Maybe you’ve heard of the Portland motto, Keep Portland Weird, and wondered what on earth it meant. Originally created in 2003, it was intended to promote local and small businesses in the city.
However, its meaning has expanded to include a sense of uniqueness and inventiveness in everything that happens here. It could apply to the large number of murals and public art throughout the city, or the extreme liberalism expressed in its politics, or even the residents’ love of the airport carpet despite its age and disrepair. However its defined today, this city definitely looks and feels different than all others in the U.S. And for Portland residents, that’s the definition of success.
My sister, Beth, and I live in Southern California and recently decided to visit our brother, Erik, in Portland. He’s been a resident of this city for over ten years, so he makes a great guide to all the best local sites.
I’ll share with you how to make the most of the unique and unusual offerings of this endlessly fascinating city. Hopefully you’ll come to understand why this city’s residents are so committed to Keeping Portland Weird. And don't despair if you're traveling with younger folks, there are plenty of things to do in Portland with kids.
Street art in Portland is plentiful--one of the many things I love about this city. If you have the time to explore the murals throughout the city, that’s great, but if your time is limited consider a trip to Alberta. This up and coming neighborhood is home to several interesting and colorful murals along a short stretch of Alberta Street. Since it’s also home to boutique stores, coffee shops and popular ethnic restaurants, this neighborhood will give you a lot of bang for your buck. Now known as the Alberta Arts District there are many galleries, studios and public sculptures in addition to the murals. For an art lover, this might be your best bet in Portland.
Need to buy some souvenirs, or just want to explore the shops, then read all about Shopping in Portland.
I do want to highlight one other mural that’s fairly new to the city. Located on Southeast Division Street, this large mural of a woman covers the side of a high rise building. Instead of paint, the hair is actually plants that have only recently been installed. Once they are fully grown, the plants will add some really interesting texture to an otherwise flat mural. I enjoy street art and have seen plenty, but never before have I seen plants incorporated like this. Stay tuned!
Weird Things To Do in Portland–Tour the Shanghai Tunnels
I had heard about the Shanghai tunnels for years, but had my doubts about their authenticity. Then my sister discovered a local, non-profit organization called Shanghai Tunnels/Portland Underground Tours that has spent years researching the area and now offers tours based on their work. For $14 a person this seemed worth further exploration. The result was a fascinating, though at times depressing tour. What happened in underground Portland was sad and tragic.
In a five square mile section of Portland the basements of buildings were connected by short tunnels to create space for illicit activities. Here abled bodied men were kidnapped for the nearby ships, women were captured for prostitution and opium dens were built to supply the demand for this popular drug. It’s thought that this underground space was used for illegal activities for ninety-one years. Similar activities took place up and down the West Coast in support of the burgeoning shipping industry, but in Portland it was particularly successful. In fact, due to the ingenuity of Portland’s kidnappers, its believed that more men were kidnapped in this city than in any other. Ironically World War II brought an end to this industry since so many men were needed in the armed forces.
A few cautions. We spent almost ninety minutes underground in a very dark space, with low ceilings, and limited light while walking on uneven dirt floors. Anyone who finds these conditions uncomfortable should probably not take this tour. Due to the violence involved in some of the stories, this tour may not be appropriate for young children. However, for older children and adults, this is a very important history lesson.
Ride The Portland Aerial Tram
So riding a tram is hardly unusual, but what makes this one unique is that it was built to transport staff and patients at the Oregon Health and Sciences University. The Portland Aerial Tram's primary function is to connect the upper and lower parts of the campus. As a result, you'll ride up and back with camera-toting tourists and medical staff in scrubs. For just $5.10 you can enjoy a great view of the city. If you're really lucky and it's a clear day you may be able to see Mount Hood. If possible, try visiting at sunrise or sunset. The tram operates 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. on Sunday.
Self-Guided Beer Tour
After learning about Portland’s dark past it was time for a beer. And in this city beer is taken seriously--so seriously that there are dozens of beer tours. We opted for a self-guided version called Beervana offered through Detour, an audio guide available as an app on mobile phones. This tour takes place in the Pearl District and includes six stops. There is one free sample included in the tour and the other beers can be purchased if you choose. A self-guided tour is a nice way to go at your own pace and explore other sites nearby. (Unfortunately the Detour App no longer exists, but here's a great option for a self-guided beer tour of Portland)
This city is the epicenter of craft beer which has had a significant impact on the local economy. Currently there are 84 breweries in the greater Portland area and another 68 throughout the state. It could take a lifetime to try all the microbrews available in Portland, so we settled for about seven over the course of four days.
