I was misled. It doesn’t rain non-stop in Portland, and when it falls, the locals explain, it’s a quick and gentle misting, barely long enough for tourists to unfurl their umbrellas (locals don’t even bother).
There was nary a drop during my four-day visit in early March, when cherry blossoms and budding daffodils embellished the city’s vibrant, diverse neighborhoods, all set against a backdrop of evergreen trees and — yes! — across the Willamette River, the regal silhouette of snow-capped Mt. Hood.
Diving into downtown
Though the metro area (a nonstop flight from MSP) is growing and sprawling with 2.4 million folks, Portland’s downtown is a case study in smart urban planning, starting with Pioneer Square. It’s the city’s living room, home to food trucks (the city boasts 600), live performances and walking tours offered by the tourist office stationed right there.
Since the 1970s, forward-thinking urban design — incorporating green values and light-rail transportation — has decreed façade setbacks to capture sunlight, unobstructed vistas down avenues, street-level windows, and more.
One philanthropist even donated dozens of outdoor bubblers (aka drinking fountains) to hydrate the populace. The city’s art museum and historical museum face off across a park-like median that leavens its manmade borders.
But all’s not mellow here. A vocal cadre hate-hate-hate the zany government building designed by po-mo architect Michael Graves that hosts a mammoth, 34-foot statue of Portlandia herself — not to be confused with the IFC sketch comedy TV series, which features the sculpture in its opening sequence.
Portlandia? There’s no such Greek or Roman goddess. Rather, the trident-hoisting female was dreamed up in the 1980s to honor the city’s values of commerce, agriculture and the sea. She reportedly holds the title of “second-largest copper repoussé statue in the U.S.,” after the Statue of Liberty, whose creation origin is similarly secular.
Never mind: Just proceed to the nearby riverbank, where a tangle of freeways has been replaced by Waterfront Park, where bikers and strollers rule.
On its north end, the city’s fabled Portland Saturday Market is held (nowadays, Sunday too) — showcasing multitudes of stalls offering clothing, art of all genres, prepared food and primo people-watching. It’s neighbor to walled Lan Su Chinese Garden — a city block converted from a bleak parking lot into an oasis of serenity dressed with evergreen trees, cherry blossoms, a pool where goldfish glide, stone-sculpted footpaths and graceful bridges, along with a tearoom and a replica of an artist’s studio.
Shop, learn and eat
Continue west to the once-boho neighborhood that’s called The Pearl District — today, trading homespun edges for shinier storefronts, including familiar chains among the up-market galleries and indies (shoppers’ bonus: no sales tax). The pearl of the Pearl is Powell’s, the fabled three-floor bookstore, complete with maps to its 900 aisles. The nearby Oregon Jewish Museum details not only the state’s early arrivals, but also those fleeing Nazi and Soviet oppression.
The city is divided into five quadrants (don’t ask; they can’t explain the math), each boasting a unique neighborhood that’s easy to maneuver through, thanks to light-rail and Uber.
Head across the Willamette to the Alberta Arts District to patrol its avenues of indie shops, cafes and galleries, aside the dog-walkers and stroller-pushers of this newly hip enclave. A nose-ringed, Bunyan-shirted resident advised me to try breakfast at Pine State Biscuits, and to order “anything with mushroom gravy.” I complied, adding it to the stack of fried chicken, bacon and cheese.
Sweets, sounds, suds
Then, just when you think you’ll never be hungry again, there’s Bollywood Theater, as blissfully over-embellished as anything in Mumbai, with food to match. Still famished?
Slurp as you stroll from guitar store to sake bar, bike shop to artists’ collective, fabric boutique to Collage, a cache of locally produced embellishments for home and body. Tumbleweed offers chic ladies’ wear, while Shoe Shangri-La focuses on footwear. Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books delivers a fine mashup.
A quick Uber away you’ll find Mississippi Avenue, a newer gentrification of modest houses now vying with high-style lofts and condos. Stop at Sweedeedee for brunch in a converted bungalow (my choice: chilaquiles with house-made tortillas). Don’t overlook the kitchen’s pies and muffins while listening to tunes from its stash of LPs. (Around the corner you’ll discover a source at Mississippi Records.)
Then continue down the avenue to Tanner Goods, featuring classic, classy accessories; Paxton Gate with eclectic treasures ranging from animal skulls to carnivorous plants; and The Meadow, whose gourmet goods include dark chocolates and finishing salts.
Portland is a tour town. There are food cart tours, architecture tours and most enticing, brewery tours. The city boasts 80 breweries, and a Brewvana tour visits a revolving list of four, each offering samples along with intriguing history.
Broadside’s lager with cucumber and lime proved ultra-refreshing. Ex Novo Brewing Co.’s hazy IPA (plus pizza) hit the spot, as did Unicorn’s hibiscus pils and Cider Riot’s, well, everything.
“If you didn’t like cider before,” instructed our tour leader, “you will now.” And, wouldn’t you know? Cider Riot’s founder first practiced his cidermaking skills in his dorm room at Macalester College.
The food scene is equally homegrown — a locovore’s delight of Northwest seafood and ethnic kitchens newly defined by local produce. A fine place to start sat right in my hotel (the new, high-style Hi-Lo) — Alto Bajo (“high low” in Spanish), a modern Mexican restaurant.
I feasted on empanadas plumped with locally foraged mushrooms, then pollo al carbon, accompanied by a trio of housemade moles (tamarindo, amarillo and rojo) to accompany my Alto margarita, fueled with anejo tequila.
Dinner at Departure, high atop the The Nines hotel, provides a spectacular city view to match the stellar food that emerges from its Asian-influenced kitchen, which incorporates Northwest ingredients.
My feast of small plates segued from crispy pork belly with cherry ginger to a sumptuous salad of roasted carrots in smoked cashew butter, curry and coconut cream.
Next I was on to a mountain of Brussels sprouts dressed in lime, mint and chili, followed by scallops with chickpeas, carrot and squash. Room for dessert? Dumb question. Bring on the chocolate ash cake (from coconut husks), flecked with cherry and durian, aside a scoop of chocolate ice cream.
Another night, another hotel (the Heathman) with a superior kitchen — Headwaters — whose James Beardwinning chef prepares Oregon rockfish and chips, paella, all manner of shellfish, and my messy-but-worth-it choice, a whole Dungeness crab in curry sauce.
For dessert, I had brown butter ice cream with duck-fat caramel. I had more crab for lunch at Southpark Seafood via a Dungeness roll.
For my final dinner, I hit Tasty n Alder, boasting an informal, convivial atmosphere in which to savor small plates, such as my duo of grilled quail and farro risotto with wild mushrooms, poached egg and Parmesan.
When I ogled a neighbor’s grilled octopus, he kindly shared bites with me. Yum. I couldn’t manage dessert after that, but on a saner day, I’d choose the chocolate malt, served with fries, along with the suggestion: “Dip ’em.”
Attention pastry lovers: Portlanders support indie proprietors with fervor, right down to the donut wars between Voodoo Donuts (now a national chain), with its iconic pink boxes housing palate-testing flavor combos, and Blue Star Donuts, whereI overindulged in a blueberry bourbon basil creation, plus a chocolate buttermilk wonder incorporating rosewater and gold leaf.
As one local advised, “It’s Voodoo for shock value (and vivid Instagrams) and Blue Star for gourmet quality.”
Take your pick.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.