Downtown Portland is generally where you’ll want to spend the majority of your time and (if you can afford it) stay. The downtown region is located on the west side of the Willamette River and extends about from the river to I-405 (which enters the city around 14th Avenue, or 14 blocks from the river), as well as from the Portland State University campus (around Salmon Street) north to Burnside Street (or about eight blocks). It’s compact and walkable, with lots of great shops, restaurants, theaters, and museums.
Portland’s downtown blocks may appear to be short to you, and that’s because they are – each block is a square with around 200 feet on each side (as opposed to some of the blocks in Manhattan which can be 800ft long). This was done on purpose since more corners meant more valuable corner real estate, but the benefit is that downtown Portland is easy to navigate on foot.
If your feet become tired or your numerous shopping bags become too heavy, you can take advantage of Portland’s well-known light rail system, known as MAX, which runs through downtown Portland in what is known as the “fareless square.” The MAX train travels west on Morrison, east on Yamhill, and north/south on 1st Ave. – and you may ride MAX for free if you stay in downtown. (There are a few more sites outside of downtown that are also part of the “fareless square,” but we’ll cover those in another piece.)
The US Bancorp Tower, nicknamed “Big Pink” because it’s, well, big and pink; the KOIN Center, with its distinctive pyramid-shaped top; and the Portland Building at SW 5th and Madison, designed by Michael Graves in the 1980s and featuring the famous statue of the pitchfork-wielding Portlandia over the front door, are just a few of the notable buildings in downtown Portland.
If you happen to be in Portland during the summer, you’ll be glad to know that one of the city’s benefactors had you in mind back in the early 1900s. Simon Benson, a prominent Portland businessman, and philanthropist, contributed the funds to provide 20 drinking fountains in downtown Portland. These fountains, known as “Benson Bubblers,” dot the city and are still in use today. The water is chilly and tasty.
Downtown Portland has no shortage of shops, cafes, and restaurants, ranging from the upscale Saks Fifth Avenue (on, where else, SW 5th Avenue) and Nordstrom to shops like Portland’s own Moonstruck Chocolates and smaller and funkier family enterprises that will give you a taste of what Portland is all about. There are also a few movie theaters downtown, both for huge blockbuster films and for independent art house films. In sum, you could spend weeks contentedly living within the roughly 100 city blocks that comprise downtown and never become bored.
Pioneer Courthouse Square
In the heart of downtown Portland is the square affectionately known as “Portland’s Living Room,” Pioneer Courthouse Square. It’s a brick-covered square that takes up a city block and actually sinks away from ground level on one corner in order to create an amphitheater shape. Consequently, it’s the perfect spot for the many festivals and public concerts that take up the square during the summer. Even when it’s unoccupied, however, it’s a popular place for Portlanders to hang out, eat lunch or read the paper. The Starbucks on the corner of the square is a common meeting point for friends, as well.
Downtown Portland centers around Pioneer Courthouse Square, a lively central public meeting place. The Square is the most visited site in Portland and hosts more than 300 events a year such as political rallies, festivals, and concerts. Pioneer Square features an amphitheater, a central waterfall fountain, and handmade bronze tiles that depict Portland’s history. The more than 68,000 named bricks that pave the surface of the Square were purchased by local citizens and businesses.
Tom McCall Waterfront Park
Tom McCall Waterfront Park is another center of activity in Downtown Portland. The green park blocks run the length of the downtown area along the Willamette River. Much of the fun can be found around the Salmon Street Fountain where children love to play in the summertime. Portland’s largest outdoor festivals are held at Waterfront Park. The wide concrete walkway that winds through the park and along the river is usually crowded with people strolling, on bicycles or rollerblades.
The downtown area has many decorative fountains, with a large percentage of the fountains using recycled water. Among the unique features in downtown Portland are the bronze four-bowl fresh-water drinking fountains known as Benson Bubblers. They were commissioned by Simon Benson in 1912 as a way to give fresh drinking water to the workers of the city.
Downtown Portland has a vibrant arts community which includes the Portland Art Museum, the internationally-known Oregon Symphony, and the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall, as well as many art galleries and museums. Outdoor art displays and statues, often whimsical, can be found all around downtown. A bronze statue in Pioneer Square named “Allow Me” (often called Umbrella Man) offers his umbrella to anyone strolling by. Portlandia, a copper statue made by Ramond Kasky kneels over the entrance to The Portland Building and is second only in size to the Statue of Liberty.