City of Roses. Rose City. Stumptown, Bridgetown, Bridge City, Beertown, Beervana, P-Town, PDX—and yes, Portlandia: “where young people go to retire.” There are arguably few cities out there that boast the cultural capital per capita of this city of nicknames.
This locally-sourced, artisan-made, nature-loving, pedal-powered, beer- and coffee-slurping, anti-establishment city may be an easy target for mockery—its hipsters, hippies, and myriad subcultures; its bourgeois bohemian obsessions and preciousness—but as one of the country’s perennial darlings on “Best of Cities” lists, I had to experience it for myself. It just so happened that my cousins were planning a summer weekend getaway in Portland and invited me to tag along.
After checking into our hotel and dropping off our luggage, we decided to fuel up by hitting up one of many food cart pods around the city. I lunched on the signature chicken and rice from Nong’s Khao Man Gai (with some chicken liver thrown in for good measure, although I would ask for extra sauce next time).
With the important matter of food behind us, we headed to the western hills above downtown to visit sprawling Washington Park. First stop was the International Rose Test Garden, but the weather was not on our side. Recent storms had battered the delicate roses, littering the ground with petals, and the lingering clouds denied us the iconic view of Mount Hood.
We quickly left the roses and ventured further uphill to explore the beautiful Japanese Garden, where we spent much of the afternoon admiring its vast and varied landscapes. Who knew that there are so many different shades of green? Since it was June, the lilies were in full bloom, making for a rare treat.
That evening, we hopped on the MAX light rail train bound for Overlook Park to check out the North American Organic Brewers Festival. An impressive array of local and out-of-town craft brewers were dispensing generous $1 pours of their eco-friendly beers, making it an inexpensive way to sample a lot of the diverse offerings on tap.1
Many of downtown Portland’s restaurants shut down a little early for my liking,2 but we stumbled upon Lúc Lác, a late-night Vietnamese spot with one of the most memorable interiors I’ve seen in a while. I love the dope lion dancer mural.
Portlanders are a famously outdoorsy bunch, and are blessed with an abundance of nearby green spaces. The next morning after breakfast at Brunch Box, we drove east of the city to visit Multnomah Falls and the Columbia River Gorge. To our dismay, the skies had completely opened up over the falls, so we headed further east along the Historic Columbia River Highway to find some sun.
On the way back to Portland, the rain had subsided and we pulled off the freeway to finally check out Multnomah Falls. For the first time that whole weekend, we had finally found the tourist crowds—complete with buses! We didn’t stay long.
Back in Portland proper, we finally got around to exploring what downtown has to offer during the day.
That night—the last night of our trip—we took a leisurely walk across the Morrison Bridge to Hair of the Dog Brewing Company for some delicious barrel-aged beers. On our (tipsy) walk back to downtown Portland, we walked past the site of the Portland Saturday Market under Burnside Bridge, where we admired the iconic White Stag sign as it twinkled against the evening sky.
There’s a pride of place here—of things kept local and small—that I admire. As much as I’d love to drink more of Hair of the Dog’s killer beers in more places, for example, I’d much prefer that they keep their production to a sustainable level. Besides, I can only drink one glass of their barrel-aged goods without falling off my bar stool. Portland knows its charms. For visitors, it’s about sipping just enough to leave you wanting more, to experience enough of Portlandia without ending up exasperated at it.
Finally, it was time to head home. The morning before we hopped in the car back to San Francisco, I bought a couple bags of coffee beans from Heart. Food and drink are always good souvenirs—but, truth be told, I was on the hunt for one more thing.
I’ve been collecting kitschy tourist magnets for years. They’re inexpensive, easy to carry home (essential, as I typically pack light), and look pretty cool as a collection.
Portland was actually the first city that truly stumped me on my search, because it’s not a stereotypically touristy place with souvenir shops all over. There are obviously small towns around the world that I’ve encountered on my travels where I haven’t bothered to look for magnets. In those cases, I’m content with finding a country magnet in the nearest big city or airport, but as this was a single destination trip, I wanted that Portland magnet.
On the last afternoon of my stay, it was time to finally look for a magnet that best represented my experiences in this place. After a few tips led me to the “Made in Oregon” shop inside the Pioneer Place mall, those tiny bits of ceramic still eluded me. Too many tasteful magnets, no misshapen slabs of clay covered with imperfectly applied paint.
I finally asked the cashier if there were any ceramic magnets.
“Of course,” she said, walking me over to an area of the shop dominated by a display of woolen Pendleton blankets.
She waved her hand over a small bowl in the corner filled with a handful of beige tiles, each one stamped with a perfectly imperfect red rose.
“They’re handmade here in Oregon. No two are identical.”
Dammit, Portland. You’re so damn Portland, and I hate to admit it, but I love you for that.