Portland, Oregon: Weird, Wet and Wonderful

On a clear day, you can catch a few of Mount Hood from Portland. Max Hartshorne photos.
On a clear day, you can catch a few of Mount Hood from Portland. Max Hartshorne photos.

Portland Oregon is the Place to Be

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Portland's authentic Japanese Gardens are a popular place for a stroll.
Portland’s authentic Japanese Gardens are a popular place for a stroll.

Portland, Oregon is getting some nice buzz of late. Not only the kind of buzz you can easily walk in and buy at one of the state’s hundreds of new marijuana dispensaries, but also, a buzz about what a fun place the city is to visit.

Even though the television program, Portlandia, that has helped cement the city’s reputation over the past eight years, is in its final season, Weird Old Portland keeps popping up in conversations.

That’s always a good thing because no city wants to be ignored.

You can view the gigantic statue that gave the show its name in the center of Portland, where she towers over a city administration building.

The Bad News

First, let’s get over a few downsides, somewhat minor but nonetheless worthy of mention.

Tahir Square is just one of the many places to find food trucks and outdoor food stalls in the city.
Tahir Square for Egyptian cuisine is just one of the many outdoor food stalls in the city.

This wonderful city only gets between 60 and 70 sunny days a year.

That means for much of the year, it’s a grey and wet place where those with seasonal disorder won’t be happy.

Between November and April, an average of about 6 inches of rain falls per month. That’s not as dramatic as other wet places on earth, but if you come from a dryer climate you might notice the grey.

In the summer, it actually doesn’t rain that much, and it can be hot, too. And it rarely snows in Portland either. On our January visit, it was mostly in the 50s and 60s and sunny.

One thing that’s special about a city where it isn’t always sunny is how happy locals and visitors are when the skies are blue. You’d think everyone just won the lottery, smiles abound!

90,000 More Residents

At Pine Street Market, there are many different food stalls and beer stands, including Marukin Ramen.
At Pine Street Market, there are many different food stalls and beer stands, including Marukin Ramen.

Portland saw an increase of more than 90,000 residents between 2000 and 2014.  The city’s growth can be felt in the many construction projects and unfortunately, in the cost of rent that has been going up like in many other hot cities.

It’s the second minor bummer of this renaissance city. Walking by people who ask you for money can get annoying.

Portland Japanese Gardens

Our first stop when we got Portland was the Japanese Garden located in Washington Park, in the city’s West Hills.

Even the Japanese have called this the finest and most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan.

A five and a half-acre site with five separate garden styles, it’s a wonderful place for a stroll. And on a good day, you can even catch a view of Mount Hood.

But there’s more to this garden than just a pleasant outdoor nature stroll.

The Japanese Gardens offer tranquility and a peaceful stroll.
The Japanese Gardens offer tranquility and a peaceful stroll.

In 2018, the gardens were expanded with a $33 million cultural village expansion. Japanese gardener Sadafumi Uchiyama and architect Kengo Kuma wanted to create a more immersive visitor experience.

They built an authentic Medieval castle wall which is 56 meters long and 5.6 meters high, all built with hand tools and traditional techniques using Oregon granite.  They added the new Umami Cafe in the village, where visitors can enjoy Japanese teas and snacks.

City Walking Tour

To get a good sense of place and where we were, I often enjoy taking city tours.  Again and again, the guides can provide better and more information than anything you will find on your iPhone or Google.

You can find walking tour maps at the visitor’s information center in Pioneer Square, or at Powell’s Books.

Biking is a serious business in Portland, where many people use their bikes to commute, more than any other major US city.
Biking is a serious business in Portland, where many people use their bikes to commute, more than any other major US city.

Portland native Richard Neuman began our tour at the city’s true center–Pioneer Square--where he explained that the city was named after its smaller namesake in Maine. It simply came down to a coin toss between two city founders, one of whom was from the Maine city, and Boston lost.

One example of the positive changes the city has seen is that Pioneer Square was once a parking garage, thankfully demolished in 1984. Today Portland’s residents are proud to be among the highest percentile users of bikes, public buses, and ride-hailing services.  Read about Dog-Friendly Portland. 

You can buy an all-day transit pass for $5 and go anywhere you want. Or grab a bike from the public bike racks called Bikeshare, and take off.

A Rough and Tumble City

The 85 foot high copper Portlandia statue, that you won't see in local gift shops.
The 85-foot high copper Portlandia statue, that you won’t see in local gift shops.

