I arrived into Portland on the Coast Starlight Amtrak train, having left Sacramento the night before, chugging through the snow-capped mountains of Northern California and Southern Oregon until we finally pulled into Portland’s Amtrak station in a haze of drizzling rain. I was spending three days in Portland as a solo traveller, and wanted to make the most of the city despite the fact that one of the main reasons I was visiting was actually because of the spectacular train journey through the mountains in order to reach it.
Portland is surrounded by nature and is renowned for its quirkiness and laid-back vibe; many people use the word ‘weird’ to describe this funny little city. So it seems fitting that the only Portlander I’d ever met before was a lad named Cory who was hitchhiking all the way from Oregon to ‘the Amazon rainforest’ in order to finally meet the love of his life in person; up until then they’d only ever spoken online, via MSN. Cory had spent most of his youth on a concoction of psychedelic drugs which resulted in him overdosing twice, and then decided to turn his life around by training as a pastry chef, before he began his online relationship with a Brazilian model who lived in the Amazon Rainforest. You couldn’t make it up really, could you? I met him in a hostel in Tucson, Arizona, and he was preparing himself for the South American portion of his trip by, in his own words, ‘not washing, drinking or eating anything, as food and water will be hard to come by on the trip.’ It didn’t seem like the most logical plan to me, but then I’m no expert. Now pals, I am definitely not saying that everyone from Portland has a lifestyle similar to that of Cory’s…but when I discovered that the phrase ‘Keep Portland Weird’ is well-used across the city, it made complete sense to me that this is the place that Cory is from. Good lad. I really hope he’s still alive.
It’s raining in Portland
Portland is one of the rainiest places in the whole of the USA, in fact rain is such a normal part of daily life here that painted on the tarmac in the road outside my hotel there was a gigantic white umbrella instead of the road markings that you’d traditionally expect at a crossroads. Now pals, to tell you the truth, I really hate winter weather of any kind, but the fact that the people of Portland clearly embrace the rain with open arms, and umbrellas, made me think I should at least attempt to follow their lead. I very gleefully remembered that I’d packed a raincoat which I was yet to use in the three and a half weeks I’d already spent in the States, and obv gave a silent nod of approval to the rain for arriving on the scene and making the space the raincoat took up in my case not completely wasted. I’d say it’s probably the only time in my entire life that I’ve ever been grateful for a rainy day.
The Society Hotel and Hostel
The place I was staying was frankly, a beaut. The Society Hotel is only a few blocks away from the train station, in an old building on the corner of a street in Chinatown. Stepping inside from the rain was a highly cozy experience, mainly due to the leather sofas nestled around a fire that was giving off an atmosphere of Christmas even though it was April. I was staying in the hotel’s dorm room, which was actually pretty awesome considering the bunks are stacked three-high; each bed had a curtain across it, and the room was ginormous with a big communal area and kitchen upstairs. (Although to be fair, the hotel does some really delicious food and drinks, so if you just wanted to eat the food there, it would also make sense.) The only really awkward thing about the bunk situation was that one night my phone dropped down the side of the bed that I was sleeping in- naturally it was the highest one- and I felt like I should really wait until the morning to figure out if it had survived or had been broken or stolen. I mean, guys, what are you supposed to do in a situation like that!? Luckily whoever was on the bottom bunk handed it in to reception and the phone lived to tell the tale.
Cherry blossom season in Portland
On my first morning in Portland, after waiting for a crack of sunshine to peek through the clouds, I ventured outside and was met with such a beaut sight that I couldn’t believe my luck. There are several cities across the USA which are renowned for their cherry blossoms, and I had arrived in Portland just in time to see the cherry blossoms coming into bloom down by the Willamette River. If you ever manage to visit Portland in Spring, even though the river walk isn’t particularly massive, it’s still 100% worth a visit. I visited a couple of times during my stay in the city as it was so close to The Society, and although the area was fairly bustling with people at the weekend, at midday on a Friday there were only a few other people out for a stroll.
