Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington… not just Northern Northern California

categories: USA Travel

pike-place-marketDespite my recent wanderings, I still tend to think of myself as a fairly typical Central Californian. By that I mean, it’s sometimes very easy to never leave the state and still get the (unfounded) feeling you’ve seen everything you need to see. Growing up in Fresno, CA my family rarely traveled more than a four-hour drive from home. If you want mountains you head to the Sierras or, better yet, Yosemite. The beach? Monterey, Santa Monica, Big Sur, all within four hours. Need a big city weekend? San Francisco and LA are both about the same distance from home.

As such it’s pretty common to let the rest of the country fall into easily labeled stereotypes. Case in point, the Pacific Northwest. For as long as I can remember I’ve always thought of Oregon and Washington as more or less an extension of Northern California, with the notable exceptions of Portland and Seattle. A vast sea of pine trees…with a Space Needle somewhere near the northern most point.

Even when comparing the cites in question I was previously blinded by a (very) vague idea of two large conglomerations of outdoorsy people, one set that likes to ride bicycles and one set that gets rained on a lot. (I’ll let you guess which one’s which.) Despite having passed through both cities at one point or another in my life, all it had ever amounted to was a drive-by sightseeing, so my stereotypes remained intact. That is, until I had the opportunity to take a little road trip through the Pacific Northwest a couple weeks ago. (Or as I liked to call it, Northern Northern California.)

There are an awful lot of similarities in the scenic landscapes of the three states, but all that really means is there’s a surplus of breathtaking scenery in the top-left US. There are more beautiful evergreens than a team of professional stick-shakers could ever shake said sticks at and the shorelines make decades of accomplished coastal landscape painters look like unimaginative junior college dropouts.

This does, however, in some twisted way, mean that the stereotypes in question here have some solid basis in reality. But the same is not true for those notable metropolises (metropolii?), Portland and Seattle. True, there are a ton of bikes in Portland and Seattle does get more than its fair share of rain, so if you were going to ask me which one I liked more before this road trip got started it would have been a no-brainer. My bicycle is my most prized possession and I don’t like being wet unless I’m in swim trucks.

That was before I got slapped in the face with a heavy dose of reality and a maple bacon donut.

voodoo-doughnutsPortland is weird. Weird in a good way…but weird nonetheless. In a four hour period I managed to get lost on their roadways no less than three times, get hit up for food by a troupe of homeless kids (But it had to be vegan. I know, kinda picky for homeless kids, right?), had a beer on the back patio of a local pub with my dog and, most importantly, ate a maple bacon donut at a hallmark of Portland dining, Voodoo Doughnuts. (The donut was good, the shop smelled like rotten feet.) Overall, totally not what I was expecting.

Seattle on the other hand was a clean and bustling city, surrounded on three sides by mountains and looking out on the Pacific to the West. It reminded me of San Francisco…if San Francisco were cleaner and less claustrophobia inducing. In the couple of days I had the opportunity to spend there I was shocked by how nice the weather turned out to be and pedestrian/dog friendly the town in general seemed. (Which isn’t to say I didn’t see a drug deal go down first hand within an hour of landing on Seattle soil, they just seemed much cleaner than the average drug dealer I tend to picture. So, there’s that.)

Suffice it to say, Seattle is my new favorite town in Northern Northern California.

Brett recommends:

Portland

Powell-booksPowell’s Books:

Easily one of the two most amazing bookstores I’ve ever been to and WELL worth the many hours you’ll end up wandering around their stacks. (The other amazing bookstore being The Strand in Manhattan.)

Voodoo Doughnuts:

Yes, the shop is dirty and in a nasty part of town and yes it smells like unwashed bodies inside but you’re missing out on a cultural phenomenon if you don’t check it out and grab one of their delicious donuts.

lucky-labradorLucky Labrador:

A dog friendly brew pub with plenty of excellent beverages on tap and a bevy of furry friends out back sniffing each other’s butts (I’m talking about the dogs.)

Seattle

Ivar’s Seafood:

Don’t miss out on one of the best bowls of clam chowder on the waterfront. Frankly, the waterfront is the main attraction here though. Take some time to walk around!

Pike’s Place Market:

This one’s a no-brainer. You’d be missing out on too much if you skipped this place. From fish tossing to fresh fruit to live music to the original Starbucks it’s all within a block.

Happy Hour:

I have never seen so many great happy hour specials in such a close space before in all my travels. Do your homework and you can find exactly what you’re looking for at a great price. (There’s even a couple dog friendly joints in town!)

Brett normally can be found blogging at amtrekker.com.

