Food trucks were a must-visit for us, but so were a few other things while we were in Portland – I’m sure the following destinations are on the list for most tourists in the city!
Hotel Vintage Plaza
Though this wasn’t exactly a “destination”, it was our first vacation accommodation that constituted a splurge, so it might be worth noting for those planning a trip down.
A few years ago, an acquaintance recommended the Kimpton chain to us when they found out we would be travelling to San Francisco. We loved the hotel so much that we looked forward to our next opportunity to stay at a Kimpton property. That chance came up in Portland, and we chose the Hotel Vintage Plaza (the most inexpensive of their three Portland hotels). We decided to book one of their special Starlight rooms on top of that, the only time we’ve ever gone above a standard room.
The room had a lovely bank of windows, and made our restful evenings easy to fall into. Though of course true starlight was out of our reach, being situated in the downtown core and all, we were able to leave the blinds up for views of the surrounding buildings and nearby bridges.
Kimpton is also known for their hosted wine hours, where wine and nibbles are available to guests and encourage them to mix and mingle in the lobby. Although we didn’t take part every evening, it was a particularly welcome sight on our first night in Portland.
Secrets of Portlandia
We love learning about the cities we visit from locals themselves, and find that walking tours are not only a means to do that, but they also help us situate ourselves towards the beginning of our trip. We found Erik’s Secrets of Portlandia free walking tour advertised online, and joined it on our second day in Portland.
It was a pleasant introduction to the city, and can be best described as part history and part entertainment, with Erik’s penchant for cheesy jokes a common thread throughout.
Our tour guide Erik
We were told how Portland was nearly called Boston, Oregon instead, as the name was ultimately decided by the flip of a coin by the two founding friends. Another highlight was also learning the background behind the Benson Bubblers, the ubiquitous bronze fountains that can be found all over downtown. It turns out they were installed as a means of dissuading lumber workers from imbibing at local pubs over the lunch hour. The water is constantly recycled, so yes, it was safe to take a drink!
Mack drinks from a Benson Bubbler
We also learned about the Shanghai Tunnels that ran underneath some of the bars in Old Town, used to drop workers from the pub to the tunnels below. These unfortunate men were then kidnapped for the journey over the Pacific. I recall reading about other tours that explore parts of the tunnels, but just hearing about it was enough for me!
Don’t get Shanghai’d
I’d highly recommend Erik’s tour – it was a great way to get to know the city, and have fun in the process.
The Secrets of Portlandia tour ended at the doorstep of a Portland institution, Voodoo Doughnuts. Unlike Tim Horton’s (though they are also open 24 hours a day), Voodoo bakes their doughnuts fresh every day, though what they are famous for are their unique varieties, from cereal to Tang to (we were told) Pepto Bismol. We wanted to find out what the hype was about.
The crazy menu
A colourful cake doughnut could have been a rather plain treat, but turned out to be one of the best cake doughnuts I’d ever had. Mack enjoyed his Portland Cream as well. The namesake Voodoo Doll, baked in the shape of a voodoo doll, came complete with several pretzel sticks to – you guessed it – stab the jelly-filled doughnut to your heart’s content. One would be hard pressed to find a more creatively designed doughnut!
Though I’m not sure I’d wait any more than ten to fifteen minutes for a doughnut, we could see why Voodoo is consistently touted as a tourist magnet.
Another Portland institution, Powell’s Books, was a reminder than in some places, independent bookstores are alive and thriving.
Rooms by colour
We visited several of their shops over the course of a week, but their main location, Powell’s City of Books, occupies a full city block. Their selection is second to none, as they claim to be the world’s largest new and independent bookstore, though it was overwhelming to browse every colour-coded floor in one visit.
More books than one could ever explore
We made sure to come back more than once, easy for us given our hotel was in easy walking distance!
Loved this urban homesteading end display
Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade
In Old Town/Chinatown, we played to our heart’s content at the Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade. Most games were just 25 or 50 cents, so it was a fun and inexpensive way to relieve some of our favourite childhood video game characters.
They had a great selection of pinball machines too!
Mack takes his games seriously
Google Maps is deceiving sometimes. Though it indicated that the nearest bus stop was relatively close to Pittock Mansion, our destination, it turned out to be at the bottom of a very steep road that wound its way up the hill.
The mansion originally belonged to Henry Pittock, a newspaper publisher, and was built in 1909. With 22 rooms and a vantage point that including views of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, the Pittock Mansion was a testament to their wealth and luxury.
It was neat to see an elaborate shower of the day, with knobs that lined three sides, and a walk-in cold room with double-glazed windows a thick door.
Loved that there was a toy sausage maker!
In the fisheye mirror
As a tourist destination though, I have to say we enjoyed the walk from Pittock Mansion through Forest and Washington Parks more than visiting the house itself. So unless you have a lot of time to kill, I’d recommend skipping Pittock in favour of wandering the trails nearby.
