15 tips for traveling in Portland, Oregon

1 06 2013

I was fortunate to spend some time in Portland in late April/early May this year and I loved every minute of it. Portland’s population is roughly the same as Denver (~600,000) which no doubt contributed to my feeling very comfortable in this lush ‘city of roses’.


  1. Take good walking shoes and walk whenever possible. Portland’s streets are beautiful. So are Portland’s numerous parks. 
  2. Take the light rail. It’s $2.50 to take it from the airport into the city. It’s hard to beat that value. Oh, and your light rail fare also allows you to use the buses and trams. You can get anywhere you need or want to go on public transportation. I’m not big on cycling but Portland is also very bike friendly. So if that’s your thing, bicycling is another great way to get around.
  3. Along those lines, try to stay downtown but know that if you don’t you’ll still be able to get everywhere easily by public transportation.
  4. Drink beer. Drink a lot of different beers. Portland is, after all, known for starting the craft brewing movement in the US. Visit as many breweries and tap houses as time will allow. It’s worth it. My top two picks are Green Dragon for its patio and Cascade Brewing Barrel House for it’s barrel-aged taps. They are conveniently located across the street from one another on the Eastside of the city.
  5. Eat at food carts. You can find every type of cuisine imaginable, cooked fresh out of a cart. Try a few different ones. Portland also makes it easy for you: they’ve converted downtown surface parking lots to permanent food cart locations. Clever.
  6. Don’t just eat at food carts. Portland has an amazing food scene. Every meal I had exceeded my expectations. My top two picks are Pok Pok and Bamboo Sushi. #1: Pok Pok has received quite a bit of critical acclaim for the Northern Thai/Southeast Asian fare served up with fresh, uncompromising,  authentic ingredients at both of its locations (it also has a NYC spot). I had a spicy boar collar that was so hot I had tears running down my face, and I loved every bite of the floral, spicy, mutli-textured dish. I would eat there everyday if I lived in Portland. Okay, maybe a couple of times a week. Oh, and it’s in a residential area in a former house. #2: Bamboo Sushi strives to provide the very best sushi, but only from seafood that is sustainably harvested. In fact, sustainability is kind of their ‘thing’. They make sure they know where their fish is coming from and how it’s harvested. Because of this, they’ve had to be creative to fill their menu. We had pickled mackerel that rivaled what we had in Kyoto. I wasn’t expecting to find pickled mackerel on a menu in the US, but there it was and it was amazing. They also had a very respectable okinomiyaki.
  7. Stop to smell the roses. It’s cliché, I know, but Portland is home to the International Rose Test Garden. New cultivars are sent here from around the world to be tested for color, size, shape, disease resistance, etc. They have over 500 different types of roses and boast over 7,000 rose plants. It was a little early when I visited and only a few roses were starting to bloom but there were many other flowers in full bloom. I’m sure by late May/early June it’s an amazing sight!
  8. Visit the Portland Japanese Garden. It’s a short walk from the International Rose Test Garden and well worth your time. It will take you a couple of hours to wander through the 5.5 acres of traditional Japanese Gardens. Be sure your camera’s memory card has plenty of room and don’t miss the extraordinary views of Mt. Hood. 
  9. Also visit the slightly less well-known Lan Su Chinese Garden in downtown Portland’s Chinatown. It will delight your senses. I went on a sunny day and took the extra time to enjoy a cup of tea in the seating area outside of the tea-house overlooking the lake. 
  10. Go to Portland’s Saturday Market. Even if you haven’t watched Portlandia you probably know about Portland’s reputation as both a hippy haven and a hipster paradise. Saturday Market boasts numerous booths of local crafts-people selling their wares, both hipster and hippy. There’s also live music and fresh food. And it’s great for people watching.
  11. It’s obligatory to mention Powell’s Bookstore. And for good reason: this bookstore takes up an entire city block. It offers both new and used books on every topic, but the reason I’m including it on my list is because of its rare book room. I could have spent all day gingerly turning the pages of the historic and rare books beautifully collected and offered for sale in the rare book room. When is the next time you’ll hold a book valued at $10,000?
  12. It’s also obligatory to mention Voodoo Doughnuts. It’s an icon of the city of roses. Word to the wise: take cash, and be prepared to wait in line. Frankly,  I was more impressed with the little Caffe Vita coffee shop across the alley from Voodoo, but I’m not big on sweets to begin with.
  13. Take an extra suitcase. Or at least leave room in your carry-on bag. Oregon does not impose sales tax, so stock up! I came back with three new pairs of shoes. They have big name stores like Nordstrom, H&M, etc., but also check out the boutiques on Burnside for some unique finds!
  14. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is a great option for adults and kids. My husband was giddy to get the chance to tour a submarine.
  15. When rain showers invariably hit, duck into a coffee shop. Stumptown Coffee Roasters has locations throughout the city. No need to stop into a Starbucks. And as previously mentioned, Caffe Vita serves up a great cup.

