Playing in Portland, Austin’s Unofficial Sister City

By: Mauri Elbel
April, 2022
The parallels between Portland and Austin aren’t a secret to anyone who has been to both cities. I got my first taste of the similarities between ATX and PDX a few years ago when we stayed in Portland for a brief 36 hours on our way to explore Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory. But on our recent return just last month, it became even more apparent how easy it is for Austinites to feel right at home in Portland. 

From the unofficial sister cities’ shared ethos and slogan –– “Keep Austin Weird” and “Keep Portland Weird” –– created to promote and preserve local businesses over chain stores to their mutual love for the outdoors, live music, bikes, breweries, coffee, dogs and food trucks, the similarities between Austin and Portland are palpable. 

Of course, there are plenty of differences, too, including some of the more obvious contrasts like landscape and weather. But ironically enough, when we left a freezing and rainy week in Austin last month, we arrived to pouring rain and chilly temps in Portland. While the rain fell steadily throughout our short stint in the City of Roses, it didn’t dampen the fun –– in fact, it enhanced it. Whether we were hiking through fairytale forests under majestic tree canopies that served as Mother Nature’s umbrella or wandering through gardens and neighborhoods beneath the umbrella we borrowed from our hotel, the rain set a fitting stage for Portland’s lush and green backdrop. 

Portland Japanese Garden sits nestled in the hills of Portland’s iconic Washington Park, overlooking the city and providing a tranquil, urban oasis for locals and travelers alike. Photo by Mauri Elbel

If you’re contemplating a spring or summer trip, here are some spots we stumbled on during our whirlwind weekend that you’ll want to put on your Portland bucket list, rain or shine. 

DOWNTOWN DIGS

Let’s start with the basics: lodging. Whenever we are traveling –– especially on short trips –– finding the perfect home base for exploring a place is a must. We bunked up at The Hotel Zags, a boutique mid-century hotel tucked in the heart of downtown Portland’s Fountain District. We stayed in a Zags Suite, which was spacious enough to feel like a small apartment and offered oversized framed window views of downtown Portland from both the bedroom and living room. In addition to being conveniently located within walking distance to some of the city’s top restaurants, bars, food carts, museums and parks, the hotel partners with local brands to curate an incredible Gear Shed stocked with literally everything guests could want to borrow (for free) for their days spent playing in Portland –– think bikes, scooters, skateboards, hoverboards, yoga mats, soccer balls, fishing rods, GoPros and more (there’s even a Nintendo Switch you can take up to your room). 

Guests of The Hotel Zags Portland explore Portland on their own terms with the help of our Gear Shed. Credit Hotel Zags

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Our direct flight into Portland arrived after 8 p.m., so after checking in, we walked right downstairs to Zags Restaurant and leafy patio garden, where we enjoyed live music from Portland-based singer-songwriter Laryssa Birdseye as we sipped signature cocktails and shared a charcuterie board and delicious prosciutto and arugula flatbread baked in the restaurant’s flaming pizza oven. For post-dinner fun, there’s a sprawling game room filled with everything from a shuffleboard and pool table to board games and a bar. Or you can cozy up by the firepit in the hotel’s outdoor courtyard flanked by a living wall brimming with plant life that makes it feel as if you’re ensconced in an Oregon oasis.

The Hotel Zags patio garden is a stunning outdoor space in the middle of downtown Portland. Photo by Andrew Bordwin

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FANTASTIC FORESTS

Some cities brag about their sprawling parks, but nature-loving locals proclaim Portland is really a park with a city. Any Austinite who frequents the Greenbelt will be on cloud nine trekking through Forest Park –– an 8-mile long, 5,200-acre natural wonderland in the city’s northwest corner that boasts more than 80 miles of trails. As one of the largest urban forests in the country, Forest Park stretches along the eastern slope of the Tualatin Mountains and serves as a critical refuge and sanctuary for hundreds of native wildlife and plant species –– and it’s all minutes from downtown. After borrowing hiking gear, backpacks and even a digital camera from The Hotel Zag’s Gear Shed, a short 5-minute Uber ride transported us to this fairytale-like forest where we spent a magical, misty morning hiking below a verdant forest canopy that shielded us from the steady drips falling from above.

At 5,200 acres, Portland’s Forest Park is one of the largest urban forests in the United States. Photo by Mauri Elbel

We trekked along the Wildwood Trail –– a 30-mile trail slicing through Forest Park, walking silently beneath towering, moss-covered firs, skirting babbling streams fed by rushing waterfalls, listening to bird conversations, and even spotting a family of owls perched high in the branches. After roughly three miles, the trail laces up with Pittock Mansion, a historic French Renaissance-style château that offers a postcard-worthy view of Portland’s skyline from 1,000 feet up. We didn’t want to stop hiking, so we continued our forest bath for a few more miles, descending back onto the trails from the opposite side and wandering into the Hoyt Arboretum.