Ultimately my favorite beer was the S’Mores Stout at Basecamp Brewing Company. Not only did I enjoy its sweet, rich taste, but it comes with a blowtorch toasted marshmallow. Beth and I also sampled the trendy sour beers available at Cascade Brewing. While we really liked the food at this establishment, neither of us liked the sour beer. If you're looking to drink beer while supporting community organizations head to Ex Novo Brewing Company which donates 100% of profits to non-profit organizations including International Justice Mission and MercyCorps. Fortunately, whatever type of beer you enjoy you will find it in Portland. (For those of us in Southern California, check out this great list of Anaheim breweries including our own local purveyor of sour beer!).
Fun Places To Eat in Portland
It’s hard to know where to begin when writing about the food in Portland. To narrow it down I’ve decided to focus on fun places to eat. There are certainly high end, highly rated restaurants and places with lovely views, but those can be found in any city. Only in this city do they make eating so entertaining.
Our most memorable meal was at Slappy Cakes, a make your own pancake restaurant in the Belmont neighborhood. If you want to feel like a kid again then eat here. The menu offers a selection of batters, fixin’s and toppings. We ordered two batters, four mix-ins and one topping. Then we played with our food. There were pancakes with smiley faces, Mickey ears, and peace signs. There were sweet and savory pancakes of all sizes. At the end we were stuffed and happy.
Pok Pok is also a fun and memorable restaurant. Chef Andy Richter is famous for his commitment to delicious, authentic Thai food, but the atmosphere is fun and casual. The original location in the Belmont neighborhood is an old house converted into a restaurant. Anything on the menu will be good, but the fish sauce wings are amazing. To quote my sister, “these things are like crack.” Finger foods--especially really yummy finger foods--make any dining experience fun.
Ever heard of an Icelandic restaurant? Well there is one in Portland and it's darn good. Dóttir, located in the Kex Hotel, serves Nordic inspired cuisine made with local Oregon ingredients. The result is some delicious entrees like petit pork tenderloin, bowl of mussels, and seared king salmon. The cocktails here are also excellent.
There's now a Pok Pok restaurant in the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas! Read Things To Do In Las Vegas As A Couple.
A bit outside the city is Edgefield, one of the McMenamin’s restaurants. This historic property offers far more than just food. After a tasty lunch in the pub we explored the property to watch a glass blowing demonstration, went wine tasting and ended in a tiny bar (formerly a storage shed) that seats only ten people and specializes in whisky. McMenamins offers dozens of restaurants and bars in historic buildings throughout Oregon and Washington. I’ve been to several over the years and all can be described as fun!
Things To Do In Portland At Night
So what do you do after dark? Plenty! The list of things to do in Portland at night is endless, so I’ll share just a few. One night we purchased tickets to a play at the Portland Center Stage (PCS) which is located downtown in the Armory. We chose the smaller theater and opted for the $25 tickets since we were seeing a play we knew nothing about. Fortunately we loved it, but even if we didn’t, the price was right. PCS offers even cheaper tickets about thirty minutes before show time, based on availability.
Do you enjoy pinball? Then head over to the retro, Quarter World Arcade, in the Hawthorne District. With over 100 different arcade games to choose from, you'll be busy for a while. After 8 p.m. this becomes an adults only venue complete with a full bar.
One of the newer dining options in the city is Pine Street Market. I could have mentioned this when talking about fun places to eat, but I want to highlight their daily happy hour from 3-6 p.m. This food hall offers a variety of restaurants and most participate in the happy hour. Beth and I started with drinks and tapas at Pollo Bravo and ended with specially priced ice cream sundaes at Wiz Bang Bar, a new venture from the Salt ‘n Straw Ice Cream chain. This place was packed with couples, groups of friends and families, all enjoying the fun vibe combined with a great selection of food and beverages.
After dinner there are many great places to go for a creative, craft cocktail. Erik selected the Sapphire Hotel on our first evening in Portland. This lovely bar and restaurant was formerly a hangout for sailors, prostitutes and starving artists. The neighborhood around it evolved as prostitutes left to work at businesses nearby and artists began to open galleries. Today the Sapphire offers highly inventive cocktails with ingredients like pop rocks, activated charcoal, and chocolate bitters.
Fun Facts About Portland
Portland hosts an annual naked bike ride, is home to the world’s smallest park, is the most vegan friendly city in the country, and has more strip clubs per capita than any other city. These facts, and many others, support the case for this being a weird city, just the way its residents like it. I’ve been visiting for over twenty years and I never get tired of it. If you’ve never been here, start making your plans today. And if you want to explore this city like a local, click here. Come experience the city who's motto is Keep Portland Weird.
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