Everyone who comes to Portland—and even some of us who live here—comments on its many lovely neighborhoods. As the city has grown and diversified, older neighborhoods have been “rediscovered” and their original shopping and retail streets re-invented. The commercial/retail/restaurant areas of several areas, mostly on the east side, are virtually unrecognizable from what they were as recently as the 1990s. Portland has always been community-minded, and the old neighborhoods with their new infill remain the heart and soul of the city.
To get a feel for the Portland of today, the New Portland, hop on a streetcar or the light rail system and go hang out in some Portland neighborhoods. Once upon a time not so long ago, they were just neighborhoods, some better than others, with a strong community spirit. Today, people flit from one neighborhood to the next because the restaurant/coffeehouse/bakery/microbrewery/boutique phenomenon has spread all over. There are neighborhoods and streets that have been completely transformed, particularly in North Portland, where North Russell Street, North Mississippi, and North Alberta have blossomed in ways unimaginable a few years ago. The Pearl District, created in an old warehouse and light industry area, is one of the most successful urban developments in the country. Over in southeast, Division Street and Belmont Street have changed dramatically with new buildings that combine retail, restaurants and residential. And downtown Portland, which remains as attractive and vital as ever, is being upgraded and reinvented everywhere you look. The urban center is not an anonymous warren of designer skyscrapers; it’s fairly low-rise (height restrictions prevent tall buildings from usurping the views from the hills) and has a wonderful mixture of architecture and parks to keep it interesting. As you visit residential neighborhoods, don’t be surprised if you hear clucking—raising chickens is a new urban pastime in Portland.
So where do people hang out? Portland has more microbreweries than any city in the world, and coffee shops are big small businesses. People order, sip, start to gab with their friends, and never leave except to go to the bathroom. You also hang out at bars during happy hour, which is huge in Portland. I always thought it was because drinks were cheap, but actually it’s because the food is half-price.
The nice thing about hanging out in different parts of Portland is that you don’t have to travel for miles to do it. The city is compact and easy to navigate, though you’d be wise to avoid driving during morning, afternoon, and evening rush hours. As you explore, you’ll discover what really makes this city so special—its scale, its variety, and its still-charming livability. So goodbye Old Portland. I will miss you. But I have to say, the New Portland, aggravating as it is at times, is a lot more fun and exciting. And there’s enough of Old Portland left to “Keep Portland Weird,” our other civic motto.
Downtown: Thanks to far-sighted planning efforts, Portland's attractive downtown area has become a model for cities around the country. Compact and pedestrian-friendly, with short 200-square-foot blocks and three historic districts, it’s a destination for residents and workers from all over the city. Parks, fountains, public artworks, hotels, restaurants, and a rich texture of building and street materials add to the human-scale appeal. Brick-paved Transit Malls, completed in 1978 along SW 5th and 6th Avenues, bisect the main retail and business core.
Starting at the Willamette River, the central downtown area is bounded to the south and north by the curve of I-405. Clustered along the south end are the buildings of Portland State University (bounded by I-405, SW Market Street, SW 12th Ave., and SW 5th Ave.). Rising at the north end is the sleek, rhomboid-shaped U.S. Bancorp Tower (111 SW 5th Ave.), known locally as "Big Pink." Oregon's tallest building (43 stories), it has a reflective orange-pink facade that plays off the changing light. Downtown extends west to the I-405 Freeway, a monstrosity that cuts right through southwest and northwest Portland at 13th Avenue.
Pioneer Courthouse Square, a brick plaza flanked by the lovely old Pioneer Courthouse, office buildings from the 1920s covered with white glazed terra-cotta tiles (it’s officially the Glazed Terracotta Historic District, but nobody knows that except me, and now you), and a large Nordstrom store from the 1980s, is a gathering spot called “Portland’s living room.” Within downtown’s Cultural District (along Broadway and the South Park blocks) are the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, home of the Oregon Symphony, the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, and Keller Auditorium—the city’s largest performing-arts venues—as well as the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Historical Society Museum. The South Park Blocks, a tree-lined park-promenade created on land donated by Portland’s early settlers, runs from SW Salmon Street through the campus of Portland State to the I-405. Tom McCall Waterfront Park, a wide pedestrian esplanade and park, runs along the Willamette River and is the site of numerous festivals (an amusement park is set up here during the Rose Festival). You’d never guess that this popular riverfront greenway was once a six-lane highway.
The Yamhill National Historic District, bounded by SW Naito Parkway, Morrison Street, Taylor Street, and 3rd Avenue, is also considered part of downtown Portland. This compact, six-block area, known for its fine examples of late-19th-century cast-iron architecture, marked the southern end of the city’s first, waterfront-based commercial core. In the 1950s, when many buildings in the area were demolished for parking lots and to facilitate construction of the present Morrison Street Bridge, the area became isolated from its contemporaneous extension to the north, the area now known as the Skidmore/Old Town Historic District. Restoration and renovation of the remaining buildings began in the 1970s.
