Need proof that some of the most deeply satisfying travel experiences can be found close to home? I recently spent one day in Astoria, Oregon and if I’m being honest, I’m still surprised it took me so long to discover–and fall in love with–this beautiful Pacific Northwest town.
After driving down from Seattle to meet up with an old friend, I chose to stay overnight and spend the following day exploring Astoria on my own. It is a beautiful, hilly old burgh situated picturesquely just south of Washington state on the Columbia River and an ideal location for a solo jaunt. How did this coastal town a quick three-hour journey from Seattle suddenly top my list of places I’m most likely to revisit soon? A few highlights from my time there stand out:
Climbing the Astoria Column at Sunrise
Since I hadn’t done much research prior to my trip, I was open to recommendations that I check out the prominent, 125-foot-tall Astoria Column. Covered with sepia-toned murals depicting scenes from the area’s early history, the column’s architecture didn’t seem particularly extraordinary…until I realized I could go inside. With a quick 164-step climb up the spiral staircase to the top of the narrow structure, I arrived at the top just in time to enjoy a gorgeous, misty sunrise. The viewing platform was small, and the air cold and windy, so my time at the top was brief, but what a quarter of an hour it was! It’s the perfect vantage point to sample beautiful views of Saddle Mountain overlooking the Columbia River. Although there’s paid parking at the base of the column, it’s a nice 30-minute uphill hike from downtown Astoria if you’re looking to turn your sightseeing into a workout as well.
Visiting the Flavel House
Not far from the main drag on Commercial Street, the Flavel House is a particularly lovely example of the Queen Anne style of Victorian architecture, preserved not only for its historical value, but also as a memorial to early Astoria notable Captain George C. Flavel. The house itself is a delight, lovingly preserved and restored after the local historical society saved it from being turned into a parking lot for the neighboring courthouse. A visit to the Flavel House starts at the former carriage house-cum-visitor center for an introduction to Captain Flavel and his family and continues inside the house itself to experience how the well-heeled Flavel family lived in the early 1900s.
Strolling the Astoria Riverwalk
If you do only one thing in Astoria, I recommend spending time on the Astoria Riverwalk. The nearly six-and-a-half-mile walking trail sits on the banks of the Columbia River, guiding visitors past some of Astoria’s notable landmarks including Pier 39, which housed the former salmon cannery that helped give the city its label as the salmon fishing and canning capital of the world.
You can’t miss the hundreds of barking sea lions who have made themselves at home on nearby docks while the salmon eating’s good. These boisterous, powerful creatures have resisted all attempts at displacement and have become quite a fixture along the waterfront.
I stopped for lunch at the Buoy Beer Company, where the food is good, the beer even better, and the view best of all. Afterwards, I popped in for a cone at Frite and Scoop, where the ice cream is churned in small batches. The menu changes often, but if the Chef’s Choice flavor is available, get it to go. The malted sweet cream custard with blackberry curd and caramel sauce flavor is the most decadent ice cream I’ve ever tasted. Get yours in the “little scoop” size, which was satisfying and felt almost guilt-free.
Chasing Filming Locations
True story: Long before I ever dreamed of moving to the Pacific Northwest, I was introduced to the region–and to Astoria–through two of my favorite films from my youth: Kindergarten Cop and The Goonies. Both movies were set and filmed here in Astoria, and with this trip, I finally had my chance to check out some of the more recognizable locations. Although I ultimately skipped the opportunity to see the Goonies house–rumor has it the current owners have had it up to here with tourists– I did drive by John Jacob Astor Elementary School, the setting of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Not much seems to have changed between filming and the current day and I’ll admit to having a bit of a nostalgic moment.
Crossing the Bar at Pioneer Cemetery
Upon spotting Pioneer Cemetery on a map of Astoria, I judged immediately that with a name like that, it had to be the kind of cemetery I’d find interesting. I was right. It seems that many of the city’s early pioneers are buried there, as many of the worn and moss-covered headstones, grave markers, and even an obelisk date back to the mid-nineteenth century. No longer used for burials, the cemetery now feels more like a peaceful neighborhood park than a resting place for the dead.
Navigating the Columbia River Maritime Museum
For perhaps the finest look at the forces that shaped this region geographically and culturally, search no further than the Columbia River Maritime Museum. With exhibits exploring the estuary from its freshwater origins in the Rocky Mountains to its violent collision with the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean, the museum is a comprehensive record of all things related to the mighty river, whether you’re interested in history, industry, navigation, or science. Although I only I had a couple of hours available for exploring the museum, I could easily and happily spent a full day. Perhaps next time.