Originally a settlement grown from traders, trappers and pioneers, Portland just a century ago had a notoriety as one of the most dangerous ports on the planet. Today this wonderful city which sits in the lee of Mt Hood and at the confluence of two rivers draws attention to itself for entirely different reasons.
At times it can appear Portland has so much going for it that it really is a little unfair. Its inhabitants are known for their liberal thinking, strong eco-focus and an air of stepping outside the parameters of convention. It has stunning natural landscapes just a short drive out of the city and does a number of things not simply well but exceptionally well.
Its vast collection of microbreweries has led to it being known as Beervana while a perfect combination of climate and soil means it produces the kind of quality wines that receive international acclaim. You can also throw a top-notch coffee culture into the mix along with a collection of historical buildings, a series of green parks and a traditional floral connection which has led to its alternative title of the City of Roses.
And then of course there is the culinary scene, an aspect which firmly establishes Portland as Oregon’s food capital. In fact, the cuisine element of the city is so exceptional that many rank it as right up there with the best US cities for foodies. Several factors contribute to such a reputation – its farm-to-table element for one and its attraction for talented chefs – but perhaps the most well-known of its draws for the food-passionate are its incredible collection of iconic food carts which together are really nothing short of paradise for both gourmand and gourmet.
Any time in Portland tends to center around its food and drink so if such things rank as a priority for you when choosing travel destinations you may just consider this heaven.
A Morning in Portland
A paradise for the food-passionate and heaven for appreciators of great coffee, wine and craft beer, Portland is also one for the history fan. The city’s story stretches back more than 180 years and its downtown area is packed with sites of interest, historical landmarks and fascinating architecture.
Your Portland adventure begins with a looped walk to take in some of these wonderful sights. Should you prefer your morning to begin with an injection of the city’s greener and more nature-infused side then you can choose the lovely Washington Park instead. Here you will find a wealth of trails along with such delights as the tranquil Japanese Garden and its sensational rose garden.
The latter half of your morning allows you to choose between a wine tour and tasting or a beer and cider brewery combination experience.
Historic Walking Tour of Portland
Once nothing more than a seasonal camp for the Multnomah people, Portland grew rapidly in the 1800s during which time it gathered for itself a reputation as a hub of iniquity and racketeering. While today this lively port city has a vast helping of bars and pubs – many of them housed in historical 19th century stone buildings – the present number pales when compared to those of yesteryear. In the latter half of the 1800s it was said that Portland had one saloon for every 40 residents, many of them known to be headquarters for organized crime while the rest simply had notorious reputations. Gambling dens, bordellos and a plethora of less than respectful boarding houses for miners and sailors made up another large proportion of the city’s establishments. The dockside area was the haunt of shady characters whose principle purpose was to waylay the unwary. These victims would later awake on-board trading ships bound for China and with no way of escaping their forced labor for months on end.
The 1900s saw Portland gradually converted from what was considered one of the most dangerous ports in the world to the beautiful destination it is today. An easy walk around its downtown area allows you to take in a few of the most significant historic sights.
Pioneer Courthouse Square – often referred to as the ‘city’s living room’ – takes up a whole block and has roots which go back almost to the beginning of the Portland story. Many of the buildings here – now home to art galleries, cafes and hip bars – date from the late 19th century and display a Romanesque revival style. Today this public square is the scene for hundreds of events and gatherings on the Portland calendar including Food Truck February and Festival of Flowers in June.
Directly opposite the plaza you will see the Pioneer Courthouse which, dating from 1869, represents the region’s oldest governmental building and is a National Historic Landmark. Across SW Morrison Street from here is the white multi-storey Meier and Frank building from 1909 which demonstrates an architectural style much-used at the time for the first rather glamour-infused department stores.
The opposite side of the square – across SW Yamhill Street – is where you will find the impressive Jackson Tower with its French-influenced Beaux-Arts architecture which dates from 1912. At night the upper section of this office building of yesteryear with its clock-tower is quite a sight, lit as it is with almost 2,000 bulbs, allowing you to make out some higher level detailing which is harder to appreciate during the day.
