Portland is an interesting cornucopia of beautiful nature, progressive culture, friendly people and delightful cuisine.
Located at the confluence of 2 great rivers, the Columbia and the Willamette, the area was a magnet for early native tribes and more recent European pioneers.
Although Lewis and Clark did not end their famous journey at this junction, they came close enough to open the way for future settlers. Portland became an incorporated city in 1851. Read more about Portland’s history here.
Interesting Facts: Just before the official incorporation of the city, the land claim holders Pettygrove and Lovejoy argued about their favorite names for the area known as “The Clearing”. Lovejoy wanted to name it Boston after his hometown and Pettygrove preferred to name it after Portland Maine. They settled the dispute with a coin toss. The famous Portland Penny is now on display at the Oregon Historical Society in downtown.
I only had one week for this visit, so I made the most out of it. I went on walks and bike rides through downtown and the 4 (main) Portland neighborhoods, I sampled the eclectic variety of foods offered at restaurants and food trucks and ventured out to nearby rivers, valleys, forests, and mountains.
Having experienced the wonders of this delightful city, I intend to go back for many more visits.
Where to stay
Portland is a major city, so you have many choices for accommodations. I personally stayed at an Airbnb rental in the Northeast neighborhood. My stay was pleasant and the house was close enough to attractions. But the downside to renting a room or a house is that you don’t have Hotel services like a maid or concierge.
Downtown hotels have the advantage of being at the center of action in the city. You are usually within walking distance from any restaurant or attraction. Some of the excellent choices are Sentinel, Embassy Suites by Hilton, The Heathman Hotel, The Nines. Expect to pay more for the location.
Hotels outside of downtown are quieter and less expensive. If you have a car or willing to use Portland’s excellent public transit, then chose one of those hotels. Some of the best ones are DoubleTree by Hilton, Hotel Eastlund, and Comfort Inn.
The city’s neighborhoods are connected with a system of buses, streetcars, and light rail. The MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) is the light rail system connecting downtown with the suburbs. In downtown and nearby districts, you can ride the streetcars.
For a fun ride, you should try the Portland Aerial Tram, which connects the South Waterfront district with Oregon Health & Science University. At the top, you can enjoy great views of Portland, the Willamette River, and Mt Hood.
Portland is bike-friendly - many streets have dedicated bike lanes. If there is no bike lane, bikers have the same rights (and responsibilities) as cars sharing the road. There are also a few designated “Green” Lanes for bikes. They were designed to have a minimum of stops along the way with special bike-only traffic lights. Riding on those lanes is a delight for bikers.
Tip: When biking, if you reach an intersection, look for a green box. If you stop in the green box, cars will stop for you and let you pass.
Finally, the city in partnership with Nike created a bike-share program. You can find many bike pickup stations around Portland. The fees are very reasonable. You can rent the bike for one trip, the whole day, or a full month. Go here to get program details and pricing.
Things to do around town
Take a walk
The best way to experience a new place is just to park somewhere and start walking. When you walk, you can have a more personal encounter with the city and learn firsthand about its landmarks, shops, restaurants, and people.
Make sure to stop at the food truck pods. Food trucks are regulated and inspected, so don’t worry about health issues. They offer a very large variety of international cuisines. Have you tried Mauritian or Norwegian food? This is the place to try it.
Portland is considered one of the best walkable large cities because of its grid plan, short blocks, and safety. There is no serious crime in Portland, but if you have young ones in your group, you probably should avoid the Northwest side of downtown. This area is infamous for its adult entertainment establishments. On the other hand, if you intend to have some adult fun, this is the place to be.
To help navigate through Portland, always remember that the Willamette River divides the city into East and West sections. The main section of downtown is to the west of the river with most of the hotels, shopping, entertainment, and dining establishments.
Interesting Facts: East and West used to be two separate towns with the Willamette river running in the middle. Ferries were the only way to cross the divide. After connecting the 2 sides with bridges and streetcars, East was incorporated with West into one large city.
The west side of the river has a nice waterfront park called “Tom McCall Waterfront Park”. Make sure to spend some time here. The park has great views of the river and the many bridges that cross it. There is also a bike rental shop and several beautiful fountains. One of them is called “Salmon Street Springs” and sits around the middle of the park – close to Hawthorne Bridge. The fountain has variable displays of water and color and is a great place for kids to get wet.
