Offering an artistic odyssey, the city of Portland, Oregon, blends a range of art and architectural styles, dating from thousands of years ago with the tribes of the Pacific Northwest to more contemporary offerings that have inspired the slogan “Keep Portland Weird.” A diverse destination, the city of roughly 600,000 people attracts a melting pot of individuals with varied interests and earnest passions.
You’d be hard pressed to find another American destination with such a lengthy list of monikers: Rip City; Little Beirut; People’s Republic of Portland; Bridgetown; Puddletown; Stumptown; P-Town; PDX; and City of Roses. Art aficionados might add another nickname to the roster, perhaps “City of Art and Ambition” or “City of Sculpture” could define the town’s dynamic community. After all, Mark Rothko, the Russian-born Abstract Expressionist painter, lived here. And seemingly dozens of institutions provide art education, from the Art Institute of Portland to the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts to a recording arts school.
The Willamette River divides Portland across its east and west shores, and Burnside Street splits the city north and south, respectively. Artful treasures are found throughout each of Portland’s neighborhoods, from elite galleries to DIY artisan festivals and splashes of public art.
The city’s mild climate is best from June through September. But, rain or shine, wandering through Portland is delightful. As a pedestrian-friendly city, consider touring by bicycle on more than 300 miles of paths or travel via public transportation on the light rail or street car systems.
In Portland, art lovers have endless opportunities to immerse themselves in notable, prestigious collections while still getting acquainted with smaller galleries featuring the works of emerging artists. An ideal place to begin is The Portland Art Museum. Designed by Pietro Belluschi, it is the oldest museum on the West Coast, housing more than 40,000 works in its collection, including Native American, European and contemporary offerings. This summer, the museum will host an exhibit exploring the sculptures and drawings of Allied Works Architecture, along with an exhibition of Native American fashion spanning more than 50 years.
Located nearby, architecture buffs can admire a behind-the-scenes look at the famed 1920s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Designed by Rapp and Rapp, the Italian Renaissance venue will host a range of summer performances from Portland’s symphonic choir to NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” news-quiz program to comedy legends Steve Martin and Martin Short, as well as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
A short drive away is the sustainable Gerding Theater at the Armory. Situated in the Pearl District, it’s the country’s first LEED-Platinum renovation of a performance hall. This summer, catch Tennessee Williams’ iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” as performed by Portland Center Stage, the city’s leading professional theater.
The renovation of this 1891 theater also helped revitalize Portland’s Pearl District, noted for an art scene that shines its own spotlight on thought-provoking paintings, sculpture and multimedia pieces from local and international artists. It’s easy to spend an afternoon at PDX Contemporary Art, which features an array of exhibits, including abstract works from famed Oregon artist James Lavadour of the Umatilla Tribe. Nearby, the Froelick Gallery invites guests to view pieces from Native American artist Rick Bartow, whose sculptures greet visitors at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Other standout galleries include the contemporary Elizabeth Leach Gallery; Blue Sky, which specializes in photography; and Upfor, with an emphasis on digital media.
Demonstrating the city’s enthusiasm for creativity are its many art walks. First Thursday has taken place each month since 1986. On the first Thursday of each month, downtown and Pearl District galleries and businesses, including the Pacific Northwest College of Art, debut new exhibitions, stay open late and throw a soirée. Taking place on the last Thursday of each month is Alberta Street’s art walk Last Thursday, offering openings at spaces such as Guardino Gallery and setting the scene for a boisterous street fair that attracts independent artists and performers. Held year-round, the event is busiest during the summer, when the street is closed to traffic. Sandwiched between both, First Friday is hosted by central eastside galleries, studios and alternative art spaces each month. ADX, a shared workshop for everything from metal to textiles, is a fine place to begin.
While hopping from art district to art district, don’t forget to stop and take in the public works dotting the city. Portland’s devotion to art is both overt and subtle, and visitors can find information about monuments from official sources such as the Regional Arts & Culture Council. While strolling downtown, it’s difficult to miss the imposing 36-foot Portlandia sculpture, the second-largest hammered copper statue in the United States (just behind the Statue of Liberty). It’s worth pausing to gaze skyward at its splendor.
Close by, the city’s first public art installation is the lovely Versailles-inspired Skidmore Fountain, designed in 1888 by sculptor Olin Levi Warner. And downtown you can find the ubiquitous Benson Bubbler bronze drinking fountains. More than 50 of these charming gems are situated around downtown, with the original 1970s fountain at SW 5th and Washington streets.
Not surprisingly, and perhaps inspired by Mount Hood, nature also displays her palette. Flower gardens are a true art form in Portland. At the edge of downtown sits a fragrant oasis, the country’s oldest International Rose Test Garden. Meandering through the rows of brilliantly hued blossoms — interspersed with unexpected artwork — is a delightful way to spend an afternoon. The adjacent Japanese Garden offers more than 5 acres of rustic Zen-inspired pathways accented by statues, artifacts and secluded spots for meditation. The garden recently announced a major expansion to be designed by prominent Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.
The art of eating is not to be overlooked in P-Town either. Portland’s vibrant restaurants and bars offer inventive local flavors and creative choices — from food carts to stylish bistros. A hotspot for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Tasty n Alder is a fun urban eatery with a delectable farm-to-table menu and fresh craft cocktails. OX, a top restaurant in town, features the culinary virtuosity of chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton and their Argentine-inspired delights. In the Mount Tabor neighborhood, James Beard-nominated chef Katy Millard serves up seasonal fare at tiny Coquine, attracting guests from far and wide to sample her inventive spin on French cuisine. Downtown, a historic inn-turned-restaurant, Old Town Pizza & Brewing, offers standard pizza-and-beer fare with a spooky twist. Portions of the city’s infamous Shanghai tunnels remain in the cellar, and some say ghosts remain, too. Ask nicely and you may be treated to a tour at its downtown location. For dessert, those who crave creatively sweet fusions will head to Salt & Straw, an ice cream shop with flavor combinations including pear and blue cheese, and strawberry honey balsamic with black pepper.
Continue on the art-inspired path by choosing accommodations in one of Portland’s many hip hotels. The boutique Society Hotel was built in 1881 as a Mariners Building and completely renovated in 2013. Today, the property offers several rooms, including budget-friendly “bunk” style dormitory rooms. The Hotel Vintage Portland provides a sense of comfort and community, featuring local modern artwork and cool design elements throughout public spaces and guest rooms. In the heart of downtown, The Nines Hotel boasts an art collection curated by Paige Powell, a native Oregonian and contemporary of Andy Warhol. Situated atop a historic building, the swanky hotel also features a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city’s bustling urban landscape.
Near the Columbia and Willamette rivers, Oregon’s largest city waits in the shadow of Mount Hood, inspiring art escapes that extend to every facet of expression.