A five minute walk from Pioneer Courthouse Square will bring you to the late 19th century Dekum Building and a further slight detour from here will allow you to also take in the Romanesque US National Bank Building. Constructed a couple of decades after the Dekum Building, this grand and columned structure has changed little in over 100 years and still operates as s bank.
One block north on your way to your next stop you will see the Gothic-styled Bishop’s House. Although this was indeed originally an official religious residence when it was first built in 1879 it has also served as a base for Chinese gangs and an illicit speakeasy in the city’s less savory days although now it is a respectable restaurant.
Turning left at SW 1st Avenue and continuing for 200m will bring you to the historic Skidmore Fountain which has marked its place here since 1883 – a date which makes this bronze sculpture the oldest public art in Portland. Just 100m away is one of the city’s historic bridges – the 1926 Burnside Bridge – which raises to allow large boat traffic to pass. Beneath the bridge in Tom McCall Waterfront Park can be found the Saturday Market site which comes alive with arts and craft sellers on weekends from March to December.
The walk south through the park’s promenade alongside the Willamette River takes you past lawns and trees and a 19th century mast from the USS Oregon and on to another of the city’s historic landmarks – the Hawthorn Bridge. When larger craft need to pass beneath this early 20th century bridge the entire middle section ascends vertically. Hawthorn Bridge is the US’s oldest bridge of this type whose mechanism is still fully functional.
Be sure to stop at the Salmon Street Springs just north of the bridge where you will find a huge fountain spurting jets controlled by computers. Another fountain – although rather older as it dates from 1900 – known as the Elk Fountain can be found a few minutes’ walk from here up SW Main Street.
Your next stop is Portland City Hall – one block across Chapman Square – which when it was built in 1895 represented a truly state-of-the-art construction, featuring as it did electrics, elevators and central heating systems. The Italian-Renaissance-style building itself is impressive with an ornate and grand portico while its grounds full of flowers and greenery are especially lovely.
Before finishing back up at the Pioneer Courthouse Square you might want to tick another couple of historical landmarks off your list. One is the 1913-constructed Multnomah County Central Library which features Georgian architecture and is worth a peek inside to take a look at the interior detailing. The other is the glass atrium-topped Galleria which first opened its doors in 1910, thus making it the first ever department store located in the entire country’s western half.
An Early Morning Alternative – Washington Park
While Portland has a host of lovely parks to explore its beautiful Washington Park is arguably the best of the batch. The whole is a wonderful mix of trees, flowers and greenery – both landscaped and wild – with some excellent trails and natural scenery of such a caliber it is quite easy to forget you are in a huge metropolis.
Besides the general loveliness of the park itself there are also many attractions within its boundaries which you may want to explore. There are a host of memorials and sculptures which include the highly emotive Holocaust Memorial which scatters around bronze casts of everyday objects and possessions such as shoes, luggage and spectacles, intended to represent a public square after Holocaust victims had been gathered together and transported off to concentration camps.
Besides the exceptional World Forestry Center the park is also home to three major flora and garden-themed attractions – the Hoyt Arboretum, the stunning Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden.
The 12 acre Japanese Garden is said to be ”the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden in the world outside of Japan” and is a heavenly collection of waterfalls, streams, manicured gardens and meandering walkways which take you to all kinds of hidden corners. A lovely tea-house, some quite exceptional views of Mount Hood and an overall air of deep tranquility are also in the mix.
The International Rose Test Garden is not simply an incredible experience which blasts both the senses of vision and smell but also another of the city’s significant historical gems. The City of Roses began its relationship with this fragrant flower way back in 1888 when the Portland Rose Society first began. At their promting the International Rose Test Garden sprung into life in 1917 as World War 1 raged in Europe. During this time the garden received many highly specialized hybrid varieties, sent across the ocean from Europe to ensure these rare species survived.
Today this exceptional place spreads over 4.5 acres, showcasing 8,000 rose bushes representing 600 varieties and is a holder of the World Federation of Rose Societies’ ‘Garden of Excellence Award’.
Admission is free although donations from its visitors are understandably encouraged.
