Practical Travel Tips: Portland, Oregon

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We been to Portland a few times. A lot of good eats. Worth the visit.

Jim “The Travel Organizer,” who last wrote about The Road to Hana, Maui’s “upcountry“, Hong Kong, Austin, San Antonio, Valley of Moon, California, Dubrovnik, Croatia, Split, Croatia, Krk, Croatia, Koper, Slovenia, Mendocino County, California, Auckland, Oslo, the small German town of Speyer and Deidesheim, Oahu, Napa Valley, Venice, Singapore, Bangkok, Sonoma County and Myrtle Beach, and here are his tips should you decide to visit Portland

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The unofficial motto for the City of Roses is “Keep Portland Weird” and, indeed, it has its quirks. Where else could one expect the title sponsor of an annual naked bike ride that attracts upwards of 8,000 scantily (if at all) clad bicycle riders to be a law firm whose tagline for the event was, “When you’re naked, we’ve got you covered”? Portland is commonly thought of as an especially rainy city but the truth is that it doesn’t even crack the United States’ top 15 for liquid precipitation; New York City gets almost 40% more rain annually than Portland! On the other hand, it is cloudy 61% of the time in Portland.

Where we stayed in Portland

We used 60,000 IHG Rewards points from a credit card signup to book 3 nights at the fairly new Holiday Inn Express & Suites – Portland Airport. This property offers complimentary, on-demand airport shuttle service and is a mere 2 minute walk from the Mt. Hood Avenue station of Portland’s light rail system, which whisks you from PDX into the heart of the central business district in about 30 minutes. The Holiday Inn Express & Suites serves a complimentary hot breakfast of eggs, bacon and/or sausage, a pancake machine, and mini-Cinnabon buns. It also has an indoor pool, a well-equipped exercise room and an outdoor terrace with fire pit. The rooms offer plenty of space and optimize their footprint through smart design.

How we got around

Using Portland’s public transit system (TriMet) saved us almost $300 compared to the cost of driving when one considers the price of a rental car, parking fees, fuel, etc. A day pass which is good for travel on any of the 5 light rail (MAX) routes, 3 streetcar lines, 86 bus routes and the commuter rail line (WES) which runs to the western suburbs costs just $5.00 and if you are an “honored citizen” (65+) that cost is cut in half!

Tip: The TriMet website provides an excellent “trip planner” interface which makes scheduling transit relatively simple. Stations are unstaffed outdoor shelters which have intuitive fare/ticket vending machines. I’d be happy to share a copy of our itinerary which includes transit details to any reader of The Flight Deal who contacts me.

What we did

We used the Rail MAX, streetcar and one special bus (see “Multnomah Falls” below) to get everywhere in this destination report. Total cost for 2 people for 3 days’ transit? Just $25.00!

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls and Benson Bridge – Photo: (c) 2019 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Multnomah Falls, the crown jewel of the Columbia Gorge, cascades some 620 feet over a sheer basalt wall in two stages. It comes in at #6 on the World of Waterfalls’ list of “The Top 10 Best Waterfalls of the USA.” 30 miles east of downtown Portland, Multnomah Falls is easily accessible; it’s just a 3/10ths of a mile walk on a paved path from the parking lot between the east- and westbound lanes of I-84 at Exit 31 to the viewing platform at its base. For a little more than the price of a single gallon of gas, we rode the red MAX line from our hotel to the Gateway Transit Center, where we transferred to the Columbia Gorge Express to ride roundtrip to the falls. Because of the massive 2018 Eagle Creek fire, which burned more than 48,000 acres and closed I-84 for 10 days, we couldn’t hike any farther than the iconic Benson Bridge (pictured here).

Gardens

Portland’s Mediterranean climate is especially conducive to horticulture which finds eloquent expression in more than 200 parks. The first 3 parks below are clustered together in 413 acre Washington Park, just west of downtown Portland. Washington Park is on both the Red and Blue light rail lines.

Tip: Once you arrive at the MAX station, a free seasonal (daily from May-October, weekends only from November-April) shuttle makes a clockwise circuit through the park, stopping at each attraction.

