Downtown Portland is probably where you’ll want to spend most of your time, and (if you can afford it) also where you’ll want to stay. The area that’s considered downtown is on the west side of the Willamette River and runs roughly from the river to I-405 (which hits the city around 14th Avenue, or 14 blocks from the river), and from the campus of Portland State University (around Salmon Street) north to Burnside Street (or about eight blocks). It’s compact and easily walkable, and chock full of fun shops, restaurants, theatres and museums.
Portland’s downtown blocks might seem short to you, and that’s because they are – each block is a square that’s roughly 200ft on each side (as opposed to some of the blocks in Manhattan which can be 800ft long). This was done deliberately, because more corners meant more valuable corner real estate, but the happy side effect is that downtown Portland is easy to get around in on foot.
If your feet get tired, however, or your many shopping bags get too heavy, you can take advantage of Portland’s famous light rail system, called MAX, which runs through downtown Portland in what’s called the “fareless square.” The MAX train runs west on Morrison and east on Yamhill, and north/south on 1st Ave. – and if you stay within the confines of downtown you can ride MAX for free. (There are a few other areas outside downtown which are also in the “fareless square,” but we’ll get to them in another article.)
Some of the noteworthy buildings you’ll find in downtown Portland are the US Bancorp Tower, nicknamed “Big Pink” because it’s, well, big and pink; the KOIN Center, the distinctive building with the pyramid-shaped top; and the Portland Building at SW 5th and Madison, designed in the 1980s by Michael Graves and featuring the famous statue of the pitchfork-wielding Portlandia over the front door.
If you’re lucky to be visiting Portland in warm weather, you’ll be pleased to know that one of the city’s benefactors was thinking of you back in the early 1900s. Simon Benson, a successful Portland businessman and philanthropist, donated the money to furnish downtown Portland with 20 drinking fountains. These fountains, which are called “Benson Bubblers,” dot the city and are still bubbling away today. The water’s cold and quite tasty.
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 amphitheatre 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 poing for friends, as well.
You’ll find no shortage of shops, cafes and restaurants in downtown Portland, from the upscale Saks Fifth Avenue (on, where else, SW 5th Avenue) and Nordstrom, to shops like Portland’s own Moonstruck Chocolates, to the smaller and funkier family enterprises that will give you a flavor of what Portland is all about. There are a few movie theatres downtown, too, of both the big blockbuster variety and the independent art house film variety. In short, you could live happily for weeks within the roughly 100 city blocks that make up downtown and never get bored.