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A great (free) walking tour in Portland

The world's smallest park
Carole B. Rosenblat

I recently had the opportunity to travel around the Beaver State, otherwise known as Oregon. While the capital city is Salem, perhaps the most well-known city is Portland. Known for its eclectic mix of fine coffee, local breweries and all around weirdness, I decided to take a walking tour called, Secrets of Portlandia, which bills itself as “Portland’s Free Walking Tour.” The good news is, you get your money’s worth. The better news is, you’ll really love this tour.

We meet Erik, the owner, operator and sole tour guide of Secrets of Portalndia, in front of Pioneer Courthouse in downtown Portland. There are no reservations needed or taken as, you simply show up at 11:00am. From July 1 – September 15 you also have a choice of meeting for a 4:30 tour (both tours are the same). Erik is difficult to miss due to the crowd surrounding him as if he were a celebrity landing at the Los Angeles airport, the lime green Secrets of Portlandia T-shirt and the microphone hanging across his face.

Before long, Erik leads me and the 26 others on my tour across the street to Pioneer Courthouse Square. Erik explains the history of the Square and how it’s known as “Portland’s living room,” as it was developed to be free a gathering place for the people of Portland. It was kept free as the money raised for building it came partially from personalized, engraved bricks sold to the public which are laid in the ground throughout the square. These bricks can still be purchased through the website listed below for $100. We learn about Flicks on the Bricks, a summer festival bringing people to the square to watch movies. You can also join in in song at Sing Portland, enjoy the floral mosaics created at the Festival of Flowers, or read to your heart’s content at the Northwest Summer Book Festival. If you’re around during Halloween you can get your Zombie on at the Giant Zombie Dance Party where you’ll dance with other non-dead to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And, of course there’s “Run Like Hell,” the charity costume 5K, 10K and 1/2 marathon.

We hear a bit more about Pioneer Courthouse Square, including the oh-so-strange weather machine which, each day at noon, plays a musical fanfare while displaying a two-minute sequence of the three weather symbols which tell you what the weather is outside (although you’ll be outside watching this).

We continue on to various unique points of interest all within a few blocks of our meeting point. Throughout the tour Eric does a great job of explaining the history of Portland while keeping it fun. This is not just an historical tour, but a bit of a comedy show. Let’s call it Histortainment! The jokes, both good and bad keep coming while Eric informs us of strange Portland laws. These laws include:

- People may not whistle underwater. - You cannot wear roller skates/blades in the restroom. - Riders of sleds may not attach themselves to passing cars (takes away all the fun). - It’s against the law for a wedding ceremony to be performed at a skating rink. - Oregon law – you cannot pump your own gas. A gas station worker must do this.

We stop buy the impressive copper statue appropriately named “Portlandia” which was installed in 1985 and stands (well, actually squats) 34 feet, 10 inches high. We visit Mill Ends Park, which at two feet wide (452 sq. inches), holds the title of the smallest park in the world. The park, dedicated on St. Patrick’s Day in 1948, is the only leprechaun colony west of Ireland, according to its creator, Dick Fagan. Fagan also named Patrick O’Toole as head leprechaun and guard of the park.

The tour lasts just over two hours and ends in front of the famous Voodoo Doughnut, where the catchphrase is “The magic is in the hole.” Eric tells us the history of the famous doughnut stand and about the early years when the doughnuts were supposedly made with questionable ingredients including Pepto Bismol filled as well as some other over the counter pharmaceuticals. Nowadays, they just serve doughnuts consisting of actual food ingredients, but that doesn’t narrow down your choices one bit. You might want to try the classic Voodoo Doughnut, which is a raspberry jelly filled doughnut topped with chocolate frosting with a pretzel stake in it (order it, think of an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend perhaps, and go to town with that pretzel. You’ll enjoy watching the raspberry jelly leak out).

The tour ends and Eric steps over to the corner to answer any individual questions. This would be the time to put some money in his hat, which you should. Remember, there was no charge for this tour so you can judge the value. I would put the Secrets of Portlandia tour up against any prepaid tours offered in Portland. Eric has the knack of making you love this town. He is obviously proud of his city and embraces the weirdness without feeling the need to put-down other places. You should take this tour.

Want to take the tour? Visit

Want to buy a brick in Pioneer Courthouse Square? Visit

Want a doughnut? Visit

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