Portland, Oregon — the Pacific Northwest’s hippest city — is also its greenest, most friendly, and a fun place for a weekend away with the family. The show Portlandia also helped put it on the map for its indie vibe, craft beer, and quirky locals.
When my family heard that Portland’s outdoor “Saturday Market” had become a Saturday-Sunday Market due to popular demand, we figured Oregon’s largest city must be a good place to spend a summer weekend. We were right; in summer, the locals are out in full force enjoying their annual allotment of sunshine. This place is even fun on winter weekends, when the city’s unique coffeehouses are crowded with book-lovers savoring a cup of Chai. The only Portlanders outdoors in winter’s temperate but drizzly weather (and the city only gets an annual 36.3 inches of rainfall — less than Seattle, as locals boast) are jocks and young families steering mountain bikes along the shore of the Willamette River.
The Saturday-Sunday Market
All year round, the two million or so Portlanders seem to be prosperous, offbeat, young, and in love with their very green, beautiful, and friendly city. Just count the number of Hummers with carseats, or the Porsche convertibles with windblown dogs in the luggage well, and you’ll get a sense of the Portland lifestyle. Living this laid-back and environmentally correct lifestyle is key to enjoying your visit, so from March to December, the Saturday-Sunday Market is the place to begin.
The centerpiece of the oldest restored section of Portland, this functioning food, produce and dry goods market is a fun place to dine from ethnic foodstalls, see the work of more than 250 crafts vendors, and catch budding local talent performing for spare change.
Dole out allowance for the friendship bracelets, wood carvings, batik scarves, antique tea pots, Native American beads, fine art and more that reflect the affluent and eclectic tastes of the natives. In this low-key, car-free environment you can hobknob with locals who range from forest rangers to Southern California retirees, Nike executives to Reed College students.
Portland’s Great Outdoors
Oregon may be America’s capital of The Good Life, with more environmental activists, skateboarders, book readers, and pinot noir drinkers per capita than any other state, according to their tourist office literature. We began our initiation with a full-day bicycle ride, on terrific rental mountain bikes from Riverfront Cycles in the RiverPlace Marina development. This is a safe activity for all ages, as the Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park in front of the marina offers a mile-long, car-free zone to practice. Keep in mind that this park was a four-lane highway until the 1970s, when far-sighted citizens had it removed. The U.S. Census has found that 5,000 Portlanders now commute to work by bicycle, using the city’s 29 miles of car-free bikeways and 156 miles of bike lanes.
Washington Park, the city’s crowning gem, should be the first stop. It has enough uphills to provide a workout, and enough land to encourage off piste mountain biking. Within the park are pretty gardens including a Japanese one; the 185-acre Hoyt Arboretum for serious botanists and hikers; The Portland Children’s Museum (503/223-6500) where infants to pre-teens can find water play, art studios and moving toys; and the intriguingly named World Forestry Center. The noted Oregon Zoo (503/226-1561) fosters many conservation and public education programs and entertains families with a summer concert series, a winter Zoolights Festival, and a fun Zoo Railway.
The World Forestry Center Discovery Museum (503/488-2117) is far from what tree-lovers may expect. Its mission is to educate visitors about sustainable forestry practices, including logging and wildfire control. Kids will love an opportunity to “drive” an enormous electric log cutter remotely by video, saw a huge tree off its base, then try to stack it on a logpile. There are interactive displays simulating the craft of the smokejumper, the logger, and others around the world who rely on forests for their livelihood.
Discovering the Willamette River waterfront is a must, as Lewis & Clark and countless other explorers have before. From late April to early October, speed demons can park their bikes and strap themselves in for a guided Willamette Jetboat Excursion ( 503/231-1532; 888/JETBOAT). The one to two-hour trips depart from the pier at 1945 S.E. Water Avenue next to the USS Blueback submarine (part of OMSI), and the longer ones take in the city sights as well as the bird and marine life on the way to Willamette Falls. Seeing Portland from its river provides the perfect opportunity to study some of the many notable bridges, which range from vertical lift models that allowed tall ships to pass underneath, to suspension and classic drawbridges. Keep an eye out for the world-renowned skateboarders who build make-shift ramps and rails under the pylons and entertain passersby.
