Perched on northern-most tip of the Oregon Coast, Astoria is not a beach destination like its neighbors to the south. Except for a few views from higher elevations, it’s far from pretty and even a tiny bit funky: arrive to town from the east and one of the first businesses you’ll notice is a seedy-looking joint called Desdemona Club. Notes of sea lion and diesel fuel flavor the breeze while the mouth of the Columbia River, providing the main view from downtown, serves as a freeway for giant cargo ships. There’s more than one shop peddling crystals and tarot cards and a few bars even the most adventurous of dive bar lovers wouldn’t set foot in. These and other peculiar traits are why we love it.
We’re not the only ones—Astoria’s popularity has surged in recent years, perhaps as a weekend destination for Portlanders like us. And if you are willing to take Portland Mercury’s I, Anonymous column as a credible source, Astoria’s locals are not entirely impressed with city slickers’ recent fascination with their town.
Regardless of the local reaction, we decided to find out for ourselves what the heck outsiders find so cool about Astoria, Oregon.
A bubbly brew or two
Anyone who says Oregon doesn’t need anymore craft breweries hasn’t visited Astoria’s Fort George Brewing and Buoy Beer Company. In 2014, Buoy opened a restaurant and taproom in an old pier warehouse with views of the Columbia River and a window in the floor to watch sea lions napping among the pillars below. On a President’s Weekend Saturday, we were lucky to get a seat before they announced a 2-hour wait, and enjoyed the Czech Pils and NW Red and shared a basket of fish and chips. It’s a stunning location, and sometimes has the crowds to go with it.
Though we could have spend the weekend drinking Buoy (we returned a second time), it was hard to pass up an opportunity to visit Fort George. Since our first visit to their one room taphouse back in 2010, they’ve added a second floor and another tap room off the brewery. And they still can’t keep up: the place was overflowing and the service and food took a hard hit. The brewery taproom was definitely the highlight, with a large fireplace, spooky murals, and dim lighting, one might even call it romantic.
Astoria Brewing Company does claim to be the town’s oldest brewery, though they aren’t as keen on marketing as the other two, at least not to the Portland market. We didn’t visit this trip and in fact know nothing about their beer. A good reason to return.
The best place to take it all in is along the Astoria Riverwalk, a roughly 6.5 mile path along the Columbia from the Maritime Museum (a nice stop for fans of seafaring) to the Port of Astoria. There are shops and restaurants, like Buoy, along the way, some interesting industrial leftovers from former cannery days, and views of the bridge from underneath that will make you feel very small and full of wonder about earthquakes.
Communing with the spirits
While parking to check into our hotel, we noticed some people hanging out in a shop on Duane Street who looked like they were having a good time. As seasoned travelers we know this as a sign to investigate. That’s how we found ourselves sampling a flight of spirits at North Coast Distilling. The owner/bartender was gleeful and friendly and suggested we try his Absinthe, which he served in the traditional manner: the iced Absinthe dripped from the tiny faucet of a large glass jar over a sugar cube into the glass. It pounded our heads with herbs and licorice and a nice warm buzz. I learned that I like gin after sampling their Painted Lady, a new American style concoction that weighed more on the floral and herbal side rather than the juniper one. We finished the one flight and departed after witnessing among the patrons exactly strong the Absinthe was. Seasoned travelers also know when to retreat.
Historic neighborhood hike to the Astoria Column
Our blog should really be called Walking and Drinking, because it seems that’s what we end up doing most of the time. We took another walk to the Astoria Column, a 125 ft tower built in 1926 on Coxcomb Hill, about a mile walk uphill from downtown. The column itself is beautiful, built to replicate Trajan’s Column in Rome. It features 14 spiraling murals depicting historical events in Oregon. The walk to the column from downtown took us through the town’s oldest neighborhood and past many homes on the National Historic Registry. We got a good peek at the condemned and recently auctioned Flavel House (different from the Flavel Mansion, now a museum).
From Coxcomb Hill, entry into the Column and up its spiral staircase is free and only costs your life when the strong winds whisk you off the platform to your death. According to those of us with acrophobia, the view from the hill is just fine.
Finally some food: Bakeries galore
If Scandinavian baked goods are your thing—and why wouldn’t they be?—Astoria, Oregon, is your town. Home Bakery has been making their famous cinnamon toast, called korpus, since 1910. Lindstrom’s Danish Maid, a bakery in the downtown, is a great spot to stock up on goods like Danish “crispies,” donuts, bread and, of course, danishes for your hike to the column. On this trip we stopped at Blue Scorcher, a cooperative bakery near Fort George Brewing, for espressos and a sour cream coffee cake. Their treats are beautiful but seem very vegan and gluten-free-geared, not necessarily qualities I look for in a baked good. Still, the bright atmosphere and strong espresso combined with a great view of the river were worth it.
There’s plenty to occupy a weekend in Astoria, but what about The Goonies? Isn’t that why people go to Astoria, Oregon? Film buffs know the town not only for the 1980’s pirate-themed kid flick, but other examples of cinematic excellence such as Short Circuit, Kindergarten Cop, Benji the Hunted, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. It makes sense that directors find Astoria film-able. It has an element of grandeur, some beauty mixed with industry, a bit of kitsch, and just the hint of a dark side. We like going there.