Hoyt Arboretum

Hoyt Arboretum is HUGE (190 acres with 12 miles of trails) – and it’s always free. If possible, plan your visit to coincide with a volunteer-led guided tour ($3/person donation suggested); check the Arboretum’s events calendar for days/times. Although key trees and plants are labeled and free maps to well-marked walks ranging from ½ mile to 1.25 miles in length can be picked up at the Visitor Center or downloaded from the Arboretum’s website, we found the guided tour added immeasurably to our experience.

Portland Japanese Garden

Heavenly Falls, in the Strolling Pond Garden – Photo: (c) 2019 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

The former Ambassador of Japan to the United States, Nobuo Matsunaga, has called this oasis of tranquility in Washington Park “the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden in the world outside of Japan.” Public tours, which are included in the cost of admission ($18.95 for adults, reduced prices for seniors, students and youth, children 5 and under are free) are generally offered twice daily May 1 – Labor Day and once/day the rest of the year. Our tour gave us a much deeper appreciation for the many ways Japanese culture and values are reflected in the beauty of the garden and its buildings. For example, the bridge over the koi pond has multiple layers of meaning not readily apparent to Westerners : its zig-zag path reflects the Zen value of mindfulness – attentiveness to time and place; its unfinished state exemplifies the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi – beauty in imperfection and aging – and, because evil spirits are believed to travel only in straight lines, one is safe after crossing it.

Tip: Be sure to call (503) 542-9306 on the day of your visit to verify the tour schedule. Our early arrival turned out to be a stroke of good fortune; we joined the 2:00pm tour in progress since the 4:00pm tour we had planned on taking ended up not being offered.

International Rose Test Garden

Home to more than 600 different types of roses which bloom from late May through mid-October, the original purpose of this garden, founded in 1917, was to preserve species of European roses imperiled by the destruction of World War I. In addition to serving as a showcase for the city flower, the International Rose Test Garden is a working laboratory for the development of new rose varieties. Admission is always free; complimentary tours are offered daily at 1:00pm from Memorial Day weekend – Labor Day weekend.

Lan Su Chinese Garden

Lan Su Garden – Photo: (c) 2019 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

This island of urban serenity is just a short walk from the Old Town/Chinatown stop on both the Red and Blue MAX light rail lines. Its name is a mash-up of syllables from Portland and its Chinese sister city, Suzhou. Interestingly, “lan” in Chinese means “orchid” and “su” means “arise” or “awaken” so an expressive interpretation of the name might be “Garden of Awakening Orchids.” The number of different vistas in this compact space (just a single city block!) is simply amazing! Once inside the garden walls, it is easy to forget you are in the heart of the city. We found a comparison of the Japanese and Chinese gardens fascinating. Japanese gardens tend to be more for appreciating from a distance, much as one would a work of art, while Chinese gardens tend to be more engaging environments, designed for enjoying with others. Daily guided tours, included in the price of admission, are indispensable for appreciating the way Lan Su Chinese Garden incorporates the elements of water, stone, plants and architecture to reflect the Taoist principle of the balancing forces of yin (shade/shadow) and yang (sunny/light).

Shanghai Tunnels

Crate of loggers’ boots left behind in the “Shanghai Tunnels” – Photo: (c) 2019 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Two groups lead tours of Portland’s underground. Portland Walking Tours offers an “Underground Portland” Tour which actually takes place mostly above ground. Cascade Geographic Society, a nonprofit organization which has been working for more than 25 years to make Portland’s Underground accessible to visitors, operates the “Shanghai Tunnels” tour on which you spend most of your time in a dimly lit labyrinth of subterranean rooms and passageways. After a brief above-ground orientation, the latter tour takes you through underground walls separating four buildings to spin the yarn of loggers “shanghaied” to perform forced labor onboard ships anchored in Portland’s waterfront (leaving behind only their studded boots – pictured here) and women sent to distant destinations as prostitutes. Tours are led by the Society’s founder, Michael P. Jones, who is quick to remind his entourage that the Travel Channel lists the Shanghai Tunnels as one of “the most terrifying places in America.”