Richard explained what a rough and tumble this former lumber city used to be. There was a 16 to 1 ratio of men to women, and a big drinking problem throughout the dirty city, and there were many bordellos, saloons, and gambling dens.

It was considered one of the worst cities on the west coast.

Neuman said that the city was hollowed out and nobody wanted to live downtown in the 1950s and ‘60s. There were also dark times in the 1920s when the KKK had a foothold here, and in the ‘80s and ‘90s, radical skinhead groups found a home here too.

Gentrification

While today, the city remains mostly white, the gentrification of many neighborhoods is a continuing problem that some say explains the high number of homeless who live here.

But the one thing you come away with from any visit to Portland in 2018 is how much different it is than it was.

Pioneer Square, the heart of the city of Portland, was once a parking garage. Guide Richard Neuman tells us all about it.
Pioneer Square, the heart of the city of Portland, was once a parking garage. Guide Richard Neuman tells us all about it.

The city takes pains to treat their homeless people with dignity, people here recycle like it is a religion, and are overwhelmingly liberal, unlike much of this big state which tilts to red in the rural areas.

More than 50 percent of Oregon’s residents live in the Portland area,  about 640,000 in the city proper.

It has taken decades, and a lot of planning, but today, Portland is a high-tech capital, anchored by semiconductor giant Intel, the city’s largest employer, as well as Nike and Adidas, and many other smaller sportswear firms who are based here.

A Great Walking City

Portland has other aspects that help make it a great walking city.  For one, the city blocks are only 200 feet long instead of 400 feet.  Billboards and garish neon signs are banned, except for one street, Broadway. There are 37,000 acres of green space, with 288 public parks and 166 miles of trails to enjoy.

A highway once blocked the view of the Willamette River until it was removed in the 1980s.
A highway once blocked the view of the Willamette River until it was removed in the 1980s.

A bragging point among many residents is the city’s platinum-level designation as a bike-friendly community, and the 90-station, 60-mile Max Light Rail system, that takes you all over the city. And you can take the light rail to the airport for a mere $2.50 each way!

There is also the sleek, Euro-styled Portland Streetcar that connects to the Portland Aerial Tram, which takes 78 passengers from the South Waterfront district to the top of Marquam Hill.

Today, the famous hipsters who enjoy spending days looking over laptops in the dozens of coffee shops are clamoring to live right downtown, despite the consistent lack of racial diversity.

Portlandia Statue

When we came to the statue of the giant women atop the drab brick Portland building, called Portlandia, we learned that the artist, Richard Kaskey, insisted that her image was never to be licensed to be used for any merchandise.

The one exception is the label for a local brew called Portlandia Pils in 2012, for which the artist received royalties.

The hammered copper statue, 85’ high, has never been turned into souvenirs, despite the fact that the artist was paid with public funds for the art he created.

Portland is considered by beer experts to be one of America's top craft brew cities. You'll find local microbrews in every bar, and every supermarket refills growlers of local suds.
Portland is considered by beer experts to be one of America’s top craft brew cities. You’ll find local microbrews in every bar, and every supermarket refills growlers of local suds.

Beer City

According to the Beer Connoisseur, Portland holds the world record for the most breweries, 85 in the metro area, and stations where people can refill their growlers, (large one-gallon beer jugs) at coffee kiosks, cafes and even all of the local Safeway Supermarkets!

Two other things that keep the city fun are karaoke and strip clubs.  The New York Times calls the city the “capital of karaoke,” since there are dozens of bars that offer this sing-along entertainment.

There are also dozens of strip clubs, that are patronized by men and women together, I was told. The Lucky Devil Lounge has been cited as one of the best, and the hipsters who can be found all over the city enjoy this venue and many others on the ‘quirky strip club’ trail.

European style public toilets are another thing that makes Portland a great walking city.
European style public toilets are another thing that makes Portland a great walking city.

Where to Stay: I very much enjoyed my stay at the classy Sentinel Hotel, right in the West End, with spacious rooms and all of the amenities a traveler needs.

How to See Portland:  Portland Walking Tours provide a wonderfully comprehensive tour of downtown, by native Portlanders. Highly recommended.  Pedal Bike Tours offer a bike tour that takes you a little farther afield, we rode all around the different neighborhoods, enjoyed food from outdoor stands, crossed some of the city’s many bridges and learned a lot from our local guide.

Favorite Pot Dispensary: There are too many to count, but we enjoyed the people and the products from Shango, with five locations around the city and suburbs.

Our January 2018 visit to Portland was sponsored by Travel Portland, but the opinions are the author’s own.

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