local said, “If you work at Powell’s for 10 years, it’s likely you will be a lifer.” Powell’s specializes in having many different presentation of each book, such as the hardcover and the paperback of the same book. The store boasts depth in specialty books, such as Russian Bibles. The in-store restaurant is known as the World Cup Coffee Shop.
Beyond Powell’s, 23rd and 21st Avenues have emerged as fashionable shopping and dining streets. Sample 23rd between Kearney and Johnson as a slice of this dining, antique, and boutique scene.
Portland has its problems, as every big city does, but Portland also strikes a visitor as a fairly safe city for walking and exploring. Expect to find a few panhandlers on the economic and social fringe. Those on the economic fringe appear to be relatively well supported by the social system, meaning that fewer mental health cases are making their statements on the street rather than in institutions. Among those on the social fringe, be assured you will see well-pierced bodies, fluorescent hair, and skinhead toughness.
The main culinary discovery of my latest trip was Toro Bravo, a Spanish tapas place with ample Northwest influences. I dined family style with several friends and we all found the food and service exceptional. The meal started with a “kisses” course of several kinds of olives, followed by a Charcuteria platter. Then came a tasty Radicchio salad and a Tapas course featuring octopus and sauteed chanterelles. The final meat course included roasted lamb and an incredibly large 45-ounce ribeye steak. The waitperson made some good recommendations for Spanish red wines.
To gauge the current food scene in the downtown area, I joined a tour offered by Heidi Burnett of Forktown Food Tours, which is rated as the #1 Portland food tour on TripAdvisor.
Heidi started this tour at Pioneer Square and walked us around for three hours in the central city area, providing cultural as well as food insights into Portland. We made six stops, all of which would merit a return visit. The tour unfolded like a meal.
At a restaurant known as Picnic House I savored a beet salad (mixed lettuces, beet juice pickled fennel, oranges, beets, and panko breadcrumbs soaked in beet juice) plus a raspberry shrub cocktail. This was my appetizer course for this meal outing. The restaurant had a comfy feel with a stuffed bear head in a bowler hat over the bar. The emphasis on local produce in the Portland restaurant scene is intense.
Then at Southpark Seafood, a sleek modern restaurant, I sampled salmon lox cured in-house. There is a salmon sculpture on the outside of the building, located on Salmon Street. So salmon is an honored theme here, with the lox accompanied by house-made crackers, plus Mt. Tabor brewery beer known as Powell Butte Pale Ale. Portland is said to have 72 brew pubs in the metro area, ranking the city as among the densest number of beer fans per capita in the world. Great pride exudes from the numerous craft beer purveyors. Oregon’s pure water and the abundance of grains and hops grown in the eastern sector of the state add to the craft beer mystique. Had I lingered at Southpark Seafood, I would have sampled their diverse oyster offering, one of their specialties. Southpark serves only the seafood species deemed “sustainable” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Then I proceeded with Heidi to sample Portland’s food-cart phenomenon. Food carts are a big deal here. They are not food trucks, which suggest mobility. They are stationery, small food dispensaries, often offering superlative tastes at a modest price, especially for the downtown lunch crowd. There are an estimated 500+ food carts in the city, gathered in 37 clusters called “pods,” as one might speak of whales. We stopped at Savor Soup House for a pea and basil soup, made with the owner’s own produce from a small one-acre farm in south Portland.
Finally, we were ready for the main course in this food lunch walk. We stopped at Grassa pasta for a robust pasta course and a glass of the choice Oregon wine, Pinot Noir. The Rigatoni pasta had ragu beef and pork slow simmered in a tomato sauce with parmesan and basil.
After that we were ready for a couple of desserts. We stopped at a dedicated chocolate shop, Cacao, and sampled curated bars of small batch chocolate production. Our first sample was a Woodblock chocolate bar from Peru and a Xocolatl de David olive oil chocolate bar. This was followed with a two-ounce chocolate drink. If I had lingered at Cacao, I could have sampled a “flight” of chocolate drinks, as one might indulge in a flight of wine or beer samples.
Lastly, we stopped at Saint Cupcake for small cupcakes. I enjoyed this sweet finale, described as a “dots” red velvet with vanilla cream cheese frosting and toasted coconut.
