This riverfront town delivers a maritime experience and a journey back to the past.
A guy walks into a bar and spies a sea lion under the floor. No joke—it’s right there, maybe 10 feet down. If you visit Buoy Beer Co.’s dockside brewpub and look through the glass set into the floor, you can see the sea lion too, all fat and cranky. Go ahead and gawk: It’s a sea lion under the floor.
Maybe that’s not so strange in Astoria, Oregon, a Columbia River town 95 miles northwest of Portland, where one of the West’s mightiest waterways knuckles into the planet’s largest ocean. Here the wild and the mild, the old and the new, swirl around town like currents in the tide.
Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Astoria’s waterfront bustled with seafood canneries where workers could clean a 40-pound fish in 45 seconds. Now the cannery buildings house kayak shops, a boutique hotel, and eateries including Buoy Beer. You’ll find the Willapa Bay oysters plump and tangy, but the region’s true flavor sits just beyond the pub’s windows. The water may look placid during your visit, although sailors will tell you that when the weather changes, the sandbank at the river’s mouth known as the Columbia Bar can become a hull-grinding hell of 40-foot waves, dense fog, and shifting shoals.
Leaving Buoy Beer, it’s an easy stroll down the Astoria Riverwalk—a pedestrian pathway along the wharves, across the highway from Astoria’s retro-cool downtown—to the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Here you’ll learn how at least 2,000 ships and 700 people have met their doom on Astoria’s doorstep over the years. The neighboring Barbey Maritime Center keeps history alive with classes on boatbuilding, wood carving, bronze casting, and other traditional seafarer’s crafts.
Astoria’s riverfront story extends far into the past. In December 1805, the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery landed near today’s town and went on to build a modest fort along the Netul River (now the Lewis and Clark River) to the south. They called it Fort Clatsop after the local people and waited out the winter among the hand-hewn palisades.
It was a winter of misery, raining 94 of the 106 days the Corps was there. The explorers’ clothes disintegrated and the chill rattled their bones. “They talked a lot about the fleas keeping them up every night,” says Jill Harding, chief of visitor services at the site, known today as Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. “They were excited to reach the ocean, but they were also ready to leave.”
The fort is tranquil these days. The cedars wear regal capes of bearded lichen, and chipmunks scurry along the paths. The original structures rotted away; replicas were built in 1955—and again in 2006—using a floor plan Clark drew on the elk-skin cover of his journal. You can stick your head into the captain’s quarters, hike 1.3 miles along the ferny South Slough Trail, and download a new audio tour to your smartphone to hear journal readings, music, and stories.
The end of the Lewis and Clark epic set a larger story in motion. By 1811, a mere six years after the Corps’s arrival, a German-born fur merchant named John Jacob Astor sent men to establish a trading post here. It was to become the first United States settlement west of the Rockies, an outpost with doors that swung out toward the Orient and in toward a new nation’s riches. Immigrants from China and Scandinavia came in droves during the 1870s, expanding the economy with logging and fishing when the furs ran out. “Without the immigrants, Astoria would be a very different place,” says Sonja Niemi, a local historian of Finnish descent. “But without the furs we might not have existed at all.”
A legacy of Astoria’s more recent past trundles along the waterfront: A rebuilt 1913 trolley known as Old 300, with curved wooden seats and pleasing lines, makes a 3.5-mile run along the wharf. For $2 you can hop on and off all day, riding past old ferry slips, browsing the Astoria Sunday Market on 12th Street, and gazing up at the underpinnings of the 4.1-mile Astoria-Megler Bridge that soars across the river to Washington. Ask the conductor to point out the orange-and-blue building that was once home to an experimental seafood lab.
Step away from the waterfront, cross the highway, and head into downtown Astoria to find another side of history. Set inside a 1904 building that was the town’s first city hall, the Clatsop County Historical Society’s Heritage Museum houses more than 32,000 artifacts and a room-size reconstruction of the Louvre saloon, one of many bygone establishments that catered to mid-19th-century men. You can admire card tables, spin a real roulette wheel, and peruse the bill of fare: smoked goose, Hamburg eel, and Braunschweiger Mettwurst sausage.
Strolling around downtown’s slanted streets brings you closer to the modern era. Local lore says that matinee idol Clark Gable began his acting career performing onstage at Astoria Liberty Hall, at the corner of 12th and Exchange. A commemorative plaque is all that remains of the original venue; nearby, the 1925-vintage Liberty Theater sponsors a film festival each October.
Gaze up at the Gothic spires atop the John Jacob Astor Hotel, where cable television was invented in 1949. Browse for tea and sleeping Buddhas at A Gypsy’s Whimsy, or thumb through banned tomes at Lucy’s Books. Hit up Bach ’n Rock for the Doobie Brothers on eight-track and a visit with the resident parakeets and conures.
When you work up an appetite, sample Norwegian-style flatbrød from a shop called Finn Ware while ABBA plays on the sound system, or savor an all-American milk shake, thick and creamy, at Custard King’s walk-up counter. The best fish-and-chips in the galaxy come from Bowpicker, a tiny boat turned food cart where folks line up to get their flaky lunch. For a sit-down meal, head to Albatross & Co., a tavern from celebrated French Canadian chef Eric Bechard that serves a small but hearty menu and an admirable assortment of wild-yeast beers.
After eating, head to Heritage Square to admire the Garden of Surging Waves, a sculpture park that celebrates the role Chinese immigrants played in Astoria’s development. Sit on the smooth stone benches with a fish mosaic at your toes, reflecting on the words of the ancestors wrought in iron and stone. One engraving reminds us: “The surging waves of the Long River ride over the ones that have come before, just as new generations are founded on the old.”
When the ocean breeze tickles your nose and the river reflects the sunset, head back across town and wander up Coxcomb Hill to pay homage to the area’s most famous landmark, the Astoria Column. Built a century before the Surging Waves, the 125-foot tower depicts Astoria’s early days in a frieze spiraling around it. You’ll see the town’s first 100 years unfurl: Lewis and Clark, Mr. Astor, the trappers, the lumbermen, and the fish. Down below on the waterfront awaits the promise of more briny oysters—and a salty sea lion—at the start of a continent and the end of the sea.
This article was first published in May 2015 and updated in February 2019. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.