Wow! Eight years? Really, have I lived here that long? That’s crazy. I still haven’t eaten at Le Pigeon, been to the Japanese Garden, or done the naked bike ride, but I have a great list of Portland experiences to share with you.
In the last few years, Portland has had a lot of new national attention: Portlandia, Timber’s Army Soccer, and the food cart craze. When I first moved to this city, none of those things existed. I was most impressed by the art scene, the year-round gardening, the amazing ethnic food options, and the beauty of the hills and bridges. What’s surprising to me is that most of those things are still at the top of my Portland favorites list.
As a way to remember the last eight years, I want to share with you some of the things I learned to love each year I’ve lived here: a favorite food spot, a fun activity, and a place I love to visit.
Food: If you visit Portland, you must eat at Montage. All of the menu items are good, but they are really known for their mac ‘n’ cheese and oyster shooters. The atmosphere is family style dining, they serve up some of the best Cajun food, and the staff is formal with a “what do you want?” ironic attitude. Expect to get your leftovers in a foil sculpture that will barely fit in your fridge. I’ve eaten here on a date and with 30 of my closest friends and it’s always been great. My only complaint is you are practically sitting in the dark and sometimes in tight seating among strangers, but a unique experience in savory flavors, sights and smells under the bridges of Portland is worth it.
Activity: Going to the Bagdad Theatre for pizza, beer, and a movie is at the top of my list. It’s an entertaining night for under $20, and you’re in a cool old theatre. Some rows have tables and they will deliver your pizza and beer into the theatre while you watch the previews. I saw a few of the Harry Potter movies here and it really added to the cinema experience for me.
Place: The Portland Rose Garden is one of the nicest places for a walk. The master gardening skills seen here keep roses blooming year-round. There are fewer roses in the winter, of course, but they’re enjoyable and fragrant in any season. Some seasons you can even catch a glimpse of the city skyline to the east.
Food: Going to Cameo for breakfast is a must! This owner-operated spot looks strange inside and out, but it feels like Grandma’s house to me. The Korean style dishes accent traditional breakfast specials like Eggs Benedict and chicken-fried steak. Their best specialty is the Bulgogi and Kim Chi omelette, but you really must try the Korean pancake—it’s awesome! I often crave their homemade Strong Bread. They sell it by the loaf and serve it toasted with most breakfast plates. Their other eye openers are their “yard” sized pancakes, the outstanding service, and their secret raspberry sauce.
Activity: No one should go to Portland without playing pinball at Ground Kontrol. This is the ultimate in arcade socializing. Share a game of pinball with a friend or strangers. Most patrons are happy to drink beer and play old school arcade games. You can play with a few quarters or $30, just make sure you stop in to check it out.
Ground Kontrol is the West Coast’s premier classic arcade, preserving and celebrating video gaming’s “golden age” by operating over 60 classic video games and 27 pinball machines. GK
Place: Spend at least an hour in Forest Park. Truth is, you could do a marathon in Forest Park and not cross your own path once. It is the 19th biggest park within a city domain, and it has a dozen trails to choose from. At 4,317 acres, it’s even bigger than Central Park. Trail maps are available at Powell’s Books (link below), and the Multnomah County Library.
Food: One of the best meals for under $5 is La Sirenita’s super burritos al pastor (marinated pork). Inside this burrito is a chile relleno, meat, a little rice and beans, tomatoes, and their special sauce. Not only could you feed two with one of these, but it’s full of flavor and very satisfying. Don’t forget to try their spicy carrots, grilled onions, and pickled jalapeno peppers in the salsa stand.
Activity: A local Portland staple is a soak at the Kennedy School‘s soaking pool. The Kennedy school is an old elementary school that the McMenamin brothers bought and turned into a hip hotel in Northeast Portland. Anyone in town can stop in this place for food, locally brewed beer, a movie, or a soak. Just trade in your ID for a key to the soaking pool at the front desk and go for it. I recommend bringing a towel and grabbing a drink from one of their four bars before you get in. There are lockers that don’t lock and changing rooms, but sometimes this place is pretty busy.
Place: One of the most notorious spots in town is Powell’s Books, the biggest new and used independent bookstore in the world. You should pick up a map at the info desk on your way in. It’s a great souvenir and it will help you find anything you might want to look at while you’re there. Head to the top floor to see the revolving art show and make sure to peek into the rare books room. They have quite the collection. Get lost for a few hours and plan with your compadres to meet at a designated location so you don’t have to keep track of one another. It will allow you to freely roam this fantastic place.
