Before I actually went to Portland, I could only see it as this two-dimensional backdrop for Fred Armisen to wear dresses in and for young Nike employees to tweet about light roasts being the new dark roasts and the importance of a work-life balance that no one anywhere else can achieve. And while we all might strive to be the kind of people who ask our waiters about our chicken’s childhood before we eat it for dinner, Portland’s social tourist allure felt a bit more circus-wonder than a friendly vacation hot spot.
So when I was given the opportunity to give the city a spin, I decided to focus my tourist efforts on unearthing the Portland beyond Portlandia. I had a feeling there was a Portland for me — the kind of person who can’t tell the difference between pignolis and pine cones and who has no interest in going to a contemporary art show inside of a speeding taco truck — and I was determined to find it. After a four-day stay that felt much too short, I managed to uncover the Portland I was looking for, with a surprising ease.
If you’ve been toying with the idea of experiencing the city beyond its pop culture significance, here’s your guide:
Stay somewhere cool.
There are tons of great hotels in downtown Portland, but if you’re looking for accommodations that make you feel like you’re actually a part of the city, you’re going to want to stay at The Ace. With bohemian no-frills apartment-like rooms, an extremely accommodating staff, heaps of cozy communal spaces and a city-wide social allure, this hotel feels like the beating heart of the city. With people from all over coming to hang in the cozy bookish lobby, get a drink at the uber-exclusive Pepe le Moko or drink the smoothest Oregonian wine there is (the 2012 Argyle Brut, Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, OR) at Clyde Common, you’ll wish you could live at The Ace by the time you leave.
They have a knack for making you feel at home even when you’re most out of your element.
Sweedeedees is one of the most popular breakfast joints among the locals. It’s so good that the reservation-less restaurant hosts a line of hungry sleepy-eyed folk that wraps around two corners. Upon arrival, I worried that my New York attention span and grumbling stomach would inhibit me from surviving an hour wait. But once I hopped in line with the uber-pleasant residents of Portland (no joke, these people don’t have a mean bone in their pale bodies) I somehow managed to relax. And by the time I made it inside and a fresh slice of honey pie and a farmer’s breakfast plate slid under my nose, I knew the wait was worth it.
The country kitchen vibe was true to form and I learned that the eggs were from a few miles down the road, the bacon from a half an hour north, the pie from the kitchen, and the greens from out back. This place is delicious, simple and cozy as your mom’s kitchen — but with much better cooking. Sorry, mom.
Tusk is the new kid on the high-fork culinary block. This minimalist Mediterranean restaurant definitely lives up to all the hype. Head there for brunch and forget about your hangover with some serious spice sensory overload. The amount of fresh ingredients, spices and herbs in each dish is overwhelming at first, but by the time you leave, you’ll be convinced that every meal should have a minimum of 13 ingredients, 5 spices and 14 herbs. It’s that good. Make a reservation ahead of time and maybe starve for a few hours first so that you can eat the whole
“Magic Carpet Ride” — a chef’s choice entree that’s worth every calorie.
Dinner is my favorite meal, so I don’t take recommendations lightly. I interviewed about a dozen locals and read through pages of Yelp reviews and Instagram comments before I decided on a dinner place I felt confident about enjoying. Word on the street was that Ned Ludd was the place to eat dinner, so I grabbed a six dollar Uber from The Ace. (Seriously, this city is so easy to navigate and your Uber driver will also probably be a neuroscientist or criminal defense lawyer trying to pay off a Prius lease in her spare time.)
When I first walked into Ned Ludd, I was encircled by a woody smoke coming from the fire stove behind the bar, which was used to heat the space, infuse the air with a campfire goodness and, I would later learn, to make all of their food really outstandingly, insanely, holy sh*t delicious. When I tell you that I had the best meal of my life at Nedd Lud I’m not messing around. Somewhere between the horseradish and salmon roe infused fire cooked potatoes and the creamed greens, which included sunny side eggs, toast, brown butter and a delectably crunchy texture achieve by no short of five separate roasts in the wood fire oven, I experienced my first mouth orgasm. I recommend you find yours there too.
