July 22, 2011
What better place to visit when the roses are blooming than the Rose City? With the recent sketch comedy series, Portlandia, and a strong indie rock scene, Portland’s name is growing in the public eye and the city is becoming more and more of a destination.
Since I’m a Seattle native, a lot of people might ask, “What’s the different between the two?” To many, Portland is just a smaller version of Seattle. And I’ll admit that yes, both are home to numerous breweries and serious beer cultures. Both are surrounded by mountains and water, filled with hikers and bikers, and it rains — regularly. Both have great music and an eclectic, offbeat fashion sense. And yes, lots of hippies and yuppies, but the differences are important.
A few major differences that are pros for Portland can be summed up in a handful of succinct phrases: food truck, booze in strip clubs, and no sales tax. Partiers and shoppers alike can appreciate these, but Portland also has a stronger sense of community that comes from being a smaller city. Portland has superior public transit and more progressive politics, but setting my Seattle gripes aside, Portland is a great place to visit whether you are coming from a different part of the country or just its sister city a couple hundred miles up the highway.
Orientation and Where to Stay
Portland proper is roughly divided into a few hot spots: Downtown, the Pearl District, East Portland, and West Portland. One of the best things about this city is that it is so walkable and almost everything is a short walk, trolley, cab, bus, or bike ride away.
If you are visiting for the first time I recommend staying Downtown at the Hilton, which is reasonable and has a lot of amenities: a full gym, pool, hot tub, and easy access to downtown shopping at Pioneer Place with its 3-story H&M. Budget travelers should stay at the nearby Ace Hotel. The rooms there are all unique and have a low key aesthetic and only run $95 –$245 depending on the size, style, and number of beds. You might also try one of the hostels or guesthouses in West or East Portland. If you don’t might dropping some cash for a plusher experience, stay at The Nines in a gorgeous, white building near Pioneer Square.
This time of year the most obvious place to visit is the Rose Garden just outside of downtown in a park complex that also houses the zoo and arboretum. July is peak season for roses and here you’ll find literally hundreds of varieties in bloom along with numerous experimental, new species. And the best part is that the garden is open to the public and admission is completely free. Within the garden there is also an outdoor amphitheatre and a Shakespeare Garden inspired by plants featured in the old bard’s poetry.
Just across the street you can also visit the Portland Japanese Garden, which was designed in 1963 by a Japanese master gardener and is renowned for its authenticity. The garden is open year round and regularly hosts events covering different aspects of the Japanese culture. It is a relaxing escape from the downtown area. Highlights include stellar views of the city and Mount Hood and a large koi pond with a cascading waterfall. Unfortunately the pond was closed for maintenance (and the unfortunate death of its koi fish last winter due to harsh weather) the last time I visited. The pond and waterfall are really the crowning jewel of the garden so you may want to check ahead before you visit to make sure they are open.
Another great place to visit in the downtown area, is the Saturday Market (also open on Sunday), which is located under the bridge near the riverfront close to Chinatown. You’ll walk through the historic buildings of Old Town as you make your way to the expansive array of vendors selling art, jewelry, pottery, clothing, and everyday items. You can find great deals on original art and unique gifts here and whether you’ve come to shop or not, it is worth walking around just to see all the different wares and crazy characters.
They also have a row of food vendors selling the usual hot dogs, ice cream, and pizza, but also a wide variety of ethnic foods including Indian, Mexican, African, Greek, South American, and more. Seattle’s Pike Place Market may take the prize for widest selection of fresh, local produce and food, but with live music and a beer garden Portland’s market definitely wins for size and atmosphere.
If you’re heading to Portland, you’ll also want to check out some live music. The town attracts both big and small names and is the home of popular bands like: Blitzen Trapper, The Thermals, and The Decemberists. The two main music venues are the Crystal Ballroom in downtown for larger shows and the Doug Fir just across the bridge in East Portland, which is smaller and more intimate. Both are recommended. One of my best memories of the Crystal Ballroom is driving down just for one night to see Band of Horses play a few years ago right before they blew up.
If you are looking for a unique sporting experience, you should try to score some tickets to see the Timbers, Portland’s MLS (that’s Major League Soccer) team. You might also time your visit for mid-July for the annual epic biking event, the Seattle to Portland Classic. Every year 10,000 people of all shapes, ages, and sizes bike 204 miles from Seattle to Portland and finish with a celebration at Holladay Park. The city is usually really busy with all of the incoming bikers, but its fun to watch all of the teams ride by, some in some pretty crazy outfits.