Then I strolled back to my hotel, reviewing fondly my “progressive” lunch in downtown Portland, guided by someone intimately familiar with the happily evolving food scene.
A beer tour would be another food tour option to consider. Craft breweries add a compelling element to the local culinary scene. Two to consider are Portland Brewing and BridgePort Brewing Company.
Portland Brewing is located in an industrial area a few miles from downtown (ask for directions at the Visitor Center). Their huge copper tanks shine handsomely adjacent to a lively restaurant that features beer-flavored foods. Try their dark MacTarnahan Ale or their lighter Portland Ale. You can take a tour of the operation and learn how hops are the key to flavor these hand-crafted beers. Then savor the menu choices, such as fish fried in beer batter, accompanied by rosemary-garlic fries. They even have beer in their proprietary catsup. As the manager says, “Budweiser may always be the king of beers, but some people want more character and special taste in their beers, and we have it.” Portland Brewing presents a range of specialty beers, such as their Glenmore Oatmeal Stout.
BridgePort Brewing Company, located on the edge of downtown, is more accessible. They are credited with getting the burgeoning craft beer business going in Portland. Try their Pale Ale and their Porter. The brewery is situated in one of the more charming landmark brick buildings of the city. BridgePort’s menu is specialty pizzas.
The Hotel Scene
For my recent visit, I stayed at The Nines, 525 SW Morrison Street, adjacent to Pioneer Square. The hotel has an unusual design, with the sumptuous lobby on the eight floor and the rooms above it, starting on the ninth. Hence the name, The Nines. The service is exceptional in this luxury venue. My room exuded a subdued rather than garish design that seemed to anticipate my every wish, starting with the softest hotel bed I have sunk into in some time. The Nines occupies the old Meier and Frank building, which was one of the largest commercial buildings on the West Coast when it was constructed.
On earlier visits I have enjoyed other hotels in the downtown area. Hotel Monaco had bicycles in the basement in case I wanted to zip along the waterfront on two wheels. Vintage Portland was a clubby setting, with a lobby as comfortable as a living room, complete with marble fireplace. There is wine tasting in their lobby around 6 p.m., giving you a chance to talk with the concierge about how to approach the city or where to dine.
The strategy of all these Portland hotels is to break the impersonal feel of many hotels.
Something New for Me: Portland, The City of Makers
It is always exciting when I approach a city well known to me that offers a new concept. For a while I had heard about how Portland fancies itself as “The City of Makers.” I wanted to learn more about this concept.
I engaged the services of guide Robert Fisher of Portland Walking Tours for a half day to explore the idea.
Robert knew well the stores and studios we visited. We started at a retail store, Made PDX, focused exclusively on things made in Portland. The range of goods was exceptional, from jewelry to food products.
Then we stopped at three shops, starting with Powell’s Books, which has just about every book on every craft subject you can image.
Later, we visited Garnish, for women’s clothing, and Orox for leather goods.
Finally our tour ended at an “incubator” warehouse, called ADX, where makers can access tools and instruction, and do their work right on the premises if they wish.
The impulses behind the Maker movement in Portland are complicated. Here there is an emphasis on local and natural materials. The desire is for things durable and sustainable, yet lovely. Surrounding yourself with unique objects rather than mass-manufactured items is another aspect. Watch for a new article (and video) from me on “Portland: The City of Makers,” coming out eventually.
Portland is also the most economical large coastal city on the West Coast of the U.S. for housing. Portlanders tend to have a sensibility that urges them to follow their passions. One of local jokes is: “Portland is where young people come to retire.”
Portland’s Parks and Gardens
Another major pleasure for a visitor to Portland is its parks and gardens. Start with Washington Park (and some other parks) west of town. You’ll need a car or an extended taxi commitment to survey these sites.
At Washington Park, visit the International Rose Test Gardens. If your schedule allows, visit in June when the roses are at their peak and the entire community (Portland is called the City of Roses) celebrates with its Rose Festival. From the terraced hillside of the Rose Garden you’ll also glimpse, if the sky is clear, your first view of venerable Mt. Hood. The Rose Garden is a civilized setting. A harpist may be playing. The latest in commercially available rose plants is on display, including some bi-color roses that are both golden and red. Seek out the pinkish rose known as Aurora Borealis, for example, or savor the yellow/red combination rose known as Funkuhr. The Rose Garden has almost 10,000 plants, more than 600 varietals, and is commonly ranked in the top-20 rose gardens worldwide. About a half million visitors enjoy it each year.
