Imagine a city built on the banks of two huge rivers that has year-round mild climate, a mixture of beautiful historic and modern buildings, numerous parks with green forests and colorful gardens, tree-lined streets, elegant neighborhoods, a major university (Portland State University) and an efficient public transit system of light-rail trains and streetcars that connects all parts of the city to each other. That city is Portland, Oregon. In this city you can easily go anywhere in the downtown area by foot or by transit—a rarity in the United States.
Portland is located in the Northwestern section of the United States, directly across the river from Vancouver, Washington. Lying about 70 miles (124 km.) from the Pacific Coast, it is at the junction of both the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Known as the City of Roses, Portland is famous for its incredible scenic beauty, laid-back lifestyle, and eco-friendly way of life.
Portland became a city in 1851. The two famous explorers, Lewis and Clark, as far back as 1805, discovered the area around Portland. An abundance of fish and lumber, close proximity to two massive rivers, and a mild climate throughout the year, ensured Portland’s enduring success. When the railroad arrived in the 1880’s, Portland became for several years the largest city on the west coast north of San Francisco. The railroad also helped to transform Portland into a very wealthy city and it remained so for many decades. You can still see a glimpse of its past splendor in some of its numerous majestic old buildings, particularly in hotels such as the Benson or in elegant residences such as the Pittock Mansion.
In 1905, the Lewis and Clark Exposition forever transformed Portland. As a celebratory gesture in honor of the Exposition, roses were planted throughout the entire city, transforming the city into a vast garden paradise: over 20 miles of streets within the city were bordered by roses, earning this city the nickname “the City of Roses.” One can only imagine what this city must have looked like back in 1905 and for years to come—a city of immense wealth set in the midst of a forest of trees with miles of rose-lined streets, all on the banks of two rivers with majestic Mount Hood (a huge snowcapped mountain) in the background. It would have been one of the most elegant and picturesque cities in all of the United States. Thankfully Portland still retains glimpses of its past glory—just explore some of its old neighborhoods and you will be transported back into time.
Places to Visit: Gardens and Parks
There are many interesting places to visit, not surprisingly, many of them are natural places of beauty, as Portland is well known for its parks and gardens.
- Portland Classical Chinese Garden
Set in the midst of Chinatown at NW 3rd and Everett, this Ming Dynasty style of garden has a pond, pavilions, a teahouse, and several gardens of rare plants and very unusual limestone rocks. This garden is on a huge site, taking up an entire city block. Thankfully, it is completely surrounded by walls that ensure the tranquility of the garden. The arrangement of the garden layout was specifically designed to give the visitor a sense of the wild mountains of China. Over 500 tons of rock was shipped in from China in order to help create this effect.
- Forest Park
Located in the northwest part of Portland, this park is one of the United States’ largest urban parks. It covers an area of 5,000 acres. With 60 miles of trails, it is a great place for walking, hiking, and biking.
- Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden
Located at SE 28th avenue and Woodstock Blvd, this garden has over 2,500 rhododendrons, azaleas, and plants. Crystal Springs Lake surrounds most of the garden, which attracts many different species of waterfowl and birds. The garden explodes with a profusion of colors throughout the spring and summer and continues into the autumn when its many trees change colors.
- The Grotto (Botanical Garden & Shrine)
Located at NE Sandy Boulevard and Eighty-fifth Avenue, this garden can be reached by taking either a city bus (about a 20 minute trip from the downtown core) or by car (the entrance has plenty of free parking). This garden is truly unique. The only way to access it is via an elevator built into the side of a cliff. The elevator takes you up 110 feet to the top of the cliff. You then exit onto a site containing 62 acres of fir trees, colorful rhododendrons and flowers, a vast assortment of native plants, a meditation chapel, and a monastery. This garden is actually a sacred site for followers of the Roman Catholic faith, as evidenced by the many religious statues throughout the site. Don’t forget to visit the viewing rooms right at the edge of the cliff for unforgettable and truly spectacular views of the Cascade Mountains, the Columbia River, and Mt. St. Helens (the famous inactive volcano). At the base of the cliff is the Our Lady’s Grotto shrine inset into a rock cave with a life-size marble replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta in its center. The entire area is a welcome retreat from busy city and modern life. You will truly find peace and serenity here. It is without a doubt an amazing place to visit.
- Washington Park
This incredible 140-acre urban park contains three interesting sites to visit:
- Japanese Gardens
This site has 5 different styles of Japanese gardens including a sand garden and a water garden, located on 5 ½ acres. This tranquil spot is rated as the finest example of a Japanese garden in all of North America. It is also one of the oldest, and contains a teahouse and pavilion.