Another riverfront attraction from a bygone era is the Oregon Maritime Center & Museum (503/224-7724) housed in the sternwheeler tugboat, Portland. You might recognize the steam-powered boat from the Jodie Foster/Mel Gibson film Maverick; open Wednesday to Sunday only. Look for some Benson Bubblers while you’re at the waterfront; 20 of these constantly percolating bronze water fountains were donated to the city in 1912 by lumber baron Simon Benson, who hoped to decrease saloon sales by providing cold running water free to thirsty Portlanders.
Outdoorsmen associate Portland with Mount Hood, a year-round skiing and snowboarding mecca. But the region is also known for its rock climbing, and the Portland Rock Gym (503/232-8310) makes it possible for visiting beginners to try. There are day passes, special Friday night beginner classes and other clinics daily; kids under 11 receive a discount on admission and classes and 6-years is the minimum recommended age.
What Else Portlanders Do On Weekends
Old Town is fun to explore any day because of its Chinatown, entered through a ceremonial gate donated by Portland’s sister city of Kaohsium, Taiwan. The neighborhood has dozens of old cast iron buildings which have been converted into lofts and entertainment venues. Allow time for a visit to the Classical Chinese Garden (503/228-8131), a lovely Ming Dynasty style garden with 100 specimen trees, tranquil pavilions, fountains, scenic stones, and a lovely Teahouse. It’s open daily year round; children under 5 enter free.
The popular, hands-on Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (503/797-4000) is the nation’s fifth largest science museum. OMSI boasts an earthquake simulator, the Kendell Planetarium, the USS Blueback submarine featured in the film Hunt for Red October and more than 200 exhibits about how things work. The second floor Science Playground geared to kids under age 8 includes a 400-gallon waterplay area, scenes from Richard Scarry’s “Busytown,” a sandbox, puppet theater and a Discovery Lab. Animal Secrets is the latest addition to this fun learning environment.
The Portland Art Museum (503/226-2811) warrants more interest than just a rainy day visit because it is central to so many of the city’s arts programs. The North Building houses the Modern and Contemporary Art collection, the NW Film Center, an art study center and library, and two fabulous ballrooms used for performances and parties, in a space that was formerly a Masonic Temple. Recent renovations created an underground tunnel lined with art to connect this to the original building filled with the Northwest and Native American collections. Among the many other performing arts venues, families may want to check the schedule of the Oregon Children’s Theatre (503/228-9571), which put on works derived from children’s and family literature, and offer classes to ages 6-18.
Shopping is a delightfully full-service experience because so many clerks are over-qualified for their jobs – these college grads would do anything to be able to live in their beloved city. At REI, customers can climb into canoes, snuggle in tents or review hundreds of varieties of hiking socks, and they’ll find mountaineers who’ve ascended Everest to answers their questions.
At the Starks Showroom (503/232-4101), families can shop for appliances or explore the free Vacuum Cleaner Museum, the largest collection of historic vacuums (models from the 1800s to 1960) in the United States. The proximity of Nike’s world headquarters, just outside town in Beaverton, makes Portland’s own uber-hip NikeTown store the Louvre of sneakers.
Powell’s City of Books (503/228-4651) occupies a multi-story, full city block with books of every ilk and description, organized neatly by topic and stacked atop hand-written reviews by staff people with a particular affection for the relevant genre. We dare you to not find something for finicky readers of any age inside this palace of the written word.
Neighborhood Walking, Biking, Shopping, Touring
Several of Portland’s neighborhoods have their own personality and in 2008, the city was voted one of a “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” by America’s National Trust for Historic Preservation. In the fun and hip Pearl District, where the arts have learned to live with commerce, renovated warehouses contain galleries, clothes boutiques and high-end lofts.
Nob Hill, named by an early California settler after the San Francisco he left behind, is where more than 250 classic Victorian and Georgian mansions have been restored and turned into boutiques, galleries and restaurants. We never went wrong dining in Portland, where chefs take organic ingredients, local wines, fresh seafood and expert baking to new heights of simplicity and flavor that even kids can appreciate.