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI)

OMSI’s mission of offering “engaging science learning experiences” and “foster(ing) experimentation” is reflected in its many “hands on” exhibits. Whether it’s solving puzzles or identifying fossils, there’s plenty to keep young, inquisitive minds (and hands!) occupied for hours on end. Education gives way to entertainment on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 and 8pm when the OMSI planetarium becomes a venue for projecting intense colors synchronized to music during its laser light shows. OMSI is just a short walk from the OMSI/SE Water MAX light rail (Orange line) or Streetcar (A or B loop) stations.

Saturday Market

The Portland Saturday Market (10am-5pm on Saturdays and 11am-4:30pm on Sundays, March through December) at the Skidmore Fountain stop on both the Red and Blue MAX light rail lines is regarded as “the largest continuously operating open-air arts and crafts market in the country.” In addition to more than 100 artisan booths, there are food stands, multiple entertainment stages and a kids’ spray park.

Where we ate

The Leaky Roof, 1538 SW Jefferson Street

OMG – if you like onion rings, you just must taste theirs! You can score a free entree using AARP’s “Rewards for Good” points (anyone can join and points can be easily manufactured as needed). Both the Red and Blue MAX light rail lines stop at Goose Hollow/SW Jefferson St.; from there it is just 2 blocks to The Leaky Roof.

Thai Bloom! 333 NW 23rd Avenue

Just a few blocks from the northeast corner of Washington Park is this neighborhood gem. We arrived during happy hour (4-6pm) and shared 2 orders of veggie spring rolls, chicken pot stickers, pad Thai, Chiang Mai sausage and 2 glasses or Oregon Pinot Noir. Total bill with tip and tax? Just $48! Tip: You can earn up to 5 airline miles/$1 spent and get 5% cash back on your total bill at Thai Bloom!

Gallo Nero, 903 NW Everett Street

Rated in the top 10% of Portland restaurants by TripAdvisor, dishes here are delicate and flavorful rather than heavy and over-sauced. We enjoyed one of the best Italian meals we’ve eaten in a long time at this downtown trattoria: a Dungeness crab salad and a seafood/mascarpone ravioli in olive oil. Tip: Again, you can earn up to 5 airline miles/$1 spent and get 5% cash back on your total bill at Gallo Nero.

Final thoughts

Since we relied totally on public transit (and we wouldn’t hesitate to do so again on future visits) I need to mention that Portland’s homeless make up a disproportionate share of light rail ridership. Portland’s tourism industry is actively engaged in seeking ways to balance compassion for the plight of the homeless, public safety and tourism development but those planning to visit should be aware of the situation.

About the Author:

I organize things; it’s what I do! I enjoy the natural adrenaline high of travel as much as the next person but I also try to limit the likelihood that the surprises I experience along the way will be unpleasant ones. To this end, I spend more hours than most preparing for each trip. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the anticipation of travel as much as the experience of it. The focus of my trip reports will be to help those who read them to enjoy high value experiences — maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. I’ve been a minister, nonprofit agency executive, professor and consultant; my “job” in retirement is planning our next trip. If you would like additional information and/or recommendations, please feel free to contact “The Travel Organizer” via email.

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3 Responses to "Practical Travel Tips: Portland, Oregon"

  1. ken says:

    If you come to Portland, don’t stay near the Airport!
    That is to far away….

    Reply
    • Katya Lobanova says:

      That was my immediate reaction as well. There are so many wonderful neighborhoods in Portland and it’s such a shame to stay so far away from all of them. The MAX doesn’t run that late, so you’re really missing out on valuable engagement opportunities by heading back to the airport every evening… what an unfortunate waste of so many points.

      Reply
  2. The Travel Organizer says:

    I’m sure Portland has many wonderful neighborhoods which include far more luxurious hotels than our choice for this destination report. But we had a specific objective in mind…to rely 100% on public transit. We saved the rental car cost, parking cost, cost for fuel, didn’t have to walk with luggage, etc. We also had a late arrival and early departure from the airport so this just made sense for us.

    Reply

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