Much of downtown urban America has become a sea of glass towers and chain outlets with little individuality. And for RVers, it can become hard to find a parking place. But in Oregon, while experiencing the unique urban ambience of downtown Portland, my wife, Shari, and I became enthralled by the lively scene, and we also found convenient ways for RVers to visit the city.
If you haven’t visited downtown Portland during the past few years, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Its rough edges are giving ground to the vibrant energy of young and bright entrepreneurs enthusiastically working to create a livable city. Portland suburbanites who just a few years ago assiduously avoided downtown now get a room for the weekend and take in the city’s delights, be it the robust restaurant and food truck scene or the lively theater, shopping and arts.
While walking Portland’s sidewalks, we noticed unique urban phenomena. First, even though Portland has its share of glass towers, many buildings maintain their older facades. Secondly, our view isn’t constantly bombarded by bright corporate signage because Portlanders take enormous pride in supporting their local, independent businesses.
Portland’s narrow streets and shortage of parking might be perceived by RVers as an insurmountable barrier, but with the area’s vast 52-mile public transportation light-rail system, you can park outside the city and ride in. While it is illegal to park an RV in Park & Ride lots outside the city, there are legal street and mall parking spaces for RVs next to some transit lots. TriMet’s MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) Light Rail connects Portland City Center with Beaverton, Clackamas, Gresham, Hillsboro, North/Northeast Portland and the Portland International Airport. The fares are light on the wallet, especially for seniors, with trains running every 15 minutes. Even with a car, parking and riding into the city may be your best option.
Art and History
We started our adventure by picking up city maps at the centrally situated Travel Portland Visitor Information Center in Pioneer Courthouse Square. The square annually welcomes 9.5 million visitors with more than 300 events, including farmer’s markets, ethnic festivals, concerts and free family-oriented outdoor movies.
Since we are attracted to the arts, we headed a few blocks southwest of the square to the Performing Arts Center, Portland Art Museum, and Oregon History Museum, as well as the 1895 First Congregational Church, with its 175-foot bell tower. The church was designed by Swiss architect Henry J. Hefty to resemble the Old South Church in Boston and is considered one of the few Venetian Gothic architecture examples in the United States. Its stonework, rich wood-lined sanctuary and stained glass windows are well worth a visit.
The Portland Art Museum, founded in 1892, occupies 121,000 square feet in a building with airy and naturally lit grand spaces and more intimate exhibition rooms. The strong collection encompasses photographs, Asian and Native American works, and American and European art, including that of well-known European impressionists. The well-regarded Northwest art collection tracks the development of art in Oregon and Washington since the 19th century.
Just across the street, history buffs will enjoy the Oregon History Museum, which explores everything from early inhabitants to current issues facing the state. The “Oregon My Oregon” exhibit focuses on the people in Oregon’s history, from struggling farmers, wealthy business owners and miners to industrialists, immigrants and American Indians.
Food Cart Cuisine
Portland has so many options for enjoying its nationally recognized fresh and adventurous cuisine that it’s hard to know where to start. Bon Appetit magazine raved about Portland’s food cart culture, and CNN declared the city home to the world’s best street food. The city has about 700 licensed food carts, with quality offerings from Moroccan seafood paella to French sweet and savory crepes full of smoked salmon or asparagus. For dessert you can feast on farm-fresh pears and strawberries, peaches with hazelnut spiced flatbread or a caramelized apple browned butter tart. It seems that every unoccupied lot space within Portland has at least one cart. The largest downtown collection is between SW Alder and Washington streets, from SW 9th Avenue to SW 10th Avenue.
We started our culinary adventure by taking one of Portland’s walking tours with Forktown Food Tours led by a very enthusiastic Portland foodie and city enthusiast, Kelsey Schopp. We started at the Brasserie Montmartre with its rustic refined French cuisine with a fresh Pacific Northwest twist. It’s located on Park Avenue in the historic old brick Calumet building, where you will want to get the lowdown on a failed bank robbery. Verde Cocina, a Mexican restaurant in the revitalized Pearl District, offered what Shari, who was raised in Southern Arizona, thought was the best mole she has ever enjoyed. Cacao’s on 13th Avenue provides 100 percent chocolate bars from around the world, and a demitasse hot chocolate to die for. Just when we felt we couldn’t handle another bite, we concluded at Petunia’s Pies and Pastries, where their too-tempting gluten-free and vegan baked goods made us forget our already sated appetite.
