Despite living on the West Coast for a number of years, I had somehow never managed to make my way up to the Pacific Northwest (which is comprised of the states of Oregon and Washington) until this summer’s road trip. Portland and Seattle are the two main cities and over the past few years, I had heard nothing but rave reviews regarding both locales (the Seattle city guide will be coming next week!). While Salem is Oregon’s capital city, Portland is it’s biggest and most influential and it is a city that is infamous for its seemingly intrinsic hipness. Almost immediately, I recognized similarities to Austin which, in turn, confirmed my hypothesis that my time in this city was going to be nothing less than wonderful.
Over the week that I spent wandering around, I came to recognize that the combination of innovative food offerings, endless outdoor adventures, a vibrant art scene, and friendly locals, is what makes Portland simply marvelous.
When to Go: Portland has warm, dry summers and soggy, grey winters, so (depending on what you are into) there is a season for you.
Getting Around: Portland is compact and easy to get around either by car, bike, or public transportation. When it comes to the lay of the land, you have:
- North Portland: A rapidly gentrifying arts district that is overflowing with galleries and shops.
- N. Mississippi Ave: This street is laidback yet filled with character and is the place to see quaint houses and spoil yourself in quirky vintage shops.
- Northwest: A very green neighborhood with beautiful Victorian townhouses and boutiques.
- Old Town: Chinatown!
- Pearl District: Located in downtown Portland, this area used to be warehouses that have now been converted into luxury lofts and hip restaurants.
- Southeast: Indie shops and Division Street (with lots of great restaurants) are in this area.
- Hawthorne: Consider it Portland’s Haight-Ashbury. I spent a lot of time in this area bopping around its vintage shops, bars, record stores, and quirky cafes and I loved its counterculture scene.
- West End: The creative center of downtown, this is where you can sit in a coffee shop on your laptop with other digital nomads and then move to a chic cocktail bar.
Getting Sleep: Fortunately for me, one of my best friends lives in the city and invited me to stay with her for the week that I was there. Unfortunately for you, this means I don’t have any sleeping recommendations!
Eating & Drinking
OK, so the food scene in Portland is out-of-control delicious, but I am probably not the first one to mention that to you. I didn’t have a bad meal the entire week I was in the city which can partially be contributed to the fact that I have a couple of in-the-know Portland-dwelling friends and partly because Portland prides itself on its food culture. And coffee. And craft beer (on which I, unfortunately, can’t comment).
Let’s start with the first meal of the day. At the beginning of my time in the city, I headed to Alberta Street to meet an old friend (whom I studied with in Beijing) at Helser’s on Alberta, a delicious spot for American breakfast and brunch dishes. Alberta Street is lined with independent and diverse shops and galleries, giving you plenty to peruse while walking off your meal. If it is a Saturday, I recommend hanging out in this area before heading to the Portland Farmer’s Market. As there are no GF options, I wasn’t able to go, but Pine State Biscuits was another highly recommended “Portland must”. In a similar vein, Blue Star Donuts & Coffee and Voodoo Doughnuts are two infamous Portland doughnut shops that have a bit of a rivalry going on around the city.
You know that Starbucks is my favorite, but for the sake of getting into the city’s culture (my friend considered never speaking to me again when I texted her asking if she wanted a Sbux), I ventured to taste some local coffee shops. A few of them I couldn’t stomach; however, I gladly spent a few hours in Stumptown Coffee Roasters sipping my beautiful cappuccino and reading my book.
During the day I like to keep things simple and on-a-budget which isn’t impossible to do in Portland thanks to the city’s exceptional offering of food trucks. Nong’s Khao Man Gai is probably the most famous and for a good reason. This Thai food cart serves some of the best chicken and rice you have ever tasted, and it is a one-dish menu. (Pro tip: read the included instructions before starting to eat!). In contrast to many other cities, Portland’s food carts tend to park together in groups, called “pods,” which enables you to try tons of different foods at one time. The Cartopia pod on Hawthorne boasts many great offerings.
For delicious cuisine from another part of the world head to Portland Mercado, a community of more than 16 businesses (9 of which are food carts representing the diverse flavors of Latin America) and a hub for Latino culture in the city. Harlow is a gluten-free, organic, vegetarian fare spot (very Portland!) that whips up some of the most delicious, wholesome food imaginable and even got the approval of those who initially turned their noses up at this style of health-food!