By foot, bike, streetcar or MAX lightrail, families can tour all these neighborhoods. To learn more about each with smart, knowledgeable and fun guides, consider a guided tour on foot or by bus. Three local tour companies work together — EcoTours of Oregon (503/245-1428) leads groups to Mt. Saint Helens, the coast for whale watching, and local wineries in vans; E&E Specialty Tours (503/655-3251) does city and Mt. Hood tours by bus; and Portland Walking Tours (503/774-4522) has 2½-hour morning and evening walking tours themed by neighborhood, local history or dining.
One favorite daytrip from Portland is a visit to the Timberline Lodge and Ski Area, open year round for snowsports on the glacial slopes of Mt. Hood. This majestic snow-capped peak in the Cascade Mountain Range is a dormant volcano standing at 11,240 feet. In summer, the Mt. Hood region is known for its popular Fruit Loop, a scenic byway that curls among the many orchards and berry picking farms. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area preserves the river that led Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. It can be admired on another popular roadtrip along the Historic Columbia River Highway.
At the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, in the Columbia River flood plain just 25 minutes north of Portland, a 4.2-mile auto tour graveled road crosses fields, wetlands, and forests. The route offers visitors views of the refuge landscape while making it easy to spy birds and other wildlife, including sandhill cranes, beaver, and river otters. Guided birding hikes are also offered at the refuge.
Portland Trip Planning Details
Our family flipped over the friendly high style on display at the Hotel Monaco Portland (503/222-0001; 866/861-9514), part of the Kimpton Hotels chain. Very centrally located just a few blocks from the Saturday-Sunday Market at 506 S.W. Washington at Fifth Avenue, this hotel features 221 people and pets’ guest rooms, including one-bedroom suites with high ceilings and skyline views. We dined one night at the wonderful nouvelle Italian Pacific Northwest cuisine of Pazzo, at its sister property, the slightly more formal and adult Hotel Vintage Plaza just a few blocks away. The Hotel Monaco’s young staff is particularly helpful, and the hotel’s unique personality – in hosting a lobby sculpture show of recycled garbage for example — made us feel like Portlanders.
From the red velvet drapes to the leopard print bathrobes, or the WiFi access and mini fitness room, to the complimentary lobby wine tastings and the great Red Star Tavern’s outdoor cafe, there’s a lot to make the Hotel Monaco a top value.
A very historic option worth a walk-through is The Governor Hotel (503/224-3400; 614 SW 11th Avenue, Portland OR 97205), a recently renovated, four-star place that offers luxury conveniences, fitness center, free WiFi, and a National Register of Historic Places designation. The 100 rooms, suites and grand ballrooms date back to its opening as the Seward Hotel in March 1909, in the city’s heyday following Portland’s 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition. The Governor offers many seasonal promotions.
Getting around is also hip and easy because visitors to compact downtown Portland can park their cars. The eco-friendly public transit is its own attraction; totally free within the Free Rail Zone in the city center, super convenient, stylish and easy to use. Families flying in will find that Portland’s visionary 44-mile-long MAX light rail system runs from the Portland International Airport to the Oregon Convention Center, the Metropolitan Exposition Center, the downtown area and Old Town/Chinatown.
The European-styled Portland Streetcar runs six miles from Portland State University to the RiverPlace Marina district, a fun contemporary shopping and hotel development on the Willamette River Greenway Trail. Even drivers should feel environmentally conscientious — traffic lights are timed to reduce idling and parking meters are solar powered.
And getting to Portland? With Jet Blue‘s daily service making a weekend away in Portland accessible and affordable for all families, you’re bound to see Oregon’s capital appearing on a lot of Top 10 lists. For more information, good neighborhood maps and other touring ideas, contact the helpful (would you expect any less?) Portland Oregon Visitors Association at www.travelportland.com or www.portlandcvb.com or call 503/275-9750.
For more great hotel ideas, see Oregon Yellow Pages.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.