- International Rose Test Garden
This is the largest rose test garden in the United States, ensuring that Portland retains its nickname as The City of Roses. This garden dates back to 1917. Located on 4 ½ acres, it has over 7,000 rose plants with approximately 550 different varieties. Make sure that you wander through the many rows of roses while enjoying this garden’s spectacular location. Perched on a hill, this beautiful garden offers you a great view of the entire downtown area. (Admission to the garden is free.)
- Oregon Zoo
This zoo has several exhibits that may be of interest to you. Of particular interest is the African Exhibit with its rainforest and savanna, the Stellar Cover Exhibit with its sea lions and sea otters, and the Amazon Flooded Forest Display with its exotic animals such as poisonous frogs and huge sloths.
All three sites can be visited in one day. The streetcar can take you right to this location from the downtown area—there is no need to take a car. For fun, ride the miniature train that connects the zoo with the International Rose Test Garden and the Japanese Garden. You can also get access to these two gardens by regular bus service from within the park.
Other Interesting Sites To Visit
- Portland Art Museum
If you are an art lover, you may be quite surprised to learn that Portland (that is the Portland Art Museum) has original French impressionist paintings to view. This museum’s permanent collection includes: La Halle aux Vins by Paul Cezanne, Water Lilies by Claude Monet, Seine at Argentieul by Pierre Renoir, and River at Lavacourt by Claude Monet. Even more surprising is the fact that the original painting, The Ox-Cart, by Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Dutch painter, is part of this museum’s permanent collection.
Original Van Gogh paintings cost a fortune, more than most museums could ever afford. Many have easily sold for $50 to $100 million U.S. Also, paintings by Van Gogh are next to impossible to acquire, as they are so limited in quantity. Museums from all over the world would battle each other fiercely to be able to collect even one of the above-mentioned paintings. This museum even has one of Paul Gauguin’s paintings, Vue d’un Jardin (1884). Usually such paintings would only be on display at world-class museums in very limited cosmopolitan cities such as Paris, France or London, England.
No doubt most of this museum’s collection, located at 1219 SW Park Avenue (in the downtown core), was donated by patrons who made their fortune during Portland’s golden era. This museum was founded as far back as 1892 and has quite an interesting array of paintings and photographs, including an extensive collection of Native American art and artifacts. With 42,000 objects of art, this museum covers mankind’s history from the ancient world (Greek, Roman, and Etruscan) up to the present. This museum is well worth a visit.
- Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI)
This museum is located on the east bank of the Willamette River. It is made up of 6 huge halls as well as an OMNIMAX theatre and the Kendall Planetarium, which has astronomy presentations and laser light shows. Make sure to visit the dinosaur collection—some of the dinosaur skeletons are so huge that they almost take up the entire hall.
- U.S.S. Blueback Submarine
This fascinating submarine is docked right beside the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). Make sure to visit both of these sites. You can take a tour of this diesel-powered Barbel-class submarine, originally launched in 1959. It was home to a crew of 85 men and was used during the Vietnam War. In service for 31 years, it was decommissioned in 1994. Movie buffs will be interested to know that this submarine was actually used in the action film “the Hunt for Red October” (an American-Russian spy thriller movie), starring Sean Connery.
Take a tour and experience first-hand what life was like aboard a submarine. It was not a pleasant experience! For example, the men were only allowed one shower per week, for just a few minutes. Nearly everyone smoked cigarettes aboard the submarine, even while lying in bed. Poor ventilation would have caused a permanent fog-like haze to linger throughout the entire submarine, making living conditions unbearable. It must have been a nightmare for someone who didn’t smoke—it is amazing that no one set fire to his bunk bed! Make sure to visit the food galley where the men ate all of their meals. The typical supper was a large beef steak with baked potato and ice cream for dessert. This was not the best diet for someone leading such a sedentary lifestyle, as there was no place on board to exercise. Fortunately, times have changed! What was once considered normal living conditions is no longer acceptable.
- Movie Madness Video Store / Museum
Located a 4320 SE Belmont Street, this huge video store (possibly one of the largest in the world) and museum would be of interest to those who love movie memorabilia. Its owner, Mike Clark, has spent a lot of time assembling numerous displays that include such items as: the knife from “Psycho”, Tony Curtis’ lacy hat from “Some Like It Hot”, and Mike Meyer’s lime-green suit from “Austin Powers”.