For dinner, Division Street is the best place to head and the Thai restaurant Pok Pok is a must. While there is a good chance that you will have to wait, the food (specifically Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings) is worth it. On the same street is Bollywood Theatre, a fantastic Indian restaurant that offers street food, small plates, and Thali meals. It also happens to be conveniently located right next door to Eb & Bean Local Organic Frozen Yogurt which makes choosing desert a no-brainer.
Other recommendations I received for next time include Bamboo Sushi, Wiz Bang Bar (a soft-serve bar by Salt & Straw), Canard (for a hip, upscale dinner), Güero Tortas (for the best tortas in the city), Ava Gene’s (one of Portland’s best restaurants), and Tusk (for a Mediterranean-inspired brunch menu).
An unexpected highlight of my time in the city was the morning I spent wandering around the Portland Japanese Garden. I love Japanese Gardens, and this one is the loveliest I have ever encountered (which reminds me, for the fifth time this week, why have I not yet been to Japan?!). Next door is the best smelling part of Portland, the International Rose Test Garden, which is home to over 10,000 roses that are being developed and evaluated for scent and color. Plus, it is free! Both gardens are located in Washington Park,
Taking the Portland Aerial Tram is a fresh way to get a view of the city. A ride to the top only takes four minutes, but you can see all of downtown as well as Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood. After you come back down to Earth, stroll along the banks of the Willamette River through Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
For those who like a bit of older culture injected into their travels, head to Pittock Mansion that is located in the western part of Portland. Dating back almost a century, this is a stunning Victorian mansion that contains beautiful artwork and furniture collected by the original owners. Opt to take a guided tour to learn more about the property, explore the home by yourself, or hike up (30-45 minutes) for incredible views of the city.
There is no denying that Portland residents are some of the most “outdoorsy” in the USA and you can’t blame them when you see the stunning nature that surrounds them. Merely 45-minutes from the city you can hike in the Columbia Gorge. At 2.6-miles long, Horsetail Falls’ trailhead is the most known trail as it starts at a waterfall, before passing behind another one, Ponytail Falls.
However, if it is a beautiful day and you feel like hiking while staying in the city, Forest Park, one of the largest urban forests in the United States, is a glorious place to do just that. For reference, it is a lot less manicured than Washington Park to its south (although there are various trails that link them).
Craft beer reigns supreme in this neck of the wood, but Oregon also boasts some wonderful wineries. About an hour’s drive from the city is Domaine Serene Winery which has stunning views and a great tasting selection. Other wineries that were recommended to me are Left Coast Cellars and Ponzi. Next time!
You have to promise me that when you make it to Portland, you pay a visit to Powell’s City of Books — the largest independent bookstore in the country. Seriously, it takes up an entire city block. This place is my version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and its rows and rows of offerings are just as enticing. If you happen to be in Portland on a rainy day, this place can keep you occupied for a good few hours. After purchasing your books (perfect souvenirs), walk over to Pioneer Courthouse Square in the heart of downtown which is a public space with the nickname “Portland’s Living Room”.
Vintage in Portland is a way of life and I very much indulged in some of the awe-inspiring stores I stepped into. Along SE Hawthorne Blvd, you will find a number of fantastic vintage stores including House of Vintage (one of the best vintage stores I have ever been to), Red Light Clothing Exchange, Magpie, Buffalo Exchange, and Crossroads Trading. It is also in this area that you will find the most up-market Goodwill imaginable — complete with a NEON SIGN.
Health & Wellness
Considering I have been a barre/pilates addict for the better part of three years, I am not ashamed to admit that making a pilgrimage to the original Barre3 studio was pretty high on my to-do list for Portland (aka the top thing on my to-do list.) Before last fall I only knew about Barre3 through Sadie Lincoln’s fantastic episode on the NPR podcast “How I Built This” as there aren’t any studios in LA. When I found myself unexpectedly back in Cleveland after the end of my long-term relationship, I instantly bought an unlimited pass to the nearest Barre3 studio and credited my daily sessions as essential for keeping me feeling strong and powerful and ensuring I looked after myself.
While it is nice to have a great ass, the mental strength that comes from this type of workout is something far more profound and genuinely priceless. To this day, the Barre3 studio in Cleveland is one of my favorite studios in the world, so it only seemed right to take some classes in the space where it all began. If you are a fellow barre/pilates lover or have always been interested in giving it a go, this is a great place to start.