Most American cities boast about their museums and historic buildings, shopping, and restaurants; Portland, as always, is different. Ask a Portlander about the city's must-see attractions, and you'll probably be directed to the Portland Japanese Garden, the International Rose Test Garden, and the Lan Su Chinese Garden. Gardening is a Portland obsession, and thanks to the moist and mild weather here, you'll find some of the finest public gardens in the country. There are not only the three world-class public gardens already mentioned, but also plenty of other noteworthy public gardens and parks as well. Visiting all the city’s noteworthy parks and gardens can easily take up 2 or 3 days. Seattle, and not Portland, is the place where you’re more likely to encounter big museums, intriguing exhibitions and splashy traveling art exhibitions. This isn't to say that the Portland Art Museum, which often hosts interesting traveling exhibitions, isn't worth visiting or that the Oregon Historical Society Museum is not worth your time. They are, but they tend to have a local rather than an international focus. The city’s really not so much about spending hours in museums as it is about exploring neighborhoods, parks and gardens, and nearby nature.
Once you've seen the city's main attractions, it's time to start learning why everyone loves living here so much. Portlanders, for the most part, are active types who enjoy skiing on Mount Hood and hiking in the Columbia Gorge just as much as they enjoy going to art museums, so no visit to Portland would be complete without venturing out into the Oregon countryside. Within 1 1/2 hours you can be skiing on Mount Hood, walking beside the chilly waters of the Pacific, sampling pinot noir in wine country, or hiking beside a waterfall in the Columbia Gorge. But for those who prefer urban activities, the museums and parks should satisfy.
Downtown Cultural District
Any visit to downtown Portland should start at Pioneer Courthouse Square at the corner of SW Broadway and Yamhill Street. The brick-paved square (restored in 2017) is an outdoor stage for everything from summer outdoor movies to flower displays to concerts to protest rallies. A few decades ago it was a parking lot, created in 1951 when the Portland Hotel—a Queen Anne–style chateau and an architectural gem—was demolished. Long before that, Pioneer Square was the site of Portland’s first schoolhouse. The octagonal cupola of the Classic Revival Pioneer Courthouse (701 SW 6th Ave.) at the east end of the square has been a Portland landmark since it was completed in 1873. The first federal building to be constructed in the Pacific Northwest, the courthouse was designed by Alfred Mullet, who also designed the San Francisco Mint. The two large wings on its west facade were added in 1903.
Today the square, with its waterfall fountain and freestanding columns, is Portland's favorite downtown gathering spot, especially at noon, when the Weather Machine, a googy mechanical sculpture, forecasts the weather for the next 24 hours. Amid a fanfare of music and flashing lights, the Weather Machine sends up clouds of mist followed by a sun (clear weather), a dragon (stormy weather), or a blue heron (clouds and drizzle).
The Portland Visitor Information Center and Tri-Met ticket office are located behind and beneath the fountains, and a big Starbucks with outdoor tables overlooking the square anchors the corner above. Every Monday from June through September a farmers market is held in the square between 10am and 2pm. Check the Pioneer Courthouse Square website (www.thesquarepdx.org) for upcoming events.
Keep your eyes on the square's brick pavement, too. Every brick contains a name (or names) or statement, and some are rather curious. Unfortunately, you'll also find plenty of street kids hanging out here all hours of the day and night, so don't be surprised if they ask you for spare change.
Also not to be missed in this neighborhood are Portlandia and the Portland Building, 1120 SW Fifth Ave. The symbol of the city, Portlandia is the second-largest hammered bronze statue in the country (the largest is the Statue of Liberty). The massive kneeling figure holds a trident in one hand and reaches toward the street with the other. This classically designed figure perches incongruously above the entrance to architect Michael Graves' controversial Portland Building, considered to be the first postmodern structure in the United States. Today anyone familiar with the bizarre constructions of Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry would find it difficult to understand how such an innocuous and attractive building could have ever raised such a fuss, but it did just that in the early 1980s.
Shopping for produce may not be on your usual vacation itinerary, but the Portland Farmers Market (tel. 503/241-0032; www.portlandfarmersmarket.org), which can be found in this neighborhood's South Park blocks between SW College and SW Montgomery streets, is such a quintessentially Portland experience that you will not be able to say you have gained a sense of what this city is about unless you visit. Portland is a city obsessed with food, and nowhere is this more apparent than at this weekly market. Fresh berries, wild mushrooms and other foraged produce, salmon, oysters, pastries, artisan breads, hazelnuts, local wines -- you'll find all of this and more here at the market. Live music and cooking demonstrations by local chefs add to the market's appeal. The market is held on Saturdays from 8:30am to 2pm between April and October, and from 9am to 2pm in November through March.
