Opened in 2006, the Portland Arial Tram is mostly used by those needing to get to Oregon Health and Sciences University near the top of the hills overlooking Portland. The arial tram connects the south waterfront area to OHSU, and to a lesser extent the other medical facilities on this hilltop. Depending on the load, the cars typically depart every 6 minutes, and the trip takes about 4 minutes to complete between the bottom and top of the hill.
I have called this a "Thing to Do" because unless you are specifically going to OHSU, the line really doesn't go anywhere that tourists would need to go, unless you suddenly experience the onset a bizarre medical crisis requiring the abilities of a research hospital and medical school to examine. Also, the city tourist promotional groups have been pushing the tourist to visit the tram due to it being a relatively unique attraction in a west coast city, and the views that are possible from here on a clear day.
As the Arial Tram is used as a commuter service between the South Waterfront area and OHSU, peak period commute hours can reach the capacity of the cars, and therefore it is best to travel off peak if it is possible to do so.
The tram is closed on Sundays and most major holidays, except during summer tourist season there is some Sunday operation.
The tram is served by bus route 8 at the top of the hill, and the Portland Streetcar at the bottom of the hill.
The top of the trip offers an observation deck that is easy to get to from the top tram station.
The cars rock very substantially when passing over the cable transition at the tower so brace yourself for some serious motion on that short segment.
Take a look at the area above the windows at each end of the car, and you will see that there are diagrams showing the landmarks. See photo 5.
The round trip fare is $4.50 (September of 2015 price), with TriMet monthly and annual passes also honored. Day tickets and regular TriMet tickets are not accepted, and require payment of the additional fare. The ticket vending machines only accept credit or debit cards, and you have to use a nearby convenience store if you want to buy a ticket with cash.
For the past few years, there has been Sand in the City - a sand sculpture contest in the middle of downtown Portland. This event is held in early July, has no admission price, and usually has at least one or two entertaining sculptures.
See link below for a page that has a link to a description of the event and a photo gallery from last year.
The event is sponsored by the Kids on the Block Awareness Program, which works to improve the lives of children through education.
The best way to discover Portland without actually moving there is probably to go on the "Best of Portland" walking tour. In about 2 1/2 hours, this tour takes you all over the downtown area and gives you the inside scoop on Portland, highlighting the city's uniqueness and quirkiness. There's a bit of history, but what I thought was especially interesting and different from other walking tours I've been on is that it mostly focuses on modern day Portland. This has a lot to do with the fact that downtown Portland has changed a lot over the past few decades - the creation of Pioneer Courthouse Square in particular has transformed downtown from a dull and slightly decaying area to a lively, happening place full of restaurants, shops and bars. Our tour guide Jared was amazing - he's obviously passionate about Portland, and he had a wicked sense of humour! Going on this tour was a great way to kick off our trip to Portland, and several of the following tips actually include stuff we saw during the tour.
The "Best of Portland" tour runs daily, rain or shine (well, that goes without saying!), and starts at 10:00 am. Tickets cost $19, and it was definitely worth the price.
Here's another attraction that makes Portland so delightfully weird! Covering a total surface area of a little less than 300 square centimeters, Mill Ends Park is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's smallest park. It was created back in 1948 by local journalist Dick Fagan whose office overlooked a street in which a hole had been dug out to install a lamp post. When the lamp post failed to appear and weeds took over, Fagan got tired of staring at the unsightly hole day after day and decided to add some flowers. He wrote funny stories about the park in his newspaper column, claiming that Mill Ends Park was home to the only Leprechaun colony west of Ireland! The tiny park became more and more popular, to the point where after Fagan passed away, the city decided to turn his park into an official city park. Today, Mill Ends Park is part of Portland Parks & Recreation just like all the other parks in the city, and it remains a favourite with locals and visitors alike.
That's an awfully long name for a park, but since Oregon's Governor Tom McCall did much to spur the wave of environmentalism that surged over Portland in the 1970s and is still going strong to this day, it made sense that the city would name its waterfront park after him. Actually, Governor McCall was instrumental in creating the park since he's the one who commissioned a study to see whether the road that ran along the river could possibly be removed to make way for an urban park, something people felt the downtown area was lacking at the time. The park stretches over about 2.5 km on the west bank of the Willamette River. Several of the city's festivals take place in this waterfront park, but even when there isn't anything special going on, I thought it was a nice place to go for a pleasant walk or bike ride close to the downtown area. On clear days, you can get a pretty good view of Mount Hood, and it's also a good spot to visit if you want to see some of the city's numerous bridges.
