Portland Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), Portland

The largest city in the U.S. state of Oregon, Portland was founded on a river bank in a virgin forest less than two centuries ago. It actually sits on the banks of two rivers (Columbia and Willamette) and is built more on a European model, with streets that feature statues, fountains, and half-size city blocks.

Did you know that Portland was selected by Walking Magazine as among America's best walking cities? It is also home to beautiful urban architecture, public parks, and theme museums. These and other famous attractions make up our self-guided orientation walk, so follow and explore!
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Portland Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Portland Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » Portland (See other walking tours in Portland)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.4 Km or 2.1 Miles
Author: Daniel
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Pioneer Courthouse Square
  • Oregon Historical Society Museum
  • St. James Lutheran Church
  • Wells Fargo Museum
  • Portland Building
  • Tom McCall Waterfront Park
  • Oregon Maritime Museum
  • Voodoo Doughnut
  • Old Town Chinatown Gateway
  • Lan Su Chinese Garden
1
Pioneer Courthouse Square

1) Pioneer Courthouse Square

Pioneer Courthouse Square is Portland's central hub – a pleasant, sunny spot made perfect for sampling the city's essence. The equivalent of a New Mexican/Californian plaza, it hosts food carts, public art pieces (e.g., Seward Johnson's 'Allow Me', also known as 'The Umbrella Man'), a Monday farmers' market, cultural festivals, a visitor center with a clean public bathroom... you name it! The water feature in the form of a cascading waterfall does make this a picture-perfect place.

Part of the square's immediate success in the 1980s was due to its timing, affirming as it did the "new age of the pedestrian" heralded by the transit mall. Designs were submitted from around the world, and models of the best submissions were put on display. The winning scheme was a simple brick-paved plaza with a waterfall, an arc of steps overlooking a central arena, and a whimsical colonnade separating it from the streets. The public was further drawn into the venture by funding construction through buying individual bricks; thus, from the first concept, ordinary people took possession of the square as their own. It is a place where everyone is welcome, a place to see and be seen, or just to chill out amid the hubbub of the working day. Danish architect Jan Gehl who, for more than fifty years, has focused on improving the quality of urban life by helping people to "re-conquer the city", has acclaimed it as one of the world's best public squares.
2
Oregon Historical Society Museum

2) Oregon Historical Society Museum

This (somewhat small) museum in the downtown South Park Blocks is a wonderful place to delve into the past of Oregon and the entire Pacific Northwest. Founded over a century ago, it houses the 1835 penny used to select Portland over Boston as the name for what would become the largest city in the state. Oddly enough, the main permanent exhibit here, the 7,000-sq-ft "Experience Oregon", takes up the upper floor, while temporary galleries along with the museum shop and ticket counter are on the street level with some additional galleries on the lower level.

Visitors enter "Experience Oregon" through a panoramic theater that introduces major themes and sets the stage for the exhibit. Land and water are two the most pervasive topics covered throughout, displaying the diversity of Oregon's landscape, as well as people's historical and ongoing relationships with its resources. Interactive stations include a "Stories from the Archives" tablet game, a canoe-building exercise, a covered-wagon replica visitors can walk through, role-playing games that allow visitors to take sides in historical debates, listening wands that bring to visitors voices from the past, and opportunities to offer ideas and opinions on relevant themes.

On the remaining floors are several additional exhibits – some temporary, such as "Greatest Photographs of the American West" (2020) while others, like the children/family-oriented "History Hub" and "Oregon Voices", which tells the story of post-war social change in the state and the people who have led those changes, are permanent.

Once finished with all the galleries, you can stop by the museum shop for some souvenirs or Oregon history books (they have a pretty interesting collection for sale, though it's not quite clear which books are new and which are used).

Tip:
Overlooking the museum courtyard is the flat side of a building painted with such a wonderful trompe l'oeil (trick of the eye) that, for a moment, you would think it's a building rich in remarkable architectural detail. And then you see that it's not. But it's so well done you don't mind, and it's easy to fall back in.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 10am–5pm; Sun: 12–5pm
3
St. James Lutheran Church

3) St. James Lutheran Church

Oregon's first English-speaking Lutheran Church, St. James had its beginning in 1890 in a modest wooden chapel on the corner of SW Park and Jefferson streets in downtown Portland. Over a century later, several significant changes have taken place, with the church having grown from the small, ascetic edifice to a complex that covers over half of a city block.

