Portland, Oregon, lies on the northern border of the state at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. Despite explosive growth in recent years, this area of the northwest has not wavered in its support of environmentalism.
Portland is referred to, justifiably, as one of the greenest cities in the U.S. Though it no longer has the most LEED-certified buildings (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an environmental rating) per capita in the nation, Portland was named the first-ever Platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community. Portland's bike-friendly development sense has led to a varied lane and trail network that connects all parts of the city, and it is the first city in the U.S. with a program that provides free bicycles, safety training, helmets, pumps, toolkits, rain gear, locks and maps to low-income residents.
The local food scene also supports ecofriendly practices—the fertile Willamette Valley provides many of the ingredients for area restaurants, from fast food to fine dining. The most prominent landmark in the area is Mount Hood, on the city's eastern horizon.
Portland residents and visitors have access to beautiful parks, unique neighborhoods, theaters, brewpubs and coffeehouses, and what is very possibly the best bookstore in the world (Powell's). You can also dine at restaurants that really know how to prepare fresh seafood, and you can hike up to 70 mi/113 km of nature trails—all within the Portland city limits.
While the city might not be for everyone—its slogan is "keep Portland weird"—but it isn't just offbeat shops and events. Portland features on most lists of "best places to live" in the U.S. because of its friendly atmosphere, its proximity to the coast and the mountains, and its temperate climate. It has one of the best public-transit systems in the country (100% bike- and wheelchair-accessible), and strict building codes have kept its historical architecture mostly intact.
Portland's careful urban planning has also set aside plenty of parkland, including a huge urban forest that dwarfs New York City's Central Park. With its progressive attitude and thriving cultural-arts scene, Portland attracts so many frequent visitors that more than a few decide to make it their home.
Although it's considered a West Coast city, Portland is not on the Pacific coast—it is about 70 mi/110 km east of the ocean, on the eastern side of the Coast Range mountains. The Columbia and Willamette (pronounced wil-LAM-et
) rivers define the town. The Willamette is crossed by 12 bridges within the city limits, giving rise to one of Portland's nicknames—Bridgetown. The Columbia forms the city's northern limit.
Portland is composed of many neighborhoods, with addresses defined by a five-section system. The city is geographically broken up into the Southwest, Northwest, Northeast, Southeast and North sections. An address alone is usually enough to give you a good idea where a site is located. The east-west divider is the Willamette River; the north-south boundary is Burnside Avenue. Therefore, an address such as 1300 N.E. Halsey would lie in the Northeast section—north of Burnside and east of the river.
The numbered avenues also point you in the right direction: They run north-south and lie on both sides of the Willamette, increasing in number as you move away from the river.
Downtown proper is in the Southwest section. It's between Burnside Avenue, the Willamette and Interstate 405. Downtown and less-central parts of Southwest boast the greatest range of sightseeing, shopping and entertainment venues.
Just north of downtown is the chic and rapidly up-and-coming area known as the Pearl District. It is located in the Northwest section of Portland, which offers troves of restaurants and boutique shopping options, especially on N.W. 21st and 23rd avenues.
The eastern side of the city used to be an endless urban sprawl with countless hidden neighborhoods. Today, the Hawthorne, Alberta, Division/Clinton and Sellwood neighborhoods are well defined. The Hawthorne neighborhood is often compared to San Francisco's Haight Street for its vibrant artistic and hipster communities; the Alberta neighborhood is known for its collection of boutique shops, great restaurants and art community; Division/Clinton has many of the city's most renowned restaurants, including Pok Pok, all on one street; and Sellwood offers excellent antiques shopping. You won't find many sights in these areas—only cultural experiences.
North Portland is home to the trendy and artistic Mississippi Neighborhood.
Mount Hood, visible from many parts of Portland, is the highest peak in Oregon at 11,295 ft/3,501 m. It's part of the Cascade Range, which is about 60 mi/95 km east of the city. The Columbia flows through these mountains in the Columbia River Gorge, a scenic and recreational wonderland that was heavily damaged by wildfires that ravaged the area in late 2017.
Portland's setting on the Columbia River has always been the key to its appeal. The region's natural abundance allowed the Native Americans who inhabited the area, including the Chinook, Watlala and others, to develop a rich culture. And it was the river that first drew European explorers to the area, as well.
The Lewis and Clark expedition floated down the Columbia River in the autumn of 1805, and the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Vancouver just across the Columbia from present-day Portland in the 1820s. Beginning in the 1840s, tens of thousands of settlers from the eastern U.S. poured over the Oregon Trail. They soon recognized that the point where the Willamette River met the Columbia had good potential as a port city.
It got its name when two East Coast founders—one from Boston and the other from Portland, Maine—flipped a coin to determine which hometown would be honored. The famed coin, known as the Portland Penny, is still on display at the Oregon Historical Society in town.
Growth in the early years was spectacular, with Portland rivaled in the west only by post-gold-rush San Francisco. By the turn of the 20th century, however, Portland was being overshadowed as a port by both San Francisco and Seattle.
Portland's growth was led by Henry J. Kaiser, who facilitated the construction of two Columbia River dams. The 150,000 workers he recruited to the resulting shipyards played a major role in the city's growth.
Fishing and timber became the city's main businesses, but their good fortunes were not to last. Fish stocks had been all but depleted by the time the last dams went up on the Columbia in the 1950s. In the 1970s, the timber industry crashed, and Portland became a rather sleepy river town.