- Pittock Mansion & Museum
This Victorian-era mansion is about a century old and dates back to Portland’s golden era of wealth and status. Set in the hills of west Portland, it is a reminder of an era of opulent homes, beautiful works of art, and fine furniture. Fortunately, all of this mansion’s contents date back to its original owners.
- Williamette Shore Trolley
For a unique adventure, ride the Williamette Shore Trolley from downtown Portland. It’s a century-old, double-decker electric trolley car that takes you south to Lake Oswego through some of the area’s most picturesque scenery. The railway line dates back to 1887, and takes you through forests, a tunnel, and along the cliffs high above the Williamette River and Elk Rock Island.
Places to Eat
There are many excellent restaurants throughout Portland such as:
- Byways Café
Located at 1212 NW Glisan Street, it’s a 1950’s-style diner in the midst of the Pearl District. It is well known for its fabulous breakfasts.
- Pearl Bakery
Located at 102 NW 9th Avenue, in the Pearl District, it is famous for its bread. The bakery has a place to eat where you can enjoy a variety of sandwiches and pastries.
- Jake’s Famous Crawfish
Located at 401 NW 12th Avenue, this restaurant is famous for its seafood, particularly its crawfish. Apparently patrons consume tons of crawfish every year at this one restaurant. In addition to seafood, it has steak, chicken, and pasta dishes on the menu. If you like seafood, make sure to try the Chinook salmon stuffed with crab or the shrimp with brie cheese. This restaurant has been open since 1897 (over 110 years), so it must be doing something right!
- Portland City Grill
This restaurant, located at 111 SW Fifth Avenue, on the 30th floor of the Unico/US Bancorp Tower, is for those who have expensive tastes, and appreciate fine dining. It offers a fine selection of steak and seafood, and is one of the most romantic spots in Portland. Make sure to reserve a table near the window so that you can enjoy the spectacular view of the entire city.
This place is also a great place to go for drinks (cocktails). Its Happy Hour is quite popular.
- Henry’s Tavern – American Bar & Grill
This restaurant and pub has excellent reasonably-priced food and beer. It’s located in a historical building in the Pearl District, at the corner of NW 12th Avenue and W. Burnside Street, across from the well-known food store, Whole Foods Market. Gluten-free options are available for customers. It offers over 100 beers and a varied menu with something for everyone, such as: flatbread pizzas, burgers, soups and sandwiches, salads, sausages, fish and chips, and even Chinese-style dishes (for example, Mongolian Beef).
- Edelweiss Sausage & Delicatessen
Located at 3119 SE 12th Avenue, this deli is described as an authentic old-world Bavarian market. Over 120 different types of handmade German sausages are made on site, some of which are available on their luncheon menu. This place has become even more popular after being featured on The Food Network.
Places to Drink (Beer and Wine)
Portland has plenty of places to go for drinks. As a matter of fact, it has become so famous for its microbreweries (beer) that it is known as “the microbrewery capital of the world”. It is also a great place to sample Oregon’s famous Pinot Noir wines. Some suggestions of places to go to are:
- Bridgeport Brewpub & Bakery
Located at 1313 NW Marshall Street, in the Pearl District, it is the city’s oldest microbrewery.
- Belmont Station
Located at 4520 SE Stark, it is a combination of a store and bar/café. You can buy soups, sandwiches, and pub fare as well as beers on draft. As you are leaving make sure to visit the store area as it sells a huge selection of bottled beers from all over the world.
- Oregon Wines on Broadway
Located at 515 SW Broadway, this wine bar is known for its Oregon Pinot Noir wines. On average, it has about 30 different red wines available for tasting.
Most of the hotels are located in the downtown area, which makes it easy to get around the city. Two exceptional hotels are:
- Embassy Suites Portland Downtown
Located at 319 SW Pine Street, this hotel is in a great downtown location close to shops, bars, restaurants, and sites. It was built in 1912 during Portland’s golden era, and was once known as the Multnomah Hotel, often referred to as “The Grand Lady of Fourth Avenue”. This restored historic hotel is well known for luxurious comfort and spacious suites. You will be impressed with its elegant lobby and gilded plasterwork. Guests will enjoy the daily Manager’s Reception and the breakfast buffet (both are free-of-charge to guests).
- Benson Hotel
Located in a great location at 309 SW Broadway, this hotel was built in 1912 by Simon Benson, a Portland lumber baron. His dream was to create a world-class hotel, and by all accounts he succeeded! It is without a doubt Portland’s most elegant hotel complete with a French baroque lobby with rare Russian walnut paneling. The Czars (the Russian royal family) like to use this particular type of walnut for many of their palaces. It cost the owner of the Benson Hotel an absolute fortune to import this high-quality walnut from Russia. Apparently the walnut paneling is so luxurious that people come to the Benson Hotel just to have the opportunity to view it.
