Portland, Oregon travel guide: A couple of travel makers
If you're debating whether or not to put Portland on your itinerary, you should.
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Portland, Oregon isn't a city of landmarks. It doesn't have any iconic architectural feats nor does it have any historical buildings or museums of note.
What it does have is greenery, a lauded indie and foodie scene and some of the friendliest hipsters in the world. And believe me, there are a LOT of hipsters.
It's the kind of city you unwind in. And while four days might sound like a long time to wander gardens and tantalise your tastebuds at hipster cafes and craft breweries, it really isn't.
Building a US itinerary? Make sure you include a few days in Portland. Here's the lowdown:
TL;DR: Our Portland guide
- Weather: Four seasons with temperatures from 8℃ (winter) and 27℃ (summer).
- Accommodation: Average of US$250 per night. Stay downtown for short trips or in Portland's east to eat your heart out.
- Things to do: Foodie experiences, live performances, Oregon Zoo, International Rose Test Garden, Powell's City of Books and waterfalls along the Historic Columbia Highway.
- Best restaurants and bars: Cunard, Cup and Brew, Nong's Khao Man Gai, Voodoo Doughnut, Backwoods Brewery.
- Transport: TriMet buses and trams.
Who are a couple of travel makers?
We're Stef and D, a pair of married jetsetters. We've visited over 50 countries in total, and are determined to see even more. And all while working full-time and paying off a mortgage. We count our dollars at home and away and are here to share our tips on how you can travel on a budget.
New blog posts every fortnight on Mondays | Follow us: @acoupleoftravelmakers
Being less than 6 hours from the Canadian border, this inland city experiences mild summers with maximums of 27℃ and cold winters with maximums of 8℃, making it ideal to visit during summer.
If you're looking to impress, summer is also when the roses at the famous International Rose Test Garden are in full bloom.
It might have just been bad luck but when we visited in late August, the city was a sweatball. Temperatures spilled over 40℃ forcing us to return to our hotel in the afternoons to cool down.
There's something in Portland for every budget, from backpacker hostels with shared bathrooms to luxury 5-star hotels.
During peak season, budget pushers can find private rooms with shared bathrooms in downtown from US$145. Those seeking a little more comfort can find 3- to 4-star hotels with ensuites from US$180 per night in wider Portland.
Staying downtown affords you easy access to the city's tourist highlights. This includes Oregon Zoo, the International Rose Test Garden, Portland Art Museum and Powell's City of Books.
The good news is that nothing is ever far in Portland and if you wish to branch out and stay outside of downtown, it's no inconvenience to your itinerary.
Don't be afraid to hop across that water. When we were looking at our options we considered The Society Hotel in downtown as it was in our price point but took a gamble and went across the river to Jupiter NEXT for the added benefit of larger rooms and a private bathroom. It was still only a 10-minute bus ride from the CBD.
It was quite possibly the best decision we made, particularly as we discovered that downtown Portland has a serious homelessness issue. They keep to themselves, but when travelling an added sense of safety is always a positive.
Romantic things to do in Portland
Outside of exploring the suite of game-changing restaurants, breweries and cafes in the city, Portland has a handful of couple-friendly activities for the two of you to experience together.
We covered a lot of ground in the four days we were there and here's what we rate:
1. Catch a gig
Portland is renowned for its indie music scene – and you'll often find them gigging out inside anything from historic buildings to refurbished factories.
Make a date of it and book yourself a table at the most enticing restaurant before catching a concert at an iconic venue like McMenamin Crystal Ballroom, Wonder Ballroom or Revolution Hall.
2. Oregon Zoo
Showcasing wildlife from America, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Ocean across a generous 64 acres (26 hectares), Oregon Zoo has all the makings of an active day out. We spent a good five hours there learning about the local flora and fauna and watching the bird show. Tickets are US$17.95 for adults.
If after that you still have energy you can take the free Washington Park shuttle to smell the roses in the International Rose Test Garden, discover your zen in the Portland Japanese Gardens or explore almost 20 kilometres of forest in the Hoyt Arboretum.
3. International Rose Test Garden
Speaking of the International Rose Test Garden, did you know that Portland is nicknamed the City of Roses? The name is often attributed to Leo Samuel, a local who grew roses and would leave a pair of shears around so passers-by could gift themselves with one of his beauties.
These days, Portland is famed for its annual Rose Festival. The winners are often displayed in the International Rose Test Garden which feels quite like a tumble down into the Red Queen's garden where you can get lost among rows upon rows of beautiful blooms. The best bit? Entry is free.
4. OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry)
Fun for kids of all ages, OMSI is Portland's answer to Sydney's Powerhouse Museum. Perched on the waterfront, it features five halls of interactive displays on everything from energy and the human body to archaeology and space.
In other words, there's bound to be something here to tickle both your fancies.
When we were there we witnessed palaeontologists cleaning triceratops fossils, toured a USS Blueback submarine with a veteran and learned about constellations in the planetarium. We were also lucky enough to catch a special exhibit on the science behind Pixar, which put a smile on our dials. Tickets are US$15 for adults.