Completed in 1883, Portland's Old Church is not the oldest church in the city, but it's one of the most interesting as far as architecture goes. The church was designed at no cost by architect Warren H. Williams, who had previously designed several of the cast-iron buildings that can still be found today in the downtown area. Williams was mostly famous for introducing Victorian-style architecture to the Pacific Northwest, and the Old Church is one of at least 50 buildings he designed in this particular style. While its original name was the Calvary Presbyterian Church, different congregations used it as a place of worship throughout the years, until it was eventually left empty in 1967. To save it from demolition, a group of citizens created the Old Church Society, and the church can now be leased for weddings, christenings, concerts and other ceremonies.
One of the church's most interesting features is its tracker-action organ that was purchased from Hook & Hastings (Boston, MA) and installed in 1883. The organ has been perfectly restored over the years, but what makes it so special is that it's never been converted to electricity and therefore still retains its original mechanical system. Every Wednesday at noon, the public is invited to bring their lunch at the church and enjoy a free organ concert. Visitors are also free to tour around the church on weekdays from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm.
When the layout of the city was designed in 1845, plans were made to create a narrower strip of blocks between what is now Park St. and 9th Ave. (these blocks measure 100 x 200 ft instead of the usual 200 x 200 ft blocks found elsewhere in the city) on what was then the outskirts of the city. The goal was to build an urban park, and in 1852, South Park Blocks became the city's first official public green space. Over 100 trees were planted in the 1870s and, over the years, more trees (mainly elm, oak and maple trees), roses and works of art were included in the blocks' landscape design. South Park Blocks currently cover 12 consecutive city blocks, and two more blocks down the street (O'Bryant Square and Director Park) have recently been converted into parks. While the area was unfortunately plagued by drug-related activities during the 1980s and 1990s, the blocks are now mostly free of these problems (at least, I didn't see anything shady going on while I was there) and it's definitely a good place to go on one of Portland's elusive sunny days.
If you're looking for something to do while in Portland, you might want to take a look at the PCPA's website - with its four concert halls, the PCPA puts on performances ranging from Broadway theatre to rock shows, operas and lectures on an almost daily basis. The most famous of the PCPA's theaters is the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, or "The Schnitz" as locals usually call it. This theatre was originally built as the Portland Public Theater in 1928, and it became the Paramount Theater in 1930. A huge "Paramount" sign was then installed in front of the luxurious movie theater, which could sit about 3000 people. In 1972, as movies became somewhat less popular, plans were made to convert the decaying movie theater into a concert hall. In 1984, after a period of extensive restoration that included replacing the Paramount sign with one that reads "Portland", the Schnitz finally opened. A few years later, in 1987, a new theater (now called the Antoinette Hatfield Hall) opened right next to it. It features an Elizabethan-style concert hall and an Edwardian-style theater, and it's truly worth taking a quick look inside - the lobby was designed to make visitors feel like they're standing on a Shakespearian stage as they walk through the main doors! For those interested in finding out more about the PCPA, volunteers run free guided tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 11:00 am.
The Keller Auditorium, the fourth concert hall making up the PCPA complex, is located on SW Clay St.
Dating back to 1869, Chapman and Lownsdale Squares are two of Portland's earliest public parks. The first was designed to be used exclusively by women and their children in an effort to attract more female citizens to Portland, which then had a reputation for being a rather rowdy town. Female Ginko trees were even planted all around Chapman Square to symbolize the fact that the park was off limits to male residents and that women would therefore be free to enjoy a stroll without being hassled by drunken sailors and lumberjacks. Instead, men were invited to gather around Lownsdale Square, the two identical squares being separated by Main Street (of course, the two squares are now open to both men and women). Between the two parks, it's also possible to see the infamous Thompson Elk fountain, a gift donated to the city of Portland in 1900 by David P. Thompson. The fountain features drinking troughs for horses and dogs, as well as a bronze statue of an elk designed by Roland Hinton Perry. Perry was a successful artist at the time, but unfortunately he had never seen an elk and had to rely on a painting to create his sculpture. As a result, the statue looks fine from the side, but if you see it from the front it's completely out of proportions! No wonder the Order of Elks flatly refused to participate in the dedication ceremony :o)
Another thing several visitors might miss in Portland is a chance to take a look at the city from the 9th floor rooftop terrace of the Mark O. Hatfield US Courthouse. This building was completed in 1997 in a contemporary style that I thought went really well with the downtown area - it's not too over-the-top, but it's not boring either. In fact, the building's elegant lines and mixture of glass, aluminum and limestone make it look more like a modern hotel than a federal building! The courthouse is open on weekdays from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm and after a brief security screening, it's possible to go up to the 9th floor and out on the rooftop terrace where you can enjoy nice views of the downtown area. The terrace is also home to a sculpture garden featuring the works of American artist Tom Otterness, who is known for depicting serious topics through cartoon-like characters - I especially liked the group of sculptures featuring a cat on trial for having killed a bird, with a feather still sticking out of his mouth! And another thing I enjoyed about this rooftop terrace was the almost surreal atmosphere of calm and quiet right at the heart of the city. Definitely an enjoyable free attraction that's worth visiting in Portland!