In addition to the walnut paneling, the lobby has exquisite Austrian-crystal chandeliers, Italian marble floors, and even a marble staircase. Simon Benson spared no expense in creating his dream hotel. For your convenience, there are three restaurants on site, including the award-winning London Grill. If you are looking for an unforgettable experience, then you must stay at the Benson Hotel. Surprisingly, at times some of its suites, particularly the corner junior suites, can be reasonably priced.
Portland is a fairly safe city. However, one has to be careful, especially in the downtown area. One thing that visitors will be shocked to see is the number of homeless on the streets. Most of these people have come to Portland from other states, as the local government tries very hard to house as many homeless as possible. Usually these people will ask you for change to ride the transit system. Thankfully the prevalence of many homeless shelters has dramatically reduced the incidence of crime within the city.
The area around the Pioneer Courthouse Square in the downtown is the main shopping district. You will find many large well-known stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, and Macy’s.
For art galleries and boutiques visit the Pearl District area. For books, you must visit “Powell’s City of Books” at 1005 West Burnside Street. This bookstore covers an entire block and is 3 stories high. It has both new and used books for sale. Every imaginable book is here, for the store is reputed to have over 1 million books in stock. Many have said that this is the world’s biggest bookstore—it is quite an experience wandering through this store with row upon row of books everywhere!
One thing that all shoppers will like is that there is no sales tax on anything that you buy in Portland. The price on the sales tag, is the price you pay!
Since 1907, the Portland Rose Festival has been Portland’s biggest celebration that includes parades and fireworks. The festival is held every year during the first week of June.
If you like beer, don’t miss the Oregon Brewers Festival held every last full weekend in July. There are plenty of microbreweries with a huge selection of beers as well as food and music.
- Exploring the Oregon Wine Country
Just 25 miles (40 km.) southwest of Portland lies an abundance of scenic vineyards and wineries. Believe it or not, there are over 100 wineries to visit. Some are even reputed to rival those in the famous Napa Valley in California. Apparently the climate in this area is perfect for making Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris wine. Several wine tour companies are available to help you explore (by bus or limousine) this incredible area while allowing you to taste the many varieties of wine, especially the Pinot Noir which has become quite famous and won many awards.
- Visiting Cannon Beach
For an unforgettable experience, take a guided bus tour or drive to the small town of Cannon Beach, just 80 miles west of Portland (and 25 miles south of Astoria). Daily bus service is also available to Cannon Beach from the Amtrak station in downtown Portland. This beach town is without a doubt one of the most spectacular in the United States, if not the entire world. Imagine a nine-mile stretch of sandy beach with huge monolithic rocks strewn along it, against a backdrop of forests and rivers. The scenery is so stunning that over 750,000 people visit this beach every year. Make sure to view Haystack Rock, at 235 feet high it is the third largest monolithic rock in the world. It is also the most photographed rock on the entire Oregon coast.
Numerous tidal pools give you the chance to view a wide range of marine life such as starfish, anemones, crabs, and small fish. There are also many seabirds such as the Tufted Puffin, Black Oystercatcher, Pelagic Cormorant, Pigeon Guillermot, and others that nest on the huge monolithic rocks. If you like to hike, visit nearby Ecola State Park and take advantage of its numerous hiking trails.
Make sure that you also visit the town of Cannon Beach itself. It’s a small town purposely planned for pedestrians. Take the time to visit its numerous craft shops, art galleries, bookshops, and bistros. It’s the perfect way to end a wonderful relaxing day. You may find that it is such a beautiful and tranquil place that you may not want to leave!
Portland has much to offer visitors. Its incredible natural beauty especially in places like the Grotto Garden and Washington Park will impress you. All throughout its history this city has done everything possible to retain its natural beauty for all to enjoy—and most visitors will agree that it has succeeded very well! Make Portland, Oregon your next destination—you won’t be disappointed.
About the author:
Eric Alexander Hamilton lives in Vancouver, Canada. He loves travelling and has lived in several cities such as Paris, London, and Zurich. His passions in life are photography and writing, particularly about travel, self-help and spiritual topics. To him, writing and photography are a natural match, as witnessed in his web site, www.lifedestiny.com. With each passing day, he is trying to follow the advice of the famous American writer, Jack London:, who said: “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.” It’s advice we should all follow.