Walking Along the Willamette
It’s pronounced Will-am-ette, not Will-a-met, and it flows right through the heart of Portland. This river played an important role in the lives of the Native American Multnomah tribe (Portland is in Multnomah County) and was an essential route for the pioneers who trekked across country on the Oregon Trail and poured into the Willamette Valley in the mid-19th century. Pioneers took boats and rafts down this tributary of the Columbia to Oregon City, which marked the end of the Oregon Trail. It was in Oregon City that land claims could be made. The river was deep enough to allow Portland to become a major inland port—hence all the historic drawbridges that you can see downtown. On the west side, you can stroll along the river downtown at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. On the east side, a paved pathway connects OMSI to the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade to the north. The path from OMSI also heads south 3 miles to Oaks Amusement Park. Along the pathway beside the museum, several interesting informational plaques tell the history of Portland and its relationship to the Willamette.
Skidmore Historic District, Chinatown, the Pearl District & the Willamette River Waterfront
If Pioneer Courthouse Square is the city's living room, Tom McCall Waterfront Park, along the Willamette River, is the city's front-yard play area. There are acres of lawns, shade trees, sculptures, and fountains, and the paved path through the park is popular with in-line skaters and joggers. This park also serves as the site of numerous festivals every summer. Also in the park is the Japanese-American Historical Plaza, dedicated to Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps during World War II.
Just north of this plaza, a pedestrian walkway crosses the Steel Bridge to the east side of the Willamette River and the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade, which stretches for about 1 1/2 miles along the east bank of the river. Although this paved multiuse path gets a lot of traffic noise from the adjacent freeway, it offers great views of the Portland skyline. Along the route are small parks and gardens, interesting sculptures, and benches for sitting and soaking up the view. The highlight of this path is a section that floats right on the river and is attached to pilings in much the same way that a floating dock is constructed. You can access the Eastbank Esplanade by way of the pedestrian pathway on the Steel Bridge. This bridge is at the north end of Waterfront Park.
Pearls in the Pearl District -- The Pearl District is Portland's hottest neighborhood, and in addition to all the restaurants, wine bars, and boutiques, there are some fun works of public art, a beautiful little park that looks like a small park in Paris, and an innovative park that is something of a quiet natural area within an urban setting.
Stroll through the tree-shaded parks of the North Park blocks, which form the eastern edge of the Pearl District, and at the Burnside Street end of these parks, you'll see a huge Chinese bronze elephant that was a gift from one of Portland's sister cities. A couple of blocks north of this elephant, watch for a bronze dog-bowl water fountain set in a checkerboard floor of stone. This odd sculpture was created by William Wegman, famous for his humorous photos of his dogs.
Right in the heart of the Pearl District, at the corner of NW Johnson Street and NW 10th Avenue, you'll find Jamison Square, a park with an unusual wall-like cascading waterfall that fills a shallow pool. Around the graveled areas of the park, you'll find bistro chairs, where you can sit and enjoy a latte from a nearby espresso bar. Be sure to notice the totem-pole-inspired sculptures along the western edge of the park. Two blocks north of Jamison Square, at the corner of NW 10th Avenue and NW Marshall Street, you'll find Tanner Springs Park, an unusual little natural area that revives the springs that once flowed here while at the same time commemorating the railroad yards that predate the Pearl District's many new developments.
Washington Park & Portland's West Hills
Portland is justly proud of its green spaces, and foremost among them are Washington Park and Forest Park.
Within Washington Park, you'll find the Japanese Garden and International Rose Test Garden, which are adjacent to one another on the more developed east side of the park. On the west side of the park (farther from the city center), you'll find not only the Hoyt Arboretum but also the Oregon Zoo, World Forestry Center Discovery Museum, and the Portland Children's Museum.
The 187-acre Hoyt Arboretum, 4000 SW Fairview Blvd. (tel. 503/865-8733; www.hoytarboretum.org) includes over 1,000 species of trees and shrubs from temperate regions around the world and has several miles of hiking trails. At the south end of the arboretum, adjacent to the World Forestry Center Discovery Museum and the Oregon Zoo, is the Vietnam Veterans Living Memorial. At the arboretum's Visitor Center, 4000 SW Fairview Blvd. (Mon-Fri 9am-4pm and Sat 9am-3pm), you can pick up maps and guides to the arboretum. The arboretum can be reached either from the Oregon Zoo/World Forestry Center Discovery Museum/Portland Children's Museum area or by following the arboretum signs from West Burnside Street.
