local guide portland

Get Cultured: Portland — A Local Guide to This Foodie Town

local guide portland

We caught up with Olivia Raymer, product manager at BootsnAll Travel Network to get an insider’s advice on the best way to explore the Portland local food scene. (And we promise there’s no birds to be found in this interview)

On your first day here, seeing this is a must: Bridges, mountains, and rivers. While you might get a peek of Mt. Hood if you fly in on a clear day, one of the most beautiful things about Portland is the nature scattered all around the city. So spend a bit of time gazing at the beauty around you”… grab a coffee and head to Waterfront Park, walk or bike over the Steel or Hawthorne bridge, kayak around Ross Island on the Willamette”… No matter where you reside on the outdoorsy-scale, you’ll find something in Portland to suit you. And of course, go check out Powell’s Books when you’re done.

Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture”… cross the river. It’s not exactly a Portland secret, but visitors tend to stick close to the downtown area. To get a sense of local culture, hide out in a coffee shop, brew pub, or food cart pod for a couple hours and absorb the conversation and people. Sit at the bar.

For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation: As one of the most bike-friendly cities in America, biking is a must-do while you’re here. Even if you don’t bike at home, there are tons of trails and paths that can take you all over the city or just a quick pedal around the Waterfront ““- no on-street cycling required on this 2 1/2 mile loop.

I had my best night’s sleep at: Best is a relative term in Portland. If you’re here to sleep, there are plenty of fabulous (and a little pricier) boutique hotels in the area, like the Nines, Hotel Modera, and Hotel deLuxe (all downtown). If you’re here for some fun, and are on a budget, there are a number of cool hotels under $115/night like Jupiter Hotel, Ace Hotel, and several McMenamin’s properties that will save you some money, but also offer up a bit of extra fun ranging from free rental bikes, soaking pools, brewpub movie theaters, photo booths, cocktail bars and more.

The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days: Portland is foodie heaven. Over the last few years, Portland hit the national radar for its food scene, and for good reason. Portland food focuses on local, in-season premium ingredients. One of the best places to experience local food at its finest is Bamboo Sushi ““ the first certified, sustainable sushi restaurant in the world. Although Bamboo can be on the pricier end of Portland dining, one of the best things about Portland food, in general, is the quality/price ratio of food. We have good food, for cheap. So if you’re in the market for some budget eats, Portland is the right place to be.

Best place to find artisan handicrafts: Finding local shopping is not a difficult task in Portland. You’ll probably find more handmade items, than not. Alberta Arts district, Mississippi Ave, and Hawthorne/Belmont areas all have tons of little shops. There’s also the Saturday Market which runs both days on the weekends and is chock full of handicrafts. Just try to leave the Portlandia “Put a bird on it” jokes at home.

Local celebration not to be missed: While there always seems to be something interesting happening in Portland, summer is the best season to experience Portland festivals. In June, Pedalpalooza intersects with PDX Beer Week. Pedalpalooza is three weeks of bikey fun, with group rides and free events organized by individuals, ranging from 50+ people taking to the streets in funky knee high socks, to Bowie v. Prince rides, and the World Naked Bike Ride. PDX Beer week is 10 days of beer-centric events and tastings, which runs into July’s Oregon Craft Beer Month. Attending one these summer events is a great way to experience the fun and eccentric passion Portlanders have for their “hobbies”.

Favorite pastimes: Portland is a city full of hobbyists and creatives. You’ll run into a lot of people who work part time and/or focus on a craft, and people with side projects. There always seems to be something interesting happening, somewhere in town. So drink beer, eat cheese, go to happy hour, go kayaking, go 80s dancing, tour as many coffee shops as you can, lounge in the park, or drive an hour to the Oregon coast, or an hour in the opposite direction to Mt. Hood or the Columbia River Gorge/Hood River, or drive 30 minutes south to wine country.

For a more bucolic/green setting I escape here: Portland has 279 parks (that’s 10,000 acres of natural areas!) ““ something for everyone. While no secret find, Mount Tabor is a great place to escape to soak in some green, quiet lanscapes and views of the city and Mt. Hood. At 636 feet, Mount Tabor is a one of three cities in the U.S. to have an extinct volcano within city limits. Another great option is the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park with over 7,000 plants.