Portland has passionate devotees loving everything from coffee to local cider houses. If you like a brew or two though, then Portland is your nirvana. With more craft breweries than any other city on earth, no wonder Portland’s unofficial nickname is “Beervana.” Beer festivals attract aficionados from around the world. You can take a brew tour or try a brewery or two on your own.
The two restaurants we particularly enjoyed lived up to their recommendations from the knowledgeable locals. Mother’s Bistro & Bar, with its crystal chandeliers, wooden floors, collection of old pitchers and old-fashioned cabinets and furnishings, was a delightful place for breakfast. Large windows allowed us to take in the street scene. The Grilled Portabella Mushroom Scramble consisted of grilled portabellas marinated in garlic, olive oil & balsamic vinegar, scrambled with eggs, fresh sautéed spinach & asiago cheese. For me, born and raised in the Northwest, it was the Wild Salmon Hash with leeks, potatoes and a touch of cream.
For dinner we sought out recommendations for a fine dining restaurant that exemplifies creative Northwest cuisine. The Imperial Restaurant in the historic Hotel Lucia has a kitchen headed by Vitaly Paley, a creative chef with a passion for healthy and uncomplicated preparations in the tradition of Oregon native and world-famous chef James Beard. The Imperial’s open kitchen has an impressive wood-fired grill facing out to wrap diners in a campfire-like glow. Furthering the campfire theme, the rotisserie burns native hardwoods and fruitwoods representing the essence of campfire cooking. The high ceiling and warm French oak further enhanced the cozy atmosphere.
To keep the cuisine farm fresh, the Imperial’s offerings, as in many Portland restaurants, change as the crops change with the seasons. Novel menu items such as duck meatballs with Moyer prunes, aromatic spices and orange gremotata or grilled sturgeon steak with wild allium and chimichurri make for an adventurous, delicious culinary adventure. Other dishes, such as grilled steelhead and grilled Kauai prawns, persuaded the Huffington Post to select the Imperial as one of the 11 Best Barbecue Restaurants of 2013.
After dinner we went for another walk around Portland and although we felt that we couldn’t take another bite, we were soon seduced by the enticing scents of handcrafted ice cream like all-natural Saigon cinnamon and honey lavender at Ruby Jewel Scoops on SW 12th Avenue. We had the option to create our own ice cream sandwiches, but we settled for single scoops topped with tasty homemade sauces.
Restaurants in many cities tout their farm to table cuisine, but few can match Portland’s relationship between chefs with growers. It’s definitely not a trendy fad here, but very much a part of Portland’s environmentally friendly ethos. Forward thinking planning initiatives have allowed bands of farms in the fertile soil of the Willamette Valley to endure near the urban core. Many farms are less than an hour from downtown. Cooperation between Portland’s restaurateurs and the farmers goes so far that many chefs work closely with a particular farmer to ensure they can get the fresh ingredients they need to concoct local seasonal offerings year-round And if you want to bring this freshness back to your RV, Farmer’s Markets are located in rotating locations in downtown Portland.
An unexpected delight during our explorations was stumbling upon Portland’s funky Crystal Hotel on 12th Avenue. The building has had many incantations including a 25-year run as Club Mecca and then the Desert Room—a once wide-open gambling, dancing, drinking and hook-up joint. The hotel is a real kick, with rooms offering colorfully painted rock ‘n’ roll oriented panels and headboards with deeply hued walls, black velvet drapery and animal print upholstery. Large windows afford good views of downtown’s street scene. Be nice to the hotel’s desk clerk and she may direct you to see the basement’s 30-foot long saltwater soaking pool. Also downstairs is Al’s Den, a music venue named for Al Winter, a 1940s Portland gambling overlord who managed his vast empire that spanned the Pacific Northwest and into Las Vegas from this very location. Today, it hosts live music, artist residencies and pre- and post-concert performances. It’s truly a Portland “in-spot.”
We had heard of the varied and unusual retail shopping experiences in and around Portland’s Pearl District and we weren’t disappointed. This historic area has a growing number of local and international design shops, fashion boutiques, restaurants, cafés and hotels.