Adjacent is the Japanese Garden, a tranquil and orderly retreat of greenery, rocks, and water. You may observe the groundkeepers manicuring the site with tweezers. The strategies of Japanese garden design are subtle. You may experience in the garden almost a sense of exhaling. The garden is a total sensory experience. You may be led along by the sound of water to something unseen. The garden treasures are revealed in a tantalizing manner, slowly, not too much at a time. Several gardens within the overall garden have their own emphases, such as the Zen Garden with a few stones, as if to reduce life to simplicity.
Further into the hills is the best elevated view of the downtown, which is from the Pittock Mansion, a tourable house belonging to the former owners of the local newspaper, The Oregonian. The drawing room at the Pittock mansion epitomizes American regional elegance of the upper class in the first decades of the 20th century.
The park with the most spectacular promontory view of the city and adjacent mountains is Council Crest Park, just south of Washington Park. You can get a 360-degree view from the very top, including portraits of several mountains, such as Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens, but only on an ultra-clear day. The chances of a clear day are slim. One statistician asserts that Portland has about 225 days of cloudy weather per year. One local asserted that the weather was cloudy from November 1 to the 4th of July, but perhaps she was exaggerating.
Nearby Trips from Portland
The obvious nearby trips from Portland are northwest and east along the Columbia River. West is Astoria, a fur trading post, and the Lewis and Clark Fort, the final outpost of the explorers. But make the trip east first if your time is limited.
East are the splendid views of the Columbia River Gorge from the Women’s Forum State Park and from Crown Point. Since it opened in 1915, this Columbia Gorge highway has been one of the distinguished scenic highways in America. The highway’s stone bridges and stone rails epitomize the craftsmanship of an earlier era. The road passes through dense green forests of conifers in elevated positions and hardwoods closer to the river.
Stop at diaphanous Multnomah Falls, 620 feet high, the most spectacular of several falls to which you can walk. The water drops dramatically until it crashes on the rocks at the base. At Multnomah many a visitor has tossed a good luck coin into the pool at the bottom of the falls.
Proceed farther east to look at Bonneville Dam and Locks, with its fish ladders and underground viewing area, where you can watch the salmon swim up the river. Then pause at the town of Hood River to see the windsurfers on the Columbia River. The action is at Sailpark Beach near the marina because of the wind, the broad expanse of water, and the shallowness, helpful when you fall off the sailboard.
The final leg of the trip takes you south on Highway 35, the loop road back toward Portland around Mt. Hood. If the light is clear, you’ll savor views of the mountain. The road runs through orchard country with many Anjou pear plantings. Small lumber mills harvest the conifer trees. Eventually, you encounter heavy forests of fir, pine, and cedar.
Another interesting day trip is along the Willamette River and its valley, extending south from Portland.
Drive up the valley along the side roads (Highways 211, 213, and 214 on the east side) and then down the valley on the west side (Highways 221, 210).
The wine countries near Portland, such as Tualatin, are absorbing destinations in themselves.
Put two special treasures in your itinerary if you can: Silver Falls State Park and Salem, the capital.
Silver Falls is one of the most attractive of Oregon’s state parks, which are a major resource. In their state park concept the Oregonians favor a manicured look in campgrounds and picnic areas. The greenery is always appealing. And at Silver Falls State Park the wild falls are most impressive. You could spend half a day hiking here on a seven-mile loop through Silver Creek Canyon, passing nine of the park’s 14 waterfalls.
The drive to Silver Falls takes you through a region of diversified farming, with crops from wheat to beans to Christmas trees. Along the roads you’ll find wild blackberries just begging to be picked in July. Houses of the region tend to have well-managed gardens of petunias, roses, and dahlias, plus the luxurious cover of mature shade trees.
At Salem, enjoy the landscaped grounds around the Capitol building, easily identified by the 24-foot Pioneer statue covered with gold leaf. Enter the building to survey the murals and artifacts that tell the pageant of Oregon history.
Side trips from Portland tend to confirm the locals’ opinion, “The great outdoors is close by.”
Portland: If You Go
The website for Oregon tourism is www.traveloregon.com.
For Portland information, look at www.travelportland.com.