The art/music scene is alive and well here: You’ll find the art and music scene scattered all across Portland, in a DIY sense. What started with First Thursday in the more upscale Pearl District downtown, morphed into copy-cat nights of Last Thursday up on Mississippi and First Friday in the SE/Industrial districts. For music, there’s always something going on in this town. Doug Fir Lounge is one of my favorite venues, but check the Portland Mercury’s show schedule for up to the minute listings around town.

Where the locals get tipsy: While you’ll definitely find locals getting tipsy in downtown Portland, to get a better sense of the local bars hit up places on the east side of the river and North Portland, from inner SE neighborhoods (Bunk Bar), NE/28th (Migration Brewing), Alberta (the Nest), Mississippi (Mississippi Studios’ BarBar), Belmont (The Sweet Hereafter), Killingsworth (The Old Gold), etc. While Portland is a beer city, urban wineries (ENSO), craft cocktails (Rum Club), and distilleries are up-and-coming on the drink scene too. Sometimes it seems like another amazing new restaurant or bar is opening every week. So if you’re looking for the latest places, check out Eater PDX’s Where to Drink Now heatmap.

Most ludicrous stereotype about the people here: Since the popularity of the Portlandia TV show, it might seem easy just to slap the hipster sticker on Portland and call it a day. However, Portland is a city of fascinating history, incredible nature, and truly interesting people. A decade ago, “˜hipster’ wasn’t a term circulating on the Portland description list. It was just a city where many people flocked to do their own thing. You might see ‘oddities’, sure, but that’s been making this city tick for decades. For an interesting look at the culture of “˜Portland weird’ check out Palahniuk’s Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon.

If I had only 24 hours to explore Portland, I would: Start your morning early at the PSU Farmers Market (if it’s a Saturday) — great for people watching and drinking coffee. Next up, experience the breakfast “scene” in Portland (Screen Door, Jam, Tasty n Sons, Waffle Window are all favorites). Follow breakfast with a bike ride (or walk). Rent a bike near Waterfront Park, cross the Hawthorne bridge, check out a brew pub on the east side (Hair of the Dog or Bunk Bar), or if you’re feeling more adventurous go for a longer bike ride up to North Portland (Amnesia Brewing or 5th Quadrant). If you’re ready to eat again, hit up a food cart pod (Cartopia pod at SE 12th & Hawthorne favs are Pyro Pizza, Potato Champion, Perierra Creperie) or Boke Bowl, a ramen shop on Water Ave. From the eastside, circle North back over the Steel Bridge to return your bike near the waterfront.

Spend your afternoon pursuing your favorite hobby ““ if you don’t hate books, spend a bit of time at Powell’s. If you want more outdoor views, check the Portland Rose garden, Council Crest, Rocky Butte, Mt Tabor, or the grounds of Pittock Mansion (all free options). If movies are your thing, check out your chance to drink at the movies by heading to the Bagdad Theater or Laurelhurst. If you need to get caffeinated, check out Barista, Ristretto Roasters, Extracto, or Stumptown. For dinner, if you don’t already have a giant list of places you’re dying to try, fire up the Yelp app and pick the closest 4-star restaurant to you. We’re pretty serious about our online reviews in Portland, so you [probably] won’t be led astray with this strategy. Or go for town favorites: Pok Pok, Toro Bravo, or The Observatory. On a budget? Go for Por Que No, Little Big Burger, or another food cart. If music is your thing, head to the Doug Fir for a cheap (usually $10-ish, and often local) indie show. Finish your night by checking out Portland’s growing cocktail scene, at Rum Club, Clyde Commons, or Central.

About Olivia Raymer
Olivia Raymer works for the BootsnAll Travel Network, your one-stop Indie Travel Guide. After going on a year-long round the world trip in 2008, she came back to Portland, where she works as a product manager at BootsnAll — on projects to inspire others to travel long term. Olivia spends her free time exploring Portland — and all the coffee, beer, food carts, and bike riding that goes with it. Follow Olivia on Twitter @BootsnAll


Can’t get enough culture? Check out last week’s Get Cultured: Williamsburg and be on the lookout for the next installment in the series.

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The Culture-ist