Food: Oh, baby! That’s what I said the first time I ate at the Original Pancake House for breakfast. Home of the richest whipped butter, amazing pancake options, and my favorite omelette of all time: the white cheddar bacon. The wait is normally around 45 minutes to an hour, so be ready for that, but you will be missing out on a killer breakfast if you don’t go.
Activity: Go to a Rose City Roller Derby bout and you will have an outstanding night of fun and excitement. The Rose City Rollers are Portland’s all female flat track roller derby league. This is one tough bunch of ladies. The league was founded in August 2004 by a small group of gutsy girls who decided to dust off their quad skates and hit the rink. Today the Rose City Rollers is one of the top roller derby leagues in the world. Good seating goes fast, but there usually isn’t a bad seat in the house.
Place: The Lan Su Chinese Garden is a wonderful treasure inside the city limits. Deep into the China Town district there is a walled block: this is the Chinese Garden. Each season is unique and beautiful in here and you can enjoy tea and coffee, mahjong games, and much more. Just taking a self-guided tour around the garden is an experience in itself.
The Lan Su Chinese Garden began as a dream in the early 1980s. It grew when Portland and Suzhou, China, became sister cities in 1988 and the idea of building a Suzhou-style garden in Portland became a goal.
Food: Everyone loves pizza! Apizza Scholls is Portland’s best New York style thin crust. Up until recently you could only get their pizza by going to the restaurant on Hawthorne Blvd., with no take out or delivery. Wait times were outrageous, and when they ran out of dough, you would be asked to leave without dinner. Is the pizza worth this service? Well, yes, it is! They have increased their dough quantities as of late and have opened a take out window, but don’t you dare call in your order. It’s all about the experience of the brick oven baking, and they feel the only way to get that is to be there. The real bonus is that their pizzas are nearly $10 cheaper than all other locally-owned places.
Activity: Last Thursday on NE Alberta St. is an artistic and musical free-for-all. Alberta St., from 15th to 33rd, is closed from 7 pm to 10 pm every last Thursday from March to October. There is no fee for artists to set up, so there is a true mix of street art and professional artists all in one spot. Make sure to pop in at Local Discoveries and Studio 1627. Their gallery is eclectic and full of hidden treasures and hand made gifts for any gift budget.
Place: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, or OMSI, is one of the greatest spots to spend the whole day, especially when it’s raining. This museum is great for adults and kids. There is an IMAX cinema, changing exhibits, a planetarium, a submarine, and so much more. The Body World’s The Brain exhibit is there right now, I can’t wait to check that out.
Food: Some nights I want to eat out, but I don’t want to spend a lot of money. One thing I won’t do is waste time with fast food or chain restaurants. I want atmosphere and fresh cooked food, too! 😉 Just go to Nicholas Mediterranean and order the Meat Mezza Platter for 2 ($17.00), 3, 6… order it for everyone. You will get a little of everything you want when eating at this family-owned Lebanese & Middle Eastern restaurant. They do takeout and have several locations around town, but I love the presentation when eating at their newest one on NE Broadway at 33rd. The humus, tahini, falafel, and fresh flatbread are so good, but the ground meat skewer is super delicious, grilled with tomato and onion. Matter of fact, I think I’m going to go there tonight!
Activity: The Columbia River Gorge is one of the best hiking areas in the Northwest. With more than 100 trail systems and the highest concentrations of waterfalls in the world, this region is incredible for hiking. You can see the Cascade range and several local mountains from the vistas here, as well as tons of waterfalls. For a quick visit to this area, head to Multnomah Falls. Parking for this hot spot is just 30 miles outside Portland and just off the exit ramp. The base of the falls is a half mile from the parking lot, but the real views are from the bridge and top of the falls. If you want a bigger adventure, hike Dog Mountain on the northern side of the Columbia River. The hike is steep and can be a real dog of a climb on a hot day, but the views from the vista are truly awe-inspiring. This hike is about 36 miles from the city and there is a small permit fee required. I suggest bringing a lunch and wearing good, comfortable shoes.
Place: Go to Sauvie Island for fresh produce, the fall corn maze, and summer swimming at the beach. There are hiking trails here, too, but the best thing about this natural area is that its only 30 minutes outside the city. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy a sunny day on the beach, or pick out your freshest produce at the market. Don’t forget to stop at the store just over the bridge to Sauvie Island for your parking pass. Take Hwy 30 NW, follow the signs to Sauvie Island, and cross the bridge.
