Portland is a city of believers. It's a city based on bike paths and farmers markets rather than freeways and megamarts, a place where sustainability is the religion of the masses. In Portland, the DIY feeling is strong, and families are fiercely devoted to their neighborhoods. A bookstore is among the city’s most beloved attractions, while Portland also boasts the nation’s largest urban park (Forest Park), and many residents spend weekends deciding whether to ski or hike on nearby mountains, cycle the many regional trails and back roads or head out to the rugged Pacific coast.
In town, it’s a city where livability is measured by the number of coffee houses within walking distance and where the neighborhood restaurant is just as likely to serve innovative seasonal dishes prepared with locally-grown ingredients as one of the upscale dining meccas in the busy downtown core. The sportswear industry drives the economy as well as local fashion trends; polar fleece is beloved and worn by all almost twelve months a year. It's a casual kind of place with pure water and amazing views of a snow-covered volcano and bustling river traffic. It’s a city where young creatives come to thrive, adventurous folks come to retire, and everyone in between enjoys the area’s recreational options, culture, and commerce.
The area is full of surprising sites and natural wonders, and you can spend at least a day exploring downtown Portland without renting a car, thanks to the city's excellent mass transit system combining light rail (fondly named MAX), streetcars and buses and short, walkable city blocks. It's also easy to find your way around. The Willamette River, flowing through the center of town, divides the city into east and west. Burnside Street intersects the river and creates the north and south quadrants. If you get lost, don’t stress. Locals are always happy to point you in the right direction.
Portland has several fine downtown hotels ranging in price from inexpensive to extravagant. The Heathman Hotel, a gem in the heart of the "cultural district," is a luxurious choice. If you favor upscale boutique lodging, The Nines, Portland, two opulent floors at the top of the Macy's building, offers one of Portland's poshest stays, with high-end dining to match, while the plush Hotel Vintage Plaza caters to wine connoisseurs. Nearby, the Hotel Lucia is a fun, affordable European-style hangout, and the Ace Hotel offers retro-style digs for creative types. On the West End of downtown, the glamorous Hotel deluxe uses a vintage movie star theme, and is perfectly positioned for soccer fans seeking to catch a Portland Timbers match. Just across the Willamette River, the Jupiter Hotel provides a hipster haven in a newly trendy urban environment. Many attractions are just a short walk or MAX ride away. To enjoy Portland’s dazzling variety of activities and to thoroughly enjoy this green, forward-thinking city read on to discover a simply fabulous three-day tour.
Many Portland hotels boast terrific places for breakfast. The Heathman Hotel’s breakfasts offers the chance to observe Portland powerbrokers at work. Gracie’s is the elegant restaurant in Hotel deLuxe, and Kenny and Zuke’s, next to the Ace Hotel, is as close as Portland gets to a traditional Jewish deli. Work off your bagel and lox with a stroll through downtown to get a feel for the city. Pioneer Courthouse Square, generally called "Portland's living room," hosts concerts, fairs, film screenings and festivals, not to mention a relaxed crowd of locals simply hanging out. Powell's City of Books may be the city's most popular tourist attraction. Some visitors schedule an entire day to explore this massive store selling new and used books. When your bookstore saturation is complete, take a break at the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, an entire square block of tranquility based on a garden built in Suzhou during the Ming Dynasty. It features a tearoom, lily pond, Chinese plants, and several authentic structures. If it puts you in the mood for Chinese food, don’t miss Ping restaurant in the heart of Old Town.
Just west of Old Town, the Pearl District has become famous for art galleries and shopping. The district also features some lovely urban parks, notably Jamison Square and Tanner Springs. Portland’s finest Theater company, Portland Center Stage, also has its home here in a gorgeously restored and remodeled old Armory that’s become a showpiece for sustainable building practices. The largest downtown green space is the Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park, a long stretch of green edging the busy Willamette River. In the summer, many of the city's favorite celebrations and special events take place here, but any time of year it’s always worth a stroll. Visit several theme areas such as the Children's Story Garden, the Japanese-American Historical Plaza and the Oregon Maritime Center. The Salmon Street Springs prove that in Portland on a hot summer day, no one is hesitant about jumping into a fountain.
Portland’s many affordable ethnic restaurants offer a range of choices for lunch. Head to Alexis for excellent moussaka, or Andina for an authentic Peruvian taste experience. After lunch, take a ride on the MAX to Washington Park, located at the head of Southwest Park Place. Here you'll get a taste of the natural setting that gives Portland its special character. The Hoyt Arboretum features a vast number of species of trees and shrubs, as well as offers 10 miles of easily navigated trails. The five-acre Japanese Garden offers a cool and quiet respite from city noise. The Vietnam Veterans Living Memorial is a solemn monument to Portland's veterans and lost sons and daughters. Those curious about Oregon's once-thriving timber industry can learn about its legacy at the World Forestry Center. Kids will love the interactive Children's Museum, and visitors of all ages will certainly enjoy a walk through the Oregon Zoo. During summer months, the zoo train travels across the park to the International Rose Test Garden, a lovely terraced spot overlooking the city with a glorious array of more than 7,000 rose bushes.
Another way to enjoy Portland is on a Willamette Jetboat Excursion. From downtown, simply walk across the Hawthorne Bridge to the Oregon Science and Industry Museum (OMSI), Portland's hands-on exploration museum that boasts an IMAX theater and submarine tours. Once there, you'll find the jetboat boarding area, your gateway to a thrilling adventure packed with history and splashing. Yes, you will get wet. If a drier river experience has more appeal, walk or bike (rentals are available) along the Esplanade, a popular 2.6-mile loop that traverses the Hawthorne and Steel bridges as well as pleasant paved paths.
If you like heights, walk or take the streetcar to the South Waterfront where you can catch a 20-minute ride on Portland's aerial tram, a space-age-looking pod that carries passengers far above the river and up "Pill Hill" to the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) hospital campus. The fare is just a few dollars, and well worth the experience.
For dinner, board a downtown streetcar for Northwest 21st Avenue, Portland's "restaurant row," to feast on authentic Pacific Northwest cuisine. Paley's Place was a pioneer in the local movement to prepare outstanding regional fare made with fresh, local ingredients. In the mood for Italian? Try Caffe Mingo or Serrato. You’ll also find eclectic boutique shopping along both Northwest 21st and 23rd Avenues (sometimes nicknamed “Trendy-third” by locals). After dinner, head back downtown to catch the local jazz scene at the Benson Hotel, The Heathman Hotel or Jimmy Mak's.
* Skyline and tram images courtesy of the Official Tourism and Meeting Website for Portland, Oregon (Tram photo by Tim Jewett)