Skidmore/Old Town District: Portland’s original commercial core is bounded by SW Naito Parkway, SW Oak Street, Third Avenue, and NW Davis Street. Running parallel to the Willamette River, and straddling sections of northwest and southwest Portland, this area, along with the Yamhill Historic District to the south (considered a part of downtown), was part of the 1843 land claim that led to the establishment of Portland. From the mid- to late-19th century it served as the city’s main riverfront business and entertainment district. Skidmore Fountain, a graceful fountain built in 1888—with caryatids holding aloft a bronze basin in the center of an octagonal granite pool with the inscription, "Good citizens are the riches of a city["]—acts as the centerpiece of the district. Cast-iron artifacts from demolished 19th-century Portland buildings are set into an adjacent brick wall and covered arcade that leads to the popular Portland Saturday Market. The area began to decline in the 1890s when the logging boom ended and railroads decreased the city’s reliance on river trade. Union Station (800 NW 6th Ave. near the Broadway Bridge), with its 150-ft. tower proclaiming “Go By Train,” was built in 1896 and is a prominent landmark from the railroad era. As the city center shifted west toward higher ground, Old Town gradually became a neglected skid row, and many of the district's brick and cast-iron "commercial palaces" were demolished, leaving gaping holes. Since its designation in 1975 as a National Historic Landmark District, most of the remaining late-19th-century buildings have been restored. Despite the presence of the Portland Saturday Market, the neighborhood has never become a popular shopping district, mostly because some welfare hotels and street people give parts of it a rough edge. With its many clubs and bars, however, it is the city’s main nightlife district. The neighborhood is safe during the day, but visitors should exercise caution at night.
Portland Heights Portland Heights, nestled in the hills south of Burnside Street and west of SW Vista, is Portland’s oldest and most affluent neighborhood. In gorgeous Washington Park, you’ll find two of Portland’s great gardens (The International Rose Test Garden and the Portland Japanese Garden) as well as the renowned Hoyt Arboretum and the Oregon Zoo. This is otherwise primarily a residential neighborhood.
South Waterfront Portland’s newest neighborhood is a collection of high-rise offices and condominiums about a mile south of downtown’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The South Waterfront is home to the lower terminal for the Portland Aerial Tram that glides up to Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), the huge medical facility that dominates “Pill Hill” above the South Waterfront. There’s otherwise not much here to draw visitors.
The Benson Bubblers
Scattered throughout downtown Portland are dozens of cast-bronze four-bubbler drinking fountains installed around 1912 to 1913. They were a gift from Simon Benson, a teetotaling lumber baron who believed a supply of fresh, cool water would help detract from the lure of the saloons. Portland’s drinking water comes from Bull Run, a watershed on the northwest slope of Mount Hood, and it is delicious.
Chinatown Two carved lions stand in front of the colorful Chinatown Gate (NW Fourth Ave. and W. Burnside), erected in 1986 to commemorate 135 years of Chinese contributions to the city of Portland and the state of Oregon. The five-tiered gate marks the official entrance to Portland's low-key Chinatown District, bounded by NW Second and Fifth Avenues, West Burnside, and NW Glisan Street. This small area, with its handful of Chinese groceries and restaurants, is wedged between the Pearl District and Old Town. The neighborhood’s main attraction is the impressive Lan Su Chinese Garden. Because of its proximity to bars on West Burnside Street and the homeless missions and welfare hotels in Old Town, Chinatown is not a good neighborhood to explore late at night.
Pearl District This relatively new (and recycled) neighborhood of galleries, boutiques, restaurants, cafes, brewpubs, parks, and residential and business lofts and condos is bounded by the North Park Blocks, Overton Street, I-405, and Burnside Street. It is rather phenomenal how this former warehouse district has grown up and matured into a really pleasant city neighborhood over the last 20 years. It has all the urban amenities a Portlander requires, including Powell’s City of Books, Jamison Park with its fountain where kids play in the summer, and public transportation provided by the Portland streetcar. Crowds of people come to the Pearl for First Thursday (the first Thursday of every month), when galleries premiere new shows and are open late. The Pearl is Portland’s well-planned version of new urbanism and one of the city’s main upscale neighborhoods for young families, singles, and boomer retirees.
Northwest 23rd & Nob Hill Small in scale and long on charm, NW 23rd is the focal point of one of the most attractive neighborhoods in Portland. It’s now a hot destination street, known for its shopping, sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and good people-watching. The avenue and its less fashionable twin, NW 21st, extend from West Burnside to NW Thurman Street; the blocks between West Burnside and NW Lovejoy streets are the busiest. The upscale commercial aspect of NW 23rd is a fairly recent phenomenon. Two decades ago it was a quiet residential street, a bit shabby around the edges, with little more than a drugstore, a bank, and a couple of stores to serve the needs of the neighborhood. Gradually, the old houses were turned into small shops; existing structures were renovated; and new coffeehouses, boutiques, and restaurants moved in. In the latest phase of development, big “lifestyle” stores like Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware have grabbed a piece of the commercial action.