As you cross the bridge a serene vista of fields, trees and a wide expanse of the Cascade Range spread out in front of you. If the day is clear, you’ll be able to spot five mountains which bejewel the Range; visible from north to south, they are Mt. Rainer, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson. SI
Food: No cheesesteak lover should ever go without tasting one from Grant’s Philly Cheesesteak. This tiny place is best as takeout, but getting it hot and fresh is incredible, and if you eat there it comes with fresh made potato chips! I’m originally from the East Coast and I have tasted the real Philly cheesesteaks in at least a dozen places in Philly, including the two original Gino’s and Pat’s. Grant’s is better! Get yours with Whiz, mushrooms, hots & sweets (peppers), and onions and you will not be sorry. For something extra special, try one of their Tasty Cake treats. They’re originally from Pennsylvania like the owners, but the cakes are hard to find on the West Coast.
Activity: Take a boat out on the river, dinner cruise, jet-boat, or kayak. Some of the most beautiful features of Portland are here because of its rivers. The bridges, the waterfront, the houseboats, and the gorge all exist because of the Columbia and the Willamette. If you don’t get to experience them then you do not know this city at all. If you don’t want to boat, you can always take a nice walk on the esplanade. There is also a 13-mile walking route around the river.
Cross the Steel Bridge and the Ross Island Bridge and follow the river’s edge on trails and sidewalks.
Place: I may have mentioned enjoying the art scene in Portland, but one of the best examples of it is the Portland Saturday Market at the fountain under the Burnside Bridge (Mar – Dec). There are well over 100 handmade artists vending their goods every Saturday & Sunday from March 1 till the weekend before Christmas. A large variety of food is vended here, too. On a sunny day the market is packed.
Food: Ha VL is the highest of traditions in Vietnamese soup spots. Pho is an understatement, each day this family creates two different soups, each with a unique taste, texture, and ingredients. Don’t go if you are not somewhat adventurous: some soups have tripe, fish balls, congealed blood, snails, and others. They don’t do vegetarian; their broths are meat based.
Activity: Go to a Timbers game at Jeld-Wen Stadium. If there’s a game, get tickets for the general seating or Timbers Army section (101 – 107), and make sure you get there two hours early and find a seat right away. Be prepared to stand and cheer throughout the entire game and learn the chants to help the Portland Timbers win every game.
“When I root, I root for the Timbers!”
Place: Portland Art Museum is known affectionately as PAM, and she is glorious. The exhibits are as good as they get, always changing and unique. It’s the kind of place I like to go to when I need to get lost for a while. Take the time to explore all the areas of this museum. Their gift store is one of the best for finding great gifts.
Rather than adopt the standard orthogonal grid of the majority of Portland, Ladd followed the inspiration of Pierre L’Enfant‘s plan for Washington, D.C. and created a diagonal “wagon wheel” arrangement, including four small diamond-shaped rose gardens and a central traffic circle surrounding a park. wp
Activity: Take the OHSU Aerial Tram to see the best views of the city, its rivers and beautiful horizon littered with mountaintops. The tram is $4 for adults, free for kids 6 and under.
The Tram cabins travel 3,300 linear feet between the South Waterfront terminal adjacent to the OHSU Center for Health & Healing, and the upper terminal at the Kohler Pavilion on OHSU’s main campus. Traveling at 22 miles per hour, the Tram cabins rise 500 feet for the three-minute trip over I-5, the Lair Hill neighborhood and the Southwest Terwilliger Parkway. PAT
Place: Go to Mt. Tabor on Portland’s east side. Head down Hawthorne Blvd, bear left at the 50th St. split, follow to the end, take a left and follow signs for Mt. Tabor. You can drive or hike from top to bottom, there are playgrounds for kids, and trails all over. The views from the top are spectacular, but the reason I suggest this place is because of its rich history. 13,000 years ago, Mt. Tabor might have been surrounded by water. Geologists in the region have put together many pieces of the geological puzzle of the area’s landscapes. They discovered that what we see now was formed because an ancient ice dam in Idaho burst, spewing hundreds of millions of gallons of water into the valleys of Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. These floods were known as the Missoula Floods of the Ice Age or the Ice Age Floods. Climb to the top of Mt. Tabor and imagine being surrounded by water from you to the West Hills seen in the photo here, Only the top of the tallest buildings in Portland would been seen. You will notice many of the stones and rocks at the top are rounded as if they came from the river bed.
To the reader who makes it to the end,
It was a lot of fun to write this piece, and I hope it was as much fun to read it and to explore these places on your own. There are so many favorite spots I had to leave out. I put together a slideshow with a few photos of all these places and some that I just had to include.
Thanks for reading,