A weekend in “the Little Big City”: Portland, OR

Union Station, Portland OR

This weekend, while Les Boys were off in the mountains snowmobiling with friends, I took a solo trip to Portland, OR. I could have driven down, as we have done in the past, but I thought it would be fun to get reacquainted with American-style train travel. After all, my last trip with Amtrak dated back to the late 1980s when I traveled alone from Atlanta to New York City, a long, overnight train ride – a true adventure! – I remember fondly to this day. 
When you live in Europe, and travel on TGV-like high speed trains on a regular basis, you become a bit spoiled. You expect speed, timeliness, and comfort, all at reasonable prices. I recalled Amtrak had met just one of the three requirements (affordability,) during my last trip. Still, like millions of air travelers, I have grown tired of flying over the last ten years. All things considered, a 3.5 hour train ride between Seattle and Portland – I splurged on business class tickets – sounded more than appealing. The appeal grew exponentially when the weather channel announced it might snow in Seattle and in Oregon over the weekend.    Driving in the snow? The horror! 

I.d.o.n.o.t.d.o.s.n.o.w.I.d.o.n.o.t.d.o.s.n.o.w.I.d.o.n.o.t.d.o.s.n.o.w… not if I can help it, anyway.
I was not prepared for the “cool factor”  awaiting me at Seattle’s King Street station on Friday morning. Built in 1906, and with a beautiful clock tower inspired by the San Marco bell tower in Venice, Italy, King Street station has undergone an extensive remodel over the last few years. When it is completed, the venerable old building, once a joint venture of the Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific Railway, will be restored to its former glory and modernized to meet the needs of modern travel. I felt I was transported back in time as I waited with fellow passengers in the grand hallway, looking at old black and white pictures posted around the room. “If only these walls could talk,” I mused. 

King Street station, Seattle WA
A remodeled section of the station

The ride was uneventful, but comfortable, with competent and friendly service on board and at the station: The French SNCF could take a lesson or two from Amtrak employees. The Seattle to Portland route includes five or six brief stops, mostly in Washington state. I kept expecting the train to build up speed, like the French TGV, but it never happened. It just kept a steady pace. There was time to enjoy the sights especially while we followed the Coast. Thanks to free Wifi onboard, I was able to keep busy until the train pulled into Union station in Portland, 3.5 hours later. There I found another historical building, built in the 1890s, and I admired its high ceilings, marble walls and floors, reminiscent of days gone by. The winter air was crisp, but the sun was shining, and I felt excited to be in a city, free to do as I pleased, for the next couple of days. 

Inside Union Station, Portland, OR

The free light rail service, MAX, took me to my downtown hotel in less than 30 minutes. Imagine that: I was still in the United States but had not needed to drive a car for several hours.  I immediately fell in love with European-flavored Hotel Monaco, its lively colors and welcoming lobby. The friendly receptionist instantly upgraded me to a top-floor king size suite. Quelle chance! Then I realized the pet mascot, Timmy (a retired guide dog,)  had left a note for another important guest, Otis the giant German Shepherd (Hotel Monaco is a pet-friendly hotel.) Otis proved a well-behaved guest as he sat at his owner’s feet during the complimentary wine reception in the hotel’s living room that evening. I could not believe my luck. A cozy and elegant hotel room. In the heart of a fun city. Surrounded by dogs… Heaven!

Timmy the Lab is a great host!
Otis loves Hotel Monaco…

… as do I.
More room than I needed… 

One of my purchases is somewhere in the room. Can you spot it?

Well, mes amis, Portland did not disappoint. The weather could have been better, that’s true. It was cold, and damp, and I had to carry an umbrella most of Saturday. Seattle and Portland have at least one thing in common: Locals do not use umbrellas. Northwesterners had rather walk around, bundled up in fleece jackets, looking like wet rats. That’s all good, but I wear glasses and until they figure out a way to set them up with wipers and a defogger, I will have to keep using my parapluie. 
Instead of jumping right in; exploring neighborhoods; sightseeing; people watching; and shopping, I did things a bit differently this time. At 10:00am sharp on Saturday morning, I met a group of fellow out of town visitors and for the next two hours, we followed our friendly tour guide, Michael, around the city. I highly recommend it. It taught us a lot about “the Little Big City’s” history, and it’s easier now to understand Portland’s appeal.

Friendly Michael in full Northwest garb:
Fleece and weather-resistant apparel by Portland-based Columbia  Co.

Some of the highlights of the tour: Liberal, granola-loving Portland ranks high in sustainability and liveability, and the city knows how to make the most of technology. Portland is big on recycling for example. 

Throwing an old piece of gum in the trash might require a PhD here!