The Pioneer Chapel was raised in 1891, the main sanctuary was finished in 1907, the education building was completed in 1956 and, finally, the St. James Apartment complex was completed in 1994. Over the years, however, St. James grew not only in size, but in reaching its goal of helping people find themselves.

The St. James building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Stop by to listen to amazing music, hymns and classically-oriented organ, well sung and played. If you're lucky, you can even catch a Jazz Vespers service once a month, featuring some amazing artists.
4
Wells Fargo Museum

4) Wells Fargo Museum

When you walk in the front door if Well Fargo building, you are introduced to a display of Wells Fargo history in a small, yet tasteful museum that exhibits, among other things, an 1854 stagecoach, telegraph and mining equipment, and displays about the company's use of steamboats along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers.

Wells Fargo in Oregon had played a unique role in the Oregon’s economy in mid 19th century, especially for Japanese and Chinese immigrants. Wells Fargo Bank was founded with the California Gold Rush in the mid 1800s. Wells Fargo arrived in Oregon a year after gold was discovered in 1851 in places like John Day and quickly got into the gold business.

As Chinese immigrants settled into the area that later became Portland's Chinatown, Wells Fargo started serving the Chinese immigrants and even established relationships with banks from Hong Kong to Shanghai.

In its early days Wells Fargo used stagecoaches grow the banks express business and help turn Wells Fargo Bank into one of Oregon’s economic drivers — a status is maintains to this day.

The star of the museum is an original 1854 stagecoach. Until you see how small it is in person, it is hard to believe that nine passengers could be seated inside a stagecoach back in those days. Before railroad arrived in late 1800s, stagecoach was the main mode of transportation along the west coast.

Wells Fargo Museum is free to enter and well worth a visit.
5
Portland Building

5) Portland Building

The Portland Building, completed in 1982, was the first major postmodern structure in the United States – a rejection of the modernist style that dominated the architectural shape of the city's office buildings. This whimsical office tower was designed to represent the Northwest with an American Indian motif, making extensive use of turquoise and earth tones. It is, in fact, a good example of a government building that in no way looks as such.

Above the front entrance to the building kneels Raymond Kaskey's 'Portlandia', the second-largest hammered-copper statue in the world after the Statue of Liberty. Based on the city seal, the 34-ft-high lady's entrance into the city (1985) was a popular and grand affair, with residents cheering her on along the route.

Tip:
For a nearly eye-level view of the sculpture, take the escalator at the front of the Standard Plaza Building up to the landing.
6
Tom McCall Waterfront Park

6) Tom McCall Waterfront Park

The walking trail in Waterfront Park along the Willamette River has been popular since the park was opened in 1978, replacing Harbor Way and former industrial sites. A major milestone in the freeway removal movement, it is now primarily used by those taking a stroll, jogging, biking, or riding scooters. Beautiful in every season and in all types of weather, it becomes an absolute must with spring arriving to witness pastel-pink cherry trees bursting into bloom. In October 2012, the American Planning Association voted it as one of America's ten greatest public spaces.

Broad, grassy, and well-kept, the 30-acre park affords fine ground-level views of Downtown Portland's bridges and skyline, with benches everywhere to take advantage. It is also the site for various events and annual celebrations, among them the Rose Festival, classical/blues concerts, Cinco de Mayo, Gay Pride, and the Oregon Brewers Festival. The arching water jets at the Salmon Street Fountain change pattern every few hours, and are a favorite summer cooling-off spot (bring spare clothes!). The fountain's three cycles are called "misters", "bollards", and "wedding cake".
7
Oregon Maritime Museum

7) Oregon Maritime Museum

The Portland has always been something of an anachronism – a steam-powered paddlewheel tugboat built in the late 1940s to wrangle commercial ships at the Port of Portland. It has amazingly served in that role into the 1980s but otherwise would have been right at home a century or more earlier. Restored in working order to house a collection of maritime artifacts, ship models, and other nautical memorabilia, it also regularly goes on 4-hour cruises down the river and back.

