From the 1870s through the 1920s, Old Town was the heart of Victorian-era Portland . Today, even though there’s still a scruffy edge to Old Town, many of the city’s hottest nightclubs, bars, and restaurants are found here. It’s also an open-air museum of historic architecture, including lots of redbrick warehouses, cast-iron facades, handsome storefronts in terra-cotta tile, and buildings made from locally quarried stone.
After a disastrous fire in 1873 burned Portland’s original wood-built commercial district, the city was rebuilt with multistory brick buildings, many faced with cast-iron facades. Iron could be cast in myriad forms, and the most popular in this period were Italianate columns and what look like elaborately carved plinths and capitals.
Portland’s original harbor area fell on hard times after commercial shipping traffic moved to docks further downriver and passenger trains replaced boats. The center of town moved away from the riverfront, and many of the glorious old buildings began falling to the wrecking ball. For much of the 20th century, Old Town was Portland’s skid row, and homeless shelters and hotels for itinerants are still part of the mix, but the remaining old storefronts and once-grand hotels are increasingly being revitalized with boutiques, galleries, and professional offices in search of cheap rent.
At the heart of Old Town is Skidmore Fountain (SW 1st Ave. and SW Ankeny St.) Built at great expense with a bequest from an early Portland dentist, it was intended as a source of water for “horses, men, and dogs.” At the time, the fountain stood at the confluence of five major streets and was flanked by the finest buildings in the city, including Portland’s first opera house. The inscription on the fountain is nearly prophetic to modern Portlanders drawn here by the good life: “Good citizens are the riches of a city.”
Saturday Market (www.saturdaymarket.org ) is an outdoor potlatch of homegrown edibles, arts, crafts, and excellent street performers. The market takes place every Saturday and Sunday from March through Christmas Eve in the shadow of the Burnside Bridge. On Saturday the hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; on Sunday the market operates 11 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
The food booths here are a street-food lover’s delight. The handicrafts range from exquisite woodwork (at reasonable prices), pottery, and jewelry to more uniquely Portland items like homemade fire-starter kits and juggling toys. What’s astonishing is the high quality that’s been maintained here for decades. Travelers on a budget should note that prices at food booths drop as closing time approaches.
At this point, continue the downtown tour by catching the south-bound MAX light-rail train (which is free downtown) beneath the Burnside Bridge on 1st Avenue. Exit the train at Pioneer Courthouse Square .