With the first NWSL semifinal in the bag, the stage is set for the Portland Thorns to play the first home championship since the league started choosing the location in advance.
If you’re traveling here for the game, welcome! We’re glad you’re here. The most important thing to know about Portland, of course, is that it’s the undisputed world capital of women’s soccer.
Whatever you think you know about what a home Thorns game is like, you have no idea until you’ve been to one. It doesn’t come across on TV, and no amount of poetic description can do it justice. If you’re a fan of the women’s game, and you have the means to travel, you have to come to Portland. Right now, in this moment in history, there’s nothing else like it anywhere on earth.
And it’s not just the folks who stand in the North End and chant for 90 minutes every week; it’s the way the city, as a whole, embraces and loves the team the same way they do the Blazers and the Timbers. Spotting a Thorns hat in the wild, seeing a little boy wearing a Tobin Heath jersey to soccer practice, or overhearing folks talking about the game aren’t rare events. This club, and the way the city supports it, is by far the thing that makes me most proud to call Portland home.
With that said, I also think Portland, the city, is a pretty nice place to live or visit. It’s as complicated a place as any city, with plenty of real and pressing problems—but it’s also blessed with easy access to nature, a laid-back vibe, great food and drink, a vibrant arts scene, and beautiful weather for a full three to four months of the year.
Here’s what you need to know to make the most of your time in the Rose City:
Portland’s airport is located about ten miles from downtown and is easy to get to via public transit. You can take the MAX light rail to and from PDX at almost any hour of the day, with trains usually running every 15 minutes, although you should check schedules ahead of time. You can also hail a cab (Radio Cab is employee-owned!)—it will run you around $40 to get to the city center—or take Lyft/Uber.
Our public transit system, called TriMet, isn’t great compared to cities like New York, Chicago, or DC, but as someone who’s traveled to the last two NWSL championships, I will say this: it’s a heck of a lot easier to get around Portland via bus and train than it is in either Orlando or Houston. If you want to do much exploring, renting a car might be nice, but you can definitely get around fine without one. Single rides on all transit—buses, MAX, and the streetcar, which serves downtown and the inner east side—use the same tickets and cost $2.50 with a two-and-a-half-hour transfer, or $5 for a day pass. Paper tickets are sold on buses if you have exact change, at kiosks at MAX stations, or you can use the TriMet tickets app.
Another option is Portland’s bicycle share system, Biketown. Portland is a very bikeable city, with many miles of greenways and bike paths (here are some maps) and drivers who tend to be cautious to a fault. Biketown works like most bike shares do—download the app, purchase rides, punch in a code to unlock a bike. It’s $5 to sign up and eight cents per minute. When you’re done, you can leave the bike at a designated station or lock it to any bike rack for an additional fee. Stumptown Footy contributor Tyler Nguyen would be upset with me if I didn’t mention there’s also a cool Biketown hack where the service will credit your account if you return bikes to certain designated stations.
It’s 2018 and we have Google maps, but to help you get your bearings, here’s a super-brief primer on Portland geography. The city is separated, basically, into four quadrants: northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest (though legends tell of a mythical fifth quadrant, known as “North Portland,” and there are even whispers that Christine Sinclair played four years of collegiate soccer there). The Willamette river divides the city into east and west, and Burnside Street divides it into north and south. Thus, Southeast Portland is east of the river and south of Burnside. All numbered streets run north-south, and for the most part, named streets run east-west; the numbers count up as you move away from the river. Providence Park is located at 1844 SW Morrison—ie, south of Burnside, 18 blocks west of the river.
Where to stay
Most hotels are located downtown, with a few cheaper options also clustered around the Convention Center in Northeast—which isn’t a bad option, location-wise, as the MAX runs through that area, making it easy to get to the stadium. A conveniently-located budget option is the Northwest Portland Hostel, which is run by Hostelling International.
I know a lot of you are probably skimming this section, thinking, “I’m just going to stay at an Airbnb!” and boy, I sure wish you wouldn’t. Portland’s homelessness crisis is severe—you will undoubtedly see many, many people living on the street while you’re here—and a recent audit by the city found that 80% of short-term rentals are used year-round as rentals, despite a law requiring them to be the primary residence of the host. That, obviously, diminishes housing supply, driving up prices, and pushing more people onto the street.
(Side note: there are a lot of nonprofits working to address homelessness in Portland, including Transition Projects, Outside In, and Portland Homeless Family Solutions. Another way to help is by buying a $1 copy of Street Roots, a newspaper sold mostly by houseless vendors in high-foot-traffic areas throughout the city).
What to do
You’re here for soccer, and justly so, but if you have some free time, there are plenty of cool non-soccer-related things to do around town.
Travel Portland has the goods on tons of specific sights, activities, restaurants, bars, etc. Portland Monthly also has a handy searchable bar and restaurant database that lets you sort by both cuisine and neighborhood.
With that said, here are a few of my favorites:
If it’s sunny, one of the best ways to spend an afternoon in Portland is to head down to the waterfront. There are walking/biking paths on either side of the river, Tom McCall Waterfront Park on the west side and the Eastbank Esplanade on the opposite bank. If it’s hot (it probably won’t be), there are floating public docks near both the Hawthorne and Steel bridges you can jump off of—and yes, the Willamette is clean enough to swim in.
