Portland is a city that got it right. With a nationally renowned light-rail transit system, urban planning that has mixed parks with responsible development, and a blossoming restaurant and arts scene, Portland has hit its stride as a progressive Northwest destination. Its location on the winding Willamette River in the shadow of both Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams ensures that the city doesn’t have to work hard to be beautiful, but thousands of rosebushes and landscaped riverbanks make a good thing even better. A fitting (near) end to any roadtrip, Portland embodies a fascinating integration of culture, progressivism, and the energy of a spunky teenager.
Portland is divided into four manageable chunks by the Willamette River, which runs north-south, and Burnside Street, which runs east-west. The river can be crossed by a series of bridges, though the Burnside Bridge, located near Exit 1, is the most convenient from downtown. The city is organized as a grid, making it easy to navigate. Old Town, in northwest Portland, encompasses most of the city’s historic sector. Chinatown is located a few blocks to the east. To the north, Nob Hill and the Pearl District are swanky, revitalized areas with upscale restaurants, tea shops, and art galleries. Central downtown, surrounding Pioneer Courthouse Square, has a rich array of cafes, theaters, and restaurants. The University of Portland campus is bordered by Williams Ave. on the north. The northeast side of the city has plenty of worthwhile places to check out, and without the crowded streets and tourists of the downtown area. Parking around Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd. is plentiful and free, while closer parking is best found in the neighboring Pearl District.
With the pristine Willamette River and snowcapped Mt. Hood in the background, Portland is a haven of natural beauty. An award-winning transit system and pedestrian-friendly streets make it feel like a pleasantly overgrown town. In the rainy season, try Portland pubs and clubs, where musicians often strum, sing, or spin for free. Improv theaters are in constant production and could be a nice treat if you are visiting on a particularly cold night. After hitting up one of Portland’s 200 parks and gardens (Portland has more park acreage than any other American city!), be sure to try some of America’s best beers poured from the taps of the microbrewery capital of the US.
With so much natural beauty to behold, choosing which sights to stop at can be a challenge. Let us offer you some recommendations. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Portland ranks high nationwide in restaurants per capita, and dining experiences are seldom dull. Downtown can be expensive but restaurants and quirky cafes in the NW and SE quadrants have great food at reasonable prices. The menus in Portland are a combination of the cosmopolitan and the laid-back, with plenty of ethnic, vegetarian, and eclectic offerings. The city is a mecca for tea connoisseurs, and the Pearl District is home to many a fine cup of oolong.
The Oregon Symphony Orchestra plays from September to June. Another piece of the McMenamin’s empire, the Bagdad Theater and Pub shows second-run mainstream films and has an excellent beer menu. Noon Tunes, at Pioneer Courthouse Sq., presents a plethora of rock, jazz, folk, and world music. Flicks on the Bricks bring classic movies to the square on Friday nights. Portland Center Stage, in the Portland Center for Performing Arts stages classics, modern adaptations, and world premieres. Basketball fans can watch the Portland Trailblazers at the Rose Garden Arena.
If you can’t find someplace cool to go in Portland, that’s really your own problem. A thriving, varied cultural center means every conceivable niche gets represented. Places on the northwest side of town are generally crowded and hopping; cross the river if you want a low-key evening away from the tourists. Remember, local law says every bar must serve food; some of Portland’s best bars also have some of the best sandwiches and pizzas. Once a rowdy frontier town, always a rowdy frontier town. Portland’s clubs cater to everyone from the college athlete to the neo-goth aesthete.
Portland’s premier summer event is the century-old Rose Festival, which lasts the entirety of June. The highlight is the nation’s second-largest floral parade, which fills downtown Portland’s streets with marching bands, horses, and lawn furniture. In early July, the three-day Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival draws some of the world’s greatest blues artists to the banks of the Willamette. The Oregon Brewers Festival, on the last full weekend in July, is the continent’s largest gathering of independent brewers, making for one enormous party at Waterfront Park and one enormous hangover the following Monday. A complimentary rootbeer garden makes the kiddies and DDs not feel totally left out. The Northwest Film Center hosts the Portland International Film Festival in the last two weeks of February, with 100 films from 30 nations.
In the US, good table manners means quiet eating. Loud chewing, talking with food in your mouth, or slurping are seen as rude, and burping or flatulence is not seen as complementary to the chef. Servers at sitdown restaurants usually expect to be tipped 15-20%.
Dress in the US tends to be more modest than in Europe. Toplessness, particularly in women, should be avoided. Many establishments will require a customer to wear a shirt and shoes. The most acceptable forms of public affection are hugging and holding hands; kissing in public will usually draw some glances. Although most cities are tolerant of homosexuality, gay or lesbian couples should be aware that they may receive unwanted attention for public displays of affection, especially in rural areas. Also, note that many American will say “see you later” without really intending to make future plans.
One of the most offensive gestures in the US is extending your middle finger at someone. Known as “giving someone the finger,” this gesture is considered not only rude, but obscene. On the other hand, a “thumbs up” gesture is a sign of approval and a widely recognized signal for hitchhiking, which Let’s Go does not recommend.