The solar trash compactor sends a signal to the city
 when it reaches full capacity

Parking meters are powered by solar energy. There are electric car charging stations on every block (and if not, there will be soon.) The streets are immaculate, as in very, very clean, for city streets. 
With its village-like neighborhoods, beautiful parks, and pedestrian-friendly waterfront, Portland is eminently walkable. It offers large sidewalks for pedestrians. Traffic is regulated in one-way streets, shared by car drivers, buses, bicycles and the light rail system (one lane for each, no argument there.)  For a big city, it feels surprisingly bright and… quiet, especially in the morning. I noticed there is hardly any honking. Building height and store marquee size are strictly regulated to bring in more light. This is apparent on an overcast winter day spent downtown, where streets do not feel claustrophobic. 

Which one is the old building? Which one is the new one?
New building codes prevent the mistakes of the past

Tree lined street in the Yamhill district

The mass transit system is clean and efficient. It is also free downtown. Locals are proud of it, and they can be. The city has invested heavily into public transportation to encourage Portlanders to give up their cars. It worked. Many people ride public transit or bicycles to go to work. They walk, walk, walk – European-style. No wonder I feel so comfortable here when I visit.

Portland knows how to have fun too. Art and culture can be seen in the self-proclaimed “cultural district” downtown, where theaters and museums abound, but also everywhere else in the city, if one knows where to look (merci, Michael!) 

Whimsical art on street posts

Portland Art Museum
Wildlife is never far away in nature-loving Portland

“Portland is a city of makers,” a craftsman proudly said to me. Locals make beer (the city has more microbreweries and brew pubs than any other in the nation;) they make coffee (the giant Starbucks competes with many local roasters and coffee houses;) they create amazing dishes in a wide range of eateries, including the famous Portland’s food carts (about 300 of them,) organized in “pods” (clusters.) Most do not serve fast food, but healthy and tasty dishes at affordable prices. When asked, locals are quick to mention their favorite food carts and their exact location.

Euro-Trash serves fish and chips, escargots and foie gras!

City officials understood a long time ago that promoting foot traffic is a smart business move. It is easy to spend money in this town. There is a gigantic mall downtown, Pioneer Place, where high end retailers attract huge crowds, including this French Girl, on a rainy day. How can you resist their wares? There is no sales tax in Portland. Serious damage can be done in those boutiques. 

Two buildings, four floors each, but it’s never claustrophobic:
Look at all that light!
Kate Spade urged customers to “step out in stripes” —
I listened. 

My favorite shopping – and people-watching – has always been in the Pearl District, in the Northwest section of Portland. A converted industrial area, and a fine example of urban renewal, the Pearl is a trendy neighborhood (think Le Marais in Paris or Soho in NYC.) Loft apartments, eclectic boutiques, art galleries, bars and restaurants await at every street corner. 

Landmarks include the aptly-named Powell’s City of Books. A book lover’s paradise, Powell’s fills an entire city block, on several levels, and is the largest independent bookstore in the nation. Looking for a rare, out-of-print book? You will find it here, and if not, Powell’s will locate it for you. On a rainy day, one can spend several hours there (there is a café on site for sustenance.) 

You have arrived chez Powell’s: Don’t forget to pick up a map!
Have your picture taken in front of Powell’s!

A favorite find of mine on this trip: Atelier Entermodal. There I met Larry, the bag maker. Larry creates unique leather bags made entirely by hand. It takes him up to 2.5 weeks to complete one. I had not seen such craftsmanship since I visited the Hermes Festival of Crafts in Bellevue, WA last spring. Oh, and Larry is a nice guy too. He interrupted his work and invited me to join him in his workshop where he answered my questions; showed me his impressive tool collection and some of his creations. Larry fits right in, in this friendly city. 

Larry, l’artisan, hard at work

Like Michael the tour guide, who left California six years ago to move to Portland, many are attracted to the “Little Big City” one day, and fall in love with it. With good reason. I am happy I was able to learn more about it on this trip. I will return, hopefully in the spring, when the famous Portland outdoor market reopens. But that, mes amis, is another story. 
A bientôt

So long, Little Big City!
Pioneer Courthouse Square
Timmy the Lab is going to be busy over the next few days!

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What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)


  • Dearest Véronique,

    Merci for mentioning parapluie; like in my home country… Sounds so good to recognize this world after 28 years!
    What a lovely and surprising city Portland, OR is. Love that trainsation with its tower, indeed it reminded me right away of San Marco Plaza in Venice.
    Have a great week ahead and thanks for such an informative post!

    Love to you,


  • Je rêve depuis tres longtemps de l’Oregon, depuis qu’ado, j’avais lu dans un atlas de 1860: “Oregon, terre sauvage du nord ouest americain, peuplée d’indiens hostiles”..Puis j’ai vu “un flic a la maternelle”, que j’a adoré parce qu’il se passe à Astoria, il fait tout le temps gris et on voit les bateaux passer sur le fleuve. Alors, decouvrir Portland par tes yeux fait partie du plaisir! J’adore les statues d’animaux sauvages en pleine ville, la gare est tout simplement sublime, toute l’ambiance fait envie..(sigh)Encore un joli voyage partagé, merci!
    Bonne semaine!

