Funny. The place I thought was most interesting in this city isn’t listed under “Places to Go” in the Portland Guide, a slick 60-page pamphlet that tells visitors most everything else they’d like to know about Oregon’s biggest city.
Sure, it’s nice to know that Portland stands on the Willamette River (“pronounce it Wil-LAM-mette, dammit,” say the natives) and to learn about the art museums, the parks and the zoo. But tell me where I can find cafes and outdoor restaurants, trendy shops and people, lots of people.
Tell me about 23rd Avenue, about Papa Haydn’s, Wildwood, the Nob Hill Deli, McMiniman’s and funky little spots like the Paint the Sky kite shop and Tazo Tea.
Twenty-third Avenue and the streets around it, a couple miles from the city center, are the newest “in” district in Portland, variously called the Nob Hill district or simply The Northwest. When the sun goes down, 23rd lights up. Under the trees that line the street, sidewalk tables fill with locals on the town. The bars do a roaring business, and just try to find a place to park your car.
“Two years ago, not much of this was here,” said Laura Bach, a clerk at Tazo Tea on 23rd Avenue.
The district’s rather sudden rise in popularity might come as a surprise to some visitors. Portland has always been somewhat of a staid city, with little of the scenic splendor and people pizzazz of its fellow Pacific Coast metropolises, San Francisco and Seattle. As Seattle Times writer Kristin Jackson wrote recently, “Portland is easy, like visiting your grandmother’s.”
Yes, Portland has the world’s biggest bookstore. Yes, it’s got a fantastic rose garden and a Michael Graves building. And yes, like Grandma, it’s predictable.
You never went to Grandma’s for nightlife, but these days you might go to Portland.
Not that there was anything wrong with the Portland of old. It was, and is, a good solid city, comfortable in its midsize. Its downtown is compact, and its short blocks make it eminently walkable. If walking’s not your bit, don’t fret: Portland has a light-rail loop in the center of town.
Downtown activity centers around Pioneer Courthouse Square, a one-time parking garage whose demolition in the early 1980s gave Portland a chance to create a true city center.
That’s what this unusual open space has become. Roman columns flank two ends. Courthouse steps descend to the open plaza, where you may see an amateur mime doing his bit, students snoozing in the sun or a businessman striding briskly to an appointment.
Smack in the middle of the plaza is Portland’s renowned Weather Machine. At precisely noon each day, one of three icons emerges from the top of the 25-foot column to denote the weather of the day - a stylized sun for good days, a dragon for stormy times and a blue heron for drizzle.
The plaza is a focal point for tourists, and if the blue heron stands astride the Weather Machine (a fairly common occurence), the plaza’s Powell’s Travel Bookstore is a wonderful place for them to duck into. It’s a branch of the huge main store, the world’s biggest with nearly a million books, which is situated a mile away at 10th Avenue and Burnside.
Despite its size, the main Powell’s store is manageable. It furnishes you with a map so you won’t get lost in the stacks, and puts new, used and paperback copies of the same book next to each other, so you have an immediate choice. If you aren’t sure what you want, take up to three books and browse through them in Powell’s coffee shop.
A short walk from the Pioneer Courthouse Square is the very symbol of the city itself: Portlandia, a copper statue one-third the size of the Statue of Liberty - though not nearly as commanding a presence.
Portlandia is mounted on the facade of the Portland Building, which was designed by famed architect Michael Graves. Thirty-eight feet high and weighing 6-1/2 tons, the statue was created in 1985 by artist Raymond Kaskey with the same repousee technique (hammering copper into a negative mold) as Miss Liberty. To citizens of this city, this squatting figure with one hand extended may look imposing, but to me she looks as if she’s about to throw dice in a celestial craps game.
Down a couple of blocks is the Southwest Yamhill Historic District near the riverfront. Several bar/ restaurants have settled in here, but beware of the tattoo shops, adult video stores and general grunge close by. Nearby Waterfront Park makes a stroll along the Willamette River a pleasant break.
Some of the best of Portland, it seems to me, lies outside the immediate downtown. Twenty-third Avenue gets lively a couple of miles northwest of the downtown core, spilling over to 21st Avenue. Hawthorne Avenue, another funky district, is across the river. Old warehouses are being reincarnated as lofts for artists in the Pearl district near Chinatown, and it’s also the home of a number of art galleries and brew pubs. Similar rundown sites are being spruced up in the Old Town district near Union Station, but it’s not as far along.
Pretty vistas? Drive up to the hilltop Pittock Mansion, built in 1914 by the founder of The Oregonian, the city’s predominant newspaper. The home is now a museum, and you get a marvelous panoramic view of the city and the Cascade Mountains beyond from the back yard.
Pretty gardens? You can bet a place that’s like Grandma’s has them. Throughout the area are gorgeous gardens, nourished by 37 inches of rain annually. The Japanese Garden, set on 5-1/2 acres, is considered one of the most beautiful outside of Japan. It has a tea house, pavilion and five themed gardens. More than 10,000 plants and 400 varieties are planted in the International Rose Test Garden, also situated above the city. The Grotto, a religious shrine carved into a cliff, is surrounded by 64 acres of woods and gardens.
Portland may not have the breathtaking scenery of San Francisco, but when the weather is clear, two magnificent volcanoes give the city an uncommon dimension, particularly when a low sun bathes their snowy crowns with warm light.
Mount St. Helens, which exploded 15 years ago, looms to the north. The mountain’s Coldwateridge Visitor Center, two hours away by car, provides excellent views of the now-truncated summit and sometimes-smoking crater. To the east rears the cone of Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest mountain, where skiers can test their skills well into summer.
A visit to either is an awesome trip, a reminder of how insignificant we humans are on this planet. Good reason to head back to 23rd Avenue, where one can contemplate less lofty adventures.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Getting around town: The MAX light rail and the Tri-Met city buses are free downtown. Outside that zone, the fare is $1-$1.30 adults, 75 cents children and 50 cents for seniors. Taxis do not cruise for fares, but are easily obtained at hotels or by phone. Portland information: Portland Convention and Visitor Bureau, (800) 345-3214, (503) 222-2223. Oregon information: Oregon Tourism Division, 775 Summer St., Salem, 97310; (503) 986-0000 or (800) 547-7842. Suggested side trips: Columbia Gorge: A drive up the Columbia River is a wonderful way to spend a day. Carved through the basalt of the Cascade Mountains, the gorge is home of grand vistas, dozens of waterfalls, massive dams and soaring bridges. Always windy, it is a sailboarder’s mecca; on good days between Hood River and The Dalles, you’ll see hundreds of them flitting here and there like water bugs on a pond. Multnomah Falls: At 620 feet, it’s the fourth tallest waterfall in the country. Take the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway, stop at the Crown Point overlook for a panoramic view of the gorge, continue east to Multnomah and several other waterfalls. Then go on to Bonneville Dam.
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