Bars and Restaurants
Portland is home to some of the finest restaurants and bars serving inspired, local, organic, and ethnic cuisine. It is also home to some of the finest, funkiest dive bars I’ve ever visited. While it is impossible to cover even a portion of the great places in Portland, I’ll provide a snapshot from my most recent trip where I experienced a bit of both dive and fine dining.
After getting off the train from Seattle, I met a few friends at the self-proclaimed, Low Brow Lounge. This dark, little joint with its aging booths and psychedelic décor takes pride in its low rent status and serves up stiff drinks, belly coating fried food, and a variety of local beers including the delicious IPR (that’s India Pale Red).
Afterwards, I headed over to the Roadside Attraction on SE 12th Ave in East Portland to continue my tour of Portland’s more casual hangouts. True to its name the Roadside really looks like something you’d stop at for refreshment on a long, rural highway. It has a relaxed vibe with a large outdoor area in front with lots of picnic table seating, a fire pit, and a porch swing. Inside they have a nice, wooden bar, a free jukebox with a large music selection, and even a small, secondhand shop. The barbecue served here is also reputed to be great, although I came too late to try it.
After more beer and some whiskey we decided to head down the road a few blocks to “Food Court,” a collection of food trucks all parked semi-permanently in a large parking lot with more picnic tables, another fire pit, and a circus vibe created by lights, a large white tent, and a coin operated carousel! After some poutine, pizza, cheese steak sandwiches, and several rides on the carousel, we finished off the night at the Basement Pub with pinball, jenga, and some random, drunken board games.
The next morning my slightly harried crew was desperately in need of some brunch. We first headed to Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen, which has a fabulous brunch, but also had a 40-minute wait. So we walked a few blocks toward the Pearl District and stumbled upon Cha Cha Cha, a low key Mexican joint with homemade salsas and fresh, south-of-the-border fare, including a few breakfast items. They also have horchata and jamaica juices, which I love. They also have cocktails and make an effort to be green, which I love even more.
Later that afternoon we hit up the happy hour at Henry’s Tavern, which is housed in a building that for over a century served as the Henry Weinhard’s Brewery. Today they have great happy hour deals on food (which is a large step up from your average bar fare) and an absolutely overwhelming beer list. I tried the organic lager from the local brewery, Hopworks, which was refreshing and drinkable like a typical lager but very substantial and tasty like an ale.
Since I went the dive route the evening before, on my second night, I went high brow. Just before sunset I took the elevator to the rooftop of The Nines and its super plush Departure Lounge, which is straight out of LA. While the atmosphere is totally out of synch with Portland’s casual, offbeat vibe, the food and drinks here are fabulous and the views of the city are amazing. The cocktails are mixed to perfection and the tapas list, including sushi rolls, is excellent and not as expensive as I would have expected. I recommend trying the prohibition era cocktail, “Between the Sheets,” which is potent.
Next we stopped by Oba, an upscale restaurant that serves “New Latino” fare, for a late night dinner. We got lucky and caught their late happy hour from 10 pm to close and enjoyed $20 pitchers of margaritas and a variety of shared plates. My favorites were the Honduran shrimp ceviche served in coconut milk and the roasted butternut squash enchiladas served in a smokey, red sauce. Dee-lish!
It is hard to keep it so high class in uber casual Portland, (especially after a few rounds of margaritas) so my next stop was The Standard in East Portland, a divey, warehouse type bar with loads of seating for all of your friends! It has all the key components of a relaxed hangout: a trivia night, pool tables, a photo booth, and regular drink specials. That night they had $4 sangria, which caused us to take a few too many mug shots at the photo booth.
To cap off the night we walked down the street to Chopsticks for late night karaoke. Something both Portland and I have in common is that karaoke is one of our favorite pastimes. I can’t recommend the food here, but I can tell you that the drinks while basic were strong and cheap. I got my drink on and then tipped the MC to get in one of my favorite karaoke songs, Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone.” If you aren’t a karaoke fan, I would suggest avoiding this place since the stage is right in the middle of the restaurant. However, Chopsticks seems to be the place to go when you are a hot mess at the end of a long party night (present company included). Watching all of the ridiculously drunk patrons sing, dance, and make out in the middle of the restaurant might be worth it even if you hate karaoke.