Portland has over 30 microbreweries, so it seemed necessary to visit at least one of them. We chose the BridgePort Brewpub, which claims to be the oldest craft brewery in Oregon, stopping by for a late lunch one afternoon.
The pub was divided into several rooms, including what looked to be a more polished wine bar-type space. More unique than that, however, was that a live streetcar ticker had actually been installed inside the bar – talk about making it seamless for those who’ve imbibed to use public transit!
To transit, to transit
Mack enjoyed their beer, but the food was nothing particularly special. The tomato bisque was all right, albeit a bit chunky for my taste, while the mac and cheese (topped with kettle chips!) could have used a bit more béchamel sauce.
Mac and cheese
Portland By Bike – Mississippi Avenue
As riding the subway in New York or London is a must, so is exploring Portland by bicycles. It was rated America’s most bicycle-friendly city by Bicycling magazine, and 6% of all trips to work are done by bike.
The bicycle infrastructure was visible as soon as we arrived. At their airport, there were signs directing arrival traffic to a bike assembly station. Bike lanes are visible all over the city (especially on main arterial roads – the same paths that major transit routes travel), and bike racks were omnipresent.
Indoor bike rack
And then there were the cyclists themselves. A critical mass is important, not only for drivers to take note of cyclists, but also for me, a novel cyclist, to feel safe. Although we do encounter cyclists in Edmonton, in Portland, they were whizzing by us at all times of day.
Towards the end of our trip, we rented bikes so we could experience the bike culture first hand. Pedal Bike Tours offered bicycle rentals for $35 per day (including a bike lock and helmet). It was on the pricey side, but allowed us to explore the city on two wheels, at least for the day. The company also had a great map of bike lanes crossed with their tour guides’ favourite spots in the city.
Scrutinizing another map
Earlier in the week, we had passed what looked to be a cool neighbourhood while on the bus, so chose to head back to the Mississippi Avenue, which was a 25 minute bike ride from downtown. Mack had been ribbing me a bit for being afraid to ride on the roads, but I have to say that cycling in a dedicated bike lane made a huge difference for my confidence level. I still had to be cognizant of vehicles turning right, or cars entering the lane from being parked at the curb, but it did feel like drivers knew to watch for cyclists. Other more experienced cyclists we encountered were also quite patient with me, calling out “to your left” prior to passing me in the lane.
Getting used to my wheels
The advantage of a bike, of course, is that one can cover more ground in less time than as a pedestrian, and without being at the mercy of an unknown bus schedule. It also allowed us to explore parts of the city at our leisure. Case in point – we locked up in an area a few blocks away from Mississippi Avenue, lured by unique independent shops (including a vintage dress shop in a converted double decker bus) – and ended up stumbling across Tasty N Sons, one of the most talked about restaurants at that time. We stayed for lunch, and it ended up being my favourite restaurant experience in Portland.
Double decker clothing shop
I loved the worldly brunch menu, and the vibe of the open kitchen and friendly staff. We sat at the bar, which was a great vantage point to watch the cooks at work.
At the counter
My Burmese pork stew was delicious, a lovely combination of spicy and sweet flavours, with tender pork and a fried egg served over short grain rice. Mack similarly loved his barbecue chicken hash, ablaze with Southern spices to awake the palate.
Burmese pork stew
Barbecue chicken hash
I know part of the reason the meal was memorable was due to the fact that it felt like we “earned it” through physical activity, as well as because we stumbled upon it, all because we were on a bicycle.
Over on Mississippi Avenue, we did some window shopping. The neighbourhood offered a great mix of retail and food and drink establishments, including a food cart pod. A few of the highlights included an amazing taxidermy shop, a store that sold nothing but light bulbs, a garden centre with its own outdoor chicken coop, and The Meadow, salt expert Mark Bitterman’s exquisite shop that peddles salt, fine chocolates, and even farm fresh eggs at 45cents a pop!
Light bulbs galore
Inside The Meadow
The salt wall at The Meadow
We’d heard many good things about Por Que No? a popular taqueria. Most of its seating could be considered al fresco dining – some covered, but most occupied sidewalk territory. Mack was a little peeved that they ID’d us, but I suppose we should have taken that as a compliment.
Por Que No?
We snacked on two small tacos, and could see what the hype was all about. At $2.50 a taco, the food was dirt cheap, but didn’t taste like that – the meat was falling apart tender, set upon house-made tortillas. Alongside the sangria, it was a lovely way to enjoy the sunshine on a beautiful day.
Cool drink for a hot day
For dessert, we tried ice cream from Ruby Jewel. Their seasonal Oregon strawberry and honey lavender flavours were delectable.
Mack enjoys his ice cream
Although I am still hesitant about cycling in Edmonton (beyond leisure purposes), I really enjoyed the opportunity to explore what it is like in a bike-friendly city. I would encourage anyone heading to Portland to plan for some time on two wheels!