Portland was the last leg of our trip to the Willamette Valley’s International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). Although we have enjoyed previous visits to the city, our last visit consisted primarily of long walks through two of Washington Park’s beautiful gardens–the renowned Rose Test Garden and the wonderfully tranquil Japanese garden. We spent so much time in the gardens, that we barely even got into the city. This time, we skipped the park in favor of spending a little time reacquainting ourselves with the downtown area and to explore a few of the city’s particularly trendy neighborhoods.
Our first impression is that the town is immaculately clean, very pedestrian and biker friendly, and very laid back. Our biggest problem–since we come from a larger city–is that Portlandians are TOO friendly, TOO polite and TOO helpful. Still, we managed to get past these cultural dislocations to not only reacquaint ourselves with the downtown area, but also to explore some of the city’s more interesting neighborhoods.
Portland Downtown’s Primary Sights
Before branching out into the neighborhoods, we took a few hours to briefly reacquaint ourselves with some of downtown’s more memorable areas and sights. These included:
- Kensington Saturday Market, which we managed to hit on Sunday (yes, the Saturday market inexplicably lasts two days). The market consists of row after row of stalls in which local artisans hawk everything from art, to all types of crafts and toys and snacks for pets. Although the market does have its own food booth it is also conveniently located less than a block from a Portland dessert institution;
- South Park Blocks are a few blocks that line a park and serve as the center of the city’s cultural life. It has art and history (with its eight-story Lewis and Clark murals), museums and some remaining Italianate mansions;
- Pioneer Courthouse Square P. When we were there, it had a farmers’ market with some of the most beautiful berries we have ever seen.
- Powell’s City of Books is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country;
- Portlandia sculpture, which has become a symbol of the city; and
- Voodoo Donuts, with its unusual ingredients, toppings and shaped donuts. It is perpetually filled and attracts a line of people that stretch down the block.
The real action, however, is in Portland’s neighborhoods.
Portland is a young, edgy city, with young people transforming traditional neighborhoods. One neighborhood, Pearl Street, is so centrally located and popular that is has become part of the “establishment”. We found a couple more edgy neighborhoods on purpose, and another by accident. Not surprisingly, all had some of the city’s hottest restaurants. We drove for dinner to the Northeastern neighborhood around Alberta Street and then took advantage of the incredibly bike-friendly city to bike to two others–Hawthorne Street and Division Street.
- Pearl District is a short, easy walk from downtown–so close that it is really considered to be part of the central city. This lower section of this very upscale district is largely commercial, with art galleries, furniture stores and popular restaurants and bars–including the huge, immensely popular and packed Deschutes Brewery, with its dozens of hand-crafted lagers and ales and an interesting pub menus that includes pork and grits, grilled wild salmon tacos, and burgers made of everything from elk to quinoa and cashew! And we can’t forget Jimmy Mac’s Jazz Club, where we missed some of the national headline groups, but did manage to catch a local benefit concert. Then, north of the commercial district, it is largely residential. The entire neighborhood, commercial and residential, consists primarily of beautifully restored brick buildings, adding to the district’s charm.
- Alberta Street. We discovered Alberta Street (in the northeast quadrant of the city) on our way to the restaurant, Beast (which is discussed in our Portland Restaurant post). The surrounding working class neighborhood has seen its better decades. While many of the homes are aging, Alberta Street is totally gentrified, filled with restaurants, bars and boutiques. Some of the shops, such as the Salt and Straw ice cream shop, have become institutions, with 100-person lines, frequently entertained by street musicians, wait patiently for their cones. Pie Bar, where you can get artisanal cocktails with beautiful. locally-sourced fruit pies, is appears to be well on its way to developing its own audience. Other shops, such as the medical mushroom store and the Herbarium, target more specialized clienteles. Overall, however, if you are in the area (and a trip to Beast is well worth the five-mile trip from the city center), allow an extra couple hours for a stroll through the neighborhood, a drink and either a slice of pie or an ice cream.
- Hawthorne Street is one of the youngest and edgiest of Portland’s many neighborhoods. It is filled with lovely Craftsman-style homes, vintage clothing and record stores, alternative medicine shops and casual restaurants–especially for ethnic street food. It also has a phenomenal shop called Pastaworks, with its large selection of wines, cheeses and especially locally-grown produce and house-made sausages and, of course, pastas.
- Division Street is what some refers to as a Hawthorne Street wannabe. It, however, is becoming more upscale and consists of many newer (rather than restored older) buildings. Large stretches of the street are under construction and you must continually cross the road to avoid construction zones. It has also become a destination for some of the city’s hottest restaurants (especially Ava Gene and Pok Pok–see our Portland Restaurant post) and ice cream shop (Salt and Straw). And since we hit this branch early, we were even able to get in to sample come of their most popular, locally-sourced specialties—especially sea salt with crunchy ganache, Arbequino olive oil and Stumptown coffee and Burnside Bourbon.