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5 Ways to Explore Portland Like a Local

In 2003 the city of Portland adopted the motto, Keep Portland Weird.  It’s certainly a great conversation starter since most people don’t know what it means.  It was intended to promote local and small businesses in the city. The result has been a population that is fiercely loyal to their local restaurants, coffee shops, breweries, bookstores and much more.  Over time the motto has expanded to describe a city that revels in its unique and unusual art, entertainment and traditions.  

My sister, Beth, and I live in Southern California, so we flew to Portland to hang-out for a few days with my brother, Erik, who has lived in this city for over ten years.  With Erik’s help I hope to share with you some ways to explore this “weird” city like a local.  (We stayed at my brother's home, but here's a list of Portland hotels I'd recommend.)

Erik posing in front of an unusual food truck, Viking Soul Food
Erik posing in front of an unusual food truck, Viking Soul Food

Drink the Beer

The craft beer scene is exploding in the United States, but its in its own league here in Portland.  In some cities wine bars are the bustling and trendy drinking establishments. But in Portland it’s the breweries and taprooms.  

Immediately after picking up our rental car, Beth and I drove straight to Cascade Brewing to try their famous Cascade sour beer.  If you’ve never tried sour beer before then be sure to ask the server for some recommendations and samples. Like a sommelier in a high end restaurant, the servers in Portland’s breweries know their beers well and can describe them eloquently.

Cascade sour beer has become very popular in the Portland areas
Cascade sour beer--three samples

If you enjoy beer then I recommend some sort of tour which will allow for plenty of samples as well as some history.  We opted for a self-paced audio tour from Detour called Beervana which took us to six stops in the Pearl District. This allowed us to take the tour at our own pace, and at $12.99 its very affordable.  There are numerous other beer tours of this city that can be found through booking sites like Viator.

One of the beer highlights for me was Basecamp Brewing Company.  Here they offer a S’Mores Stout complete with a blowtorch toasted marshmallow.  Even if you don’t normally drink dark beers, I recommend making an exception and trying the S’Mores Stout. Like me, you may appreciate a beer with a slightly sweet and subtle chocolaty flavor. Like many breweries and taprooms throughout Portland, the food options are limited.  So if you are hoping for a meal consider selecting a brewpub with a complete restaurant. Some good options include Henry’s 12th Street Tavern or any of the McMenamin’s restaurants.

Buy Some Books–New or Used

I have always loved bookstores, so I’ve never made a trip to Portland without a stop at Powell’s City of Books , located in the Burnside neighborhood. This is the world’s largest independent bookstore offering both new and used books. In total there are over one million books for sale at this location!  They also offer an impressive children’s section, so this can definitely be a family destination. And don’t let getting thirsty or hungry make you leave since they have a cafe on site.  If this is a first time visit to Portland make every effort to see the original store, but there are four other locations throughout the area, including one at the airport.

Rows and rows of new and used books inside Powell's City of Books in Portland Oregon
Inside Powell's City of Books

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Portland offers a number of other independent bookstores for both adult and children.  I live in an area that is almost devoid of any bookstores, so I am truly grateful that the citizens of Portland still buy their books from these places. If you love bookstores as much as I do, then be sure to research all the options available in Portland.

Explore Portland’s Neighborhoods

Exploring Portland’s neighborhoods is always a highlight of my trip. Main streets often include boutique stores, small coffee shops, and random food pods (groups of food carts and trucks) while the side streets are lined with lovely older homes--some in need of repair and others fully restored.  Over the years I’ve watched some of these neighborhoods blossom from grungy to vibrant and quiet to bustling. Neighborhoods thrive in a city committed to buying local.

