PDX Travel Guide
Travel guide: 13 ways of looking at a Portland vacation
Austin and Portland have a lot in common, it's true. We’re progressive, outdoorsy cities with youthful populations and unprecedented growth, about which we are deeply ambivalent. We love our breakout restaurants, craft beer, cocktails, farmers markets and local bands, as well as a good bike trail, dog park, party or parade.
In other ways, we’re strangely inverted, sometimes bizarro-world reflections of each other. And if ATX occasionally casts an envious eye toward PDX’s public transportation and sprawl-curbing ordinances, well ... we have more music festivals, great barbecue and Willie Nelson.
As Austin’s temperatures start to hang tough in the triple digits, though, Portland might be gaining a bit of an edge. We’re here to offer some tips in case the cool Northwest is calling. Just remember to come home, okay?
1. Ditch the car
If you want to experience what convenient public transportation in a roughly Austin-sized city feels like, get to know Portland’s MAX/TriMet rail and bus system. You can start by taking the train from the airport! The city features myriad bike routes and rental places, including Everybody’s Bike Rentals, Cycle Portland and the very helpful North Portland Bike Works. As in Austin, taxis are scarce outside of busy areas. On the other hand, pedestrians rule PDX; cars yield at every crosswalk, not just the ones with lights.
2. Weather up
Much as in Austin’s brief non-summer season, Portland's weather from late June through early September can be unpredictable and requires an assortment of layerable clothing as well as a rain garment of some sort. Take an umbrella — if you want to make sure people know you’re a tourist. If you visit in fall/winter/spring, expect it to be wet and cool.
3. On the cheap
The fact that there is no sales tax plays no small part in the enjoyment of visiting Portland. Let us look also at the city’s prodigious happy hours, which feature reasonably priced, delicious local craft beers and cocktails as well as generous appetizers that one can easily make a meal of. Oh, and did we mention? Many bars offer a second, late-night happy hour from around 10 pm to closing.
Try Apex for open-air people-watching, Toro Bravofor great tapas and wine, Packers-crazed Saraveza for its pasties and free bacon night if you’re lucky or Burnside Brewing Company’s pub, in the middle of everything.
4. Go local
Imagine Austin’s famous bats, only in reverse. On summer evenings, North America’s largest population of Vaux Swifts converges on Portland’s Chapman School, enters its nightly nesting place — a huge, old brick furnace chimney — in a dramatic funnel. The display draws more locals than tourists to the grassy schoolyard, where you can toss down a blanket and enjoy beverages or a picnic while you watch.
As in Austin, locals can be dismissive, but the reality is that visitors and locals mingle regularly at PDX’s expansive McMenamins chain of brew pubs, movie theaters and hotels, located mostly in faithfully renovated historic structures. The Kennedy School and The Crystal hotels are charming, comfortable and unmistakably Portland.
Fans of Portland’s original Stumptown coffee will find five of its roasting shops around town, including the SE Division Street original and The Stark Café in the hip Ace Hotel — which, despite its rep for trying a little too hard décor-wise, is a great landing spot in the heart of PDX’s downtown action.
5. Eat. Drink. Repeat.
Portland boasts a ridiculous number of outstanding restaurants and refined bars. Gabriel Rucker’s adventurous French-style Le Pigeon attracts gourmands with its ever-changing menu, while its offshoot bistro, The Little Bird, delights with fantastic fish, oysters and an affordable but excellent wine list and bar.
Beast’s sophisticated twists on New American fare draws raves, especially for its brunch; Roe’s seafood also tops lists of late, and Bollywood Theater’s Indian street-food take is likewise acclaimed. Meanwhile, Thai fusion wonderland Pok Pok holds its ground with a bounty of fresh, subtle dishes and creative cocktails.
Clyde Common, adjacent to the Ace Hotel, is also popular and casual, but to tuck into somewhere more intimate, take the narrow stairwell below it to tiny Pépé le Moko, which features tastier versions of drinks from the cocktail’s not-so-golden era (amaretto sours, grasshoppers) and the hideout feeling that goes with them.
Once a brothel, The Sapphire Hotel is now an apartment building with an exotic-feeling, dusky first-floor bar, and Vintage Cocktail Lounge in Montavilla offers more low-lit intimacy and cocktail craft.
6. By the book(s)
No matter how much of a rebel you are, don’t even think of skipping Powell’s City of Books, the world-famous, city-block-sized purveyor of new and used tomes. There are also satellite stores across the street and on SE Hawthorne.