Portland Saturday Market
The Portland Saturday Market has a mildly deceptive name, because it’s actually open on Saturdays and Sundays. This is the largest continuously operated outdoor market in the whole country, and it was set up in 1974 by two locals with a dream in their hearts and a twinkle in their eyeballs. Everything sold at the market has to be handmade by the person selling it, and the selection of hand-crafted goods for sale here is wide and varied, pals. From t-shirts, illustrations, and vegan soaps, to didgeridoos, survival equipment and jewellery, I would say that everything here combines to make the Portland Saturday Market a truly Portlandian experience. Personally I reckon the most glorious thing about the market is the vast array of food available from all over the world, sold from food trucks lined up next to each other with all the most downright delicious smells competing for everyone’s attention. Chinese, Ethiopian, Greek, Iranian…the list is basically endless and I wanted to try it all.
Doughnuts are kind of a big deal around here. And who doesn’t love a doughnut, for goodness’ sake? Crazy people, that’s who.
Voodoo Doughnuts is an iconic stopping point on the Portland donut scene, which regularly has a queue winding out of the door for their weird and wonderful iced creations. The menu of donuts on offer is extensive, including the Portland Creme, (which was designated the ‘official city donut’ by the mayor), the Bacon Maple Bar, and also once upon a time the NyQuil Glazed donut, which was ordered to be removed from sale by health officials. (Awkward, but probs for the best.)
I headed instead to Blue Star Donuts for a bit more of a minimalist, but equally as ‘hipster’ approach to the donut cult of Portland. I’m not sure if ‘chic’ is really an appropriate way to describe a donut, but in comparison to Voodoo’s wacky, brightly coloured creations, Blue Star is all about the understated pastel-hued baked goods, and they taste awesome too.
Right pals; if I discover that a place I’m visiting has an awesome bookshop, I’m pretty much guaranteed to make a visit. Even if I can’t fit any books in my luggage, I just truly appreciate the atmosphere of a room filled with bookshelves; there’s not really much in this world that compares with it. And Portland is a city with a brilliant bookshop. Powell’s Books in the BANG ON TREND Pearl District is the largest independently owned bookstore in the world, located in a cavernous warehouse-like building on a corner downtown. Secondhand and new books are all mixed in together in wooden stacks and arranged by genre, and the place is so large that it’s easy to spend several hours here if you’re anything like me.
The Lan Su Chinese Garden
Back in the days of the Gold Rush, people from across the entire world were flocking to the Western states of America to try and make their fortunes, and one of the biggest groups of immigrants to the area- despite the extreme levels of discrimination against them- were Chinese, who worked mainly on the railroads and gold mines.
By the 1900s, 12% of the entire population of Portland was Chinese, and the city’s Chinatown was the second largest on the West coast. The Chinese-American community has historically been hugely important for Portland, as it was these early immigrants who helped build the city itself- what a bunch of good’uns!
Related: Seven Days in San Francisco
The Lan Su Chinese Garden helps to preserve the roots of the city, and it’s one of the most peaceful places I went on my entire trip, despite the fact that it’s surrounded by roads in the middle of Chinatown. In classic Portlandian fashion it was drizzling with rain on the day I visited, but frankly it just made the whole place all the more magical. The walled garden centres around a little lake in the middle, and is filled with beautiful plants and statues; the garden also organises artists and musicians to come and demonstrate traditional Chinese music, painting or writing. This place is an absolute gem, and to top it all off (plus as extra shelter from the rain), it’s totes lovely to go and have a cup of tea in the tea house.
On a side note, the city’s Japanese Garden is also supposed to be nothing short of spectacular if you fancy exploring another beautiful place with a beaut Asian influence.
Adult tickets $12.95 during Summer, $10.95 in Spring and Autumn.
Explore Nob Hill and See Some Nature
The Nob Hill district in North West Portland is a pretty pretty place, you guys! The houses are filled with the look of Victorian splendour, and boutiques, hipster coffee shops and restaurants are also in excess around these parts. It’s a cute place for a stroll and a shop, although for me the one thing that I appreciated above all this was the house outside which the owner had placed some poems typed on A4 paper in a wooden box, with an invitation to take one for free. Good lass! And so very Portlandian of her!
