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Portland: Free to be

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posted February 1, 2020
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Portland is a place where people are free to be themselves. From artisans and gardeners to doughnut-lovers, there’s a place for all—and Ashley Kingman with Travel Portland takes us on a stroll through the very walkable city to the must-see, long-established attractions as well as all the new and exciting ones.

“For a growing and evolving city, people are still wildly friendly, smile at strangers, and thank their drivers when they get off a bus,” Kingman says. “Before I moved here, when I was a visitor myself, I fell in love with the energy from the locals. In all of the different and charming neighborhoods, I saw artists, makers, and entrepreneurs doing and creating interesting and innovative things. This was very inspiring.”

Here are a few themes to help visitors find their own way in Oregon’s largest city. 


Powell's City of Books
Powell's City of Books (Photo by Christopher Onstott)

Shopping

Shoppers are free to be themselves, too. Portland (the whole state, actually) offers tax-free shopping.

“Powell’s City of Books is a must,” Kingman says of the Portland landmark that is the world’s largest new and used independent bookstore. Open 365 days a year, the shop covers a city block with 1.5 million books, sorted into 3,500 different sections. And while book seekers could spend possibly all their Portland time in this location alone, they can also visit the store’s branches on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard; in nearby Beaverton; and at Portland International Airport.

The Portland Saturday Market (technically the Portland Saturday AND Sunday Market) breaks a record, too: It’s the largest continually operating outdoor arts and crafts market in the U.S. More than 250 regional small business-owners and artists set up shop in Waterfront Park in the city’s historical Old Town.

With live music and an array of exotic food vendors, the market, which has operated since 1974, offers one-of-a-kind handcrafted goods as well as opportunities for shoppers to interact with the artists. It’s open every Saturday and Sunday, March through Christmas Eve.

Crafty Wonderland is a downtown shop housing the work of more than 200 local artists. The store’s shelves are covered in the creative and quirky, like earrings made to look like a map of Portland and Sasquatch baby onesies. And twice a year, Crafty Wonderland becomes a marketplace (the largest handmade craft show in the Northwest, in fact) at the Oregon Convention Center when those 200-plus artists come together to share and sell their products.


International  Rose Test  Garden
International Rose Test Garden (Photo by Jim Fullan/Travel Portland)

Gardening

From downtown to the outskirts, Portland is a colorful blossom in the bed of garden tourism. And it’s not just a springtime thing, either.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden, open year-round, also takes up a city block. Located in the Chinatown district and built by Suzhou artists in authentic Ming Dynasty style, the garden has open colonnades, bridges, and pavilions to stroll. Visitors can see exquisite landscaping at the edges of Zither Lake, have tea at The Tao of Tea, and spend time in reflection during a horticulturist-led public tour of the grounds.

The International Rose Test Garden began as a safe haven for hybrid roses grown in Europe during World War I, and it now carries the title of the oldest official public rose test garden in the U.S. With more than 10,000 roses from 650 varieties, the garden is a free attraction and open April through September. Other gardens include the Portland Japanese Garden (also open year-round), the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, and the Peninsula Park Rose Garden. Visitors can take a meditative bike tour that digs deeper into garden design.

Speaking of roses, the city’s official festival, the Portland Rose Festival, is a century-old fête with more than 60 events beginning in late May and ending with dragon boat races the second week of June. The iconic NTA-member festival features three parades (the Junior Parade, the Starlight Parade, and the signature Grand Floral Parade filled with flowers), as well as the annual Rose Show, walks and runs, a waterfront carnival, concerts, and fireworks. For more information, go to rosefestival.org.


Voodoo Doughnut
Voodoo Doughnut (Photo by Travel Portland)

Eating (and drinking)

“Portland has long prided itself as a major food destination, and I’m excited that we have several new tour companies that have started offering more high-quality, unique food tours around the city,” Kingman says.

“Operators can now book groups on foodie tours focused on cool neighborhoods, brunch, and of course, coffee and doughnuts.”

At Voodoo Doughnut, sweet-toothed patrons will find out-of-the-ordinary confections that have been featured on the likes of “The Today Show,” “Portlandia,” and MTV, and in People, Condé Nast Traveler, and, of course, Courier—to name a few. Some of its most unconventional items on the menu include “Ring of Fire” (a chocolate cake doughnut covered with cinnamon sugar, cayenne pepper, and a dried red chili pepper) and “Portland Cream” (filled with Bavarian cream and topped with chocolate and “eyeballs” representing the vision of Portland). Some doughnuts are cereal-topped, some are tie-dye topped, and others are a bit more eyebrow-raising. Kingman says other popular local doughnut shops include Blue Star, Coco Donuts, and Pips.

And for some good joe, Water Avenue Coffee is a well-known spot that has micro-roasted craft coffees, and Cup & Bar offers the city’s first coffee and chocolate tasting room and café with small batch coffee and craft chocolate. The Third Wave Coffee Tour is a hot way to hit up multiple locations.

Rob Finch/Travel Portland
Polish food cart (Photo by Rob Finch/Travel Portland)

By nature, food trucks are there one minute and gone the next. But Portland has an established food-cart scene where the mobile restaurants are parked in groups, aka “pods.” There are more than 600 food carts, and most have plenty of seating for spreading out samples. In Southwest Portland, Hawthorne Asylum is a pod with global tastes—from Deep South/South African-infused fried chicken to Korean tacos. Lots of Latin-inspired fare can be found at the Portland Mercado, where the food carts are Latino-owned. Groups can also take the Food Carts Portland tour to get well-versed (and well-fed).


Creating

Kingman says a newer area of focus for tours is the local maker culture, which shines a light on the eccentric spirit of Portland. The city is full of opportunities for entrepreneurs to get the ball rolling with their craft, and visitors can get their own DIY on in these creative spaces.

Carter & Rose on Southeast Division Street is the creation of two best friends, a ceramicist and a florist, who started a business together. Crafters can come in during open clay studio time for a hands-on session, and they can browse the store’s collection of trendy wall planters.

Creo Chocolate is a family-owned and operated factory where award-winning chocolate is created—from bean to bar. The Make-A-Bar Tour allows visitors to learn all about the process and make their very own confection.

The DIY Bar is a maker space where groups can gather and find their own focus. They can take on a variety of projects, including making leather luggage tags, beer koozies, and cat scratchers while “craft-tenders” watch over the processes and provide assistance if needed. Local beer, wine, and cider are available for added fun.

Makers festivals include the Mississippi Street Fair in July, the Alberta Street Fair in August, and the Festival of the Last Minute in December.

For more information, contact Travel Portland’s Ashley Kingman or go to travelportland.com.

Top photo by Jake Donahue