Since the 1980s, the city has seen remarkable growth. Low housing prices and favorable business conditions drew people and industry from California and the East Coast, including many computer-related companies. Yet the growth wasn't willy-nilly as it was in some Internet boomtowns. Progressive initiatives kept a handle on growth and insisted upon livability for the city's residents.
The dot-com crash of the late 1990s hit Portland hard, and the city struggled with high unemployment and departing corporations as it attempted to reinvent itself. Now well established as a progressive, independent and green city, Portland has become increasingly popular.
If your trip coincides with good weather (most common May-September), you'll want to see the city's highlights by visiting several areas on foot. Washington Park is an ideal destination on a sunny day. You can linger for several hours in the International Rose Test Garden and the Japanese Garden.
If you treasure antiques, save time to see Pittock Mansion and then make a stop to see the elephants, penguins and other animals at the nearby Oregon Zoo. If time or another day of sunny skies allow, go for a ramble in Forest Park, which stretches northwest of Washington Park.
Downtown Portland also has several interesting sights, including yet another must-see for horticulture and landscape buffs—the Lan Su Chinese Garden. Downtown's museums can be a good destination when the city lives up to its damp reputation. Head over to Park Avenue to see the Portland Art Museum. A little farther away, across the Willamette, is the city's hands-on museum, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI).
If at all possible, you should plan to see some of the majestic scenery outside of Portland. The much-visited Columbia River Gorge Scenic area was heavily damaged by wildfires that raged through the area in late 2017. Many of the trails, including those around the famed Multnomah Falls, have been repaired, but the area has been stripped of it’s famed Douglas firs. We suggest exploring the region around Mount Hood, which has a network of 35 trails.
In the winter, Portland residents have been sitting inside all day and are desperate to get out, even if it is raining. In the summer, everybody is so wound up from the day of sunshine that they don't even eat until 10 pm and are in no hurry to go home afterward. This is reflected in the city's diverse and busy nightlife.
For the majority of Portlanders, "going out" is synonymous with having a beer. With more than 50 microbreweries, Oregon has earned the nickname Beervana, and locals drink almost as much suds at night as they do coffee during the day. The beloved local behemoth of microbreweries is the McMenamins chain. It has more than 50 pubs in Oregon and Washington and seems to take over every empty historic building and turn it into something wonderful.
Those looking for something a little livelier will find a good selection of touring musical acts at such venues as the Aladdin or Roseland theaters or at the Crystal Ballroom, with its famous bouncing dance floor that "floats on air." Local acts play in clubs all over town. And with such bands as Everclear, Modest Mouse and Spoon having gotten their starts in Portland, it's fair to say that Portlanders love to rock.
With a few exceptions, most pubs and clubs are open until 11 pm or midnight during the week, and 1 or 2 am on the weekends.
Like the city's recreation possibilities, Portland's dining options are noted for their accessibility, variety and lack of pretentiousness. (Most restaurants have no set dress code, but sweatshirts and jeans may feel out of place in ritzier establishments.) To understand the culinary scene in this trend-setting (and breaking) city, know that the surrounding farmland is some of the most fertile in the country and that many chefs work directly with farms located 20 minutes from downtown. Further, a do-it-yourself ethos is pervasive, and the tradition of chefs offering supper-club-style dinners inside of their own homes is still very much alive.
Visitors can find a range of dining atmospheres, from swank dining rooms 30 stories above the avenues to hole-in-the-wall sandwich shops serving house-cured charcuterie and house-made pickles, mustards and chips. Likely, no matter your hankering, Portland has you covered. You can enjoy a laid-back lunch of impeccably authentic Thai street food and then, for dinner, sample fine-dining dishes full of locally foraged ingredients transformed through molecular gastronomy.
The local specialty, owing to Portland's location in the Pacific Northwest, is seafood—especially salmon. The arrival of the spring run of chinook salmon in the Columbia watershed is an event that has been celebrated by local inhabitants for thousands of years. Once, these fish were simply smoked and dried. These days they're also served grilled on cedar planks, poached in wine sauces, baked with lemon and dill—just about any way you can imagine.
Crab, tuna, halibut and cod are also caught off the coast of Oregon, and all are staples in local restaurants. Portlanders revel in regional fruits, particularly pears, cherries and marionberries, and local wines. They also take great pride in their sustainable farming practices and organic goods.
The highest concentration of good restaurants used to be downtown, but the Pearl and Division/Clinton districts have taken over with an explosion of innovative establishments. Known as Restaurant Row, a section of Division Street located on the east side of the city between 30th and 39th avenues has a particularly high concentration of good restaurants. Other exciting foodie neighborhoods include the Alberta, Belmont, Hawthorne, Mississippi and Northwest sections of town.
Portland's food carts are nationally renowned, and there are more than 500 located in groups, known as pods, throughout the city. Although individual food carts are known for keeping irregular hours, the food-cart pods are typically buzzing 10 am-9 pm. Some of the biggest and best pods are the Alder pod (corner of Southwest Alder Street and Southwest 10th Avenue), the Mississippi Marketplace pod (corner of North Mississippi Avenue and Skidmore Street) and Cartopia (corner of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and Southeast 12th Avenue). Despite the wheels, most carts stick to their pods. For more information, visit http://www.travelportland.com/collection/food-carts.
Breakfast is generally served 7 am-noon, lunch 11:30 am-2 pm and dinner 5:30-10 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a single dinner without tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$16-$30; $$$ = US$31-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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