When the post-modern Portland Building was completed in 1982, it was described as both an architectural feat and one of the country's ugliest buildings. This mixed reaction comes from the fact that the building designed by architect Michael Graves was one of the first post-modern buildings to be completed in the US, and the combination of styles and colors definitely made it stand out, for better or for worse. In 1985, a massive copper statue was installed just above the main entrance. Raymond Kaskey's "Portlandia" is the second biggest copper statue in the US after the Statue of Liberty. The sculpture features a beautiful goddess-like figure in a crouched position, holding a trident in its left hand. It weighs about 6.5 tons and is over 34 foot tall, though it's estimated that the figure would be about 50 foot tall if she were standing instead of crouching (so about half the size of the Statue of Liberty). But despite how big it is, what I thought was remarkable about Portlandia is that it manages to look powerful and yet delicate at the same time. Unfortunately, because of its insconspicuous location, many visitors walk right by Portlandia without ever seeing it. Also, because the sculptor still retains intellectual property rights, the city has never been able to market the statue as one of its symbols. It's therefore impossible to buy a postcard of the statue, but pictures are allowed and, best of all, free!
As an avid book lover, I always try to stop by libraries whenever I'm visiting a new city, and Portland was no exception. The city's Georgian-style Central Library was built between 1911 and 1913. It features a beautiful central staircase along with some very nice wood and marble architectural details. It's not as big as some of the other American libraries I've had a chance to visit, but the library's collection still covers about 27 km of shelf space, spread over three floors. Of course, room has also been made for 130 computers, which I thought were a bit of an eyesore, but I guess there's just no way to get around it in this day and age.
The library also features a writer's room (Sterling Room), an impressive rare book collection (John Wilson Room), and a gallery on the top floor (Collins Gallery). Since they obviously knew the Janeites were coming to town, they had set up a very interesting exhibition on "Lit Chicks: Verbal and Visual Satire in the Age of Jane Austen", focusing on 18th century women writers. Several manuscripts and first editions were on display, along with some letters and mementoes (including a shawl that may have belonged to Jane Austen).
Pioneer Courthouse Square, also known as "Portland's living room", is at the heart of the big movement that took place in the 1980s to revitalize downtown Portland. City officials wanted to create a space that would be similar to the popular plazas found in Europe, a place where Portlanders would automatically converge to celebrate special events or simply hang out on a sunny day, and it worked! With over 300 big and small events held every year, it seems like there's always something going at the square. I really enjoyed walking around the city's "living room" to look at the different pieces of public art that were included in its design. I especially liked the chess boards sculptures, where people sometimes come to play with their own pieces, the whispering theatre, the guidepost (always useful to know that you're "a long way" from Tipperary!), and Seward Johnson's "Allow Me" statue. Our "Best of Portland" guide actually poked fun at the statue, saying that it was clearly a tourist: no Portlander would ever hail a cab (it's illegal in Portland) while carrying an umbrella and wearing a three-piece suit!! Pioneer Courthouse Square is also home to Portland's Visitors Center, which makes it a good starting point if it's your first time in the city.
At the heart of downtown Portland is Pioneer Courthouse Square, an open square with seating, water fountain, etc., in the middle of a major shopping area. It takes its name from, and is right next to, the historic old Pioneer Courthouse (see my tip on that), an interesting historic building giving views of the immediate area from the cupola on top.
Downtown Portland, once spiraling down into decay and neglect, has been thoroughly rejuvenated into one of the most well-functioning and well-balanced downtowns of major American cities. More low-key than places like Seattle and San Francisco, if nevertheless is alive with activity of all sorts and people of all walks of life at practically all hours of the day. It is overall beautiful and clean, with many trees in addition to its beautiful buildings, plus many places to eat, shop, or otherwise enjoy onesself. It also has great streetfood with food carts on certain blocks, particularly Alder St. This comes in a huge variety of types with some truly excellent food - see my tips on street food,Ali Baba's and Savor. The main street is Broadway, which runs north south.
This is a great place to walk around and enjoy. One can also take Max and the Streetcar throughout the area, and these are free in the Fareless Square downtown area.
Old masonry buildings, modern high-rises, wooden Victorian houses and more are all intermingled in this area, providing a wide range of feels, styles, etc. For more, also see my travelogue of downtown. This, I should note is only about the downtown core, not Old Town or Chinatown, essentially extensions of downtown but in their own distinct areas. There are tips on those, too.