(Pictured: my boar collar served up with mustard greens and sticky rice at Pok Pok.)


15 Tips for Traveling in Japan

15 02 2013

I was fortunate to travel to Japan in 2012. My husband and I opted to explore Japan the first two weeks of April, during hanami. I learned a few things and thought someone out there might benefit from them.

15 Tips for Traveling in Japan - Overtly Optimistic

  1. Traveling to Japan during hanami is definitely worth it! The whole country revels in the fleeting beauty of the sakura (cherry blossoms). You come across families and groups of friends sitting under the blossoming trees at all hours of the day and night. Take a good camera, and take a cue from the Japanese – slow down and enjoy the beauty around you.
  2. It is still a bit chilly at this time of year, especially if you decide to travel to higher elevations like Koyasan or Nagano so be sure to pack a couple sweaters and a wind breaker. And you’ll be happy to have gloves too.
  3. You will feel under-dressed. I did. As a traveler I like to travel light, so I didn’t think about outfits so much as ease of packing when I selected what clothing to take. That’s not to say that I look like a slob when I travel: I am anti-sweatpants, anti-sweatshirts, anti sneakers, and generally look pretty good for living out of a suitcase. However, the Japanese people like to look great, and they do. All the time. Within a couple of days I felt compelled to stop in at the H&M in Osaka to pick up a suit coat to throw over my outfits. I felt better after that.
  4. You will need an umbrella. Do not pack one. Pick up a super tiny umbrella once you get to Japan – they are the most well designed and effective umbrellas I’ve ever seen.
  5. Eat street food. All kinds. Japan has this thing about restaurants having plastic displays of the food they serve so you’ll always know what you’re ordering, and many restaurants have English menus posted outside the entrance. I didn’t have a bad meal the entire time we were there. Try ramen in each city, it varies by region!
  6. Explore the big cities. Get a little lost wandering the side streets. You’ll discover delightful little shops, eateries, cafes, etc. Yes, you’ll read about ‘sketchy’ areas of Tokyo – avoid them if you want but they’re still safer than most US cities. I never felt unsafe in any of the cities. I can’t say the same about most other country’s major cities.
  7. Get out of the big cities. Seriously. We made a day trip to Iga (my husband insisted we see the Ninja Museum there) and it’s a completely different experience. People may not speak English, the pace of life is slower (the trains run once an hour), and the countryside is amazingly beautiful. We saw the most incredible sunset on the train from Iga to Nagoya, it was brilliant red setting over fields of rice. I will never forget it – and I would never have seen it in the city.
  8. Stay at a variety of types of accommodations. We stayed at a businessman’s hotel in Osaka, a historic ryokan outside of Osaka, another traditional ryokan in Nagano, and we rented an apartment one block from Takashita Dori (the main street in the Harajuku area) in Tokyo. We had equally great but very different experiences at each. If nothing else, spend at least one night at a traditional ryokan. You’ll be glad you did.
  9. Take a shinkansen. Go south, go north, go west, just do it. In fact, you should probably get a JR pass – but be careful to plan to use it most effectively. The Trip-Advisor Japan forum is a great resource to help you with planning you rail travel.
  10. Go to onsen! Go to as many as you can. It’s a deeply rich part of Japanese culture, partake! And don’t be ashamed, nudity is not a big deal. That said, you may find small children staring at you but it’s just because you look different than they do.
  11. You will get “temple fatigue” at some point. Your eyes will cross, you’ll get light-headed, and your feet will feel like they weigh a ton of bricks. Don’t give up on all the other historic sites on your list, just take a break from temples, shrines, and castles for an afternoon. Try a pachinko parlor, an arcade, or a shopping district as an escape from all of the temples.
  12. Look down. Every Japanese city we visited had different designs for their manhole covers. It’s so cool! Also, Japanese streets are the cleanest you will ever see. No joke.
  13. Speaking of clean: Japanese bathrooms are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. I would never consider using a public bathroom on a train platform in any other country, but Japanese public bathrooms are immaculate. Ladies, you will encounter traditional Japanese toilets in many public restrooms: they require you to squat. Don’t be afraid,  it’s not as weird as you think it is. You should try it at least once. You should also try some of options on the high-tech toilets you’ll encounter; the heated seats and sound effects will amaze you! Most bathrooms do not have paper towels to dry your hands. You can use the blowers or you can buy a hand towel to carry with you like the Japanese do. I did, and I still carry it in my purse – it comes in handy all the time!
  14. Make peace with the reality that you CANNOT see everything, and enjoy what you CAN see during your time there.
  15. Try to immerse yourself in the culture – you’ll take more away from your travels if you can immerse yourself rather than viewing the culture as an outsider. Pay attention to where the locals eat, and eat there. Shop where the locals shop. Ask the locals for tips, you’ll be glad you did.15 Tips for Traveling in Japan - Overtly Optimistic

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