A Travellerspoint blog

The Legendary Pacific Northwest: Portland

The best travel year of our lives was 2014. We only had two kids then, and they were so young that we didn't need to time our travel with their school vacations. My work schedule was flexible as always and it seemed like every trip we took was better than the last one. We would start planning the next trip within a couple of days after returning from the previous one. I thought we should take a short trip in July and Seattle seemed to be a good choice. I hadn't been there since I was a kid and couldn't remember it at all. Seattle has a reputation for having a unique character among the second tier American cities, kind of like New Orleans or Miami. I thought about five days would do the trick, but then Mei Ling got the idea to drive across the Canadian border to visit Vancouver. Once we started thinking of it as a road trip, it seemed that we should check out Portland as well given that all three cities were just a few hours apart. We brought our nanny with us so that we'd be able to visit some high end restaurants without the babies.

It made the most sense to fly into Portland. To avoid the added expense of renting our minivan from the airport location we took a cab across the Columbia River to Washington State. The town where we picked up the car was also called Vancouver, funnily enough. We drove back to Portland and found ourselves at a chic Airbnb in one of the city's more upscale and modern neighborhoods, the Pearl District. Like many of the most desirable neighborhoods in American cities, the Pearl is a formerly blighted area of warehouses and rail yards that has been transformed into a vibrant neighborhood of lofts, high-rise condominiums, art galleries, and bistros. Our Airbnb was the quintessential loft conversion with a concrete floor and exposed pipes. The neighborhood vibe was amazing with block after block of attractive brick homes, cafes, and boutiques. In the center of the Pearl is Jamison Square, a small park with a fountain and a waterfall that is always full of kids escaping from the summer heat.

One of the first things I do when I research a city is to make a list of the farmers markets. Most of the time there are a few on the weekends and one or two during the week. In Portland I found four just on Wednesday. Once we'd had breakfast in the Pearl we decided to make the rest of the morning about farmers markets. On the way downtown we passed by Providence Park, the home of Portland's soccer team and a huge bronze sculpture of a man's smiling face.

The Portland Farmers Market was the first and best of the markets we visited that day. It was held in the north end of Shemanski Park, a one block wide string of green space that extends for about ten blocks in downtown Portland. We were really impressed by the quality of the produce, especially the berries. The blackberries and raspberries were among the biggest and sweetest we've ever tasted. There was a lot of variety and a great vibe, so we continued to be pretty impressed with our first day in Portland.

Continuing eastward through the downtown area we eventually found ourselves at the waterfront park on the west bank the Willamette River. Here we found another fountain to cool off in. Cleo didn't think she should be the only one soaked from head to toe so she tried to push me in.

We headed back inland a few blocks and found a large grouping of food trucks on Southwest Third Avenue where we got a decent lunch and enjoyed the rhythms of lunchtime activity in downtown Portland. The vibe of the area was really energetic and positive, a sharp contrast to the depressed and grimy downtown of our home city of Miami.

We kept working our way up north, passing by a long line of people outside of Voodoo Doughnut. Whatever voodoo spell induces tourists to line up for hours outside a doughnut shop didn't seem to have any effect on us. Eventually we reached the Lan Su Chinese Garden which was a much better way to spend the afternoon. This was the most authentic version we'd seen outside of China, which wasn't surprising considering it was designed by artisans from the Chinese water city of Suzhou.

By now we were close to our Airbnb in the Pearl, so we retrieved our car and drove across the Willamette to the east side where there was another farmer's market, quite a bit smaller than the first. We were still full from the food trucks but we loaded up on balloon animals for Cleo and then headed over to Northeast Alberta Street, a long stretch of art galleries and inexpensive ethnic restaurants in Portland's northern reaches. We had dinner at a Thai place and then returned to the Pearl. We had expected Portland to be pleasant but we'd been blown away by our first day. The neighborhoods, the farmers markets, downtown, the garden, the fountains - we'd couldn't remember seeing so much fun and interesting stuff in one city before. We were mystified why Portland doesn't really get any buzz when people talk about American cities, but we were glad to have stumbled upon it.

Our first full day in Portland was a tough act to follow, but our second day held up pretty well. We started the day with brunch, which is almost a religious meal in Portland. Seven days a week people line up outside their favorite brunch restaurants before they open as the best ones rarely take reservations. The variety of menu options and the level of cuisine at the places we chose was comparable to dinner at an upscale restaurant.

On the western edge of Portland, where the city grid gives way to the hilly suburbs, is an enormous park which houses a cornucopia of gardens, memorials, and hiking trails as well as the Portland Zoo. The International Rose Test Garden was created during World War I to provide a safe haven for the different varieties of roses that risked obliteration by the land war in Europe. Portland was already known for its ideal conditions for rose growth, and the garden has since become one of the world's foremost testing grounds for new rose varieties. You don't need to be a horticulturalist to appreciate the acres of colorful and fragrant rose gardens in a beautiful and natural setting. Not far from the rose gardens is Portland's Japanese Garden, which was the equal of the Lan Su Chinese Garden in beauty and authenticity. Afterwards we treated the kids to a couple of hours at the zoo which was just a few minutes drive away.

One of the unique Portland places I uncovered in my travel research is the Freakybuttrue Peculiarium. This kind of idiosyncratic curiosity shop seems to be unique to the United States, but unfortunately there's nothing like it in Miami as far as I know. Located in the funky Slabtown neighborhood northwest of the Pearl, the Peculiarium has been freaking out visitors since 1967. Even if we'd missed the sandwich board in front of the establishment, we probably wouldn't have walked past the zombie in the wheelchair on the sidewalk. Inside the displays ranged from an autopsy conducted by aliens to an enormous yeti. We made sure not to leave without picking up a couple of the scorpion lollipops.

There was one more farmers market that afternoon for us to get our fix of huge, succulent Oregon berries before we headed downtown for dinner. In two days Portland had absolutely blown us away. We haven't been to many places that got us seriously thinking about the logistics of pulling up stakes in Miami and moving in but Portland is probably the most attractive alternative we've ever found to our home city.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:51 Archived in USA

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