Help me plan my Pacific Northwest vacation
March 25, 2016 9:49 AM   Subscribe

I want to take a two-week (or thereabouts) trip to the Pacific Northwest for an upcoming milestone birthday. On the itinerary so far are Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. I've been to Seattle and San Francisco but never Vancouver or Portland. Help me plan!

So I live in NYC and I'll be traveling in mid-July or early August. My husband will be with me for Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, but not San Francisco. Specific questions:

-Where would people recommend we stay in each city? I'm especially interested to see if people have specific recommendations for AirBnb places in all cities except San Francisco, where I already have accommodations.

-What's the best way to travel to each city once I get to the West Coast? Let's assume that I'm starting in Vancouver and working my way down.

-What are the can't-miss sights in those cities? We're more into indoor stuff (museums, spas, cool movie theaters, live music, etc.) than outdoor stuff like hiking. (I know about Powell's, of course.)

I'd like to not be totally extravagant on this trip if possible, but since it's a milestone birthday, I wouldn't mind laying down some coin.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by holborne to Travel & Transportation around Edwards, WA (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The Museum of Anthropology at UBC is do-not-miss when you get to Vancouver.

And it's not "hiking", but it is walking and you should really walk all the way around the sea wall in Stanley Park, because it is so, so beautiful.
posted by rtha at 10:06 AM on March 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Portland = Ken's Pizza, food truck pods, used music scene, the zoo via the MAX.
posted by Freedomboy at 10:22 AM on March 25, 2016

That's not a long time - I'd recommend catching the train from Vancouver to Seattle to Portland, then flying to SF to save time.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:22 AM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

My neighbor converted part of her house into a small apt she rents out on airbnb. It's super cute, and very convenient to public transportation and other stuff. We're in the University District near Ravenna Blvd and 17th on a quiet, dead-end street. Not sure if it's appropriate to publish her listing her, but if you memail me, I'll send you the link.

I think Amtrak would be your best bet to travel from Vancouver to Portland. It's relaxing and not much longer than driving. The Seattle to Portland leg goes all the way down the Puget Sound so it's a lovely view and definitely great not to get stuck on I-5. It generally takes about 4 hours. From Portland to SF, you could probably get a cheap flight.
posted by brookeb at 10:25 AM on March 25, 2016

Response by poster: Not to threadsit, but just to clarify: when I say we're not into hiking, I mean that we're not into stuff like putting on Timberland boots and tromping around in the woods. We're both big urban walkers, so any self-guided walking tours of cities or things like that would be great.
posted by holborne at 10:29 AM on March 25, 2016

FYI, brookeb's neighbor's airbnb looks to be in Seattle, if you were wondering, going by "University District" and "Ravenna Blvd."
posted by kindall at 10:30 AM on March 25, 2016

On your travel question, the cheapest way is usually BoltBus, but the most stylish/best-view way to go would be by Amtrak, I'd say.

Seattle Museums
* EMP Museum
* Wing Luke Museum
* Museum of Glass
* Museum of Flight

Seattle Movie Theaters
* Cinerama first and foremost

How are you on beer/cider/wine? The region is excellent on those, and I can give more-specific recommendations on the first two if you're interested.
posted by CrystalDave at 10:35 AM on March 25, 2016

So, mefites have addressed Portland really thoroughly over the years in AskMetafilter! Even as a native Portlander, I use old askme threads as a resource for ideas. (I've also successfully found tons of info for Seattle, Vancouver, and San Francisco, but as I'm not from those cities, I won't speak to the accuracy of the suggestions!)

Here's a roundup of links that I still find to be pretty accurate.
Food ideas
indoor activities
both food and activities
more food and indoor activities
Stuff to do with kids 1, stuff to do with kids 2(I don't know about you, but I tend to like some of the same things kids do- fun museums, parks, whimsy)
Some changing areas (not exhaustive, lots of things are changing)
Places to sit and sketch
Beer activities (Plus so many more that have sprung up since this question was asked)
Portland airbnb advice

To get AirBnB advice in any of these large cities, you're probably going to have to specify neighborhoods of interest- this is such a broad question!

And- consider calling metafilter meetups in each of these cities! I've been to meetups in all these cities and the mefites are super nice. If you do this early into your stay at each city, you can chat with people about what kind of fun stuff they've done recently and get some ideas that way too.
posted by Secretariat at 10:40 AM on March 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I live in Portland and have enjoyed Portland City Walks and Portland Hill Walks. You may be able to find a used copy @ Powell's. Have a great trip!
posted by elmay at 10:40 AM on March 25, 2016

I did a quite similar trip in 2013 in a slightly longer timeframe (three weeks, but the whole last week I spent in San Francisco). I took the train from Vancouver (BC*) to Seattle, then rented a car in Seattle and drove all the way to San Francisco. On the transportation question, what I'd recommend in your case is:

Train from Vancouver BC to Seattle
I'm not even sure it's possible to return a Canadian rental car in the US, and even if it is, it's going to be more expensive than a normal one-way rental, which is already expensive in and of itself. While the train (4.5 hours) is nominally slower than driving (3 hours with no traffic), this also minimizes any border-crossing delays, if you were to drive, at the Peace Arch crossing.