Personally, if I had to move away for some reason and could choose exactly one thing to do on a visit back, it would be a hike in Forest Park, Portland’s beautiful, gigantic urban forest. Set aside as an urban refuge in 1948, the 5,100-acre park contains around 70 miles of trails, winding through what would feel for all the world like a real wilderness—were it not for glimpses through the trees of shipyards and bridges. The most convenient access point is probably Lower Macleay Park, which is a higher-traffic area, but still a beautiful walk. You can also use this page to find routes of varying length and difficulty.
Powell’s, an independent bookstore occupying an entire city block and three stories downtown, is another can’t-miss attraction—if you like books, anyway. It’s really a lot of books. More than you’re probably expecting, even (trust me when I say The Strand has nothing on this place). Consider yourself warned: it’s easy to get lost and/or accidentally spend several hours in here.
The Oregon Zoo, Rose Test Garden, Japanese Garden, and Hoyt Arboretum are all clustered in and around Washington Park at the top of the hill west of downtown.
The Donut Question
Most Portlanders will tell you that Voodoo Doughnuts, the quirky, gimmicky, somewhat grungy Old Town shop with a block-long line outside at all times, sucks and isn’t worth your time. Here’s my thing: the donuts aren’t particularly good, for the most part. They’re perfectly fine donuts with a lot of weird crap on top, like cereal and bacon. Somebody told me once that most of them are actually made at a commissary kitchen, not the shop (@ Voodoo please don’t sue me if that’s not true).
Because the donuts aren’t all that good, the received wisdom is now to skip Voodoo and go to Blue Star, a more grown-up shop that still has some quirky flavors but is less gross.
That’s bad advice.
Blue Star donuts are good, but they’re not worth traveling to Portland for. Voodoo, meanwhile, are completely not worth the wait if what you really want is good donuts, but if you’re there, that’s probably not what you actually want. You’re there for the iconic pink box, the wacky flavors, and the experience of standing around in Old Town for half an hour. Voodoo is like Times Square: it’s not good, but if you come to Portland, you probably want to say you went there.
And anyway, the best donuts in Portland are at Pip’s.
If you have a rental car and a lot of spare time, there are lots of great day trips within an hour or two. The Oregon coast is beautiful at any time of year, rain, shine, fog, or wind. Cannon Beach has a big cool rock; Astoria, a cute small town at the mouth of the Columbia, is the oldest European-American settlement west of the Rockies.
Oregon has emerged as a great wine-growing region in recent decades. From Portland, your best bet is probably to head to Dundee, about 45 minutes southwest of the city, an area known for producing great pinot noir grapes.
Finally, the Columbia River Gorge is a breathtaking scenic area with dozens of great hikes, as well as more wineries and some great breweries to boot. Iconic Multnomah Falls is in the Gorge, about half an hour up I-84—it gets crowded on sunny weekends, so plan accordingly. Certain areas of the Gorge were impacted by the Eagle Creek fire last summer, so be sure to check in advance which trails are open.
Where to eat/drink
Definitely trust the searchable databases above from Portland Monthly and Travel Portland before you listen to me, but here are a couple general guidelines.
There are a handful of food cart “pods” downtown; the one at 10th and Alder is the biggest, with more than 60 options. Lunch on a weekday is the time to go, as not all carts are open evenings and weekends.
Coffee is something Portlanders take seriously—sometimes too seriously. Stumptown is the institution, but every neighborhood has lots of options. Coffeehouse Northwest is a cozy spot right by the stadium serving Sterling Roasters coffee. I’m a drip coffee person, and my personal favorite is at Spielman Bagels, which also has good bagels and a hip but still super-friendly atmosphere.
Craft breweries are another very Portland thing worth doing if you like beer. Personally, I will drink almost any beer, and as such, shouldn’t be trusted as an authority on which breweries are any good—but walk down to the Pearl and you will probably run into one without even trying. Travel Portland has lots of resources on breweries.
Like Voodoo, Salt and Straw is another over-hyped Portland destination featuring very long waits. Unlike Voodoo, the ice cream is actually good (although I much prefer Fifty Licks, personally). Pro tip: you can skip the line if you buy a pint to go.
Finally, I would probably be remiss in not giving a shout to Toffee Club in this space. Since opening in 2016, this place has become something of a hub for the soccer community in Portland. I think most people who like soccer in this city probably have fond memories associated with Toffee by now; for me, the fondest of those memories is from last February, when the owners let Tyler and I and a gang of other women’s soccer fans take over the projector in the back room to watch W-League. That Toffee Club has also become something of a brand doesn’t negate what it is at its core, which is a really welcoming gathering place owned by a really great family.
Rose City Riveters
The Riveters are the Thorns supporters group. If they look drunk and rowdy on TV, it’s probably because they are, but they’re also super friendly, caring, and community-minded people. The Fanladen is where they hang out before games, and it’s worth checking out if you’re new around here—it’s got a trophy case full of Timbers and Thorns-related memorabilia from over the years, and is the place to go to find the amazing scarves, patches, pins, and other merch designed by fans.