Amaterra Winery offers an Oregon vineyard experience, without the long drive. Photo by Mauri Elbel

TASTE THE FRUIT

If you’re into wine, a visit to Amaterra Wines, which opened earlier this year, is a must. Just minutes from downtown Portland, this state-of-the-art winery perched amidst the tree-lined slopes of Portland’s West Hills boasts unparalleled views of the Willamette Valley below. Amaterra, which means “for the love of the earth,” is the perfect destination for wine-lovers who want to sample the fruits of the famed Willamette Valley without going the distance –– it was about five miles from our downtown Portland hotel. At this multiple-level, gravity flow winery that features a 12-acre vineyard, you can reserve a wine tasting by day or book a table for dinner at its chef-driven restaurant helmed by executive chef Jami Flatt. The winery will produce 10,000 cases of wine annually, primarily chardonnay and pinot noir, Oregon’s signature grape. Visitors must be accompanied by at least one member, but if you just want to stop in to sample a flight like we did (I’m a sucker for Willamette Valley pinots, and Amaterra’s is truly delightful), you can purchase a social membership for a one-time $25 per person fee and apply it toward your bottle purchase.  

A highly anticipated exhibit featuring the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is open now through June 5, 2022 at Portland Art Museum. Photo by Mauri Elbel

PORTLAND ART MUSEUM

Right around the corner from The Hotel Zags, we ducked out of the rain and into the internationally recognized Portland Art Museum (portlandartmuseum.org), the oldest museum in the Pacific Northwest and the seventh oldest in the nation. The Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism exhibit, which opened in mid-February and will run through June 5, is a must-see. Featuring more than 150 works, the collection explores the Avant-Garde cultural movement in early 20th-century Mexico through the lenses of these two iconic artists as well as numerous others.

Food trucks flourish in Portland’s culinary scene, though in Portland they are called food carts. Photo by Travis Albrecht

FOODIE FLAVORS

Portlanders love food just as much as Austinites. The proof lies within hundreds of tiny kitchens serving up an array of Asian delights ranging from Thai street food to ramen bowls, heaps of chef-driven restaurants, weekend farmers markets, a doughnut obsession (Voodoo Doughnut originated here and Blue Star Donuts “donuts for grown-ups” concept offers doughy delights like blueberry with bourbon and basil and lavender pear fritters), and much like Austin, its legendary food truck scene. Although, in Portland, they are called food carts and are often grouped together in big “pods” making it easy to sample an array of culinary concepts at once. 

Before heading to Forest Park one morning, we walked from The Hotel Zags to the food cart pod at Pioneer Courthouse Square to fill up on the best fried egg sandwiches of our lives at Fried Egg I’m in Love. Hinterland is a new bar and food cart pod that opened up in Southeast Portland (on SE 50th between Hawthorne and Division) offering extensive outdoor seating where you can sip one of the rotating brews on tap and sample a diverse array of cuisines spanning Matt’s BBQ Tacos, Burger Stevens, the locally-sourced dishes at Poppyseed, La Taquiza Vegana’s authentic Mexican vegan food and Third Culture Kitchen’s flavor fusions which are inspired by the foods of Peru and Okinawa, Japan. 

Toki’s pork & cabbage mandu, steamed dumplings swimming in vinegar broth and topped with spicy peppers. Photo by Mauri Elbel

For a sit-down brunch, tuck into southern classics like fried oysters or fried chicken and sweet potato waffles perfectly paired with a mimosa or bloody Mary at Screen Door. If you love sushi, reserve a table at Bamboo Sushi –– the world’s first certified sustainable sushi restaurant which now has multiple locations in Portland and around the country. We were so impressed by Bamboo Sushi on our first trip to Portland a few years ago that we returned to savor the restaurant’s melt-in-your-mouth king salmon, inventive signature rolls and incredible sashimi selections. If you’re looking for one of the best Korean dining experiences of your life, do your tastebuds a favor and reserve a seat at Toki, where the little gems and bok choy grilled salad, pork and cabbage mandu (Korean dumplings) swimming in a soy-vinegar broth and topped with spicy peppers, and house-made, hand-pulled biang biang noodles are enough to make me want to book another trip back to Portland. 

S’MORE SWEET STOPS

Want to sink your teeth into a camping staple with an urban twist? At 1927 S’mores, you can channel outdoor vibes at this “cabin in the city” with torch-fired gooey gourmet treats like the Moose Tracks, featuring cocoa graham crackers, a bourbon salted caramel marshmallow and creamy peanut butter. Ice cream lovers can indulge their wildest farm-to-cone fantasies at Salt & Straw, the Portland-based, chef-driven artisanal scoop shop serving up unexpected creamy concoctions like Arbequina olive oil, honey lavender, and pear and blue cheese. 

