The first stop on our Oregon Road Trip series is the Portland region – an engulfing mix of lush Pacific Northwest scenery, Asian cuisine, indie shopping and aquatic adventures on the Willamette River. We chose these stops based on a mix of iconic “must-dos” and lesser-known local hangs. Mix and match for your own one-of-a-kind adventure.
Read part 2 – Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Hood
Read part 3 – Willamette Valley
With great natural beauty, a super-creative food scene and robust art, theater and music offerings, the Portland, Oregon area satisfies most, if not all, key travel interests. Those who are lured by the complex richness of urban environments will find gold in metro Portland’s intriguing blend of culture, cuisine and retail. And nature lovers will get their fill of lush greenery, waterways, mountain peaks and outdoor recreation via the area’s more than 200 parks and gardens, the two rivers that frame the city, and the distant vistas of the majestic snow-capped Mount Hood.
Nestled around the Columbia and Willamette rivers, Portland has earned a reputation as a haven for the hip, cool and quirky, stemming from the city’s laid-back, open-minded, open-armed, liberal bent; high-level eco-sensitivity, abundance of breweries, stunningly inventive food carts (there are over 200 of them) and coffeehouses; and edgy arts scene. But as you drive, cycle and walk around the area visiting attractions and soaking up the atmosphere (Portland is extremely walkable and bike friendly), you’ll see why the hipster label, while apt, doesn’t begin to capture the true measure of the appeal to travelers.
Food and Drink
While there are numerous fine dining destinations helmed by James Beard Award-winning chefs in the Portland metro area, it’s the more affordable food carts, craft beers, coffees and baked goodies that have earned the city its stripes as a foodie’s dreamland. The Portland area is teeming with delicious options for every time of day that are easy on the pocket, accessible and highy international in their take. There’s a huge Asian presence in the Portland area, so Asia’s signature foods – from Vietnamese to Chinese to Japanese – predominate.
There are so many coffee houses in Portland and, as a result, it can be really hard to choose where to stop for a pick-me-up. One way you can narrow the field: go for international brews you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. Four delicious spots that fit the bill: In J Coffee (Chinese coffee); La Perlita (Mexican coffee); Café Zamora (Guatemalan coffee); and Ovation Coffee & Tea (Moroccan coffee).
With more than 75 breweries serving up excellent craft beers (and food, too) in the Portland area, it may seem impossible to pinpoint just a few – the city is nicknamed “beervana’ for a reason! A good rule of thumb when selecting a spot for a cold one is to stop by breweries in the vicinity of other activities you’re pursuing. Must-visit breweries include: Ecliptic Brewing, Base Camp Brewing Company and Wayfinder Beer.
As a major city located in the U.S. Pacific Northwest across the Pacific Ocean from Japan, Portland boasts a longstanding and deeply rooted Japanese American heritage expressed in cultural sites, events and markets. The Japanese food scene in Portland is a particularly thriving one; two of Japan’s most known restaurants – Marukin Ramen (specializing in handmade noodles and other signature Japanese dishes) and Shigezo Izakaya (a cutting-edge Japanese pub) – opened their very first American outlets here, and there are numerous other eateries and food-makers in the city that serve equally mouthwatering opt ions. The authenticity and overall superior quality of these spots make them must-trys. Also be sure to stop by Ota Tofu, which makes tofu by hand and is the nation’s oldest tofu house, and the premier Japanese bread and sake destinations:
Bread: In 2016, Oyatsupan Bakers brought mouthwatering traditional Japanese baking to Beaverton, Oregon (which is located seven miles west of Portland and is part of the metro region) along with western-style dough-based breads, pastries and cakes. There are no preservatives in the bakery’s products and, according to the owner, Hiro Horie, they have a special ‘soft mouth feel.’ Try their cream puffs, matcha shortbread and OYATSPAN Dog (a hot dog with mustard baked into a savory pastry).
Sake: The Portland area is not just known for coffee and craft beer brews. It’s also the home of an altogether different type of brewing operation: Sake. Located in Forest Grove, which is part of the Portland metro region, SakeOne combines Willamette Valley water with premium rice grown in the Sacramento Valley to create five excellent brands of handcrafted sake. Stop by the SakeOne Tasting Room to sample and purchase their output as well as the fine sakes they import from Japan.
A truly defining aspect of Portland’s food-centric culture is the hundreds of food carts (more than 600) found here. They cater to a huge range of cuisines and most are clustered in pods throughout the metro region. Many garner rave reviews, but here are a few extremely popular carts to help you narrow the vast field of options as you move through your day. Start off with a breakfast taco from Matt’s BBQ Tacos located on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Eggs, potato and cheese accompany every taco they serve. The point of difference is the type of meat filling in each – it ranges from brisket and jalapeno cheddar sausage to pork belly. When you’re ready for lunch, grab a brick-oven, wood-fired margherita pie at Pyro Pizza in the Cartopia food cart pod. For an afternoon sweet snack, head to Atlas Scoops in Sellwood for a yummy gelato or sorbet cone. When dinner cravings strike, try Farmer and the Beast, which serves classic Americana dishes, including burgers and multiple vegetarians and vegan options, too. Or Nacheaux, where the chef Anthony Brown and his wife meld Cajun/Creole and Mexican influences in mouthwatering dishes like their catfish taco and fried chicken burrito.