Just outside the Pearl District is the Ace Hotel, where Clyde Common is the home of the world’s first barrel-aged cocktails like a tart Negroni thirst-quencher. If a caffeine kick is your thing, homegrown Stumptown Coffee is right off the lobby.
The Union Way shopping arcade across the street from the Ace Hotel connects Southwest Burnside with Southwest Stark in a covered indoor alleyway with a number of unique retailers offering a mix ranging from made-in-Portland leather goods to international designer duds. Shops include the internationally recognized couture hat maker Pinkham Millinery and the only retail location of online shoe retailer Solestruck.
Portland’s iconic multi-story Powell Books encompasses a square block on Burnside Street, occupying 68,000 square feet of space, making it the largest new and used bookstore in the world. The meticulously organized floor space is divided into nine color-coded rooms housing a seemingly infinite treasure trove of subject areas. Planning at least a half-day at Powell’s may be a good idea because there’s nothing like working your way through Powell’s Mother Lode of books.
Portland did the seemingly impossible when it moved a freeway to build the 22-block-long Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park on the Willamette River. The park is popular with pedestrians, cyclists and skaters as well as those content to sit and watch the ebb and flow of humanity. At the park’s north end, the Japanese American Historical Plaza offers a sublime resting point with in-season pink cherry blossoms adding to the Plaza’s charm. For great views of downtown Portland, bike or walk over the Steel or Hawthorne bridges to enjoy the Vera Katz 1.7-mile East Bank Esplanade to see a habitat for every creature from beavers to herons.
If you want a break from walking, as we did, you can rent a bike from Kerr Bikes on the promenade just north of the Hawthorne Bridge. Bicycles offer a great way for visitors to explore the waterfront and nearby areas.
Riding an Aerial Tram
For a pleasant marine atmosphere, walk, bike or ride to RiverPlace at the south end of the Waterfront Park near the Interstate 5 bridge. Its fashionable esplanade sports a cluster of restaurants, wine shops and specialty shops facing a 200-space public marina and The Deck—Portland’s seasonal floating restaurant.
You can bike, walk or ride the Portland Streetcar from RiverPlace at the SW River Parkway and Moody station to the Portland Aerial Tram at South Waterfront. The tram travels a horizontal distance of 3,300 feet and a vertical distance of 500 feet in a mere three minutes. If you’ve never ridden a tram, the swaying ride high up to the main Oregon Health & Science University campus on Marquam Hill can be exhilarating with views of the Willamette River, East Portland and the beautiful Cascade Mountains topped by Mount Hood, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens. The university provides a viewing area with chairs and tables. A great place for a truly scenic picnic!
Before we left Portland we struck up a conversation with a businesswoman who travels extensively and brought her young daughter to see what a fun place Portland is for visitors. We heartily agreed, as we left downtown Portland already anticipating our return, to more thoroughly check out its art scene, do more shopping, patronize more food trucks and fine restaurants, and continue to experience everything that makes downtown Portland a unique and pleasurable place for visitors of all ages.
Kent R. Davies is a writer based in Phoenix, Arizona.
If You Go
Useful websites for planning visits to Portland include travelportland.com, foodcartsportland.com and explorethepearl.com.
There are several options for parking your RV to catch a train to downtown Portland. You can board the Tri-Met Max Green Line at the MAX station at Clackamas Town Center, a mall that is easily accessible from Interstate 205, south of Portland. You can use mall parking during mall hours instead of the station’s park and ride lot. There is also unregulated street parking near the second Max Station in Clackamas on SE Fuller Road.
The TriMet blue line, which serves the east side of Portland, has a station at East 122nd Avenue and East Burnside Street where RVs can be parked on the street.
There are also places to park an RV near the TriMet 33 bus line that runs from downtown Portland to Oregon City. You can park at the Walmart on SE McLoughlin Boulevard in Milwaukie, which is near a bus stop, and (daytime only) at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Oregon City, which is seven-tenths of a mile from the Oregon City Transit Center.
For other parking information, call TriMet’s customer service number, (503) 238-7433.
Another option is to stay at the Jantzen Beach RV Park on the Columbia River in Portland. It is seven miles from downtown and about half a mile from transit connections.