Morning Coffee in Portland
With a thriving and firmly established coffee culture you don’t have to wander far in any direction in Portland to stumble across a multitude of lovely cafes serving coffee of the highest standard prepared by talented and often award-winning baristas.
With strong ethical values and top-notch coffee sourced from around the world Stumptown Coffee Roasters have several branches in Portland, one of which can be found in the lobby of the Ace Hotel. Chic and atmospheric with comfy couches from which to enjoy your brew, this espresso bar cafe which serves drip and cold brew also stocks a range of lovely pastries from a couple of local companies.
Today Portland is full of roasting and coffee artisans intent on providing the perfect cup of coffee to their customers but it wasn’t always this way. Albina Press is often credited with being one of the first in the city to start a movement which took coffee from the realms of average into the echelons of perfection. Not surprisingly these coffee-loving pioneers have a sterling reputation with baristas of national competition level and if you happen to be a hot chocolate drinker expect something which approaches work of art status.
Willamette Valley Wine Tours and Tasting
A landscape of rolling hills, the Willamette Valley with its collection of 500 or so wineries top’s Oregon’s list of premier wine producers. Award-winning and internationally-recognized, the wines of this region include Chardonnays and Rieslings but is its Pinot Noirs which tend to grab the headlines. Incorporating a distinctive taste which often sees it likened to the Burgundy producers in France, the Willamette Valley is generally hailed as one of the planet’s most respected Pinot Noir producers globally.
The beautiful and scenic drive out to the valley is a treat within itself, taking in as it does vistas of farms, orchards, lavender crops, wildflower fields and endless sweeps of green. Should you opt into a tour your journey will most likely also include a fascinating fact-share from your guide in which you will learn about how the landscape was formed, why its climate and soils are so ideal for wine production and how the wine story began and blossomed in the 1960s.
Tours typically take in around three separate wineries with behind-the-scenes experiences. During your visit, while surrounded by the magnificent mountain-backed scenery of this region, you will be introduced to some of the region’s premier wines with the higher level concierge-type experiences including wine pairings with excellent and creative cuisine.
Cider and Craft Beer Brewery Tours
When listing the things Portland is most famous for its craft beer is typically around the top with a vast multitude of brewers found ranging from the artisanal and truly tiny microbrewery to the larger enterprises producing hundreds of thousands of barrels every year and shipping them all around the world. So strong and thriving is the beer scene in the city it has been dubbed ‘Beervana’ and there are those who consider it the world’s craft beer capital.
Now, coming to join the party is a new wave of hard cider producers who have a plentiful supply of apples grown right here in the state at its many orchards. Some of the flavor sensations coming out of these newer establishments are based on old traditional English methods while others are trying some truly modern twists which borrow elements of both wine-producing and beer brewing processes.
Most of these brewers and producers have at the very least a tasting room if not full-blown brew-pubs and many offer tours of their facilities with some scheduled and others just given casually if you turn up and ask. The best way to be sure of getting behind the scenes is to book onto an organized tour, some of which offer cider and craft beer combination experiences if you can’t quite make up your mind which you would prefer. An organized tour of either a brewery or cider producer generally encompasses both tastings and learning a little about the processes involved and might include food pairings too.
Tours of the larger concerns are typically standardized but some of the smaller set-ups are so tiny that depending on what day you visit you may see an entirely different process going on to that happening on another day of the week.
Lunch in Portland
Portland is a paradise for the food passionate. From food carts to fine dining, the Portland dining scene is a varied, adventurous and creative wonderland which you could take years to eat your way through without having to sample the same thing twice.
To make life easy and keep effort to a minimum for finding a dining choice you could simply end your brewery tour with a lunch. Many of those which offer access to their behind-the-scenes processes also have brewpubs and restaurants attached with the quality of the food often exceptionally high. The Gigantic Brewing Company, the award-winning Great Notion Brewing which also has outdoor seating and Hopworks – the city’s eco brewery which produces organic beers – all offer great food-serving options while the Widmer Brothers have a spacious patio for summer lunches. This latter is one of the city’s largest and longest running brewers, now more than 30 years old, whose trophy cabinet is full of industry awards.