Even if you miss the opportunity for a cruise on your visit, you can still have a great time looking at the exhibits of Portland and Oregon maritime history – especially on the docent-guided tour from pilot house to engine room and just about everywhere in between. The staff are very friendly, and you should try swapping sea stories with them.

There is even a little gift shop where you can buy various trinkets, clothing, etc., as well as some interesting books on the region's maritime history. Overall, you can easily spend over an hour here (the tour itself last 45 minutes or so) – and don't forget to visit the USS Oregon main mast in the adjacent park as well.

Opening Hours:
Wed, Fri, Sat: 11am–4pm; Last tour: 3:15pm
Closed: December 25 to January 31
8
Voodoo Doughnut

8) Voodoo Doughnut (must see)

Open 24/7, Voodoo Doughnut is a classic Old Town doughnut shop known for its eclectic decor, pink-neon sign, and imaginative flavors that are well worth trying, especially for the more adventurous. The company maintains two shops in Portland, and clearly they are a must-do experience for visitors, because donuts are a 'big thing' in the city.

The good varieties are glazed and/or chocolate or maple-frosted (sometimes with added bacon if you happen to skip lunch). They may be filled with cream or decorated with sprinkles, Captain Crunch, or tiny chunks of Oreo cookies, too. Some of the quirkier and hilarious ones may not be the most tasty, but all of the creations here bring smiles to the faces of customers, and there is a glass-enclosed display case to look at and pick out what you would like.

After making your selections (note that they only accept cash), cross the street for a great cup of coffee and take your picture in front of the 'Keep Portland Weird' sign. Don't leave Portland without some Voodoo!
9
Old Town Chinatown Gateway

9) Old Town Chinatown Gateway

Serving as the official entrance to Portland's Old Town Chinatown neighborhood, this 38-ft (12 m) tall "paifang" made of bronze, marble, granite, wood, tile, and steel features eye-catching depictions of 78 dragons and 58 mythical characters. As tradition requires, one bronze lion is male and the other is female (representing yin and yang), while the Chinese letters on the front and back read "Portland Chinatown" and "Four Seas, One Family", respectively.

The gate was proposed by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in 1984, who've designated Taiwanese architects and artists to complete its design before having it shipped to Portland and presented to the City of Portland as "gesture of goodwill from the Chinese community". The gate cost $256,000 and was the largest of its kind in the United States until one in Washington, D.C. was completed several months later.

Tip:
Among other main attractions in Old Town Chinatown are the Lan Su Chinese Garden, the Portland Saturday Market; the Shanghai tunnels, where people used to be kidnapped, smuggled, and sold as slaves; the Skidmore Fountain and the very famous Voodoo Doughnut. If you are in the mood for dancing, here you will find some of the city's best night clubs also.
10
Lan Su Chinese Garden

10) Lan Su Chinese Garden (must see)

Complete your Chinatown visit with a stop at this remarkably authentic classical Chinese garden, designed to be appreciated in any kind of weather. You'll feel like you have stepped off a boat in ancient Suzhou, the coastal Chinese city where the entire garden was designed, packed up, and exported to be reassembled here in 2001. Different "rooms" and areas are dedicated to different types of botanicals, complete with koi-filled ponds, small buildings and shaded places to sit. Everything is placed conveniently along a path so you can just walk freely and easily find each area without a map.

Why You Should Visit:
To relax by the various secluded areas of meditation and reduce the pressures of the day or week. A slow pace will open the mind and heart to peace and clarity, while at the same time teaching you a little about traditional Chinese culture.

Tip:
Don't miss the wonderful range of teas on offer, when you need some refreshment. A two-story, 50-seat teahouse in the lakeside Tower of Cosmic Reflections offers a nice contemplative spot to watch the light change over the plantings, Lake Zither, and the array of classical Chinese pavilions and walkways. Live traditional music is frequently played inside for visitors to resonate with slowly plucked-string sounds while enjoying their tea, sweets, and light snacks.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am–6pm (Mar 15–May 14); 10am–7pm (May 15–Oct 14)

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