“Something about Portland just really resonated with me.”Fred Armisen.
Here’s the thing: although I am petrified of heights, I have never had an issue with aeroplane travel. In fact, I’m an excellent flyer. (I’m also one of those shit people who can sleep for 10 hours on a long haul flight. Don’t hate me.)
Traveling to Portland, Oregon very nearly changed that.
Last time in the US I went to Portland, Maine but this time I was determined to visit it’s better known West Coast namesake. I’d only heard great things about this Portland from everyone who had visited – the people, the food, the sights, were all meant to be excellent. So I booked it in, thinking I’d head up to Banff next and cut over to Niagara that way.
The flight started like any other. A routine check in at LAX, window seat for me and two blokes in their mid-20s to finish off the row. I listened to music and probably dozed off at some point. It wasn’t a long flight, maybe three hours from memory, but as soon as something starts moving I get sleepy.
I knew Portland would be a lot colder than the shorts and t-shirt weather I’d experienced in LA and by default, the weather would be worse. As we got closer to Oregon the ride started to get a little bumpy. There’s been a massive storm there that morning, the wind was howling and it wasn’t quite raining but it wasn’t quite snowing. It was disgraceful weather for anyone on the ground, let alone those of us in the air.
Then the turbulence started.
And kept going.
And kept going.
The whole plane was shaking and even the flight attendants were strapped in, which is never a good sign. I can’t say I was ever truly frightened but I was certainly anxious, especially as we moved closer to the runway to land and the plane was still shuddering heavily.
Then we aborted the landing, maybe 100m from the ground.
Up we went again, still subject to that damn turbulence, and the pilot told us the storm was hampering the plane’s ability to land but we’d try again shortly. And we did, only to end up repeating the process: dropping to about 100m off the ground then pulling out.
By this stage, I wasn’t just anxious, I was nauseous. The constant moving about was enough to make anyone feel ill. We were told we’d head to Seattle instead, less than an hour away, and people started to pull out their sick bags. I could hear the sound of coughing and spitting, that awful feeling you get right before you vomit. The flight attendants got up and handed out cups of ice, promising us it would make us feel better. I took mine and it did, but barely.
We landed in Seattle without issue and were told that we’d be there indefinitely until it because safe for us to try again. Because we didn’t have a scheduled slot, we had to stay in the plane on the tarmac. The one caveat was that anyone with carry on luggage who wanted to get off could, but they’d have to make their own way to Portland. I’d been chatting to the two men sitting next to me and they’d called at friend who was in college there. The three of them had plans to go to a concert in Portland and they got their friend to drive the three hours from Portland to pick them up rather than wait. Very kindly they offered me a lift but I had luggage so I couldn’t get off.
We spent about three hours of our own sitting on that plane on the tarmac. I kept listening to music and waiting. Finally, finally, the announcement came that we were going to have another crack at landing in Portland. Off we went.
When we landed, the whole plane clapped and cheered. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to arrive somewhere.
And luckily, Portland ended up being just as wonderful and worthwhile as everyone promised me it would be.
Where to stay.
Portland has a relatively small downtown/CBD area so no matter where yo stay in it, you should find it easy to get around. The street blocks are fairly small and the city is really walkable, plus there’s a good tram service for the times you just don’t want to walk any more.
I stayed at the Downtown Value Inn which is close to the Portland State University and kind of feels like an old dorm building turned into a hotel. That said, even though it wasn’t fancy the room was huge and it didn’t cost me a fortune to stay there (about AUD$120 per night). It’s at the southern end of downtown, which is a bit quieter and there aren’t as many restaurants in the immediate area but it’s an easy walk up to the more populated areas. There’s a college bar downstairs and around the corner, but I wasn’t troubled much by noise. It’s also really easy to get transport to and from the airport from close by the hotel, and I found it felt really safe to walk around at all hours.
If you’re looking to stay downtown, I wouldn’t go any further south than this and then anywhere up to Burnside Street in the north will be good.
Where to eat.
Portland = food carts.
If you’re visiting the city then at least one food cart stop is a must, even if it’s just to say you did it. Pick your favourite cuisine and I bet it’s represented. There’s plenty of blog posts out there about what’s good and most hotels can give you a recommendation or two. Otherwise this website has a great map of current carts so you eat your way around the city.
The majority of the food carts are set up in little blocks in different hot spots across the city. Because I was staying downtown, I hit up the one between Washington and Alder, 9th and 10th streets. There’s probably about 30 options all up and mostly international cuisine, especially Asian and Middle Eastern. I cut a lap of the block before ultimately deciding that the Grilled Cheese Grill was going to take my money.
I loved this sandwich. It was hot and fresh and ready fairly quickly. I don’t get the American thing with serving chips like these with stuff, but I’ll take ‘em, and I always like the salty/sweet/sour of a good pickle. Not too expensive and super filling – I ended up giving part of mine away to a random guy who was hanging around. I also tried an Asian noodle cart the next day and really enjoyed that one too.
If you have anything even close to a sweet tooth, then you’re going to be heading to Voodoo Doughnuts. The place is somewhat legendary and as a person with an unremitting sweet tooth, I’d already been given the heads up by a fellow sugar lover. So when I arrived to this little shop on the corner about 6.30pm at night, I found a long line winding back from a permanent chain rope set up.
As though I wasn’t lining up though. This is doughnuts we are talking about. About 20 minutes into my wait I got a shock when a man walked past and sneered at us, saying “these doughnuts aren’t even that good… and they’re VEGAN!!!”
Ain’t no way I’m lining up for no bullshit vegan doughnuts. That is not in my wheelhouse. So I madly set about googling Voodoo Doughnuts to see if he speaks the truth and I discover that yes, there are vegan doughnuts there but there are also plenty of garden variety ones. Phew.
