95 miles NW of Portland; 20 miles S of Long Beach, WA; 17 miles N of Seaside
History runs deep in Astoria. In fact, you could say that Oregon’s Euro-centric history started right here, where the mighty Columbia River spills into the Pacific Ocean. First, in the winter of 1805-06, the explorers Lewis and Clark built Fort Clatsop 5 miles south, establishing an American claim to what would become the Oregon Country. Five years later, in 1811, fur traders working for John Jacob Astor arrived at the mouth of the Columbia to set up a fur-trading fort that was named Fort Astoria, in Astor’s honor, and became the first permanent American settlement west of the Mississippi. Astoria served as an important shipping port for the huge loads of timber cut in Oregon’s virgin old-growth forests and shipped around the world. And because no real roads existed along the Oregon coast, Astoria became a port for the passenger and cargo ships sailing from New York around Cape Horn, and for the steamers that worked their way up the Oregon coast from San Francisco. Back then, the river teemed with unimaginable numbers of salmon, and when the salmon-canning boom hit in the 1880s, Astoria became a hustling and bustling little city—the second largest in Oregon—and wealthy merchants, sea captains, timbermen, and fish barons began building the ornate, Victorian-style homes that still dot the steep hillsides. Finnish, German, Swedish, and Norwegian immigrants poured into the burgeoning city to work in the canneries and lumber mills and on fishing boats. World War II saw another maritime boom for Astoria, but when the salmon dwindled because of overfishing, the canneries disappeared. The city’s fortunes waned, and by the 1960s Astoria was a pretty sorry-looking place.
It had incredible potential as a tourist destination, but, as the resources that fueled its growth dwindled or dropped away, it lost its economic oomph and couldn’t do much more than struggle along. Now that is changing, and people are talking about an Astoria renaissance. More people have discovered or rediscovered Astoria and the scenic splendor of the Columbia River; old homes and derelict buildings have been restored and taken on a new life. The changeover began with the restoration of the Liberty Theater downtown, a venue that now attracts a wide variety of performers; and the revitalization of the old waterfront area, which is now more accessible because of the 5-mile-long Astoria Riverwalk trail. New hotels have been built, old hotels and historic properties have been reimagined, and restaurants, coffee houses, and brewpubs have sprung up. Hopefully, as this transformation takes shape, Astoria will not lose its working-class heritage. There are still buildings here like Suomi Hall, the Finnish community’s social center, but other historic places like the old Finnish bathhouse have disappeared.
Because this old city is located just inland from the river’s giant, 14-mile-wide mouth, it is more a river port than a beach town. The Coast Guard is a major employer and presence in town, and there’s still a big commercial and recreational fishing industry. One new development is that about a dozen cruise ships heading up to Alaska or down to California now dock at Astoria and send their 2,000 or 3,000 passengers into the town for the day or just an afternoon (another reason why new businesses are opening).
For visitors, Astoria’s greatest attractions are its restored downtown area, filled with buildings from the 1920s through the 1950s; its hillsides of restored Victorian homes; the scenic views across the Columbia to the hills of southwestern Washington; and the excellent Columbia River Maritime Museum. The combination of historical character, scenic vistas, a lively arts community, and some interesting museums make this one of the most intriguing towns on the Oregon coast.
WHERE TO EAT
The “Astoria renaissance” everyone is talking about definitely extends to the city’s ever-expanding restaurant scene. Until just 5 years ago, Astoria was a city with a couple of so-so restaurants. Now the area around the restored Liberty Theater at 12th and Commercial has several worthwhile dining spots, and there are also a couple of good places on or near the waterfront. For to-go fare, I’d suggest that you check out the new food carts at 13th and Duane streets; there’s a pleasant plaza there with picnic tables for outdoor noshing in nice weather.
Coffee, Beer, Wine and More
Astoria’s all about the food and drink nowadays, so here are a few more tasty options:
Smoked Fish & Deli: Josephson’s, 106 Marine Dr. (www.josephsons.com; [tel] 800/772-3474 or 503/325-2190) is a local seafood-smoking company that opened in 1920 and sells smoked salmon by the quarter-pound. It has a take-out deli counter with clam chowder, salmon burgers, and more.
Coffee: For the best latte in town, head down to Three Cups Coffee House, 279 West Marine Dr. ([tel] 503/325-7487), the coffee house that shares space with Columbia Coffee Roasters. I love its friendly, funky vibe. In downtown Astoria you can get good espresso at the Astoria Coffeehouse & Bistro, 243 11th St. (www.astoriacoffeehouse.com; [tel] 503/325-1787). Another good caffeine station, is Coffee Girl, 100 39th St. (www.thecoffeegirl.com; 503/325-6700), located at the end of Pier 39 in the world’s oldest cannery building. Here you can sit next to the river (inside or out) and enjoy breakfast, lunch, or a delectable pastry with your espresso.
Brewpubs: Astoria is big on brewpubs. Downtown on the waterfront, there’s the Wet Dog Café & Brewery, 144 11th St. (www.wetdogcafe.com; [tel] 503/325-6975), and at the east end of town, there’s the Rogue Ales Public House, Pier 39, 100 39th St. (www.rogue.com; [tel] 503/325-5964), where you can sometimes watch seals just outside the window. Some of the most unusual brews in town are on tap at the Fort George Brewery & Public House, 1483 Duane St. (www.fortgeorgebrewery.com; [tel] 503/325-7468).
Bakery: The Blue Scorcher Bakery Café, 1493 Duane St. (www.bluescorcher.com; [tel] 503/338-7473), is Astoria’s best bakery, making and selling organic, artisan goods.
Wine: The Cellar on 10th, 1004 Marine Dr. (www.thecellaron10th.com; [tel] 503/325-6600), is a well-stocked wine shop that has weekly tastings and occasional winemaker dinners.
Enjoying Sundays at the Astoria Sunday Market
Astoria After Dark
The major performing-arts venue in Astoria is the Liberty Theater, 1203 Commercial St. (www.liberty-theater.org; [tel] 503/325-5922), a handsomely restored 1920s movie palace that now hosts a surprising array of performers and performances throughout the year. If you’re here in the summer, you might enjoy a performance of Shanghaied in Astoria, a musical melodrama that is staged each year by the Astor Street Opry Company, 129 W. Bond St. (www.shanghaiedinastoria.com; [tel] 503/325-6104). Performances are usually held from early July to mid-September.