5. Powell's City of Books
My husband and I are both book nerds and, as Powell's is an institution in Portland, we had to make a beeline to see what the big deal was.
Dominating an entire block downtown, Powell's has nine colour-coded rooms overflowing with new and used books. Head to the top floor and you'll uncover the rare books room. It's dressed in ambient lighting and houses thousands of ageing and antiquarian books.
Best Portland restaurants, cafes and bars
Portland is very much a city of experiences and if there's one thing lovebirds should do is make numerous dates of it.
For breakfast we loved Cup & Bar. It's part cafe, part coffee and tasting room. It offers an open and inviting space to have you starting your day fresh as a daisy. Its service is lightning fast with coffees that didn't disappoint our Australian tastebuds. It's particularly ideal for digital nomads, many of whom were working on its long tables.
For lunch Canard is a cosy venue for a casual date. Its service is friendly and extremely attentive and its menu has fan favourites made just a little fancy. Think goat cheese and herb omelette; shrimp toast Benedict with avocado, cucumber and hollandaise; and spaghetti squash au gratin with black truffle and sauce mornay.
Make your way to Hawthorne Boulevard for a seemingly endless choice of food truck fare. They're all good but we highly recommend Matt's BBQ Tacos. They're Austin-style tacos featuring meats smoked on the premises that practically melt in your mouth. Go the pork belly or the brisket.
For an affordable dinner that doesn't disappoint Nong's Khao Man Gai will transport you straight to Asia. The menu is simple, specialising in chicken and rice, while the venue is decked out like a swanky Chinese eatery. Small booths and bar tables hug the walls and the plates and cutlery are plastic. It's no fuss but the food is fantastic.
If you like to live (and eat) spontaneously hit up one of the city's food halls. A cross between a food court and a festival market, they feature stall versions of Portland's gourmet restaurants. Most have dedicated seating areas per purveyor but there is communal space if your party is eating from various restaurants.
We wound up in Pine Street Market where we watched our ramen made right in front of us from the open kitchen of Marukin Ramen. PS these hipsters know their stuff. The broth was rich and flavourful while the servings were generous, leaving us struggling to finish our bowls.
Finally, for dessert, you can't pass up the Portland institution that is Voodoo Doughnut. It's trashy, it's cheap and even if you try, you won't be able to avoid stumbling past at least one of its three storefronts in the city.
Best bars in Portland
Portland is also not short on craft breweries and cideries. Check out Backwoods which changes its tap beers by the season and does a mean pulled pork nachos. If you can figure out the secret ingredient that makes it so moorish please hit us up. Deschutes Brewery is also a local fave that pours stellar porters and pale ales.
If cider is more your thing, check out 12 Bridge Ciderworks, Reverend Nat's Hard Cider, Square Mile Cider and Cider Riot. Not your typical apple ciders (though there is that), experimentation is at the forefront of the industry at the moment and you can expect everything from sour cherry to rosé apple ciders.
Portland public transport
TriMet is Portland's public transport service and includes buses and light rail within the city centre. Rides are US$2.50 each or US$5 per day.
When we were there TriMet was replacing its paper tickets with plastic rechargeable cards and phone pay apps. To do this you can either download the Hop app and load it with funds, or you can tap using Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay. We used Google Pay which was smart enough to recognise we'd hit our daily cap and never charged us more than US$5.
Another popular form of transport is electric scooter. As the city is quite flat we found these ideal to zip from place to place, particularly when we were heading home late and were too impatient to wait for a bus. You just need to download the scooter's app, load your account with funds and unlock your ride.
A couple-friendly and money-saving way to get around the city is to ride tandem on the scooter. There's enough room for two, just do a few trial runs first if you're not used to it. Oh, and make sure the shorter person (passenger) is standing at the front to give the driver at the back enough room to see.
Day trip from Portland
If you only manage one day trip, make sure it's to Columbia River Gorge along the Historic Columbia River Highway. This scenic road follows the Columbia River for 75 miles (120 kilometres) tumbling past waterfall after gushing waterfall.
In fact, of the 238 waterfalls in the entire state of Oregon, 90 of them are in the Columbia River Gorge. This puts it at the top of the list for the highest concentration of waterfalls in any US state and as such, you can easily tick off a handful in a day.
Many are tiered, so if you wish to catch a unique glimpse of the upper falls bring your hiking boots. Otherwise the lower falls are easily accessible over a short walk. Hot tip: if it's warm, bring your swimmers as you can often swim in the lower falls' pools.
How much did we spend?
- Flights. $210.73 (flight from Las Vegas to Portland)
- Accommodation. US$543.75 (we were guests of Portland Travel at Jupiter NEXT for one night)
- Transport. US$275
- Meals and drinks. US$343.35
- Activities and experiences. US$23.60 (we were guests at OMSI and Oregon Zoo)
- Other. US$54.50
- Annual leave days taken. 4 days
Total for 5 days, 4 nights: $2,039.95 ($210.73 + US$1,240.20)
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