Soon after I came to a large poster tacked to the outside of the store that outlined all the different types of doughnuts. I used this time wisely to read through a select a couple of options. Other people clearly didn’t bother with this because once I got inside, I saw they fucked around and around and around, trying to choose while everyone had to wait in that long line outside at the mercy of their incompetence. Do us all a favour and pick your damn treat out early.
I got inside and went for three: the moon pie, which had marshmallow inside, a chocolate chilli, and the fruit loops covered doughnut you can see in the background. That was my first night’s dinner in Portland. True story. The doughnuts were good though… real good. I can’t in all honesty say that Voodoo Doughnuts is the best doughnut of my life but they are excellent and definitely worth the 25 minutes I had to line up for. And they’re cheap – from about US $1.25 to $2.65 per doughnut from memory.
Weirdly, given we’re almost as far north in the US as you can go, some of the best Southern food I’ve ever eaten was in Portland. I’m a brunch connossieur and every search I ran for an early meal in the city led me to Screen Door. It’s a little way out of downtown but the reviews were so good (and there was a shop nearby that I wanted to visit) that I hopped on a bus and headed over.
Biscuits – the American kind, the ones like a scone but savoury – are one of my favourite things in the world and the fact they haven’t caught on in Australia is criminal. Any time I see those damn things on a menu I‘m all in. I had the Cat’s Head, so named because the piece of fried chicken is as big as a cat’s head. The grits are basically some kind of cheesy porridge that I do not care much for, however the gravy, chicken and biscuit were all sublime. Seriously good stuff.
Finally, coffee. Serious business for Australians, particularly us Melbourne people. Stumptown Coffee was recommended to me and I had more than a few cold brews from the outlet at the Ace Hotel. Best place to get your fix.
What to see and do.
Portland is quirky and weird and everything they say about it is true. It’s just different. But it’s also a city that’s gorgeously laid out and easy to navigate, pretty to look at, filled with great people and even greater things to do, eat and buy. I loved it straight away and knew we were going to have a good time together over the couple of days I was there.
Because the downtown area is so compact, it’s easy to get around on foot (which is always my favourite way to see a city). No matter what time you arrive, I’d definitely start by heading to one of the food cart locations to get something amazing to eat. From there, have a wander around the downtown area’s shops and parks – including the lovely Courthouse Square – before heading over to the Portland Art Museum. It’s not the biggest art gallery but it has a great collection, particularly of modern and American pieces. It’s definitely worth a wander through.
If you’re into art, Portland also has a lot of street art and murals scatered throughout it’s streets. I saw some fantastic works while I was there and it’s worth hunting some of it down. This website is a great resource for those who prefer to view their art outside.
From the art museum, head north to Burnside Street. This area has a lot of great boutiques, restaurants and bars – including probably the best shop in Portland, Powell’s Books. This place is absolute heaven for book lovers. It’s enormous for a start, and there were so many incredible books there I would have loved to taken home (damn luggage weight restrictions). To be honest, I could have spent hours in here just browsing through. Powell’s carries an immense amount of stock so if there’s ever been a book you’ve tried to find without luck, it’ll probably show up here.
This area is also home to a ton of breweries – Portland has the highest number of breweries per capita in the whole of the US, so it’s a beer lover’s delight. Lots of these places are smaller, micro/craft brewery style places so they have a really welcoming feel. I went to a place over the Williamette River called The Commons Brewery which was fantastic, however it has sadly closed since my visit. That said, there are heaps of other places to check out.
Finally, if you’re in Portland on a weekend then definitely check out the Portland Saturday Market which runs every Saturday and Sunday. It’s packed with food and crafts stalls and is set up in parkland next to the Burnside Bridge over the river, so it’s lovely to just wander through and enjoy.
Where to shop.
I mean, obviously you’re going to Powell’s Books. Goes without saying.
I first heard about OLO Fragrance in the comments on a niche perfume post on Into The Gloss; being something of a fragrance connoisseur it stuck in my mind. Once I made the connection between it being a Portland company and my impending trip, I knew I’d pay a visit.
So I did. I checked their socials beforehand, too. Only to be met with a sign saying they were closed and would be reopening the following day, the same day I was leaving the city. FML/first world problems.
I went back into downtown and found myself at The wonderful Frances May, a boutique store that stocks an array of great brands including OLO. I reckon I smelled every single fragrance tester they had before finally deciding on the dark juice of Victory Wolf. I’m not much of a floral or fruity perfume gal and VW is right up my alley. It smells like secrets around a campfire in a forest, all woodsmoke and pine. Nothing like your garden variety department store scent. But I loved it and I bought it, then wore it for the rest of my trip.
Portland: a snapshot.
How long should I stay: I arrived at 8.30am on my first day so ended up with three full days in Portland. I reckon that was absolutely perfect – long enough to enjoy the city at an easy pace and not miss out on anything, but I also ensured my days were full.
Getting around: It’s an easy city to walk around, however there’s also a tram service through downtown or buses if you want to cross the river. The tram also goes to and from the airport really cheaply and really easily, so there’s no need to organise transfers.
When to go: I went in April and it was cool without being cold. Being the Pacific North-West then winter would be pretty rough, so I’d stick to the warmer months.
Key places for first timers: Powell’s Books, food carts, breweries, Portland Saturday Market.
Underrated gem: The street art scene is fantastic and it’s such a great surprise to see a piece pop up.
If I could only eat at one place: Voodoo Doughnuts. As a renowned sweet tooth this tops my list but Screen Door is a very close second.
Best photo opportunities: Head down to the Saturday Market and grab some snaps by the Williamette River of some of Portland’s famous bridges. Also you want a classic shelf shot inside Powell’s for sure.