  • Un bien joli voyage! Et puis, en train, c’est toujours une aventure. Il s’y passe des choses que l’on ne rencontre nulle part ailleurs. Les rencontres, aussi, peuvent être intéressantes.
    J’aime beaucoup ton blog, Véronique!

  • What a great post Veronique! I am outright fascinated by Portland, I have to say. It really seems to have the best of everything the States has to offer…if only there wasn’t so much rain…Did you eat well? I love that you were upgraded to a suite! Nice things happen to nice people…

  • Wow, fantastically interesting post. You are a bonafide reporter…so impressive! I love how ecologically advanced Portland is. Wish that was everywhere. And that they care about the arts–it’s a city with its priorities in order. Glad you had such an enjoyable trip!

  • –Mariette — Merci dear friend, and thank you for your visit. There is a little bit of Europe in Portland, and I find it a fascinating city.
    — Maryss — Oui, tu aimerais beaucoup Portland. Les habitants sont très accueillants et sympathiques, comme dans les petites villes. En même temps, il y a beaucoup à faire côté divertissement et la nature n’est jamais loin. L’Oregon est un des plus beaux états américains.
    — Richard — Merci beaucoup. Je crois que je vais voyager en train plus souvent. Je n’y pense pas toujours, mais c’est tellement plus relaxant et convivial que la voiture. Une expérience à renouveler.
    — Heather — I agree with you. Without the rain, it would be one of my favorite cities in the US. I will definitely be back in the spring and summer. It is simply gorgeous then. Oh, and I ate well, but being on my own, I stayed away from world-class restaurantsv [Portland has a few.] I find them a bit intimidating. 😉
    — French Heart — Thank you. The arts are indeed a big deal in Portland. That city has so much to offer. Reporting from Portland is an easy job, really 😉
    === Veronique ===

  • Veronique – I am so envious of your trip! It sounds like you saw, learned, and did a ton! While traveling alone can be daunting at times, depending on where you are going and for how long, some of my fondest memories are spending the day alone in Europe, exploring, while the person I was visiting was at school or work for hours at a time. (I had little tastes of solo ventures!)

    I have always wanted to go to Portland, and your wonderful photos make it all the more enticing! Merci beaucoup!

  • v-i checked in last night, thinking perhaps another sunday post-but nothing- shut the computer off to really watch one of my favorite PBS series DOWNTON ABBEY-then, today i forgot it was monday this morning-3 day week -ends always do that to me-when suddenly i was like “my visit with v”-and yet again SHEER DELIGHT! i have never been to that neck of the woods-yet you make a good sell for sure! love the information you share- practical- the pic of you in the doorway of the train is so cute and joyful.have a great week– as always thank you for sharing another slice of your life!

  • Hi Veronique! Looks like you had a fun trip! It’s been YEARS since I’ve been to Portland, although I did spend quite a bit of time there in the 90s and make the trip for work now and again. It’s a lovely spot and I do wish that Seattle would learn a thing or two about public transport from The Rose City. Especially today, when I find myself stuck at home unable to get to the office. I do not do snow either! Hope you are safe and warm on the other side of the lake! XO

  • Great series! I like the photo of Hotel Monaco avec le chien. Great place. =) Love the whimsical art on street posts as well. Have great day Veronique!

  • Yay, my hometown! Your pictures and commentary show it off at its best. I do like Portland’s downtown; however, my neighborhood (which isn’t that far from downtown) is hilly and has few sidewalks. Not good for biking or walking, sadly.

  • — Katelyn — You’re welcome. I have always enjoyed traveling alone and did a lot of solo travel in my 20s. This is something I stopped doing while my son was very young, but I re-discovered how fun it really was while in Nice last summer. I hope there will be more fun trips in the future 😉
    — g — Merci mon amie. Downton Abbey would have been an excellent reason to miss this post. I have been watching it myself and love it. In fact, I had a few episodes downloaded into my faithful MacBook Air and watched a couple on the train to Portland 😉
    — I dream Of — I hear there is a lot more of the wet, white stuff headed our way tomorrow. School is off of course, and we are going to be stuck at home for the next two or three days. Oh joy. There are definite advantages to living on your side of the lake.
    — Sandy — Merci. That hotel was so much fun. I picked up their directory so I can visit more of the Kimpton properties in the future.
    — Veuve — Well, I am truly honored that a Portlander enjoyed reading my post. Thank you.
    — Designchic — Do add Portland to your list of places to visit. You won’t regret it.