A colorful cocktail tasting flight at Freeland Spirits, Oregon’s first women-owned and -run distillery started by a native Texan. Photo by Mauri Elbel

DISTILLERY ROW

Portland’s Distillery Row is the largest concentration of craft distilleries in the world and the perfect place to sample some truly outstanding spirits. Our favorite stop was Freeland Spirits –– a place high on my list because of two reasons: it’s Oregon’s first women-owned and -run distillery and it was started by a native Texan, Jill Kuehler. Kuehler opened Freeland Spirits in December 2017, launching with its signature teardrop-shaped bottles of small batch gin, and soon after, debuted its first whiskey. We ducked out of the drippy weather and into Freeland Spirits one afternoon to sample a bright and beautiful mini cocktail flight featuring the “Rose City Gimlet” made with Freeland Gin and rose petal simple syrup, “Sage Advice” featuring Freeland Dry Gin, sage and blood orange juice, “Feelin’ Myself” concocted with Freeland Geneva, white peach and spicy ginger syrup, and “Passion Potion” made with Freeland Bourbon, hibiscus tea and served with a Barreled Bee bourbon lemonade buzz stick. We also stopped into Aria Gin, where you can walk in and sample award-winning craft small-batch bottles of gin made with only 10 ingredients, including juniper, coriander, cardamom, lemon peel and angelica root. Aria Gin is tucked in Portland’s Nob Hill neighborhood, located at the base of Portland’s west hills, which is lined with turn-of-the-century Victorian homes, swoon-worthy shops and unique neighborhood eateries like Fireside, which serves locally-sourced, comfort-driven cuisine and craft cocktails in its cozy, outdoor-inspired setting. 

Portland Japanese Garden is proclaimed one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan. Photo by Travis Albrecht

PORTLAND JAPANESE GARDEN

The rain kept falling, but donning rainboots and holding umbrellas, we sloshed onward to Portland Japanese Garden, tucked in the city’s green and hilly Washington Park and surrounded by towering Douglas firs. Widely considered one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan, this green-on-green space of serenity is by far one of the most tranquil and peaceful places I’ve ever visited. Opened in 1963, the property’s five original gardens were enhanced in 2017 by the Cultural Crossing Expansion, an addition curated by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and curator Sadafumi Uchiyama. 

This was our second time to visit, and after soaking in the silence and stillness found within meticulously manicured gardens blooming with ornamental trees, water features and koi ponds, we took a seat at Umami Café –– one of the buildings designed by Kuma, where we reserved a traditional Japanese tea experience. Here, with the rain falling outside the window-wrapped tea café, we ordered Tokyo-style sets featuring classic Japanese teas paired with local, handmade confections like the genmaicha served with baked manju and the hojicha with chicara cake. 

With a design reminiscent of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera temple, Umami Café floats over the hillside and is surrounded by natural green beauty while you taste Japanese tea and treats. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required. Photo by Mauri Elbel

BREWS and BOOKS

There are roughly 70 breweries in Portland so there’s plenty of beer to sip. We popped into Breakside Brews to sample a flight of its award-winning beers like Breakside IPA and Swan Song Pale Ale. You can skip class at McMenamins Kennedy School –– the historic, once-abandoned elementary school tucked in its Northeast Portland neighborhood that was transformed two decades ago into a clever and quirky space where it’s perfectly acceptable to down a pint in the classroom, sip a whiskey in the Honors and Detention Bars, enjoy pizza and a movie in the former auditorium and tour the working brewery housed in what was once the girls’ lavatory. Or stop into Von Ebert Brewing, a Pearl District brew house, with creatively-named beers –– and if you’re still thirsty, a handful of popular Portland pubs are within a couple blocks of this one.

Powell’s City of Books is the largest used and new bookstore in the world, occupying an entire city block and housing approximately one million books. Photo by Mauri Elbel

A requisite stop for any literature lover, Powell’s City of Books is the world’s largest independent bookstore that blankets an entire city block in Portland’s West End District. Go ahead and fill your bags with favorite reads from this mammoth, multistoried maze of page-turners — Oregon has no sales tax, which makes Portland the largest city in the U.S. with tax-free shopping.

If You Go

Getting there:

We flew direct from Austin to Portland on Alaskan Airlines, which was less than a four-hour flight and cost around $300 round trip. We found it easy to walk, bike and Uber around Portland, but rent a car if you want to venture out to Oregon’s mountains or coast.

Stay:

The Hotel Zags is the perfect home base for exploring Portland. The boutique mid-century hotel is nestled in the heart of downtown Portland and within walking distance to plenty of Portland’s top restaurants, food carts, forested parks and museums. More at www.thehotelzags.com

Eat & Drink:

Grab a quick breakfast at Fried Egg I’m in Love or enjoy a relaxing brunch at Screen Door. For dinner, try Bamboo Sushi or Toki. Satisfy your sweet tooth at 1927 S’mores or Salt & Straw.

Insider tip:

Bring your vaccination card. The vast majority of restaurants, distilleries, wineries, cafes and bars we visited in early March required guests to show proof of vaccination before entering or dining inside. Some stated they would also accept a negative Covid test taken within the last 48 hours. Be sure to check for up-to-date travel restrictions and with individual businesses on their policies before visiting.

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