Everyone else is doing it, eat donuts.
Everyone will tell you to go to Voo Doo Donuts but the locals will tell you Blue Star is the only way to go. Personally, I’m not a donut fanatic. Like, don’t attack me, I think they’re great but I’m not the kind of person who would go too far out of my way to get a donut so I’ll just say it helped that they were literally 20 feet from the hotel. Again, another long line but unlike in major cities, the people in-line are not tapping their feet and grunting as the slow-moving pace. They’re making small talk with each other and using pleasant expressions, another baffling concept for a seasoned New Yorker.
Because I just told you I’m not a donut person, you’ll understand the significance of my experience: I ate four donuts. I’m not even sorry about it, I didn’t even feel sick after — these cakey, glazed treats are divine. And with flavors like raspberry rosemary and sweet potato and brown butter, you’ll find yourself needing to try more than a few.
Wear a raincoat.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the rainy forecast for your trip. You won’t believe me until you experience it yourself, but the rain is gentle and misty and totally tolerable. It’s not like New York rain that assaults you like pellets and it’s not like Washington rain that never wanes. In Portland, rain is more of an on and off atmospheric attribute than an obstacle. That said, you will need a durable rain coat because people in Portland do not use umbrellas.
“Umbrellas are for pussies” my pizza server at Sizzle Pie (this place rivals NY’s best pizza) told me, and I was glad to have a baller rain coat to keep me dry. Personally I suggest Noah rain wear because they’re unisex, super affordable, and you’ll feel like you’re wearing a tent — nothing’s getting wet under one of these.
As a whole, Portland is a pretty quiet city. It’s so spread out that you won’t find yourself on a crowded street late at night with tons of overflow from the bars. It’s the kind of city that you have to plan ahead because you’ll need to aim and shoot to find the fun. While most tour guides and lifestyle mags will point you in the direction of one of their whiskey libraries or organic wine bars, I had the best experience at Expatriate — a super low key bar with big tables for groups, kitschy decorations for entertainment, and an extensive and humble drink list.
Majorly good vibes and friendly folks to make friends with.
View this post on Instagram
Mist Falls, Oregon. #waterfall #oregon #columbiarivergorge #bushwhack #offtrail #pnw #pnwonderland #outdoors #hiking #nature #naturephotography #waterfallsfordays #westernnature #cascadiaexplored #getoutside #chasingwaterfalls #negativeionsociety #ice #winterwonderland #snow #frozenfalls
Just a short half hour outside of the city is the Columbia River Gorge which is the perfect reprieve from city streets, without requiring too much driving. The thing about the city of Portland is that you don’t really feel a need to get away. Even the most dense areas are not nearly chaotic or busy enough for you to get the urge to flee — but the gorgeous allure of the Gorge surely inspires its residents to spread their love beyond the city lines. Oregonian pride is strong and once you stand below the massive Multnomah Falls, you’ll wonder why you live anywhere else in the world.
I mean literally, I had this exact conversation with a group of major city dwellers also on vacation. We made a pact to live there in a year and I wouldn’t be surprised if we all keep it.
Okay, get away.
While there’s no need to ever leave Portland, there’s definitely reason to explore all that Oregon has to offer — which is a lot. Just an hour outside of the city in the Willamette Valley lies a modest yet impressive winery and spa —The Allison Inn & Spa. If you’re looking for some nature, some uber luxurious accommodations and a non-prissy spa, The Allison will feel like a dream and you’ll have to pinch yourself around every corner of its botanically bountiful property.
Not only is this haven a sight to see, but it’s a service to be experienced. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be treated like royalty, go here for the weekend … but then get back to Portland because you miss it already.
Okay, come back.
Never before has a city won my heart over so quickly and with such grace. This city is so much more than a TV show or the butt of a joke. It’s a hub of exquisite cuisine, a progressive and kindhearted contemporary culture loaded with people so nice that you’re sure to leave with every intention of becoming a better human… and a local.