Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, al3x.net has served as his online home.

Portland

For previous travelogues on this site, I’ve broken up my experiences by day. Thats worked well for some trips, but I don’t think it would make for an interesting impression of Portland (besides, I was Twittering much of the trip from the chronological junkies). There was a fair deal of overlap in our activities from day to day, so instead Im grouping our experiences by topic.

Climate

I’d never been to the Pacific Northwest before visiting Portland. It would’ve been nice if someone had told me that there’s a place thats not too cold, not too hot, not too moist, not too dry, and with a reassuring alternation from grey skies to brilliant sun during the day. Portland in February was some of my ideal weather, brisk but not uncomfortably cold. We left our heavy winter coats back in DC and didn’t once wish for them. A squirt of rain on Saturday didn’t even warrant an umbrella.

Geography

Portland spans the gray-blue Willamette River and is set between sizable, almost mountainous hills. Our hotel was on the East side of the river, by the Convention Center. To get to the more happening Northwest and downtown areas, we crossed the two pedestrian-friendly Steel and Broadway bridges a fair number of times in our short stay. We found the city so walkable, in fact, that we never once used the ample public transit, and took a cab only to get to the far reaches of the Southeast quadrant. That cab trip showed us the expanse of the city, easily missed if one confined oneself to the urban attractions of the Northwest part of the city.

Architecture + Urban Planning

Portland is known for its thoughtful urban planning, from effective use of gridded one-way streets to encouraging mixed-use development. All that planning has paid off. The city is, to a newcomer, eminently attractive and easy to navigate. In Northwest alone there’s a nice mix of older brick warehouses and office buildings, towering glass and steel office buildings, low-slung storefronts, and shiny new condos. The suburbs have an interesting mix of architectural styles; some of the homes look very California, and some remind me of the East Coast.

Walking around, we joked that there’s a city-wide committee dedicated to telling building owners precisely what tasteful color of paint they should employ. There’s hardly a block we passed that wasn’t a perfect palette of shades and hues. The best example of this was in the Pearl District, Portland’s testament to urban revitalization (read: bringing in artists and people with enough disposable income to buy art to fill renovated warehouse space). The Pearl is, for all the yuppification accusations, a lovely neighborhood full of developments that stand together nicely.

Attractions

We decided to walk to the Japanese Garden, which is nestled atop a comically big hill. Its worth every step, though, as it truly is one of the most beautiful gardens Ive seen outside of Japan. Im pretty sure I could’ve stared at the waterfall all afternoon. The whole experience was a mental massage, and we left clear-headed and relaxed.

The Portland Art Museum was outstanding. Coming from DC, my expectations of a museum are somewhat inflated. Portland may not be able to match the sheer scope of DCs cultural offerings, but their museum collection makes up for its size in diverse and intelligent curation. Both the classic and modern wings had great pieces complimented by well-written and thorough information. T even found pieces in the modern collection she actually enjoyed, and thats saying something.

The Chinese Garden wasn’t nearly as impressive as its Japanese counterpart, offering architecture and objects over carefully manicured natural settings. Too short an attraction to warrant its asking price, but convenient to downtown. Powells is really an attraction all its own. We spent easily two hours lost in the stacks of the main store, and another hour in the nearby technical store. Le sigh.

Food

Ah, the food. So. Many. Good. Meals.

Southpark does a lunch thats both elegant and hearty. Try the dates as an appetizer. Close to the Portland Art Museum.

Voodoo Donut is actually kind of a creepy little hole in the wall and the donuts are smaller that you might expect but damn good. We tried some traditional styles and a highly unorthodox Tang donut, all of which worked out just fine. Crap coffee, but its cheap.

The Everett Street Bistro stops serving brunch at 11:30AM. We learned this the hard way. They redeem themselves handily with a delectable menu that includes three different kinds of quiches, each distinct in texture and flavor. Excellent carrot cake, too. Wish we had gone back to try the rabbit ragu.

Sin Ju seems like, well, sushi for white people. Even most of the sushi chefs aren’t Japanese. Damned if all that matters, though, because they serve up great traditional offerings and nouvelle creations alike. Apparently its reservations all the way for a table at dinner, but we had a lovely meal and nice conversation with some locals at the bar.

Bluehour does an excellent Sunday brunch. I had smoked fish on a malt bagel and a chocolate chip pistachio scone that were both excellent. Our hostess and waiter were both charismatic and quirky, and nice balance to the restaurants hip-cum-swanky setting.

Drink

Portland has a reputation as a beer and as a coffee town. These are definitely deserved.

The Rogue pub is a friendly place, with a smallish bar area and a large dining room. Between the two of us we had their Oregon Golden Ale, Honey Orange Wheat, Morimoto Soba Ale, Chocolate Stout, Hazelnut Brown Nectar, and something I cant remember (solid testimony). The Chocolate Stout was actually served in ice cream float form, an absurd decadence that I totally recommend.

The Horse Brass Pub came recommended by DCs local beer wonderland, The Brickskeller. It certainly doesn’t compete with the Bricks giant beer list, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. An excellent selection of taps and solid British food.

Stumptown Coffee also came with a high recommendation, described as some of the best in the country by a friend who should know. Not only does their drip coffee rival high quality French press brews, its a single solitary buck for a mug. What’s more, they have a great selection of Belgian beer when you’ve had enough joe for one day. Essentially heaven.

We wanted to try Henrys 12th Street Taproom for its one hundred beers on tap, but it was a hectic, disorganized mess when we showed up on an early Thursday evening. I don’t mind a wait, but having to hover over other diners in an attempt to snipe a table seems far too uncivilized for a self-styled beer place that serves sushi. A cab driver later confirmed our suspicions.

Sip and Kranz seems to be popular with moms in the Pearl. I don’t know which came first, the moms or the play room, but its actually kind of charming that such a sleek, modern cafe plays perpetual host to a horde of toddlers. We had tasty Stumptown coffee, pastries, and breakfast food at Sip and Kranz, but their French press is overpriced, meagerly sized, and incorrectly timed.

Comix!

T and I are, as you might have guessed from the description of Powells, book people. More specifically, though, we are comic book people. While Powells does surprisingly well in the comic department, nothing beats an indie shop. Floating World Comics opened a mere three months ago, but has a superb selection and a funky atmosphere. Or if zines are your thing they’re sure as shit not mine there’s Reading Frenzy, which also stocks a few proper (non-whiny art school crap) comics. Im trying to remember the name of a niceish shop that was half comics + alt-books and half smut but it escapes me.

People

Four days is hardly long enough to get a sense of the local culture, but Portlanders seem a friendly sort. I had a guy ask to shake my hand for ordering his favorite Belgian beer. Our cab drivers were chatty, helpful characters eager to muse on the virtues and villainies of various neighborhoods. Waiters and shop keepers were cheery and helpful. Portland people seem nicer than average.

Conclusion

For the first time in ages I found myself sorry to be home at the end of a vacation, a feeling that not even London could muster. Portland seems an eminently livable city, relaxing without sacrificing culture and character. Its not a city of particular consequence, but thats liberating and, in a way, inspiring. Portland has clearly been a playground for testing out ideas of what a city could be. I think it could be a great place to try out a more rewarding day-to-day life on a personal level. Regardless, its a fine long-weekend vacation.

Next Week: San Francisco

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