DIYers and art fans will love the Museum of Contemporary Craft and the maker heaven that is NE Alberta Street. Highlights include Close Knit yarn store, Collage art supplies, Antler gallery, Amelia dress boutique and Modern Domestic and Bolt sewing machine and fabric stores. A little farther south is Scrap, a nonprofit repository of donated arts and crafting materials.
Vinyl lovers will want to stop in at both Mississippi Records and Jackpot Records.
Fans of Portland’s prolific gallery scene will also want to hit Disjecta Contemporary Arts Center, a massive hive of contemporary and avant-garde artmaking and exhibition, and Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, which presents visual and performance events, provides artists residencies and hosts the Time Based Art (TBA) Festival every fall.
7. Rock your body
Stumptown is no slouch when it comes to live music. One of the best places to catch the action is the Doug Fir Lounge, adjacent to the Jupiter Hotel — a renovated motor court and a great hotel choice for party people (and breakfast lovers). You’ll also want to see who’s playing at The Roseland Theater, Blue Room Bar, Mississippi Studiosand Bar Bar and McMenamins’ Crystal Ballroom, Edgefield outdoor venue or many of its smaller pubs.
8. Make your own kind of music
For karaoke goodness with a dollop of dive bar, hit The Alibi Tiki Lounge,The Ambassador Restaurant & Lounge or Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade, a vintage gaming/pinball establishment.
As in Austin, most LGBTQ clubs have a large crossover clientele. Go to Holocene to dance the night away and Sloan’s Tavern to hang with the ladies in a divey bar with a top-notch '70s vibe.
The Slammer is Portland’s Yuletide answer to LaLa’s (kind of), while the Florida Room is its Sunshine State-themed equivalent.
9. Find the sweet spots
There’s certainly no shortage of places to get your sugar fix in Portland. Doughnuts are rampant for some reason; Pip’s Original has some of the best (and they’re tiny), and Voodoo Doughnut maintains cult status.
Waffle Window still does the trick, and pies abound. Try Pie Spot, Back to Eden and Petunia’s Pies & Pastries, which offer vegan and gluten-free pies. "Farm-to-cone" Salt & Straw, PDX’s Lick-like blender of odd but incredible-tasting ice cream ingredients, has three shops, all with frequent long lines. Worth it.
10. Hit the trails
It’s not called the “City of Roses” for nothing. The natural beauty of Portland is astounding.
Many Texans might be content to puzzle over the nonchalant presence of hydrangeas, Douglas firs and bumper vegetable crops in any random yard, but to experience the environment on a bigger, more public scale, strike out for The Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls or Forest Park, a massive wilderness in the city with miles of trails for biking, hiking or meandering.
11. Stumptown sumptuousness
Anyone in search of some luxurious R&R will want to check into The Nines, the city’s longtime downtown high-end hotel. Treat yourself to a round of golf or a relaxing time at McMenamins Edgefield spa and gardens, browse stores in Northwest/Nob Hill and Sellwood-Moreland, tour Portland’s International Rose Test Garden or visit the Pittock Mansion. If you’re into serious sartorial luxury, make an appointment with Duchess Clothiers, Portland’s singular maker of bespoke suits and shirts (Nick Cave is a regular customer). Wind down at Portland City Grill, with its fantastic views of the Willamette River and excellent martinis.
12. Sample St. Johns
For a low-key day that still offers a Portland personality experience, check out St. Johns, just northwest of PDX proper. Cathedral Coffee Shop, a comfy neighborhood spot, offers excellent brew and comfy reading spaces. The Farm Food trailer, in a hopping food truck park on Lombard, fashions excellent sandwiches. A side street downtown features Fourth Estate Coffeehouse, Barique Barrel beer and wine shop and the lovely Storeroom Vintage. Best of all is peaceful, gorgeous Cathedral Park, under the graceful, soaring St. Johns Bridge.
13. Kick it out
Will it surprise anyone to discover that Portland is a big — huge in U.S. terms — soccer town? The MLS Portland Timbers games sell out on a regular basis, and its supporters group, the Timbers Army, represents ferociously. Same goes for the Portland Thorns women’s club and its Rose City Riveters support team.
If you can’t attend a game during your visit (or if you just like good beer), try to take one in at Bazi Bierbasserie. One of Portland’s best craft beer bars, the gastropub boasts a 12-page, Belgian-centric “bier” and wine menu (including bier cocktails) for boosters and visitors alike.