Further south, make a left turn on SW Clay Street and walk about 3 blocks to the Keller Auditorium and its amazing fountains.
The fountains are open to the public and many Portland families enjoy playing in the water during the warm months.
Bike around town
Another great way to enjoy Portland is to bike through its mostly flat streets. Many streets have dedicated bike lanes and traffic signals.
You can just ride around downtown or venture further into Portland neighborhoods. For a very nice collection of bike route maps go here.
For the adventurous, try the Columbia River Gorge trail for a great workout and amazing scenery.
When I am visiting a new place, I try to depend on professional local guides to give me a proper introduction. During my visit, I went on several of those tours. Here are some of the best:
Portland Walking Tours
The tour started from a very convenient location, which is under (subterranean) the Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Interesting Facts: The courthouse building is the oldest federal building in the west. It was built in 1869.
Our tour guide Alexis was very knowledgeable and entertaining. During this tour, I learned about the history of the city, visited some of the important landmarks, and got a good workout after walking for 2 hours.
Some of the highlights of the tour:
- Visiting the Portland Penny that decided the name of the city at the Historical Society
- Learning about the history of Micro Breweries and Coffee Roasters
- Visiting Tom McCall Waterfront Park and the fountain that changes every 20 minutes
- Admiring the amazing number of public art exhibits on the streets
- Learning about the 11 bridges that cross the river
- Strolling through the South Park Blocks, which span 12 city blocks. It is a contiguous greenbelt in the center of town.
Interesting Facts: In the early days of the Park Blocks, one square was set aside for women and children exclusively. This was done to protect women from drunk men.
During this tour, we visited a microbrewery, a winery restaurant, a food truck, and a creamery. Along the way, we learned about the various Portland neighborhood and their history.
Angie our guide was a wealth of information. She drove us around in her comfortable minivan to cover more of the city.
Our first stop was at the “South Park Seafood” where to tried cold smoked trout. I never knew you can eat cold fish, but we did and it was very good. The place has an oyster bar with a fresh and ever-changing selection of oysters and clams.
At the Ecliptic Brewery, we enjoyed a plate of delicious snacks and a few beers to taste. My favorites were the beets with sharp white cheddar and the porter beer. The décor was out of this world.
Interesting Facts: Portland is also well known for its microbreweries. The abundance of Hop, Barley and fresh water nearby makes for ideal conditions to make this the beer capital of the World.
Angie then took us to a food truck pod to try new cuisine. The Viking Soul Food offers Norwegian comfort food. Their specialty is a potato-based Crepe called “Lefse”. I picked the smoked Salmon wrap and it was very light and tasty. The portions were large, so I saved half for later.
We ended our foodie trip in the “Ruby Jewel Ice Cream Sandwiches”. A great way to end the day.
I am glad I didn’t chicken out. I ended up having a private foodie bike tour with Neil. He was an excellent guide, taking me through the most interesting bike paths and stopping at some great food and drink establishments.
We started by visiting the “Cup and Bar” coffee shop where I enjoyed a cup of coffee and a fudge bar.
Interesting Facts: A lot of coffee beans pass through Portland on its way to other states. So, it is natural for coffee roaster to flourish in this town. With more than 40 specialty coffee roaster, within the city limits, dare we say that Portland is the coffee capital of the west?
Then we biked on a long stretch of “Green Way” to a food truck pod hidden in a residential neighborhood. At the pod, I tasted a Poutine for the first time at “Potato Champion”. It is a Canadian dish made with fries and some kind of topping. Mine was “Palak Paneer Fries”, with spinach, cheese, and curry.
After another bike ride in the rain, we stopped at “50 Licks Ice Cream” for a sampling of very interesting flavors. After trying a few, I decided to go for the Rumid Razin with Rum and Raisins. This was a nice ending to our food tasting, we still had to bike back to the bike shop.
On the way back, we rode on a waterfront trail, passed by the Museum of Science and Industry, and crossed over a floating bridge.
Thanks, Neil for a great bike tour through Portland.