While exceptional venues, fine dining facilities and award-winning chefs are a commonly found element of the Portland food scene it is something else entirely which tends to grab the city’s foodie star-billing – its fantastic food carts. There are hundreds of them all over the city, some of them lone-flyers but the majority of them clustered together in what are known as pods. This quirky side of Portland and the exceptional foods they typically deliver is much sought after, not just by locals but also by almost every visitor who arrives in the city. The concept of Portland’s food and the carts is now so intrinsically intertwined there are many food-themed tours which only focus on the food carts. The diversity of cuisine types which can be found at the pods is astonishing – from Mediterranean to Middle Eastern and shrimp fritters to steaks – there is something for every taste.
While the debate for which pod cluster is best rages on (every Portlander you speak to will quite possibly name any number of different ones) there are a few carts whose names tend to surface again and again.
Three of these are found within the same pod which is located on the corner of N. Mississippi Ave and N. Skidmore. Matt’s BBQ has a solid and fervent local following and you will often hear it said his Texas ribs are the city’s finest while Little Conejo is commonly accepted as the best taco spot for many miles around. The third of this excellent pods’ super bright stars is Koi Fusion which offers an interesting Mexican/Korean fusion.
However, though food truck gems are everywhere and everyone has their own personal favorite, if there was to be an award for queen of them all it would almost certainly be won by Nong’s Khao Man Gai and her Thai offerings. Her cheerful cart is plastered with newspaper cuttings and photographs which are very obvious evidence of how far this humble lady’s fame has spread. She still serves the same dishes today as she did in the beginning with her signature poached chicken and rice creation with ginger sauce still the food which most rock up to order.
An Afternoon in Portland
Sometimes it really can appear that Portland has it all. Alongside its sensational food scene, ‘Beervana’ status, premier wines and a wealth of beautiful historic buildings it also has some spectacular natural sights just a short ride away from the city center. One of the brightest jewels in not just the area but the whole of the state is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Park with its series of lovely waterfalls, the most magnificent of which is considered to be Multnomah Falls.
For an alternative afternoon you can instead just continue to indulge yourself with the delights of the city’s incredible cuisine on a foodie-themed walking tour.
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and Multnomah Falls
Just 30 minutes outside of the city can be found one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon – the Colombia River Gorge. Here you will see nature in all its raw and majestic splendor in an area where dramatic canyon walls are covered in emerald-hued greenery and rise sheer-sided from river and rock floors. Scattered around are a series of gorgeous waterfalls while elevated vantage points afford incredible views of the Cascade Mountains and beyond to the neighboring state of Washington.
The park in its entirety covers 292,500 acres and besides its natural jewels has a range of historical sites and attractions you can visit. While the many sights could keep you busy for a prolonged period most arriving here will have limited time so short visits and tours typically incorporate the major highlights of the Multnomah Falls, the historical Vista House and the Bonneville Dam.
The Multnomah Falls
Over 600ft high and exceptionally lovely, the roaring cascade known as Multnomah Falls is very easy to access. Just a short stroll from the Historic Columbia River Highway which cuts through the gorge brings you to the base of the tiered waterfall where you can feel the full force of its energy and power at close range. Also located here is the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge which was purpose-built back in 1925 to provide rest and refreshment to visitors, a purpose it still fulfills today with its restaurant and food carts along with a gift shop and US Forest Service Information Center
If you don’t mind a little hike uphill you can see the incredible Multnomah from two other vantage points. The first is the historic Benson Bridge which dates from the early 1900s. The bridge dramatically spans two rock outcrops either side of the falls and allows you to see clearly the two separate tiers, sitting as it does between the two. At a height of 105ft the view down is worth the effort of getting here while looking up from your confined-space-perspective is an awe-inspiring experience.
A further mile uphill on a switchback trail brings you to the top of the falls where you will find an observation deck with a sensational and slightly stomach-churning view right over the edge. The deck also gives you some stunning views of the gorge from on high along with the falls known as Little Multnomah which are not visible from lower down.
If you have the time and energy you can also follow various paths off the main trail to explore other waterfalls in the area such as Wahkeena and Latourell.
