Even if you doubled these 72 hours, you’d still be short by half in getting through the essential Pearl District and Northwest Portland. For a culture vulture, there is no better time spent than among the converted warehouses of Portland’s booming downtown district and the boutique shopping in Northwest. Over these few days, you will take in Oregon history, sip your way through its coffee culture, find worldly cuisine made from local farms, hit one of the world’s best bookstores, dive into the art scene and get your holiday shopping done along the way.
Perhaps no one area of Portland has seen as much change as the Pearl District. Once densely forested with a lake named after its preeminent resident, Captain John Couch—the namesake of Couch Street—this precursor to the modern-day Pearl District increasingly went the way of industry. Weinhard’s Brewery brewed, and poured beer from 1864 until 1999 in what are now The Pearl’s Brewery Blocks between 10th and 13th avenues and Burnside and Davis streets. Warehouses multiplied with the breadth of the industrial revolution. Train tracks came through to exchange finished products for raw materials, and take goods to markets farther afield. The well-heeled Portlander likely never intentionally set foot or carriage track in this area without a good reason. These low-slung buildings were made for laborers of the trades.
The Pearl, as much as it has changed in appearance, could never change its elevation in the floodplain of the Willamette River. The river spilled its contents across this area in 1876, 1894, 1948, 1964 and 1996. Today, the retaining walls are higher and a rush of mixed redevelopment moved into the old warehouses—along with some of Portland’s most exclusive shops, restaurants, and residences. Still, it’s the post-industrial character that gives this oyster its pearl.
A good place to stay, and nicely located in the middle of your agenda, is the Inn at Northrup Station on NW Northrup Street at 20th Ave. It’s easy walking to the vital areas of the Northwest and The Pearl. Further, the streetcar runs right past the hotel, west to 23rd on Northrup, and back east to 11th and Glisan in the heart of The Pearl. The suites have a kitchenette with a toaster, a coffee maker, a sink and a dishwasher. A gargantuan flat screen in the living area recedes into décor as bright as Alice’s Wonderland. One young but welltraveled guest exclaimed, “This is the coolest hotel I’ve ever been to!” Her sister asked, “Why don’t all hotels use color like they do?”
The day starts early, and like all days should, with a flaky pastry and good coffee. At 21st Avenue and Flanders is an Old-World treat under the roof of Ken’s Artisan Bakery. A perfectly made croissant is très simple, and shows the experience and restraint of the classically trained baker, Ken Forkish. Now it’s on! Holidays are up and down every street, sparkling in tinsel across buildings, laid out in window displays and in the merriment of those who are finally cutting free to meet up with friends and shop.
Wander down the retail backbone of Northwest on 23rd Avenue and you will encounter everything from tattoo parlors to upscale restaurants and bars, as well as boutiques, bagelries, breweries, chocolatiers, and hatters such as the Goorin Bros. Nob Hill Hat Shop. Don’t forget to stop at 3 Monkeys for vintage knick-knacks and novelties.
For lunch, duck inside the McMenamins Ram’s Head on the corner of 23rd and Hoyt. The cozy atmosphere of a turn-of-the-century British parlour sits well with your Irish coffee. As my grandma often said, “I figured, what the hell!” Shopping is, after all, an endurance sport that requires the pacing (and dampening) of expectations. On November 16, Ram’s Head will reveal a new look in its remodeled dining room.
If you need a more tranquil outlet from shopping, take in the Japanese Garden on the near southwest side. Try to go on a weekday, when parking is easier. Not surprisingly, the notion of aggressively competing for a parking space to get into the quiet and contemplative zen zone, only slightly bothers me. Don’t take the trolley from the parking lot unless you’re unable to make the mild and scenic uphill walk to the garden. It’s a calming transition from the parking lot.
There are five gardens over more than five acres, all of which make this redoubt a state treasure. Bonus: There’s also a scavenger hunt for kids. Adults, too, could find this a good exercise for finding subtle parts of the garden they might have otherwise overlooked.
Whether you’ve retreated to the Japanese Garden or soldiered on shopping, you’ll inevitably begin to think about dinner. For tasty Moroccan food with a visceral side dish, try Marrakesh and its traditional belly-dancers. The five-course prix fixe menu is a good way to experience the best of Marrakesh, with lamb, chicken or hare tagine, couscous, and daring pours of mint tea from waiters in Moroccan waistcoats and fez hats. If you want to stay on the Anglophile track, slip into North 45 Pub on 21st and Glisan. An upscale twist on a traditional English pub/bistro, North 45 is known for good pub grub, oysters and an eclectic list of beers, whiskeys and bourbons.
A final evening challenge lay ahead at Salt & Straw, a parlor with locally sourced farm-to-cone ice cream at Kearney and 23rd. Holy cow! The queue was an hour to get to the counter, but worth it for the coffee and bourbon ice cream.
For breakfast, you can hit the lobby of the Inn or take a quick sidetrip to St. Honoré on 23rd and Thurman for authentic French bread and pastry. In any case, you’ll need energy for the day ahead.
