Portland: The Hippest City Along the Oregon Trail.
I can remember in 8th grade history class learning about early settlers in their covered wagons migrating west on the Oregon Trail. I was fascinated by these pioneers quest for new opportunities and better lives in uncharted territories. It took unfathomable courage to embark on a journey that potentially held unforeseen life or death challenges. I found great inspiration in that. Perhaps that’s when the first seeds of Wanderlust were planted in my heart, leading me to forge my own path in cities like New York and London, so far away from the southern home I knew and loved. It’s only fitting that my travel plans would nostalgically bring me to the most flourishing city along the Oregon Trail of today. In the spirit of Lewis and Clark my partner and I decided to spend a long weekend exploring the best of Portland.
If you’ve watched enough Portlandia, you’re well aware of the stereotypes associated with Oregon’s largest city. Known for its liberalism, eco-friendliness and microbreweries, if you’re not careful, you might write Portland off as a city for biking-obsessed-artisanal-coffee-drinkers. Although those factoids are somewhat accurate (which really isn’t a bad thing if you ask me) there is so much more to Portland than meets the eye.
The Oregon Ballet Theatre, Oregon Symphony, and Portland Opera offer a consistent source of cultural entertainment to a diverse population of 1.9 million. Two major rivers (Columbia and Willamette) run through Portland necessitating the many bridges that connect its suburban neighborhoods. Definitely a cyclist city, it has the highest percentage of Americans commuting to work by bike on 324 miles of designated bikeways. Breath-taking mountains tower over the valley where people enjoy skiing, camping and various outdoor sports. Hiking, fishing and river rafting are just a few of the common activities Portlanders and visitors enjoy in over 9,000 acres of parks and forests that make up the region. With a yearly calendar full of jazz, art and cultural festivals including the annual Rose Festival (in June) it seems like there is never a dull moment. However, there was one thing I worried about—the weather.
Typically, around this time of year Portland’s weather is in the mid-60s to low-70s during the day, and a little chiller at night. Not quite the heavy rain season yet, there are daily pocket-showers and the leaves are changing from green to deep reds, oranges and yellows. I was fully prepared to be like Fred Arminsen and Carrie Brownstein in an episode of Portlandia chasing patches of sun amidst a predominantly grey and dreary sky. It must have been the inner Californian in my partner and I that demands a consistent source of vitamin D from the sun, because over the 4 days we visited, it only rained once for about an hour! Crazy right?! The rest of the time was sunny and 70 degrees, making our days of long bike rides discovering the city, really enjoyable.
Activities and Entertainment
I’m the opposite of a Philistine. When I travel somewhere I like to immerse myself in the culture. The whole point of the trip was to jump on the bandwagon like a good yokel-tourist and drink the Portland kool-aid. And boy, did we drink it! We rented bikes and peddled our way across the city, exploring the Pearl and Alberta Arts Districts while admiring the architecture of the colorful houses we passed along the way. Our bikes took us through the Tom McCall Waterfront Park along the Willamette River where we crossed over the Fremont Bridge and then over the Broadway Bridge heading towards Mississippi Avenue. We hiked, shopped at local stores for clothes, shoes and home goods, hit up the arts and crafts market, and smelled the roses at the International Rose Test Garden—which featured 7,000 ever-blooming rose plants in 550 varieties. We ate the famous Voodoo donuts, drank copious amounts of Stumptown coffee and went to the top of the Portland City Grill and had drinks while taking in the view of the entire city.
In approximately 45 mins, The MAX light rail took us directly from the airport to the front entrance of our hotel, The Nines, located in the heart of downtown Portland’s business district. This 4-star boutique hotel is adjacent to Pioneer Square where the historic courthouse stands. Surrounded by upscale retail shops and walking distance to the cities most popular restaurants and bars, we couldn’t have asked for a better location. Once home to Meier & Frank, (the largest department store in the Northwest) the SERA firm, which specializes in eco-friendly historical restoration, took special care in preserving the landmark’s functionality. A 7-story atrium hovering above the hotel lobby, lounge and restaurant is at the center of this 333-room hotel. As an accredited LEED building, The Nines is an impeccable example of green luxury—evidence of the superior urban planning the city is famous for. It was gratifying to know that our money was supporting a hotel that cares about the environment.
Epitomizing the expression “dressed to the nines,” this hotel presents opulent furniture in bold electric colors, luxe fabrics and modern crystal chandeliers one would expect from a Starwood Luxury Collection property. The unconventional art displayed throughout the hotel feature novelty sculptures and paintings that are whimsical and impressive. An intimate but chic library stacked with books from the famous Powell bookstore in Los Angeles, had a pool table in it and a daily cocktail hour for guests. As Starwood members, we were also giving a free upgrade upon arrival from a Club Level room to a Suite as well as access to complimentary breakfast and hor d'oeuvres in the Member’s Lounge. The room was spacious offering every amenity we could have dreamed of including a rain shower and corner views of downtown Portland. With a 24-hour gym, we could’ve easily never left The Nines premises.
Move over NYC, LA, Paris and London, the foodie capital of the world is Portland. I knew Portland had the best coffee (Stumptown) had the best ice cream (Salt & Straw) and was home to over 30 craft breweries including the famous Widmer Brothers. But I had no idea the amount of wow-this-shit-right-here-is-so-damn-good-scrunched-up-face-making food I’d encounter. The number of imaginative and sophisticated dining establishments was astonishing. We got so many great recommendations it was hard to know where to begin. But if you’ve read any of my other travel posts you’re well aware of my love of food, so if anyone was up for the challenge it was this greedy-gut! Below are the noteworthy 4.