To the north of Hoyt Arboretum is Forest Park (tel. 503/823-PLAY ), which, with more than 5,000 acres of forest, is one of the largest forested city parks in the United States. Within the park are more than 74 miles of trails and old fire roads for hiking, jogging, and mountain biking. More than 100 species of birds call this forest home, making it a great spot for urban bird-watching. Along the forest trails, you can see huge old trees and find quiet picnic spots tucked away in the woods. One of the most convenient park access points is at the top of NW Thurman Street (just keep heading uphill until the road dead-ends). You can also park at the Hoyt Arboretum visitor center or the Audubon Society at 5151 NW Cornell Rd., pick up a map of Forest Park, and head out from either of these locations.
Adjacent to Forest Park, the Portland Audubon Society, 5151 NW Cornell Rd. (tel. 503/292-6855; www.audubonportland.org) has a couple of miles of hiking trails on its forested property. In keeping with its mission to promote enjoyment, understanding, and protection of the natural world, these nature trails are open to the public. You can also visit the Nature Store or Wildlife Care Center here. To find this facility from downtown Portland, first drive to NW 23rd Avenue, and then head uphill on NW Lovejoy Street, which becomes NW Cornell Road. (Warning: Car break-ins are commonplace at the parking area just down the road from the Audubon Society, so don't leave anything of value in your car.)
By car, the easiest route to the Washington Park attractions from downtown Portland is to take SW Jefferson Street west, turn right onto SW 18th Avenue, left on SW Salmon Street, right on SW King Street, and then left onto SW Park Place. Although this sounds confusing, you'll find most of the route well marked with "Scenic Drive" signs. Alternatively, you can drive west on West Burnside Street and watch for signs to the arboretum, or take the zoo exit off U.S. 26. All of these attractions can also be reached via bus no. 63. You can also take the MAX line to the Washington Park Station, which is adjacent to the Oregon Zoo, World Forestry Center Discovery Museum, Portland Children's Museum, and Hoyt Arboretum. From here it is possible (in the summer months) to take a bus shuttle to the Japanese Garden and International Rose Test Garden. There's also a miniature train that runs from the zoo to a station near the two public gardens. However, to ride this train, you must first pay zoo admission.
Great Photo Ops -- If you've seen a photo of Portland with conical snow-covered Mount Hood looming in the background and you want to snap a similar photo while you're in town, there are several places to try. Most popular are probably the terraces of the International Rose Test Garden and from behind the pavilion at the Japanese Garden. Another great view can be glimpsed from the grounds of the Pittock Mansion.
One other not-to-be-missed vista is located atop Council Crest, a hilltop park in Portland's West Hills. To reach this park, take the Sylvan exit off U.S. 26 west of downtown Portland, turn south and then east (left) on Humphrey Boulevard, and then follow the signs. Alternatively, you can follow SW Broadway south out of downtown Portland and follow the signs. This road winds through attractive hillside neighborhoods for a ways before reaching Council Crest.
All Aboard! -- The Washington Park and Zoo Railway travels between the zoo and the International Rose Test Garden and Japanese Garden. Tickets for the miniature railway are $5 (free for children 2 and under). There's also a shorter route that just loops around the zoo.
Portland's Other Public Gardens
For Portland's two best-loved public gardens, the International Rose Test Garden and the Japanese Garden, see "Washington Park & Portland's West Hills," above.
If roses are your passion, you'll also want to check out the Peninsula Park Rose Garden at the corner of North Portland Boulevard and North Albina Avenue (take the Portland Blvd. exit off I-5 and go 2 blocks east), which has even more rose bushes than the International Rose Test Garden.
The World's Smallest Park -- Don't blink as you cross the median strip on Naito Parkway at the corner of SW Taylor Street, or you might just walk right past Mill Ends Park, the smallest public park in the world.
Covering a whopping 452 square inches of land, this park was the whimsical creation of local journalist Dick Fagen. After a telephone pole was removed from the middle of Naito Parkway (then known as Front Ave.), Fagen dubbed the phone-pole hole Mill Ends Park (Mill Ends, a lumber-mill term, was the name of Fagen's newspaper column). The columnist, whose office looked down on the hole in the middle of Front Avenue, peopled the imaginary park with leprechauns and would often write of the park's goings-on in his column. On St. Patrick's Day 1976, it was officially designated a Portland city park. Rumor has it that despite its diminutive size, the park has been the site of several weddings (although the parks department has never issued a wedding permit for it).
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