Portland, Ore. makes for a perfect vacation that combines the stunning beauty of the Pacific Northwest with great food and libations — and a vibrant, hip scene where LGBTQ life is integrated into the mainstream (albeit offbeat) culture.
I took a one-stop on Southwest out to Portland. I like Southwest because you don’t pay extra for anything — bag checking is free, there is no ticket change fee and the fares are competitive (especially without the add-ons). My other favorite airline, Alaska, also has plenty of flights to the Rose City.
Once at the Portland airport, hop on the TriMet MAX light rail to downtown or environs. The fare is just $2.50 and is good for all MAX trains, TriMet buses and the Portland Streetcar. Plan your trip at trimet.org.
Portland is very walkable, and the blocks are short and everything is very close together. You won’t need a rental car, and, of course, they have the bike-sharing system too, as well as scooters. If you do rent a car, don’t plan on pumping your own gas. It is against the law. Instead, the gas stations do it for you.
WHERE TO STAY
Portland downtown hotels frequently tack on a resort or “amenity fee” of around $30 a night to their already high rates. Stay at the Park Lane Suites and Inn instead and skip the fee and pay a lower rate. You get your own apartment and can enjoy the Goose Hollow-Nob Hill-Alphabet District neighborhood. It’s a short walk to the downtown attractions, Washington Park (and the Rose Test Gardens), and the boutique shopping and restaurants on both N.W. 23rd Ave. and N.W. 21st Ave. Pick up a to-go meal at the nearby Zaputo’s Grocery Store. Details are at parklanesuite.com.
WHAT TO DO
A visit to Washington Park and the Rose Test Gardens just west of downtown is a must. The views of Mt. Hood are stunning and on a clear day, you might catch a glimpse of Mt. St. Helens.
A visit to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (and Multnomah Falls) is another must. Catch the Gorge Express Shuttle (columbiagorgeexpress.com) from the Gateway Transit Center (on the Max light rail line) to Multnomah Falls. The short hike to the top of the falls is worth it. You can also catch the shuttle to the Rooster Rock State Park, one of the few state parks with its own clothing-optional beach. Finally, the shuttle continues on to Hood River for more views of the Gorge. You can catch the windsurfers in Hood River. If you have a car, return along the Washington State side by taking the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks. You may want to explore Mt. Adams (the second highest volcano in the region) by taking the Hood River Bridge over to Washington.
Another option if you have a car is the famous Fruit Loop. Head north from Hood River past fruit orchards, wineries and breweries. Details are available at hoodriverfruitloop.com.
Meet the locals for a run or walk in the Frontrunners Club. They meet Saturdays at 9 a.m. at the Vera Katz Esplanade Riverwalk on the Willamette River. If you are lucky, Poison Waters (aka Kevin Cook) may drop by for the warm-up. They also meet Tuesday evenings. The Adventuring Group has lots of hikes to the nearby (and far away) attractions.
A walk along the Park Blocks south of downtown toward Portland State University is very pleasant.
A visit to the huge Powell’s Book is also a must. Just across Burnside Ave. from downtown, it is located in the Pearl District (formerly the Northwest Industrial District).
The Saturday Farmers Market is also fun and from there you can walk along the Tom McCall waterfront park for miles.
No trip to the Rose City is complete without seeing Darcelle XV’s drag show at the Darcelle XV Showplace (208 N.W. 3rd Ave.). Darcelle (aka Walter Cole) at 89 is the oldest performing drag queen in the world and has been doing the shows for 48 years. A movie about her life came out in 2019 and Oregon Public Broadcasting did a documentary show on her. That’s no lady — that’s Darcelle. Warning — the Rhinestone Cowboy scene is not for the faint of heart. Tickets are available by calling 503-222-5338.
Next door is CC Slaughters and Rainbow Lounge (219 N.W. Davis St.) which is a lot of fun.
Scandals Bar at 1125 S.W. Harvey Milk St. (aka S.W. Stark Ave.) is the only bar left on what was once Vaseline Alley (the gayborhood). They have a great outdoor patio. It is across the street from my favorite restaurant, Jake’s (try the salmon) and one of my favorite hotels, The Mark Spencer. Gentrification of gayborhoods across the country has taken its toll and Portland is no exception. The notorious Majestic Steam Baths is now the Crystal Hotel. Portland still has two, for now, Steam and Hawk’s.
OTHER FUN BARS
Silverado at 610 N.W. Couch St. and Stag’s at 317 N.W. Broadway both have dancers.
See PortlandMercury.com for their LGBTQ+ bar review in the June 6-19 edition and a complete listing of all the bars and clubs.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP
Portland has a huge homeless population who camp literally everywhere downtown and along the 1-205 Freeway. It is even more prolific than San Francisco.
Also, the downtown hotel rates are quite high and come with surprise resort fees to boot. Staying on the east side near the convention center is a bit cheaper. The airport hotels are also cheaper, but away from the nightlife.
Bring an empty suitcase and replenish your wardrobe. Oregon has no sales tax (except on rental cars and hotels).
FOR MORE INFORMATION AND TRAVEL IDEAS
Pick up a copy of The Willamette Week or The Mercury. The two alternative weeklies cover the city including LGBTQ activities.
Portland is a more charming and down-to-earth version of Seattle with a better climate including in the summer (as they actually get one). The weather stays dry through the middle or end of September, and the best hiking in the nearby mountains is during this time. The people are friendly and it is definitely worth a vacation visit. If you have time, you can catch Amtrak up to Seattle or even Vancouver, B.C.
I love the Northwest. With the volcanos, nearby ocean and year-round greenery, it also is one of the few places that still has a unique regional feel. You will want to come back.
Bill Malcolm is a former resident of Portland, Ore. and now lives in Indianapolis, Ind. where he writes the nation’s only syndicated LGBTQ+ value travel column as a hobby. They can be read in publications in Florida, Palm Springs, Chicago and other cities, as well as on the IGLTA travel blog website. His opinions are his own and he pays for his own airfare and hotel expenses.