Where to eat
Portland is proud of its foodie culture with an abundance of local and ethnic choices. Many restaurants offer seasonal “Farm to Table” menus with ingredients sourced locally from the Willamette Valley farms.
The city’s location next to a large farming community and natural clean water makes it ideal for winemaking and beer brewing.
Finally, you can’t miss the food trucks. They are regulated and inspected ad offers a large variety of world foods.
Here are some of my favorites:
Voodoo or Blue-star? You have to try the donuts at “Voodoo Donuts” and “Blue Star Donuts”. There is a long-standing argument among locals and visitors about which one is better. They are both delicious, but I personally preferred Blue Star.
Bijou Café: A very good place for a nice sit-down breakfast. They offer the basics plus French favorites. I tried the mushroom & Tillamook vintage cheddar omelet. They also serve brunch every day.
Pine State Biscuits: If you love biscuits then you must visit this place. Freshly made biscuits with your favorite toppings. I tried the Regina which came with over-easy eggs and braised greens with hot sauce. Very tasty and filling.
Their most famous concussion is the Reggie (or Reggie Deluxe), but I didn’t feel like fried chicken for breakfast on that day.
Food Trucks: I really love the food trucks in Portland. It is the most convenient way to try many ethnic cuisines for a reasonable price. You will find Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Greek – just to name a few.
One day, I had a sampler of dumplings at the “Dump Truck” downtown. My favorites were Mr. MA’s special and Potato Curry. Didn’t like the bacon dumpling that much.
On another day, I tried Mauritian Food for the first time at “Chez Dodo”. Mauritius Island sits in the IndianOceann between Africa and India and their cuisine reflects those influences. At this place, you build your meal by picking the base (rice or noodles), meat, toppings, and spice level. For sides, try one of their Samosas. They are huge, so maybe you can have it as the main dish.
While on tour, I got to try Norwegian at “Viking Soul Food” and Canadian at “Potato Hiro”. Both were new experiences and both very delicious.
Many great choices for dinner in downtown and further away. You will be hard-pressed to find any chain restaurants downtown and the only fast food place I could find is McDonald’s. This is a good thing because you are forced to try new things.
Here are my favorites:
India House: is a small place with very tasty traditional Indian dishes and bread. I ordered the Lamb combo which had the Lamb Kari and Lamb Kofta with many side dishes and Naan bread. The rice pudding was an excellent finish to a great meal.
Le Pigeon: With an ever-changing menu of creative French dishes, you can always find something new to try. During my visit, I sat at the bar and watched the chef prepare my dinner. I decided to try the “Beef Cheek Bourguignon” and I loved it. The meat melts in your mouth and the side of mac and cheese was nostalgic. I was tempted to try the “Honey Glazed Lamb Shoulder”, but saved it for another visit. I ended my sumptuous meal with a Crème Brule.
Sizzle Pie: A great place for unique Pizza creations. The place is simple and casual, but you go there for the food, not the ambiance. I picked a slice of “Swamp Wizards” and “Vegan Angel of Doom”. Strange names but great tastes. The Swamp Wizards had Chicken, Spinach, Butternut Squash, Dried Cranberries, and Mozzarella and the Angel of Doom had Mozzarella, Jalapeños, Pineapple, and Almonds. You can’t find those combinations at your chain pizza store.
Hoda's: A Lebanese restaurant with traditional middle-eastern fare and homemade pita bread. With friendly and attentive staff and great tasting food, you feel right at home in this 2-story place.
They have a large selection of Kabob, Kafta, and rice dishes. You can also order Mezza, which a large selection of small plates. The Mezza for 2 includes Tabouleh, Hummus, Baba Ghanouje, grass-fed Kafta Kabob, Basmati Rice, and Meat Pie.
I picked the Lamb Kabob which was served with rice and pita bread. The meat was cooked just right and very favorable. I finished my meal with my favorite dessert, the Kenafeh. I will definitely come back for more at Hoda’s.
Departure: This restaurant sits atop the luxury hotel “The Nines” with a commanding view of Portland’s skyline. You can pick indoor or balcony seating. I would have preferred to enjoy the view from the balcony, but the weather did not cooperate.
