To be honest we did not spend too much time downtown. I had already seen quite a bit three years ago and frankly, to us it is just not as interesting as the neighbourhoods are.
Or maybe we just didn’t know where to go.
Like with Pearl District, which every Portland guide will list as a must go -place. There is even an extensive website dedicated just for the area to which I only had a quick look: “yeah, looks like there’s a lot going on, should be filled with good shops and food”. Turns out I should have downloaded their map on my phone, since we found it more residential than anything and hard to navigate in. After 1,5 hours of walking we still did not know what the fuss was about. We realized we should have done our research better to really know where to go and what to see. Sometimes you can’t just ‘wing it’.
We also did not check the Shanghai Tunnels underneath the city. These old tunnels were used for moving goods from the boats to the downtown businesses, and are now available for tours. Maybe having a look at the tunnels would have blown our minds and we would have seen downtown area from a completely different angle (quite literally, actually).
What we did have a look however was the very core of the city. The Portland Market Square, the nearby mall, the Historic District and Saturday Market, and of course, Voodoo Doughnut. What stood out to me was how the city had enforced homeless to move their camps from some of the bigger streets downtown to somewhere else. Now those streets were empty, when last time there were big rows of more permanent camping. Otherwise the city was almost exactly how I remembered it.
Like for example Portland Saturday Market, which has grown into being the largest continuous arts & crafts open-air market after its opening in 1974. The market is in the Old Town right next to the river, so the location is quite nice, and on a sunny day why not have a look what’s there.
To me the market was still the same thing as three years ago. Anyone who has been reading our blog before knows that we like our markets and quite often try to check at least one (or four, like in Melbourne) out while in a new city. I had visited Portland’s Saturday Market very briefly the previous time and to be honest we did not spend much more minutes this time either. The selection just did not keep us interested for very long.
I felt that you get a better selection of Portland products in Tender Loving Empire I mentioned on the SE Portland post or especially for example Made Here PDX, which is in downtown Portland as well. Both are great place to do some shopping for souvenirs.
Saturday Market is quite well-known, but probably not as well as the nearby Voodoo Doughnut or Powell’s Books store a few blocks away from the river. The latter claims to be the world’s largest independent bookstore and I must admit that it is a massive store, with a wide selection that truly is quite mind-blowing.
Voodoo Doughnut also claims to have the best tasting doughnuts in the world, so there definitely is some ambition residing in Portland. The slightly old school website of Voodoo shows you the concept and product just as it is and feels in the store as well.
The larger downtown area has places like the International Rose Test Garden and Portland Zoo in a massive Washington Park. I visited these two three years ago, and they are worth a visit if you have a sunshiny day. The best season for roses is early summer, although you can still find plenty of beautiful roses in the last weeks of summer as well.
One Portland location I visited already last time and wanted to return to with Matte, was an elementary school nearby Portland downtown. Bottom line is that people go there for a picnic and watch birds go down into a chimney. It is fantastic!
Maybe I should elaborate a bit.
During migration thousands to tens of thousands of Vaux’s swift birds fly through Portland from mid-August to mid-October (mid-September being the best time to see a lot of birds). They need a place to stay during the darker hours, and one of the most popular places for them has been this large chimney of the Chapman Elementary School.
The birds will swirl in the sky and go back and forth, and when it’s time, they will start their dive into the chimney.
This happens every night during sunset. It is such a popular event, that the school and Portland Audobon Society even sell t-shirts and have altered the chimney in a way that it provides heat while also being safe for the birds.
We took some snacks and watched the kids slide down a grass hill with cardboard pieces while watching the sun set and the birds arrive.
After the birds were done with their show, people applauded. Already during the marvelous, nature’s very own art show the spectators were shouting words of encouragement to the birds. It is all so bizarre and heartwarming at the same time. The whole event really embodies Portland’s slogan: Keep Portland weird.
The Swift Watch at Chapman Elementary should be on every visitors to do -list when around Portland downtown. Instead of going to a restaurant for dinner one night, pack a hearty picnic – no alcohol though, since it is on school grounds – warm clothes, and go witness Portland being lovely and weird.