    == Veronique ==

  • Veronique

    Thank you for such a concise report on Portland. I have not been. It sounds like a great little city which has some good planners. From your account, it feels like a European City. Thank you and I shall look forward to visiting one day. (I have been to Seattle on a couple of occasions) but it certainly differs.
    Thanks again for this insightful account.
    Helen xx

  • I enjoyed your tour of Portland. We took a short trip there several years ago and had a great time. It’s a nice size city and close to European cities for its interest in helping the environment.

  • Sounds like Portland are doing a great job on the green living such innovative ideas Bravo Portland.
    Thanks for the virtual tour and so happy you are back on the tracks I love a train ride.
    Carla x

  • What a great trip! And how clever to take a train. My son has become quite interested in trains lately, and we need to make a trip. Tricky to come by day trips in our part of the world, but we’re thinking an overnight trip might be a good gift to celebrate his graduation from Lower School this year. Maybe Portland should be on our itinerary…

  • Brilliant post Veronique, I very much like the sound of Portland OR, not too big, sounds a little like Perth. I feel really inspired to take a train journey after reading about yours, my last trip was from London to Paris on the Eurostar which was fabulous! I know there is a trip that goes from Perth across the Nullabor desert to the Eastern states, takes a few days I think. Hmmm something to definitely think about. It sounds like you had a great time, sometimes it’s so good to get away on your own oui!

  • I love Portland also and have taken the max train from the airport downtown

    I would like to take the train up to Seattle next trip instead of driving

    there is lots of snow as of today my daugter tells me

  • — Carol — Just downloaded Season 1 of Portlandia. Can’t wait to watch it. Buried in snow right now…
    — Helen — You’re welcome. Yes, there is a lot of competent city planning in Portland, it’s quite obvious. I like that the acknowledge mistakes made in the past but are smart enough to plan ahead now in order to avoid making more.
    — Vagabonde — We agree. There is a definite (and very pleasant) European feel in this city.
    — Carla — I wish you could have been with me. I can only imagine the photos you would have taken to show off Portland!
    — Lauren — Train travel is always a good idea. I miss it a lot in the US. That was my favorite transportation mode in Europe (other than my feet, of course.)
    — PerthDailyPhoto — Thank you. The Eurostar is grand. We loved it last summer and did not even travel in 1st class. Yes, I did enjoy my little escapade solo 😉
    — CurtainsinMyTree — Your daughter is right. We are buried in snow this week. Life seems to have stopped in the Seattle area. The kids are loving it! Come back soon.

    = Veronique =

  • Trop bien ton ‘petit’ article Veronique ~ tu as vraiment une facon de devoiler Portland qui est enticing et les pics sont super donc tour de Portland versus Snow awww je t’aurais suivie xo

  • Oh this post makes me homesick for the US and I moved back to Europe years ago… One bullet point on my bucket list is definitely crossing the country via Amtrak (New York – Seattle preferably since I have friends along that route). Not particularly because I find it unique (as you well know trains are not that uncommon around Europe…) but there is something special about travelling on the ground, especially as you said when you’re sick and tired of flying!

  • Thank you for your wonderful travel guide. Portland is a place I’d really like to visit (and Seattle too!). You’re lucky you missed the snow. I guess you’re pretty sick of the snow by now? I knew about Powells and the food trucks but you taught me so much more!

  • Hi! I stopped by your blog via martine alison… glad I did! I love Portland but have not had much chance to really explore it. The hotel looks fabulous and I may have to make the effort to check it out! The train station pictures are lovely, too. 🙂 I will be back!

  • Yay for Portland!! I love seeing all these photos of you in places I know so well. 🙂 Kind of makes me feel like we share a special connection now. Hehe.

    My dad went to graduate school at Portland State and he often takes our family back to visit. He has such fond memories of the place, even though it’s a lot different now than it was in the 70s.

    My favorite part of Portland is the food trucks. I can’t imagine how much fun it would be to work in downtown Portland and have such variety awaiting you for lunch every day. It would be a dream come true! Yum!

    And yes, that mall is pretty cool. I love that Portland has no sales tax (although I heard residents make up for it with their property taxes). But if I could just rent an apartment there and shop all the time, that little side note wouldn’t matter, would it? Hehe!

    Glad to see you had a wonderful visit! 😀

  • wow- I feel that i have visited and lived there in ways- I do wish all cities were so ecologically and artistically inclined- so well done – thanks so much for this post

  • Veronique, you look fab!
    I love those “Grand Centrals” train stations built like palaces on the turn of XIX-XX centuries. I’ve seen in documentary the majestic one built in NY but sadly demolished in 30-s.
    And I love street sculptures whimsical posts.
    The directions post on Pioneer Courthouse Square is very funny. Had you try to follow the arrow?

  • portland does rank high in the sustainability and livability, they have high value for the culture and the earth and its seen all over portland. I wish other cities would adopt a similar mentally.

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