Portland for Less
A low-key weekend of cafes, gardens, shops, and breweries
Wherever he goes, my husband loves a hot coffee in the morning and a cold beer at night. When I travel, I like to buy things for our home and garden. So Portland is an ideal destination for the two of us. The river town is chock-full of cafes, brewpubs, design shops, and gorgeous parks.
In winter, you can find excellent off-season discounts on hotels. The city has lots of free sights and great midpriced restaurants, so a two-night, three-day trip costs about $400, including taxes and tips.
We stayed at the Inn at Northrup Station, but we also like the downtown Hotel Lucia’s sleek (though more expensive) rooms. And for lodging bargains, you often can’t beat the Big Deal promotion on the visitor bureau’s website.
Day 1: Coffee, books, and two pints
To start the day with Jim happy, we stop at Pearl Bakery in the chic Pearl District for coffee and a pastry called gibassier, which must be French for “super tasty treat.” The neighborhood has dozens of stylish home and clothing stores. We admire decorative objects, from expensive (Cielo Home) to moderate (Hunt & Gather) to inexpensive (Cargo).
I swoon over the handmade paper at Oblation Papers & Press and happily watch the letterpress run on 19th-century machines. We stop in at Dig Garden Shop to check out the fountains and wicker furniture―just a preview of the garden envy to come.
At the Print Arts Northwest gallery, the saleswoman comments, “You’ve got great weather for your visit.” The sky had been sunny for a fleeting moment earlier, so we nod in agreement.
A landmark we can’t miss is Powell’s, the literary city within the City of Roses, which bills itself as the “world’s largest independent new and used bookstore.” We could spend hours looking at titles but instead grab seats at the free reading. “What beautiful weather you have here in Portland,” the writer says. By now it’s really gray and cold, but the audience murmurs in agreement.
Back in the Pearl, we hit Vault Martini―one of the district’s hot spots. Before the nighttime rush, we score a happy hour discount with cocktails almost half-off. Jim gets a London Fizz, and I get a Pink Ginger. Nice and tasty for $8. Then we head over to bustling Pho Van Bistro, a Vietnamese eatery, where big bowls of delicious noodle soup are served spiced and steaming.
We make one more stop before turning in at the hotel―a beer at McMenamins Ram’s Head, a cozy English pub-style place with 14 of its own brews on tap. We order two pints and I know what Jim’s thinking: What a perfect end to the day.
Day 2: An artist and gorgeous gardens
Fuller’s Coffee Shop, a traditional diner from 1947, packs its U-shaped counter elbow to elbow, so you can’t help but talk to your neighbors. I want to focus all my attention on my sausages and pancakes. But the fellow next to Jim can’t contain his huge grin. Jim has to ask.
“I’m in town for an art opening,” the man says. “My own.”
We should have guessed: He is, after all, wearing a beret. It seems like a typical Pearl District moment: Sit down for breakfast, meet an artist.
We stroll to hilltop Washington Park, the city’s large complex of gardens, memorials, walking paths, and sports fields. The Oregon Holocaust Memorial is sobering. Set in a contemplative garden, the monument, which was dedicated in 2004, bears the names of local families whose loved ones were affected by the Holocaust.
Farther up the hill, we find the Japanese Garden, moody in the mist. Few other people are here to see the twisted, leafless maples, the dripping bamboo fountains, and the Zen garden’s boulders and raked sand. A flat, gray poetry stone, chiseled with kanji, reads, “Here, miles from Japan, I stand as if warmed by the spring sunshine of home.” Imagining the sun, apparently, is a long-standing Portland tradition.
We walk back down to the chichi shopping strip along N.W. 23rd Avenue and have a bit of a wrestling match; Jim’s craving that coffee, but the Japanese Garden has put me in the mood for tea. It ends in a tie: He heads to Moonstruck Chocolate Café for a deluxe mocha; I wander upstairs to Tea Chai Té to choose from its 84 different kinds.
We reconnect for a walk along the shopping strip. I drool over the bright tropical plants and colorful pots at Urban Gardener, imagining all the ways I can transform our humble backyard. Jim pulls me into Music Millennium, a local record store that has a great selection.
At the north end of the strip, we step into a creaky little house, Vivace Coffee House & Crêperie. Their savory specials are enormous; I stop Jim from finishing his because I’ve already planned dessert.
Earlier, in front of Papa Haydn, there’d been a huge crowd. But now the line is much shorter. Though once we’re seated, it still takes awhile to order: We have to choose from two dozen desserts. And all of them look fabulous.
I finally select a Kahlúa-soaked cassata cake; Jim has a layered chocolate creation called a “velvet gianduja.” And I think: Now this is the perfect end to a day.
Day 3: Riverside jog and a sunny spot of tea
First thing in the morning, we visit a downtown running store for a recommendation on where to jog. “You’ve gotten such great weather,” the salesman says. “Any place will be beautiful.”
To us, it seems on the verge of raining again, but we follow his directions to the 3-mile paved Waterfront Park loop that runs on either side of the Willamette. We have a view of downtown’s blocky skyline and groups of ducks scooting across the calm river.
Afterward, at the Bijou Cafe, Jim orders roast beef hash; I skip breakfast and go straight to lunch with the Bijou Burger. Yum.
We stretch our muscles in Pioneer Courthouse Square, then hoof it north to the Portland Classical Chinese Garden. It is more stylized and smaller than the Japanese Garden but has poetry of its own. The tai-hu mountain is whorled and sculpted. I like everything about the Celestial House of Permeating Fragrance, especially the name.
The most poetic spot, however, is the Tower of Cosmic Reflections, operated by the Tao of Tea. At the northern side of the garden, the five-year-old teahouse is an authentic Suzhou-style building, with bamboo furniture and dozens of choices of Chinese tea. We buy almond cookies and sip bao zhong and jing mai teas, looking out on the Moon-Locking Pavilion. Jim is happy; I am happy. And just at that moment, the sun comes out. Not that it matters. The locals have been right all along: Portland shines without it.