An insider's guide to downtown Portland and the Pearl district
As Rachel Eva Lim discovers, America’s hipster mecca has more to offer than just Birkenstocks, hiking trails, and green juice
The City of Roses. Stumptown. Land of liberal hippies, coffee snobs, and heavily-bearded men sporting way too much thrift store flannel for their own good. Whether you're in town for the top-notch craft beer, to shop the not-so-secret Nike Employee Store, or to sample the city's famed food truck scene, Portland has something for just about everyone.
Though small in comparison to its neighbouring Seattle, Portland's compact city centre makes for its great walkability. Downtown Portland and the Pearl District, two must-visit destinations, are nestled right next to each other on the west bank of the Willamette River that splits the city into two.
Portland residents are serious about their food, and this is reflected in the tantalising array of restaurant and brewery options available. These neighbourhoods also boast several Portland icons, eclectic art galleries, and lush parks and gardens. More importantly, the entire city doesn't implement a sales tax — allowing you to shop to your heart's content without feeling the pinch.
This trendy boutique hotel, located just a block away from the Pearl, offers an array of shared, standard, and deluxe rooms decked out in a hip Pacific Northwest aesthetic. Amenities include custom Oregon-made Pendleton blankets, claw-foot bathtubs, and flat-screen TVs, and the hotel also features specially commissioned original artwork by local artists. Non-guests are welcome to lounge and people-watch in their cosy reception area with a cup of joe from Portland's famed Stumptown Coffee sited just next to the lobby. Portland's a bike-friendly city, so be sure to take advantage of the Ace's bike rental program. And don't leave without snapping a couple of pictures in their vintage B&W photo booth.
Located right next to the Ace, Clyde Common is a bright and airy European-style tavern known for its inventive handcrafted cocktails and hearty local fare. It's been a stalwart dining option on the street since Nate Tilden and Matt Piacentini opened its doors in May 2007, providing a welcome alternative to the stereotypically sad, dingy, and overpriced hotel taproom. Diners can choose to mingle with others at one of their large communal tables, take up a seat at the well-stocked bar headed up by Jeffrey Morgenthaler, or make their way upstairs for a more intimate table for two. And if you happen to be in the area after hours, call for their late night menu. The burger is to die for.
No visit to Portland is complete without whiling away an entire afternoon — or two — at the city's foremost independent bookstore whose cult status rivals that of New York's The Strand and City Lights in San Francisco. Situated at the nexus of Downtown and the Pearl, Powell's occupies an entire city block and houses over 6,300 square metres of retail floor space divided into nine colour-coded rooms. Its impressive collection includes a mix of new and used books, international bestsellers, and hard-to-find editions. Powell's has also hosted regular readings and signings by acclaimed writers, including Miranda July, Nigella Lawson, and Rookie's Tavi Gevinson. An array of souvenirs, tote bags, and locally-made products are also available for purchase. If you only have time for one shopping stop, this is it.
Parallel is a charming boutique in the Pearl featuring a thoughtfully-assembled collection of women's and men's apparel. After paying her dues by working at companies like Tiffany & Co. and The Gap, owner Tez Hartney decided to take a leap of faith and opened Parallel in 2008. The well-edited store makes browsing a breeze, and Tez is always on hand to offer styling tips and recommend some of her favourite products. Their expansive and welcoming space stocks a range of indie and well-known brands from Portland and beyond — including Rag & Bone, Prairie Underground, Found Denim, and Shipley & Halmos — as well as a range of accessories and homewares by popular local artisans.
During my entire stint in Portland, I didn't meet a single person who didn't chug at least a cup of coffee a day. Portland's reputation as a coffee lover's paradise is well-deserved, and one of my personal favourites is Heart — a specialty roasting company that aims to provide customers with an exceptional coffee-drinking experience. Heart sources most of their green coffee from Central America, South America, and Africa, and the beans are roasted locally before being trucked off to their two cafés. Their Downtown location offers free Wi-Fi and a lip-smacking assortment of pastries to complement their expertly-prepared drinks, as well as bags of whole bean coffee and brewing equipment for purchase. Heart's baristas are always friendly, and their flat whites and dirty chai lattes are absolutely delicious.
Opened in 2005 by owners Craig Olson and Sean Igo, Canoe is a delightful little store that sells a range of high-quality products from around the world. Drawing on their 20 combined years of retail experience and their shared passion for design, Craig and Sean started Canoe to offer customers simple, beautiful, and functional everyday objects. They specialize in homewares, design items, books, furniture, and jewellery, and stock some well-respected brands including Heath Ceramics, Aalto, and David Mellor. Each item for sale is also accompanied by a neat little info card that includes details about the designer and the provenance and inspiration behind the product.
When the constant rain and slick city streets get too much to bear, dip into Cacao for a steaming mug of hot chocolate. Established in 2006, Cacao's welcoming interior comprises a quaint café area and a magical emporium displaying shelves of beautifully wrapped artisanal chocolate bars. They import their goods from select craft producers across the country, though my personal favourites Cocanú, Alma, and Woodblock are all made in Portland. Cacao also provides samples of their chocolate for you to nibble on while meandering through the store. Make sure you don't leave without sampling their flight of three drinking chocolates — I promise it's well worth the calories.
In need of a place to help you channel Portland's minimalist chic vibe? Look no further than Frances May, a well-curated gem in the heart of busy Downtown. This modern boutique, founded in 2008, is headed up by the grandmother and granddaughter duo of Connie Codding and Pamela Baker-Miller. After graduating from art school in Brooklyn and working as a gallery assistant, Pamela moved to Portland with the hopes of making her mark on the city's budding retail scene. Together with her grandmother, they've assembled an impressive collection of wardrobe staples and luxury pieces — including Apiece Apart, Wood Wood, Jesse Kamm, and Rachel Comey creations — that are displayed throughout the store's expansive interior.
Tasty n Alder, one of Downtown's most popular restaurants, is part of John Gorham's PDX restaurant empire that includes Tasty n Sons and Toro Bravo on the city's east side. A modern take on the traditional steakhouse, Tasty n Alder is known for their commitment to using seasonal and sustainable ingredients and serving up their inventive dishes family-style. The spacious dining area is both lively and comfortable, and their extensive menu is only rivalled by the adventurous cocktail offerings. Go for a juicy cut of steak or their spicy BBQ ribs if you're planning on stopping by for dinner. And for bunch, I'd recommend the radicchio salad, potatoes bravas, polenta, and Korean fried chicken dishes — all washed down with a Sriracha-laced Bloody Mary.
Perhaps the most exclusive watering hole in the entire city, Multnomah Whiskey Library is the perfect place to usher in your evening with a glass of premium tipple. Founded in 2013 by Alan Davis, the popular establishment stocks an exhaustive range of 1,500 different whiskeys. It's not surprise their bartenders have to employ rolling library ladders to access the full collection of tipple prominently displayed on its seemingly never-ending open shelf space. Exposed brick walls, dark wood flooring, leather armchairs, and chandeliers add to the charming old world ambience, but it's the whiskey that's the star of the show. Members have the ability to make reservations and keep a private sprit locker, though non-members are welcome on a walk-in basis.
About Rachel Eva Lim Rachel Eva Lim is a Singapore-based freelance journalist and a contributing editor at Kinfolk. Her work has appeared in Drift, Gather Journal, Bone & Seed and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and her website.