Though tourism officials continually concoct ever more elaborate draws to the city, true aficionados know that the best reason to come is simply to enjoy the easy life here. Chock-full of excellent local retailers and a few important national ones like Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany, downtown Portland also offers that added Oregon value of no sales tax.
Getting to and from the city’s airport or train station is a cinch; both are serviced by mass transit, including the new Air MAX light-rail line. But despite its well-justified reputation for enlightened transit options, to truly see Portland’s rich stock of neighborhoods and take advantage of the spectacular natural scenery, you still need a car.
Winter and spring are rainy, and July Fourth frequently a cloudy disappointment. Nevertheless, the spring bloom of the fertile Willamette Valley is something to behold. Summers are mild and largely dry, but the longest season is Indian summer, lasting well into October with spectacular deciduous colors turning against evergreen backdrops.
Avoid June, when the city’s crowded Rose Festival is in full bloom. That event’s saving graces are the Grand Floral Parade and the more whimsical Starlight Parade. Skip the month’s newest event, the Portland Arts Festival, largely cheesy and mostly non-local. Instead aim for August’s Jammin’ for Salmon, now combined with Indian Art Northwest, an excellent blend of music and great regional Native American art, sponsored by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which raises money for salmon-run restoration efforts.
Blues fans should mark July 3-6, 2003, on their calendars for the Waterfront Blues Festival. It runs four days with more than 75 top national and local acts, and takes over the city with great music, goodwill, and the goal of raising money for the Oregon Food Bank. For general information on Portland attractions and amenities, contact the Portland Oregon Visitors Association (800-962-3700 or 503-275-9750;
Portland is home to numerous stylish (though decidedly untrendy) downtown hotels. The Benson (503-228-2000), put up by the early-twentieth-century civic-minded lumber millionaire Simon Benson, is perhaps the best. The Heathman (503-241-4100) became something of a progenitor of the boutique-hotel trend in the early years of Portland’s downtown renaissance. It has a homey ambience, afternoon tea, and even original works by artists from the area in the rooms. Cheaper and locally owned is the Mallory Hotel (503-223-6311), which is near a light-rail station. Its loyal longtime staff provides plenty of unmannered Portland-style friendliness, meals your mother would love, and a great dark bar to hide in.
Outside the city the Columbia Gorge Hotel (800345-1921) offers nights in Portland’s grand river canyon above a spectacular waterfall in an area acclaimed for having more such cataracts than any place in the world. Finally, there’s the Timberline Lodge (503-231-5400), Mount Hood’s extraordinary WPA-era architectural gem, packed with significant 1930s art.
A growing number of fine restaurants capitalize on the region’s chief attribute, good soil. Many of them, in fact, have banded together to support small local farms. Much of the produce served by these chefs at lunch and supper consequently will have been harvested that morning. Salmon, of course, is the great Northwest delicacy: especially, spring chinook. Steer clear of the more elaborate presentations. It’s a fish to inflect rather than subsume. Oysters are another favorite, the fresher the better, served with no other fuss than being opened.
Among the best venues are Paley’s Place (503-243-2403), in an old home on Portland’s restaurant row, Northwest Twenty-first Avenue. The menu shows Italian, French, and Belgian influences, all subtle, adding various scents to a core vocabulary of local ingredients.
Downtown a best bet is Higgins (503222-9070), whose founder, Greg Higgins, has been one of the key activists in the locally grown food movement, collaborating with farmers and actually raising many ingredients himself. Featuring Portland’s most uninvasively helpful waitstaff, Higgins also is home to downtown’s best small bar, frequently pouring fine Belgian brews.
On the east side of the Willamette is Portland’s foremost example of the restaurant as eating ritual, Genoa (503-238-1464). Prepare to spend the evening savoring its seven-course, fixed-price menu, or go early and spend only slightly less time on a four-course version.
There are plenty of solid ethnic restaurants in Portland with both high and modest aspirations, among them Esparza’s Tex-Mex Café (503-234-7909); Café Azul (503525-4422), in the tony Pearl District; Baobab (503-241-0390), a wonderful and inexpensive slice of West Africa, also in the Pearl; Colosso (503-288-3333), the city’s hippest tapas bar; Lemongrass (503-231-5780), a top Thai restaurant; and Pambiche (503233-0511), a surprisingly authentic, always packed, and deeply wonderful Cuban joint.
With 255 miles of bike lanes and paths and the largest forested urban park in the United States (the unimaginatively named Forest Park), Portland is a road cyclist’s, mountain biker’s, and runner’s fantasy. Despite the city’s reputation for low gray skies, it rains here no more than in New York City, even if the sun does shine less. And with few days either below freezing or above 90 degrees, Portland is wonderfully suited for all kinds of outdoor activities. The Willamette River offers opportunities for boating, both motor and self-propelled, with the Columbia River providing the scale and wind for great sailing. Sixty miles away, Hood River offers some of the world’s greatest windsurfing.
From the Cascade Locks, 45 minutes from Portland, the stern-wheeler Columbia Gorge (541-374-8427) embarks on two-hour river trips through the gorge’s most spectacular areas. There’s plenty of hiking in the area as well, but go prepared for steep ascents and, in the highly unpredictable spring and summer, potentially brutal weather. The Portland area is a fishers’ haven whether in the mountain lakes and streams or the rivers. An hour away from the city, Mount Hood has four ski resorts on its two-mile-high slopes and year-round skiing.
Besides being great for food and nursery stock, Willamette Valley soil also grows some truly fine golf courses. Two of them, Eastmoreland and Heron Lakes, made Golf Digest ’s list of 75 top public courses. Pumpkin Ridge’s Ghost Creek rates among Golf magazine’s top 100 courses in the country.
Visual arts have been booming in Portland for the last decade. The some 70 galleries are liberally sprinkled throughout downtown and, increasingly, in the neighborhoods. The epicenter is the Pearl District, where old-timers like Pulliam Deffenbaugh (503-228-6665) and newcomers like Savage (503-223-2868) show excellent locals along with an intriguing mix of nationally known artists. Other fine galleries include Elizabeth Leach (503-224-0521) and Froelick (503-222-1142) downtown and Laura Russo (503226-2754) in Northwest. For the latest trends in young national talent, check out the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. The newly expanded Portland Art Museum (503-226-2811) has been mounting a steady stream of blockbuster shows in its changing galleries and also is home to a top-notch collection of Native American art in beautifully designed permanent galleries, as well as a decent overview of European paintings and twentieth-century regional art.
Portland’s other great visual art is gardening. Washington Park shouldn’t be missed, with its spectacular International Rose Test Garden (503-823-3636), one of the largest rose plantings in the country, and Japanese Garden (503-223-1321), which knits five different garden styles into five and a half acres. In Old Town, Portland’s recently opened Garden of the Awakening Orchid (503-228-8131) is the largest Suzhou-style Chinese garden outside China, a walled urban enclave packed with spectacular carvings and elaborately trained plants.