This was my introduction to Portland: On the first of two days in the city, we rode the train into downtown. I sat down across from a man with a pet carrier on the seat next to him. I peered inside expecting to see a kitten or puppy he was taking on a nice morning train ride. I did not see anything cute and cuddly; it was a giant snake. Like, not a garden snake. This was a snake the size of a tire and could probably kill someone. A snake. In a pet carrier. On a train. Like this was nothing out of the ordinary. I sat in my seat and was terrified to move the whole trip. That was my first clue that this was not a place like any other.
There have been a few places I have travelled to that opened my eyes to weird, wonderful and mystical things. For example, Disneyland would be the first. Then, some parts of Asia were the definition of magical and awe-inspiring and so completely different than any other place. The weird thing is that everyone around you acts completely normal and unaware of the sometimes strange--but kind of cool--things happening around them.
Portland doesn't compare on a grand scale to Disneyland, but at times I thought, "Where am I?" and "Is this place real?" Did Portlandia hit the head on the nail in its satire of Portland culture? It's the things people in big cities say they do, but actually don't have the time to do: hanging out at coffee shops (actually hanging out); biking or jogging through parks; listening to live music from bands whose names you are sure can't be real (such as "Pure Bathing Culture" and "Woolen Men"); growing vegetables; buying groceries from the local co-op; and admiring latte art like it is real art.
Where there are more coffee shops than you can swing a stick at and probably more baristas with sleeved tattoos per capita than any other city. There are Brewpubs with locally made beers of all flavours, food trucks to feed you every meal of the day, vintage shops, boutiques and bookshops on every corner and the snozberries taste like snozberries! Like Willy Wonka said, "Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination..."
It is a land where taxidermy creatures are sold in all of their bad ass glory and there are shops devoted to neat trinkets and things, including a store that only sold lightbulbs. Strange thoughts start to pop up in your head like, "I need to start buying more art. Maybe I should start my own Etsy shop. I could live off the land if I wanted to."
And backyard chickens. There are a lot of backyard chickens. We woke up to the sound of them every morning even in the middle of the city. You can be sure the chicken you ate in Portland had a good life and many friends. The dream of the 90s really is alive in Portland.
Portland is Oregon's largest city with a population of about 582,000 and has steadily become a popular tourist destination for those making the trip along the Pacific Northwest. Yes, all of the stereotypes are there--the hipsters, activists, outdoors types, vegans and animal lovers--but they all somehow live in perfect harmony. It is also a family friendly city with many charming neighbourhoods, green space and a thriving downtown.
There are too many food options to even make a dent in with two days visiting. There are more than 500 food trucks alone, as well as every type of ethnic cuisine, sandwich, burger, beer, wine and baked good you could want. Portland is also an extremely walkable and bikeable city; in fact, it's one of the most bike-friendly cities in North America. There is no excuse for not working off the calories from all of those treats, such as doughnuts.
We kept seeing all of these people walking around with pink boxes, so we followed the trail of pink to VooDoo Doughnuts. There were so many options. I just pointed to one that I thought looked neat and said, "that one!" I ended up going with the Miami Vice Berry Doughnut and the Triple Chocolate Penetration Doughnut. The names and flavours get a little racy from the Maple Blazer Blunt doughnut to the Dirty Snowballs and more.
Most of the food trucks in the city are placed in pods. A pod is a cluster of food trucks grouped together and makes it easier to sample and compare a few trucks instead of trekking to different locations for each one. I recommend this map for navigating and finding trucks throughout the city.
I believe the pod we chose was one of the biggest downtown and was located at SW 10th Ave and SW Alder St. If I lived and worked in this city, I would make it my mission to try a different food truck each day. Who would even have time for working?
After a tough decision, I settled on a taste of Thailand and Mike had Indian curry. Nong's Khao Man Gai brought me back to Singapore with its Chicken and Rice (Khao Man Gai, hence the name of the truck) with poached chicken simmered in chicken stock with herbs and sauce. Poached chicken, white rice and some secret spicy ingredients; that's all you need.
We sat by the water and had lunch. The only problem with food trucks is you have to walk around for awhile carrying your food while you find somewhere to sit. My Chicken and Rice also came in a bag and reminded me of eating fish and chips out of newspaper. It was an interesting if somewhat messy way to eat the dish. Apparently this dish has been voted one of the best food truck picks in Portland, if all of America.
I know I'm being a little snarky. Portland was actually my favourite city of the trip. There is that farm-to-table mentality and real appreciation of food and it all harks back to a time when people were skilled artisans, bakers and brewers and even artists. As well as great food, there is an overall shared appreciation for culture, the environment, art and well, other people. You might run out of actual things to do after a few days as a traveler, so I don't think an extended stay is necessary. There is also so much outside of the city in other parts of Oregon to see that you would be best spending your time seeing national parks and coastal views. I could actually see myself living there though, as I'm sure the vibe of the city does to many people.
Disclaimer: When a site in your guidebook says "breathtaking views of the city" that means you have to walk--usually on an incline--to get there. "Oh, this rose garden sounds nice," I said. Half an hour later, huffing and puffing, we made it up the steep incline covered in sweat to find the rose garden that gives the city its "Rose City" nickname.
The International Rose Test Garden has more than 500 types of roses and is also a testing site for new breeds of roses. It is the oldest public garden of its kind in the United States and also boasts great views of the city, as well as nearby Mt Hood. The ombre roses were breathtaking:
We stayed in the North Mississipi Avenue area of Portland slightly removed from downtown that features a long street of bars, food trucks, restaurants and shops. It's kind of magical at nighttime when everything is lit up and there is so much energy, like those times you spend all night listening to records or hanging out with beers in your backyard talking the night away.
You could actually start at one end for coffee and breakfast and work your way down to lunch, do a little shopping in between and then hang out all night long with live music on a patio. Not a bad way to spend a day. I also like that the night scene isn't too overly obnoxious, even if it becomes a little too cool for some to handle, such as bars so hip they named them twice:
The next night we ventured down to the up and coming Albert Arts District. The area isn't quite as built up at the historical Mississipi District. There are a few neat food spots that have already been discovered, including Salt and Straw Ice Cream where I had Almond Brittle and Salted Ganache ice cream among choices of Balsamic Strawberry, Pear with Blue Cheese and Bourbon Pecan Pie.
We stayed at the Tierra Soul Urban Farmhouse. This was one of the accommodation places I booked and the point in the trip where Mike questions my judgement a tiny little bit when he hears we are not staying at a swanky hotel, but rather, a cozy urban farm. One of the owners is actually Canadian and told us she used to live in British Columbia, but came to Portland for a few days vacation, loved it, bought a house and ended up staying.
The family was charming and were eager to tell us about their farm, permaculture and the city. We stayed in the Barn Dance room that was cozy and decorated with cute, rustic touches. They also have a vintage caravan you can stay in, as well as many other rooms with a definite guesthouse feel. You can even help out with farm chores and hang out with other guests in the kitchen or family room if you choose.
Breakfast is not included because there are so many eateries and coffee shops available down the street on North Mississipi Ave. With the cheap cost of transit in Portland, this is the perfect location to stay in while enjoying different eclectic pockets of the city.
After Portland, we drove to Newport, Oregon and spent another charming night at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. Then we continued on to San Francisco. My creative, quirky side definitely flourished in Portland, and like most Portlandians, I was totally cool with that, snakes and all.