The restaurant offers the best of Japanese cuisine with a variety of seafood, chicken, and steak.
Check out the Chef Gregory Gourdet recommendations menu for special treats.
Finally, Departure offers Vegan and Gluten-Free menus.
Melting Pot: You start with cheese fondue, then you pick your vegetables and meats and dip them in a savory sauce. You end your meal with a chocolate fondue. The possibilities are limitless.
The problem is, by the time we got our main course of meats and seafood we were almost full. We are definitely going back, but this time we will concentrate our efforts on the cheese and the chocolate fondues.
Btw, the service was excellent. The waitress was attentive and friendly.
Away from Downtown
The Lloyd Center
The center is a few blocks away from downtown to the east of the Willamette River and accessible via streetcar and light rail. It houses the largest mall in Oregon, a movie theater, an indoor ice skating rink, and hotels.
Interesting Facts: For a few years, Southeast Portland had some unusual residents. A development company brought a herd of goats to a vacant lot to help with weed control. They soon became Portland celebrities and social media darlings. They became known as the Belmont Goats - with their Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest accounts. The Belmont Goats had to move recently to a new home when construction started on the new condominiums.
A nice park sits between the train station and the mall, with interesting fountains and statues.
The mall itself has some large department stores like Macy’s, H&M, Guess, and The Gap with a lot of unique boutique stores and souvenir shops. You can find a large selection of gifts at the “Made in Oregon” store.
The mansion itself is worth a visit to see how the Portland rich and famous lived in the early 1900s. It was built in 1914 as a home for the Pittocks Henry and Georgiana along with 8 family members.
In 1958 the last family member moved out and later the city of Portland purchased the property and runs it as a museum and park.
Interesting Facts: Henry Pittock, before he became rich and built this mansion, took a job at the Weekly Oregonian newspaper, where he also slept on a cot for a few years.
The Mansion is a 23-room French Renaissance-style Chateau with elegant decor and furniture, but the best feature is found outdoors in the well-landscaped gardens and hiking trails and a view to die for.
Many Portlandians and visitors just go for the view and maybe some hiking. You don’t have to pay a fee to visit outdoors, but the museum fee is $10, and children under 6 are free. Read more about the Pittock Mansion here.
Just an hour’s drive away from Portland you can enjoy an abundance of natural wonders.
If you follow the Columbia River along the Historic Columbia River Highway, you will come across popular waterfalls like Multnomah and Bridal Veil Falls and you can spend days traversing the many trails.
Almost from anywhere in Portland, you can see Mt Hood with its snow-covered cap. Mt Hood is a fun destination any time of the year.
To the southeast, you can visit the Willamette Valley with its wineries and the Cascade foothills with its own collection of waterfalls.
The Columbia River Gorge
The gorge was formed eons ago by catastrophic events. After the ice glaciers started to melt, huge quantities of water were held back by natural ice dams. When the dams broke, torrents of water and boulders came rushing down to carve this beautiful gorge.
The Gorge has 26 waterfalls, some on the Washington side. Some of the most popular ones are Multnomah, Whakeena and Briadal Viel. Read the full article about the Gorge here.
Willamette Valley and Silver Falls State Park
The Willamette Valley is a 150-mile stretch of fertile land bordered by 3 mountain ranges. The Willamette River runs through the whole valley with many tributaries and streams crisscrossing the valley.
Today, the Willamette Valley is famous for its numerous wineries (more than 500 and counting) spread over 19,000 acres of fertile land.
The Cascade Mountains form the eastern edge of this valley with lush forests and roaring waterfalls. A visit to the Valley is not complete until you venture into the Silver Falls State Park to enjoy the falls and the hiking trails.
The best way to enjoy the state park is by hiking the trails that connect 10 amazing waterfalls.
Willamette Valley and Waterfalls Guided Tour
I recently went with Evergreen Escapes on their “Willamette Valley Wine & Waterfalls” Tour and enjoyed every minute.
The tour was very well planned and took the whole day to complete. Our guide, Adam Sawyer, was awesome. He happens to also be an author of travel guidebooks, so he really knows and enjoys his stuff.
The tour took the whole day and was full of activities and interesting facts. Read the full story about Willamette Valley here