Olympia Provisions- Located in the southeastern part of the Pearl District this intimate restaurant with dried hams hanging from the ceiling and shelves of spirits surrounding the two-tops; served locally sourced meats and seasonal vegetables. The open kitchen and bar area are a perfect compliment to the industrial décor. We took the glowing “Meat” sign on the back wall as an indication of what we should order off the menu. Though the roasted halibut and braised beef short ribs were exceptional, the best thing we ordered was the French and Italian Charcuterie boards. The selection was top-notched and our server helped to pair wine with our spread excellently.
Pine State Biscuits- Bringing the “south” to the southeast part of Portland, Pine State Biscuits had to be my favorite breakfast spot during our trip. Kevin Atchley, Walt Alexander, and Brian Snyder are three North Carolinian chefs serving up authentic southern cuisine. I thoroughly enjoyed my shrimp and grits and the sausage and egg biscuit I built. You won’t find a better flaky and buttery biscuit than at Pine State. Fighting the line that was out the door was well worth it.
Urban Farmer- With a commitment to sourcing sustainable, local and organic ingredients this modern steakhouse offers a variety of prime cuts as well as seafood and poultry. My partner raved about his rack of lamb and I couldn’t stop grunting over my sea scallops. Because it’s located inside The Nines, we ate there twice: once for breakfast and once for dinner. The Bloody Mary’s have a self-service garnish bar were one picks and chooses the accoutrement they want in their drink. My partner loved the oysters, and I loved the baked Mac n’ Cheese and smoked bacon.
Irvine Street Kitchen- We discovered the restaurant on our way back from the Japanese Gardens. The large industrial restaurant had high ceilings and wrought iron circular chandeliers illuminated by Edison light bulbs. Persian rugs lay on polished concrete floors, and the walls were an amalgamation of reclaimed wood. We sat in a booth along the perimeter of the main dining room. Our server proceeded to guide us through an unforgettable meal that began with Grandma’s bone broth and a buttermilk biscuit with ham and pepper jelly, (I’m just realizing how many biscuits I ate in Portland). The Bibb Wedge with candied bacon and pecan nibs was only outdone by the fresh seasonal flavor of the Roasted & Raw Squash with Ricotta Salata. The meatballs in a green peppercorn sauce, the Ling Cod with artichokes and Bourbon Mustard Glazed Pork Belly already had us exclaiming ISK to be our favorite Portland restaurant. And then came the Chocolate Hazel Nut Cake and their signature dessert of Butterscotch Pudding. A silence fell upon our table as we both tried to make every morsel last as long as we could. Whoever travels to Portland should definitely put this restaurant on their “must” list!
Local shoe makers, leather workers, furniture and lightening designers, and of course jewelry and men’s and women’s apparel designers were scattered all over the city. Between the Pearl District, Nob Hill, Alberta Street and Mississippi Avenue, we found some of Portland’s coolest stores to spend our cash.
Portland Saturday Market- This is your typical arts and crafts flea market with stalls of vendors selling their handmade goods. We meandered through the maze of craftsmen finding a variety of extraordinary items we wanted to take home with us. Among them were playing cards from City Art Cards featuring watercolor paintings of iconic Portland sites. Another was this gorgeous Walnut cutting board that was shaped like a paddle from woodworker Ajja Wood. He skillfully preserved the raw multi-layered texture of the wood on one side, accentuating its natural beauty, while sanding and sealing the reverse side making it smooth and level. Perfect for serving meats and cheeses on.
Goorin Bros.- located on 23rd Street in Portland’s Nob Hill neighborhood; this swanky custom hat shop was the perfect place to find the most stylish headgear for all seasons. A lover of the vintage Panama hat, my partner was ecstatic about the genuine Shantung hand-woven hat he purchased.
PedX North, The Annex and Animal Traffic- Great men’s and women’s apparel stores. We found thin vintage tees and leather belts we had to have, as well as some kick-ass navy blue suede ankle boots by Clae.
The Meadow- What a fabulous spice store! I picked up a French grey salt import (Sel Gris de L’lle de Re) that now I can’t stop sprinkling on everything.
After strolling through the International Rose Test Garden, admiring all the beautiful and fragrant hybrid teas in bloom, we locked our bikes up and ascended the winding road flanked by large trees. Perched at the top were the 5 majestic Japanese Gardens covering 5.5 acres of land. Arbors, bridges, stepping stones, Koi ponds and gently falling waterfalls were hidden all of over this landscape of quintessential Japanese trees and shrubs like Scarlet Maple, Willow and Flowering Quince. When we entered, we felt immediately at peace—as if the gardens were pregnant with serene tranquility. All five gardens: Flat, Strolling Pond, Tea, Natural, and Sand & Stone, invite their visitors to reflect and meditate on nature. Clean asymmetrical lines shape the scenery presenting a minimal simplicity that is at the same time deliberate and intricate. We wandered through the gardens watching people paint, quietly sit or write. The leaves were just beginning to change revealing their crimson and tangerine colors. I definitely want to come back in the middle of autumn to see what I can only imagine is a spectacular mirage of colors. This was the moment I fell in love with Portland.
If the warm and sunny weather we experienced hadn’t been such an anomaly, I seriously would consider moving there. Believe the hype about Portland! Believe it because it’s true and worth your time.