The Nob Hill neighborhood around NW 23rd Avenue became fashionable in the prosperous 1880s, and there are still many fine Victorian homes to be seen on the streets between NW 17th and NW 25th avenues and NW Everett to NW Thurman streets. These homes are still private residences or have been converted into offices. Farther west, and extending from northwest to southwest, is giant Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the nation. Pittock Mansion is literally the high point of Northwest Portland—it sits about 1,000 feet high in Forest Park and overlooks downtown and east Portland.
Irvington One of Northeast Portland’s oldest and most diverse neighborhoods, Irvington is bounded by NE Broadway and NE Fremont between NE 7th and NE 24th. NE Broadway and NE Weidler serve as Irvington’s primary commercial streets, with giant Lloyd Center mall between them. Like other city neighborhoods, Irvington has undergone an amazing renaissance in the past 2 decades. With its lovely old Victorian and early-20th-century homes on quiet streets shaded by giant trees, it’s no wonder that it was “rediscovered” and, after years of being rather run-down, became one of the most expensive residential neighborhoods in Portland.
Alberta Arts District This newly redefined neighborhood, a few miles north of downtown Portland and a mile to the east of I-5, is Portland’s most multicultural and creative neighborhood. Now. It used to be pretty run-down and just called Alberta. Because the old houses here are fairly small and used to be relatively inexpensive, it became a popular neighborhood with young, liberal families. Neighborhood shops are full of alternative-lifestyle fashions, on-the-edge (for Portland) art, and lots of the unexpected and the uncategorizable. Cafes, pubs, and restaurants provide plenty of places for making the scene. On the Last Thursday of every month, the neighborhood throws a blocks-long, art-oriented street party. Before all this “urban renaissance” happened, Alberta was an area where African-Americans who came to Portland during World War II to work in the Portland shipyards lived.
North Mississippi District All these “districts” are new inventions by real estate agents and developers. This area didn’t really have a name before it became white, young, and arty. Anchored by the ReBuilding Center, a sort of warehouse-sized thrift store full of recycled building materials, the North Mississippi District is 2 miles north of downtown. With plenty of good restaurants, a brewpub, popular music venues, and a couple of great coffeehouses, North Mississippi is a fun neighborhood to explore if you want to get a feel for what it’s like to live in the “new” Portland.
Hawthorne This southeast Portland neighborhood, once a countercultural enclave and still “alternative” around its gentrified edges, is full of eclectic boutiques, moderately priced restaurants, a couple of famous old theaters (the Aladdin for live music and performance, and the Clinton Street, which has been showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Saturday night since 1978). Just south of Hawthorne Boulevard, beginning at SE 12th Avenue, you’ll find the unique Ladd’s Addition neighborhood, the oldest planned community in Portland, which has five rose gardens and an unusual (and confusing) street layout. SE Belmont Street, just north of Hawthorne Boulevard, and SE Division Street, to the south, are two of the city’s newly rediscovered and revamped neighborhoods, and both areas are well worth exploring.
Laurelhurst The Laurelhurst neighborhood takes its name from lovely Laurelhurst Park, its centerpiece and showplace. Stretching from about SE 30th to SE 39th and from NE Sandy to NE Belmont, Laurelhurst is a sedate, rather low-key, and family-oriented neighborhood. Development started in the first decades of the 20th century, and the area contains a rich mix of residential architecture styles and sizes.
Sellwood Sellwood is the city’s antiques district and has many restored Victorian houses. It’s a small-scale area with a real neighborhood feel. Oaks Park, perched above the Willamette River, is one of the oldest amusement parks in the U.S. and retains a low-key, family-friendly atmosphere. Adjacent Oaks Bottom was Portland’s first designated wildlife refuge. Sellwood was once a separate city from Portland, and its quiet residential streets still have a kind of lost-in-time feeling.
Westmoreland & Eastmoreland Just north of Sellwood, surrounding the intersection of SE Milwaukie Avenue and SE Bybee Boulevard, is the heart of the Westmoreland neighborhood. Westmoreland and adjacent Eastmoreland are primarily residential neighborhoods, mostly laid out and built from the 1920s to 1940s, with a charming mix of bungalows and mansions on curving, tree-lined streets. This area is the home of Reed College, a famous liberal bastion. Across from Reed is the beautiful Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden. The Eastmoreland neighborhood is under siege by developers tearing down its old homes and erecting multi-dwelling units; residents are trying to get National Historic Landmark status for Eastmoreland to help preserve its unique characters.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.