Want to hit the big-draw attractions or experience Portland, Ore., like an insider? With our guide you can do it all.
Speaking as a local, I have to cry foul at the TV satire Portlandia’s depiction of the city as a haven for bicycle-pedaling, Allergy Pride Parade–marching, dog park–dominating hipsters who won’t order chicken from a menu without first making sure the bird has led a fulfilling life. The reality is, we also make really good beer.
What else do locals know? While some of the city’s coolest attractions rightfully draw blockbuster crowds, others keep a low profile except among insiders. Read on to find the best of both worlds, whether creature comforts to feed your body, culture to feed your mind, or outdoor venues to feed your spirit.
Feed your body
Big Draw: Downtown
The center of the city isn’t all suits, but a whirl of markets and festivals offering quirky diversions, tasty snacks, and intriguing crafts. Need a pair of tie-dyed long johns or jewelry made out of bike parts? Head to the Portland Saturday Market (open Sundays, too), an outdoor bazaar with more than 250 vendors selling fine art, meat cleavers turned headwear, bratwurst, you name it, to over 1 million shoppers a year.
At Pioneer Courthouse Square, aka Portland’s Living Room, shindigs fill the calendar, including a sandcastle-building bash, festivals honoring such cultures as Italy’s and India’s, and even a 200-piece all-tuba Christmas concert.
Open Saturdays through mid-December, the city’s biggest farmers’ market, held at Portland State University, has the feel of a street party. About 150 vendors and up to 15,000 shoppers converge on two city blocks packed with Willamette Valley hazelnuts, wild mushrooms, and fresh seafood. Let local chefs’ cooking demonstrations inspire your purchases, or skip right to the food stalls that dish up everything from pizza to Southern-style biscuits.
Insider Pick: Central East Side
Filled with loading docks and freight elevators, the central east side industrial district may look like a forklift operator’s dream. But it’s blossoming into the best place in town to seek out life’s essentials: food, drink, and clothing. What’s more, a new streetcar line opening in September will make the area more accessible than ever.
Swing by the tasting rooms at area distilleries to savor inventive libations such as New Deal’s Hot Monkey vodka, Eastside Coffee Rum, and House Spirits’ Aviation Gin. At Cascade Brewing Barrel House, a maker of barrel-aged beers, sip the taste bud–tingling kriek, an intentionally sour ale aged on cherries, to find out why the New York Times recently declared it the winner in a taste test of 20 U.S. and Belgian brews of that style. When it comes to neighborhood eats, French-inspired bistro Le Pigeon serves juicy beef cheek bourguignon and a try-it-to-believe-it dessert of foie gras profiteroles. At upscale vegan trattoria Portobello, spicy beet balls and tomato-basil sauce top house-made spaghetti.
The area’s dry goods are equally tasteful. Bombshell Vintage specializes in yesteryear’s duds: 1950s prom dresses, Mad Men–esque cuff links, original disco wear. Sprawling Hippo Hardware & Trading Company bursts with new and salvaged house parts you won’t find at Home Depot, from antique stained glass windows and ornate crystal chandeliers to 19th-century brass doorknobs. The store is a mix of wonders obvious and hidden—not unlike Portland itself.
Feed your mind
Big Draw: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry
OMSI, as everyone calls it, is known for its planetarium—but that’s not all. It delves into just about every cranny where human curiosity might venture.
In the museum’s eight interactive labs, instructors help budding scientists dust for fingerprints, learn to operate industrial-caliber robotic arms, scrutinize a live Australian walking stick as it crawls up someone’s wrist, and conduct a host of astonishing experiments. “There’s not really any experience comparable to having a chemical reaction occur in front of you and being able to feel the heat of it and get the smells and sounds of it,” says David Perry, OMSI’s director of museum education.
Stepping inside the museum’s Earthquake House, visitors can feel the bone-rattling intensity of earthquakes that have roiled Oregon in recent years. The decommissioned USS Blueback, docked in the adjacent Willamette River, lets you explore the high-tech world of a navy submarine.
Awash with kids during the day, the museum hosts a monthly evening party called OMSI After Dark, complete with food and drink, for adults who want a shot at those robotic arms.
Insider Pick: Outdoor Art
Where else but in Portland would there be a monument to the practice of zooming downhill en masse on child-size bikes? The weekly “zoo-bomb” starts at the Oregon Zoo and ends near SW 13th Avenue and West Burnside Street, where riders keep a locked heap of bikes. In 2009, the city officially gave “the Pyle” a stylish rack attached to a pole topped by a tiny bike covered in gold leaf.
Decades ago, the city and county passed ordinances requiring most public projects to include art. Portland has since amassed a trove. “It’s dense and rich with art both on streets and as part of buildings,” says Eloise Damrosch, executive director of the Regional Arts and Culture Council. The transit mall on Fifth and Sixth avenues has an especially concentrated collection.
The most recognizable (and judging by its shiny breasts, the most fondled) of the public installations may be the life-size bronze nude at SW Sixth Avenue and Morrison Street. Kvinneakt appeared in a ubiquitous college dorm poster titled Expose Yourself to Art, with Bud Clark, Portland’s future mayor, playing a flasher.
At Pioneer Courthouse Square, the Weather Machine sprouts figures with the forecast: a dragon for storms, a blue heron for drizzle, and a sun for clear skies. If you prefer your art supersize, swing by Portlandia at 1120 SW Fifth Avenue. Though the skin of this 35-foot-tall, goddesslike figure is only dime thin, she makes a weighty impression perched above the Portland Building’s entrance.
Feed your spirit
Big Draw: International Rose Test Garden
Thoroughbreds have the Kentucky Derby; athletes have the Olympics. Roses have their proving ground in the International Rose Test Garden. Lodged in Washington Park in the West Hills neighborhood, the garden is home to 9,525 individual plants of 621 varieties that explode with color from late May through October.
This isn’t a place for pansies. To be included, every rose variety, from Angel Face to Yellow Brick Road, has to be popular enough that commercial garden suppliers list it in their catalogs. “If it’s not available from at least three places in the country, then the rose comes out, no matter how good it is,” says garden curator Harry Landers.
Unless, of course, it’s one of the garden’s experimental varieties (labeled with numbers rather than the usual colorful monikers) or heirloom strains that date back generations. Even in the off-season, the garden’s stellar view of downtown Portland and snowcapped Mount Hood is enough to make eyes pop and spirits rise.
Insider Pick: Forest Park
New York City’s Central Park might be more famous, but Portland’s 5,171-acre whopper of a city park is six times bigger. Boasting 80 miles of trails, it lets nature lovers escape the urban clamor without leaving town.
Yet for all its accessibility Forest Park is a wild place, home to pygmy owls and pileated woodpeckers, elusive bobcats and bears, and indeed nearly all the creatures Lewis and Clark saw in the area back in 1806. “These species migrate through it from time to time because it’s connected to the whole Coast Range ecological region,” says Terry Milner of the Forest Park Conservancy. “If you look at a satellite map, you can see this amazing finger of green pointing down from the Coast Range into Portland.”
Once heavily logged, the park is now covered by a canopy of red alder, Douglas fir, western red cedar, and western hemlock. Explorers can learn the park’s story on a Conservancy-led hike or head out on their own to stroll part of the 30-mile Wildwood Trail. One popular section, beginning steps from a parking lot, runs from the historic Pittock Mansion (open for tours) down into Balch Creek Canyon. There the Lower Macleay Trail follows the water past the park’s tallest tree, a 242-foot Douglas fir, before winding north over the hills and into the distance.
Photography by Don Frank
This article was first published in September 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.