There are two trains a day, one at 6:30 am and one at 5:35 pm (times may shift, but there's usually one early morning and one late afternoon train). I would take the afternoon one, which gets you into Seattle around 10 -- in late July/early August you will have sunshine almost the whole way through. It's worth trying to get a seat on the right side of the train so you have waterfront views -- the train runs along the water for substantial portions of the trip (you have to ask for this at some point during check in in Vancouver; I know there are descriptions online on how to do this; maybe check seat61?)

Be aware that you go through US immigration and customs in Vancouver, like at most large Canadian airports, so arrive at the station early. There is a very brief (~5-10 min?) stop right at the border as US customs agents for some reason have to check the whole train again, but it's a very short stop and then they send you on your way.

Train or car between Seattle and Portland
This depends on whether you think you want to see things between Seattle and Portland. I drove because I wanted to check out Mt. St. Helens -- which was extremely picturesque and absolutely worth it -- but it depends on what your goals are. There are 4 trains/day between Seattle and Portland. If you're just shuttling between cities I'd take the train; if you'd like to see some of the natural beauty of the Pacific NW, which I highly recommend, definitely drive.

Flight between Portland and San Francisco
Portland to SF is a long distance. It's easy to underestimate it coming from the East Coast; it's about 650 miles, or roughly the same distance as NYC to Charlotte, NC. Again, I drove because I wanted to check out the natural beauty -- I went to Crater Lake and the Redwoods in northern California (both A+ again) but I split up the trip over a couple of days. If you just need to get between cities, definitely fly.

There is a train between Portland and SF, the Coast Starlight, but it's a long trip: it leaves Portland at 2:25 pm and arrives in Oakland -- there is no stop in SF proper, but Oakland's just across the bay -- at 8:35 am the next morning. I'd only do this if you really love the train experience. Also, this part of the Coast Starlight route is entirely inland so there are no pretty ocean views, either.

*Be aware that there is a Vancouver, WA that is right across the river from Portland, OR. In most cases it's pretty clear which one you are talking about, but you can get tripped up in some cases if you're not careful, e.g. the Amtrak Cascades trains stop in both Vancouver BC and Vancouver WA.
posted by andrewesque at 11:12 AM on March 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh and BTW the Pacific NW train is the Amtrak Cascades. It runs between Vancouver, BC and Eugene, OR, though the most frequent service is between Seattle and Portland.
posted by andrewesque at 11:15 AM on March 25, 2016

Personally - I think while Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco all have a lot to offer, they are sort of variations on a theme. Even if you are not that into hiking there is some breathtaking scenery all up and down the coast and some really interesting towns. I'm thinking of places like Eureka CA, Astoria OR, the BC gulf islands and the WA San Juans, and that is the tip of the iceberg. In particular there are some absolutely stunning Airbnb options if you leave the cities behind; the northwest is full of dreamers and the land is powerful.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:28 AM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

On the activities front, I know this is an "outdoors" activity but I really enjoyed kayaking in Seattle. I've advocated this before (apparently, exactly one year ago!) but I rented a kayak from the Agua Verde Paddle Club and really liked it. It's bus accessible and there's something so cool about paddling on a lake and looking at skyscrapers!
posted by andrewesque at 11:34 AM on March 25, 2016

Any chance you'd skip one of those cities? Imagine someone asking about Boston, NYC, Philly, and DC on one trip. In any case, you'll save time flying from Portland to SF.

Portland has some great boutique hotels right in town, so I might look into those rather than AirBnB.

Also I agree you shouldn't miss the Oregon coast. Even if you just rent a car and take a day trip from Portland, you'll see incredible views if you loop through Astoria and then down to Cannon Beach and back.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:35 AM on March 25, 2016

Not Airbnb, but I love love love the Foxglove Guesthouse in Seattle. It's in Capitol Hill, which is very walkable, interesting and urban and a short jaunt by bus or pleasant downhill walk to downtown. Prices are reasonable for Seattle and it is easy to check availability and book online.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:37 AM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

The AskSF subreddit has a nice Things to do in SF faq.
posted by blob at 2:17 PM on March 25, 2016

Coincidentally, I'm currently sat in the Portland Amtrak station! I would strongly recommend Amtrak, and if you can, sign up for a Car2Go membership. They have them in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, and can help you fill in the gaps or go further afield than transit alone.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 2:54 PM on March 25, 2016

Portland: I feel like Portland is more about eating and drinking good things and hanging out in cool places than it is about sights to see. For food, my favorites have been Tasty and Son's for brunch, Pok Pok (which somehow managed to live up to the insane hype), and the Koi Fusion food truck.