Vista House at Crown Point
Both an exceptionally lovely building and a place to take in jaw-dropping views, dome-topped Vista House sits perched on a rocky outcrop with the Columbia River 733ft below. It is no accident that such sensational views both up and down the gorge can be taken in from this vantage spot either. Vista House was purpose-built in 1918 as an observatory, providing a travelers’ place to rest and refresh and was also intended to serve as a memorial to the region’s pioneers who had suffered hardships and deprivations to make settling here possible.
Hexagonal in shape and of an ornate Art Nouveau style, its architect Edgar M. Lazarus described his design as ‘a temple to the natural beauty of the gorge’. The interior of Vista House – now incorporated into the US’s National Register of Historic Places – features a wealth of marble making up the floors, stairs and even extending to the public bathrooms. You can take the stairs from the ground floor level to ascend to a viewing platform located just beneath the bronze-lined dome.
Bonneville Lock and Dam
The third of the river gorge’s three main highlights – the Bonneville Lock and Dam – is a very different experience. Mind-boggling in scale, this vast structure built in the 1930s was the Colombia River’s first hydroelectric power plant dam which today can be visited and explored.
There are three separate visitor centers which offer a range of exhibits and videos which introduce you to everything from dam construction to the life-cycles of salmon and Pacific lamprey which populate the river. You can also enjoy powerhouse views, see the lock in operation, get a lovely view of the gorge from a rooftop deck and watch the migration of salmon in the underwater viewing areas. For a complete behind-the-scenes experience you can also take a tour of the facilities to learn what a hugely significant role this plant plays in providing energy to the Pacific Northwest.
An Alternative Afternoon in Portland – Foodie Walking Tours
While the natural, engineering and historical gems of the Colombia River Gorge provide all the ingredients for a wonderful afternoon you may choose to spend your time otherwise, especially if the Portland weather is not at its best. Or perhaps you are one of those whose driving interest during your time in this city is to make the most of its bounty and incredible variety of taste sensations offered by its exceptional food scene. If so you will not have to look far; food tours of every kind are found in Portland allowing you to unearth a variety of food and drink delights while bringing you face-to-face with those who produce and craft them.
Besides its wealth of food artisans, growers and dining establishments Portland is known as a magnet for professional chefs of the highest caliber. In fact one of Portland’s most-beloved native sons was James Beard – one of America’s leading culinary champions – whose life roles included that of TV personality, chef, author and mentor for countless food industry professionals over several decades
The best foodie experiences and tours typically include a little of everything from time-honored classics to contemporary innovations and from the famous food carts to exceptional restaurants whose trophy cabinets are packed with such things as Top Chef Masters medals and James Beard awards.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Portland
No matter what your favored pre-dinner drink or whatever your culinary tastes Portland is almost certainly going to deliver above-and-beyond your expectations. This is a city where the food culture reigns supreme and superior while its wines, craft beers and ciders are sure to satisfy even the most discerning.
Known affectionately as Beervana, Portland is overflowing with choices for the craft beer fan. Most of the breweries have at least a tap-room while many have fully-fledged bars so you can work your way through a few choices before you head to dinner. If you want to make the most of a great weather day one choice is the Little Beast Brewing Company which is known for its diversely flavored farmhouse ales and has one of the loveliest beer gardens in the city.
For those who like to relax with a cocktail before dinner the city isn’t short of choices there either. The Vintage Cocktail Lounge is an ideal choice for those who know their subject, combining a great ambiance with skilled mixologists. The lounge’s spirit collection is awe-inspiring – filling a floor-to-ceiling wall in which no two bottle appear to be the same. The menu here is full of the vintage and well-loved classics but also features some unique-to-the-venue creations and if you really can’t make up your mind the friendly expert mixologists love to have creative license. Tell them the kind of thing that suites your taste and mood and they will happily put together something just for you. The lounge also serves up a great selection of craft beers and local wines too.
Drinks with a view are also possible at several Portland spots. One of the newer offerings in this category is Altabira on the top floor of Hotel Eastlund which has an open-air rooftop bar and restaurant. While the focus here is beer your drinks choices also include wines from the area and further afield along with some locally produced spirits. Located on the East Side the views from your lofty perch surrounded by plants and sky are lovely taking in the river, Downtown and beyond.