Tender Loving Empire Portland
Tender Loving Empire Portland
Seven Virtues Coffee in the Hawthorne Neighborhood in Portland
Seven Virtues Coffee in the Hawthorne Neighborhood in Portland

One of my favorite neighborhoods is Hawthorne.  My sister, brother and I spent a leisurely morning here wandering in and out of shops.  Highlights in Hawthorne include Tender Loving Empire, Powell’s Books for Home and Garden, Seven Virtues Coffee, House of Vintage and of course, Blue Star Donuts.  To gather some energy for shopping we started with Blue Star Donuts. The flavors here are so unique, so I recommend gathering a group and trying several varieties. Tender Loving Empire embodies the Keep Portland Weird spirit by selling local art, food, jewelry, music and more (If you are a music lover than you’ll appreciate the listening bar in the back).  Part of the downtown bookstore by the same name, this Powell’s specializes in cookbooks, gardening and craft books. It’s become hard to find bookstores, so I really appreciate the opportunity to pick up book after book and flip through the pages. Our final shopping stop was the massive House of Vintage. I don’t often shop in vintage stores, but I must admit that this one had the three of us strolling down memory lane.

Latourell Falls, just one of the Columbia Gorge Waterfalls
Latourell Falls, just one of the Columbia Gorge Waterfalls

See the Columbia Gorge Waterfalls

Getting outdoors is central to life in Portland, and that's not difficult with the entrance to Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area just about a forty minute drive from the city.  This is the largest scenic area in the United States straddling both Oregon and Washington states.  Whether you love scenic drives or hiking, this area is for you.

Columbia Gorge waterfalls are plentiful and make for beautiful photo opportunities. One caution, due to a recent fire, many parts of the Columbia River Gorge are not accessible to visitors.  I recommend a review of the website prior to your trip, or a quick stop at the visitors center to get a list of what is open and plan your day accordingly. There are definitely beautiful spots open to the public as I hope the photos demonstrate.

Hiking is also central to life for Portland residents and you'll find plenty of trails in the Columbia Gorge area.  However, if you're feeling even more adventurous, check out the 7 Most Beautiful Hikes in Oregon!

Wendy enjoying the Crown Point Overlook in Columbia River Gorge
Wendy enjoying the Crown Point Scenic Overlook in the Columbia River Gorge

View the Street Art

In recent years I’ve become fascinated by street art.  I was also looking for some unusual things to do in Portland, so I was delighted to learn about the growing popularity of the Alberta Street neighborhood which is now being referred to as the Alberta Arts District.  This neighborhood has a long and complicated history. Like many city neighborhoods in the U.S., it thrived, then declined, and through the hard work of residents, thrives again. But that does not come without concerns of gentrification and pushing out lower income, mostly minority residents.  Some of those concerns are expressed in the music and art that has recently been produced in Alberta. I appreciate how the neighborhood’s past, present and future are expressed in the colorful murals.

A lovely mural of roses in the Alberta Arts District
A mural in the Alberta Arts District
ZooBomb Pyle sculpture in Portland
ZooBomb Pyle sculpture in Portland

Beyond Alberta, there’s plenty of street art throughout Portland in the form of murals and sculptures.  Downtown you’ll find a sculpture called Zoobomb Pyle or the “pile” dedicated to the bike culture in this city.  In the Southeast part of town is a new, very large mural of a woman. Instead of paint for hair, there are plants.  I appreciate how public art injects color and creativity into otherwise gritty, plain parts of town.

Jet, Black, a vegan coffee shop located in Northeast Portland
Jet Black, a vegan coffee shop in Northeast Portland

Keeping Portland Weird–How You Can Help

If ever there was a city where a visitor should focus on local hotels, tours, shops and restaurants, Portland is it.  Not just because that’s what the residents want you to do, but because these local proprietors offer great services and merchandise.  There is a great pride in the local food, beer, wine, merchandise, music and art available in this city. Partake in it and your trip will be even better. 

And if you still want to know even more about this fascinating city, click here.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Sarah

    I have travelled extensively around the US, but not yet made it to Portland. Yet, I always hear great things about the city, although I believe it rains a lot. I do like the idea of keeping Portland weird. I should fit in quite well, lol !

    1. Wendy

      It does rain a lot in Portland, but the result is that everything is green! Hope you get to visit someday.

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