Seattle (I live here so have lots more suggestions):

If you like funky local movie theaters, Seattle is great. In addition to the aforementioned Cinerama, there's the Ark Lodge theater, which has couches and armchairs instead of theater seating, and the Sundance theater, which serves good food (and many others).

Seattle is also great for small, niche bookstores: the a poetry bookstore, Ada's technical bookstore and cafe, Third Place (which has a lovely restaurant and pub).

Parks: So many great parks! Golden Gardens is a beautiful city beach with a view of the Olympic Mountains. Gasworks Park is right on Lake Union and has a great view of downtown. Volunteer Park was designed by Olmstead. Discovery Park has a lovely 3 mile trail through the forest.

Spas: I haven't done this, but there are several places in Seattle that offer communal hot tubs in the Russian style, and people seem to love them.

Also, here is a link to the things I like to show out-of-towners when they come to Seattle.

One more thing: if you do drive between Seattle and Portland, I really recommend a slight detour to see Mount Rainier. If you go to one of the visitor's centers, you can get right up there and see the top of this massive volcano. It's so impressive, and the area around it is so beautiful! Both of the main visitor's centers have short, accessible trails if you want to stretch your legs without going for a full-on hiking experience. If you wanted to make it an overnight, I can recommend Wellspring as a unique, peaceful place to stay right outside the park with spa services.
posted by lunasol at 4:04 PM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Personally - I think while Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco all have a lot to offer, they are sort of variations on a theme."

Seconding this. The NW isn't characterized just by hip cities, but by its enormous ecological diversity, awe-inspiring landscapes and small towns. Other places to consider exploring: the North Cascades of Washington, Mount Hood (e.g., Timberline Lodge), the Columbia Gorge, the wild coast of Olympic National Park, the Oregon coast, the high desert of Smith Rock State Park. A few other towns of note: Hood River, Bend, Friday Harbor, Victoria (okay, another city...), Port Townsend and Cannon Beach. YMMV in these places, of course, but they're worth a bit of consideration.
posted by slab_lizard at 8:13 PM on March 25, 2016

Yeah, I'd skip SF as it adds a huge amount of travel to an already packed trip. Just the Vancouver-to-Seattle leg would be nice, and there's a lot to do and see between those two: the San Juan Islands, Bellingham, La Conner. They're all lovely towns, with great food, galleries, airbnbs, and good places for walks. Artist's Point on Mount Baker is stunning. Birch Bay, right at the border, is delightful. Mount Vernon has a great breakfast place (Calico Corner I think it's called). You could poke around on your way from Van to Sea and have a great time. Even tiny little Bow (just south of Bellingham) is a sweet stopover for meals and art.

This is my bias: spend intense, focused time in one region, so I don't keep saying to myself, "I'll have to see that when I come back - no time for it now." This makes for a lot less wasted time unpacking/packing/getting to train station/waiting for train/getting from train station to some place interesting. I'd suggest just renting a car and driving, staying in only three places to minimize the overhead of checking in/etc. And I'm quite sure it's possible to rent a car in Vancouver and return it at SeaTac, as I've done that and the dropoff fee was minimal.

The drive from Seattle to Portland is also nice, and you can see Olympia and Mount Rainier on the way. The Columbia River Gorge is spectacular. Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, outside of Portland, is too. That's a nice triangle: Portland to Hood River to Mount Hood back to Portland.
posted by Capri at 8:07 AM on March 26, 2016

Take a day and drive out to Hood River. Enjoy the scenery along the way. If you want a closer view of the waterfalls, most are better viewed from the old highway, it doesn't add too much time to the trip, and you can stop for a closer look at several without real hiking, if you like. Explore Hood River's downtown, eat at one of the many great restaurants, etc. If you want a chance to sample some of the local nightlife, depending in how much adult beverage you prefer to imbibe, might want to plan to spend a night in town.
posted by stormyteal at 10:06 AM on March 26, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the answers, everyone! Based on these answers, we're definitely now going to stop in some smaller towns. We'll probably also expand the trip to three weeks.

The reason that I wanted to do these particular cities is that there are people we want to visit in all of them, some of whom I haven't seen in literally years. (Can't skip San Francisco for that reason.) But it looks like our Portland person is actually going to be in Europe during the time we're there, so we may give Portland a miss, anyway.

Thanks again!
posted by holborne at 8:34 AM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

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