The Portland area, divided into six geographical quadrants (Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, Southwest, South and North Portland), comprises many neighborhoods, each with its own unique character and allure. Here are four standouts to visit.
Alberta Arts District
Hit up the Alberta Arts District in Northeast Portland for galleries and street art (the Last Thursday monthly street fair held on Northeast Alberta Street during the summer is a must-do); acoustic concerts and cabaret at the historic Albert Rose Theatre; indie shops, boutiques and galleries; and some terrific eateries and watering holes.
Central Eastside Neighborhood
Located across the Willamette River from downtown, a cache of eateries, microbreweries and river-based activities are giving the Central Eastside neighborhood in Southeast Portland, which is chock full of old industrial factories and warehouses, a vibrant new lease on life. The art, design and fashion scenes here, propelled by a host of cutting-edge tastemakers, are particularly thriving. Shop for duds (design studies and showrooms), sample the suds (eight breweries) and delve into the rich nightlife – from cool bars to indie music venues like Revolution Hall. Then get your dose of nature by walking or biking the 1.5-mile Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade along the river between Hawthorne and Steel bridges.
Nob Hill in Northwest Portland will satisfy your entertainment and culture passions with arts institutions (Pittock Mansion and Peculiarium) and entertainment venues like the historic Cinema 21 and McMenamins Mission Theater. And, because the neighborhood borders Forest Park, a stretch of urban wilderness with 70 miles of trails, you can get a powerful nature fix, too.
Hit up Williams in North Portland for great shopping, international foods, quirky bars (North Williams Avenue has a bunch) and tons of on-trend shopping destinations. Oh, and don’t miss The Wishing Tree located in a resident’s front yard and featuring thousands of handwritten notes strung through the branches. Pen and paper are available at the base of the tree so you can leave your own note behind.
Parks and Outdoors
With gardens (including a spectacular rose garden with 722 varieties), an arboretum, a children’s museum, memorials and statues, a zoo with 2000 animals and a forest, Washington Park caters to visitors of all ages. It’s also a great place to picnic and ride a bike or skateboard if you don’t mind navigating hills. There’s even an archery range for those who can bring their own equipment.
Portland Japanese Garden
You might just forget where you are when you visit this extraordinary Japanese garden tucked in the west hills of the city above Washington Park. The Portland Japanese Garden’s 5.5-acre space is not only meticulously maintained but also exquisitely serene, which makes it a perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of Portland’s more urban settings and experiences. Nurture your spirit with a visit to the Japanese tea house; meander along the streams, waterfalls and walkways; and take in the unrivaled view of Mount Hood.
Lan Su Chinese Garden
Located in the heart of Portland, Lan Su Chinese Garden is a Ming Dynasty-style garden that celebrates Chinese culture and nature’s gifts. Covered walkways, pavilions, bridges and vivid plantings shape a harmonious and lovely setting conducive to relaxation and meditation. Take a tour with an expert staff horticulturalist to gain deeper insight into the urban oasis. Visit during one of their events, like the Chinese New Year celebration held in late January/early February, to add a festive dimension to an otherwise tranquil visit.
Fun outdoor adventure is always within reach in the Portland region. The fact that the Willamette River bisects the city makes it an aquatic haven for stand-up paddleboarders, kayakers, fishers and swimmers alike during the summer months. Paddlers seek wildlife (one can easily spot otters, beavers and deer), anglers cast for Chinook salmon and swimmers seek the cool waters as well as the scenic riverbanks for lounging. For a fresh perspective on the river and city, take a boat tour on the river – both high-speed and more leisurely trips are available.
A boat trip will let you view Willamette Falls located on the river in Oregon City near the southern limits of the Portland metro region. This spectacular horseshoe-shaped waterfall thrills visitors with the sheer beauty and power of its cascade. It’s the largest waterfall in the northwestern U.S. by volume and you definitely won’t want to miss seeing it during your trip. You can also view the falls from viewpoints along the bluffs of Oregon City, from the Oregon City Bridge, a signed viewpoint on Highway 99E and a viewpoint on northbound I-205.
Next Up—Region 2: The Columbia River Gorge/Mt Hood region. Just east of Portland, about an hour’s drive away, is the Columbia River Gorge and beyond that is Mt. Hood with its shimmering glacial cap. After your big city adventures, immerse yourself in the natural majesty of these two areas.