Forest Park is an eight-mile-long urban reserve with trails for hiking and running. Most cities don’t have a resource this big and this beautiful for getting out. Portland does. Start at Lower Macleay Park Trailhead at the end of Upshur Street and set your sights on making it all the way up Wildwood Trail to the historical Pittock Mansion, or knock off a lesser segment to get your blood pumping.
Before you dive into retail therapy, head right down to Powell’s, one of the best bookstores on the planet, to find a novel and perhaps, a gift. (Best to have your reading material before you find yourself trapped in your wife’s favorite home store, your hands stuffed in your pockets.) Like New York’s Strand Bookstore with eighteen miles of books, Powell’s is the iconic bookseller and book-buyer with more than one million volumes in its 68,000 square feet. To navigate your way through this colossus, you can look for the rainbow colored maps on the walls, ask for directions at the help desks or download Powell’s new app that will guide you to exactly where your book sits.
Powell’s can be a bit like a Vegas casino, luring you with its siren song, enticing you with riches and then spitting you out in what seemed like minutes but is actually hours. Get your afternoon coffee at Barista on 13th and Hoyt, ignore the day’s news and crack the cover of your new Powell’s pick.
Or head the other direction to Henry’s Tavern, an upscale pub with a solid lunch menu and more than one hundred beers on tap. You can still feel the history coursing through your veins. Weinhard, one of the Portland’s leading humanitarians, brought cheer and beer to its citizens beginning in 1864. Blitz-Weinhard Brewery grew until it had consumed five blocks, a piece of which is now Henry’s Tavern.
For art lovers, The Pearl is an oyster farm. There is Elizabeth Leach, Froelick, Blackfish, Blue Sky and Bullseye, to name a few galleries. Hanging on the old brick walls of warehouses cum galleries of The Pearl, art feels like it is in the right space.
The Pearl is also a great place to expand your hedonistic horizons. Over on Everett Street, Teardrop Cocktail Lounge serves up tasty drinks with classic barmanship. Enter, the Art of Darkness, a cocktail that starts out like a Manhattan (Jim Beam and vermouth) and then takes a splash of a sweet Belgian beer. It’s just the right libation to perk up for the ongoing shopping.
Dinner in The Pearl is a happy conundrum. There’s Vietnamese (Silk), Japanese (Hiroshi), Peruvian (Andina), Italian (Fratelli), Mediterranean (Blue Hour) and American brasserie (Paragon). We opt for The Parish, a new upscale Cajun/Creole restaurant and oyster bar on 11th Avenue. The hostess reception is an old pulpit spirited from a church in Mississippi. The menu is full of flavor from the best of New Orleans’ French Quarter— chicken-fried quail, braised frog legs, duck gumbo and shrimp étouffée. Even the elusive bottle of Sancerre makes the wine list at The Parish.
Don’t settle in quite yet, the city is just coming alive. Portland Center Stage theater group likely has something playing you won’t want to miss while in the neighborhood. This troupe, part of the Actors Equity Association, began as an offshoot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has called the Gerding Theater at The Armory its home for the past six years. On this weekend, Sweeney Todd and The Body of an American are on stage. Built in 1891, The Armory was originally the home of the Oregon National Guard, now a stage for the Oregon vanguard.
No man is an island … unless he eats and drinks enough to become one. For your final day in the city, combine exercise with sightseeing and run the bridges spanning the Willamette River. Kids can keep up on bikes and join the cycling tradition of one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. Run down to the waterfront and cross to the east side on the Steel Bridge, south to the Hawthorne Bridge and back up the waterfront. As fortune would have it, most mornings are slightly chilly and overcast—perfect for a run-bike.
Head back to the Pearl for breakfast. There’s Byways Cafe, a good greasy spoon on 12th and Glisan, or maybe it’s time to head to Isabel Pearl on 10th and Flanders, where taste isn’t compromised by healthy cuisine. Try the coconut french toast served with a raspberry purée. For a savory dish, take in the complexity of the Omar Special—scrambled egg whites, cheese, green onions and tomatoes, topped with grilled chicken and mushrooms, and served with brown rice and a cilantro, lime and avocado sauce. Named for its chef-owner Isabel Cruz, the upand- coming restaurant uses as much produce as possible from its own farm in Sandy, Oregon.
Save the most dangerous part for last. A wife in West Elm rearranges her house many times over, room by room, while contemplating new options. The dyslexic in me rearranges (and takes liberty with) the letters to spell Stew Me, and I skedaddle. To keep a balance in the family and on your credit card, this is a good time to slip away to REI and Patagonia. Chances are, this time of year, there are huge savings to reap.
A final reunion point to discuss the damage and get a good afternoon cup of coffee before the drive home is Sisters Coffee Company in The Pearl. A modern Western theme in the midst of the post-industrial Pearl seems a culturally appropriate way to transition back out of Portland.
See a performance at Center Stage Theater at The Armory
Lose yourself for hours at Powell’s Books
Browse the many art galleries of The Pearl District
Take in Old Town Chinatown
The Parish theparishpdx.com
North 45 Pub north45pub.com
Isabel Pearl isabelscantina.com
St. Honoré Bakery sthonorebakery.com
Inn at Northrup Station northrupstation.com
Silver Cloud Inn silvercloud.com
Ace Hotel acehotel.com/portland