A myriad of ethnic infusions, fresh as it comes produce delivered straight from farm to restaurant, wonderful local wine pairings and every kind of food experience you could possibly ask for – this is what the Portland cuisine world is made of. Your hardest decision here will be narrowing down the thousands of choices and settling for just one.
Food heaven is found in every district of the city with, not surprisingly, a good clustering of superb choices Downtown. One of this area’s most famous and long-standing institutions is Jake’s Famous Crawfish which has been serving excellent seafood to customers for more than a century and from the very same historical building it still inhabits.
Known for its excellent service, Jake’s Famous Crawfish is a brick-walled space where customers sit at cozy tucked away wooden booths in a series of rooms surrounded by old artwork with quality linen on the tables. Seafood fans have much to fall in love with here – an enterprise which regularly makes it onto top 10 lists of the US’s seafood restaurants. Choose from an extensive menu which includes such delights as Dungeness crab tortellini sautéed in Gorgonzola cream and sherry wine, a salmon, cod and shrimp gumbo and oysters served on the half shell. There are also poultry and steak dishes if you happen to be dining with someone who wants a seafood alternative and to finish it all off there are excellent dessert choices too.
To complete your experience, the well-respected bar here delivers a wide choice of beers, wines and cocktails to pair with your dining experience.
Those looking for an ambiance of intimacy and romance in Downtown might like to try the excellent Mucca Osteria which you may have already guessed from the name is one of the city’s Italian restaurant choices. Superb presentation, mouthwatering cuisine created from seasonal and organic produce and an atmosphere put together with candles, exposed brick walls, Gothic-style chandeliers and a cozy loft space make this ideal for a dinner date for two.
If French cuisine is more your idea of ideal Downtown is also home to the well-respected Little Bird Bistro which has an excellent wine menu to pair with your authentic European dinner choices.
An Evening in Portland
If you want to just kick back after dinner with a drink or enjoy some live music Portland has a multitude of atmospheric bars where you can do just that. However, if you still have a little energy left or want to do something a little different there is also plenty of opportunity for that too in this lively city.
Part food cart pod and part lively street bazaar, the Portland Night Market is a great way to spend an evening in Portland if you happen to be in town on a Friday or Saturday night. Mixing up some unique market vendors, music, food and drink things kick off around 4pm and continue until 11pm. With a wealth of locally-made art and crafts sellers the market is a good place to find some souvenirs or gifts with clothing, home-wares, well-being products and much more also here. Of course, this being Portland, the range of food and drink is heavenly both as prepared dine-now type food from food carts and also with local produce and ingredients for chefs and cooks to stock up on with plenty of free samples usually available.
Another way to sample some of Portland’s finest with regard to food and drink is through their collection of theater pubs which are often affectionately called ‘brew-n-views’. The concept is distinctly Portland, allowing you to watch a movie while simultaneously enjoying great food and drink ranging from pub-style fare to fine dining meals. The drink is typically a selection of the city’s famous ales and craft brews along with some of the region’s wine choices.
Movies range from recent blockbusters to independent art-house creations while the venues themselves come in a huge variety too. The McMenamins theater pub collection, which includes Baghdad and St. Johns, tends to set up in historical buildings and screens more recent movies while Living Room Theaters verge more towards foreign choices and art-house.
If you prefer to be a little more active after dinner Portland also has a diversity of themed evening walking tours which between them cover a wide array of interests. Many of them are food orientated with general epicurean themes while others offer something more niche such as those which would appeal to chocolate or wine lovers, for example. Otherwise walking tours include choices for those interested in history, the city’s subculture, gardens, the city’s quirkier side and more.
Those who’d like to take in some spectacular night views of the city can hop aboard the Aerial Tram which rises up Marquam Hill from the South Waterfront. Your journey of 3,300 feet lifts you 500ft into the air during a four minute ride filled with glittering lights. At the top you will find a huge sky bridge – the largest of its kind in North America – and an open-air area to enjoy as much of the sensational views as you want.
Looking to go on an adventure? Find out more about the cruises we offer and contact one of our vacation planners today!