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3 Responses to “Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington… not just Northern Northern California”

Nick

Says:

Having grown up in Portland and knowing the Northwest very well… there is something I greatly appreciate about the touron who passes through town… without getting to really know the city.

I appreciate what you’ve written because it parallels the “Californian’s – have a nice visit but don’t plan on staying” campaign of Governor Tom McCall.

And those who live here and know that (with the exception of Powell’s) the places you used to form an opinion about Portland… are recent “flash in the pan” fads that are not what the Northwest is all about.

And, by the way, the pines are in California. You won’t find many once you leave the Southern-most parts of Oregon… or head into areas east of the Cascades. The most common tree up here is the Douglas Fir… then many varieties of fir, spruce, hemlock & cedar.

I think it best if you go back home until you can spend the time to find out why we love the Pacific Northwest.

Ps. I think it best that when travelling… and playing journalist… that an independent and objective approach is preferable to isolated errant opinions based upon judgmental criteria.

Brett Rounsaville

Says:

I whole-heartedly agree, Nick! Maybe I didn’t do a good enough job of making myself sound like the insipid traveler I clearly am but I thought I was fairly upfront about not having anything near comprehensive knowledge of the Pacific Northwest. No traveler is ever going to mirror the experience of someone who’s had the opportunity to live a lifetime in any given community. All I can hope to do is keep my eyes open and check out the places the locals tell me to in the few short days I have.

As for the term “journalist,” you’re probably giving me even more credit than I deserve. 🙂

I’m just some dude that likes to see new things and considers himself lucky that one of those new things was the Pacific Northwest.

Brett.

Julie Flaming

Says:

Ouch!

Contrary to Nick’s pretty harsh post, I thought Brett did a good job reflecting some of the character of our fair cities in a very small space. As a Portlander with family in Seattle, these are some places I’ve visited as a tourist and places that I would probably take out-of-town friends to start to get the vibe around here. Most Portlanders have a love/hate relationship with our “culture of the weird,” so I thought it was a pretty fair assessment.

Powell’s is AWESOME. Lucky Lab is a totally chilled-out place to grab a beverage with or without your furry buddy. And Voodoo Doughnuts is in a tough part of Old Town and can smell pretty, um, unwashed at times when it’s full. The last time I was there, the guy in front of me started pulling off a surprising amount of clothes for a business establishment to show off an amazing full-back tattoo to the line behind him.

For sure, there is a lot more to both communities. A couple of Portland recommendations:
1) Right down the street from Voodoo Donuts is the international headquarters of MercyCorps. Stop by there to catch a class or visit with a docent about relief efforts and world events.
2) Portland’s indie arts, theater and music scene is thriving. Make sure to catch a show. There’s something for every taste and budget, including great blues and jazz and a robust alt classical movement in addition to the indie band scene for which we’re more well-known.
3) Alternative transport is the name of the game in Stumptown. Take the MAX (light rail) from the airport, rent a bike or ride the bus and you’ll easily – and cheaply – get to most destinations. At least a couple of hotels loan out bicycles to guest. Portland is renowned as a top bicycling city and is very walkable. If you get a chance, ride the tram from the waterfront (you can get there by streetcar from downtown) up to Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU – the local medical school). If the weather is good, you will get fabulous views of Mt Hood. If it’s not, well, you still get a great, cheap view of town.
4) Coffee shops – The coffee shop scene is still beloved, alive and well. Hang out with a coffee and watch the world go by for a bit. Some are vibe-ier than others, so just wander and find one you like. Downtown where I worked, there were actually 5 within a one-block radius of my office, so you’ll have no problem finding one when you’re ready.
5) Forest Park – Portland’s Forest Park is gigantic, with an extensive parkway of trails. Visit theIntertwine.org for a map of local parks and trips you can take based on various interests.
6) Lone Fir Cemetery – If you watch “Grimm,” you’ve seen some the creepier vibe of our lush, rainy climate. Lone Fir is only one of a series of lovely pioneer cemeteries. It was recently named one of the Top 10 Cemeteries to visit by National Geographic. Visit on Halloween for “Tour of the Untimely Departed,” which takes visitors through the candle-lit cemetery on a tour led by period-costumed docents in character who will tell the stories of some of Portland’s more notorious deaths.

Oh, and watch “Portlandia,” the comedy show on IFCC thats a sketch of Portland at its wackiest. We all like to say we’re nothing like those people, but we all know someone who is totally like that! Hm. 🙂

This is just a tiny sampler. There are tons of great restaurants and lots of friendly people here. I am really proud of my crazy, beautiful town!

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