The most awesome thing about this area is that it’s bordered by NATURE IN ALL ITS GLORY!! Forest Park contains a web of hiking trails to clamber across, and right at the top of a hill overlooking the city is the Pittock Mansion, an extremely grand house built in 1914 by a rich guy named Henry Pittock who ran The Oregonian newspaper and had his fingers in all the business pies.
Did I myself make it into the Natural Wonders that Portland has to offer? Why no, no I did not. I made it to Nob Hill, at which point a torrential downpour began which really put me off the idea of trekking through the forest, know what I’m saying?
Street art and street signs
Portland’s art scene is huge, so it goes without saying that the street art scene is rather a big deal also. There are amazing murals to be found all over the city, and although I just opted for the casual ‘wander-around-and-see-what-I-find’ approach, the Portland Street Art Alliance has published three maps with all the info of where to find the best street art in Portland. Those thoughtful chaps.
There is also a plethora of awesome neon signs hanging out all over the city with a beaut vintage look to them, and I’m a real fan of that general aesthetic, you know!? Probably the most famous of them all is the white stag jumping over the ‘Portland Oregon Old Town’ letters; this bad boy is right next to the Portland Saturday Market by the river, and it looks beaut day or night.
Related: Four Days in NYC
Finally, and on a less artistic but equally as cool (probs) note, Matt Groening, creator extraordinaire of The Simpsons, grew up in Portland, and named some of his characters after streets in the city. Flanders, Lovejoy, Quimby, Burnside, and Montgomery Park (ya know, Charles Montgomery Burns), are dotted around the city and secretly lent their names to the cartoon creations. If you manage to find NE Flanders Street, chances are that someone will have added a ‘D’ at the end of ‘NE’ because that is how things roll around here, folks.
Portland is one unique city with one unique character, and I’m pretty sure that its close proximity to the amazing nature of Oregon, coupled with the hippy-esque vibe it has, gives the whole city a sense of calm that I hadn’t really experienced in other big cities across the USA. Also, to be honest, the fact that there really are some weird and wonderful folk here, making it a really weird and wonderful place. Don’t get me wrong pals, three days isn’t a great amount of time to see what the city has to offer (especially when the rain is in a persistent downpour kind of a mood), but in it was definitely still enough time to see a bite size chunk of goodness, and get a sense of why Portland is a destination loved by many.
- If arriving by Amtrak, Portland’s Union Station is located in the Old Town Chinatown part of the city. Taxis wait outside the station, and Uber also operates in the city.
- There are three Amtrak routes stopping in Portland: the Cascades, which runs through Oregon, Washington and British Columbia between Eugene, OR and Vancouver, the Coast Starlight, which runs through California, Oregon and Washington between LA and Seattle, and the Empire Builder which runs cross country from Chicago to Seattle.
- Portland’s airport is located about a half hour drive from the city. (For some reason the retro carpet of said airport is an icon to all residents of this quirky city)
- There is a MAX Light Rail service which runs directly from the airport to downtown Portland; the journey only takes around forty minutes and a single fare is $2.50. However, even though it was only a ten minute walk from my hostel to the station, I was leaving the city in the very early hours of the morning and decided to get an Uber instead of walking solo in the dark.
- There are a lot of rough sleepers in big cities on the West Coast of the US; Portland is no exception, and with so many cuts to welfare, combined with rising housing costs and an expensive healthcare system, the number of homeless people on the streets look set to rise. It’s a really sad situation to see, and there are some streets I walked down where the pavements were literally lined with tents, duvets and makeshift cardboard structures sheltering sleeping bodies.
- Portland is a rare gem in the hall of fame of US cities, because it is extremely walkable, as long as you’re staying in the right part of the city.
- Bicycles are also a hugely popular mode of transport, and it’s fully possible to hire one to gallivant around for a while if you so desire.