Some cities are hard for the casual visitor to handle. Traffic, confusing maps, far-flung attractions and too many chain stores can make the tourist's quest for a hassle-free yet authentic connection to the local vibe all but impossible.
Portland is not one of those places. The city's funky, laid-back personality is easy to sample on the street and in quirky local stores. Its restaurants do justice to Oregon's bountiful produce and the seafood of the Pacific. Metered street parking is plentiful compared with many big cities. And though typical Northwest weather means you must pack an umbrella, it's also why Portland's gardens are so beautiful.
A whirlwind six-hour visit to Portland with my family started at the flagship store for Powell's City of Books, which claims to be the world's largest independent new and used book store, with six retail locations and more than 4-million books among them. The store's unfathomable layout, with color-coded rooms on multiple levels, made no sense to me, but getting lost in the stacks of the Rose Room and the Gold Room was part of the fun.
I walked out with a half-dozen books, including Breakfast at Tiffany's, which I'd always meant to read, and a haunting novel of Communist-era Czechoslovakia called Giraffe. Then it was off to find carbs and coffee.
Voodoo Doughnut is about as far as you can get from Dunkin' Donuts or Krispy Kreme and still be in a doughnut shop. It's open 24 hours a day and revels in its weirdness.
The doughnuts are enormous and downright wacky. Offerings include vegan doughnuts, doughnuts designed to resemble erotic body parts and doughnuts with names like "Dirt" (covered with vanilla glaze and Oreo cookies). I took the boring route and got a yummy apple fritter.
Next stop: the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, a tranquil jewel located in Portland's Chinatown. Here you'll find goldfish in a pond, brightly colored peonies, serene mosaic paths, lush greenery and authentically built pavilions with hand-carved decor.
Also on the itinerary was Washington Park, to see Portland's famous International Rose Test Garden. The garden was established during World War I when roses were shipped from Europe to safeguard them from wartime destruction. They have thrived to create one of the country's most luscious showcases for the flower.
Up the hill from the roses but still in Washington Park, you'll find the Japanese Garden. No roses here; just a green, peaceful setting with a bridge, water, walkways and stonework. If you're traveling with kids, be sure to visit Washington Park's Oregon Zoo.
It was time for a late lunch. Destination: Jake's Famous Crawfish, where a friend had told me the cedar-baked salmon was not to be missed. Alas, it was not on the lunch menu, but I whined a bit and the kitchen made it for me.
Between appetizers and entrees, our meal included, in addition to the salmon, pasta, a sandwich, crawfish, calamari, crab cakes with spicy dipping sauce, mashed potatoes and julienne vegetables.
For dessert, a mountainous chocolate truffle cake with whipped cream, ice cream and a cherry appeared like a dream on an enormous plate.
It was a wonderful end to a perfect day in Portland. There were so many things to do here — more gardens, museums, historic districts, markets and tours — that it seemed a shame to leave. But we had other places to go, and our unfinished itinerary was merely an invitation to come back. As long as you don't mind the rain, Portland is worth a return trip.