From its perch above the mouth of the Columbia River, Astoria has seen more history How by than any other city in the Pacific Northwest. Established in 1811, Astoria is the oldest U.S. settlement in the American West, and offers two centuries’ worth of frontier and maritime history. It also boasts the kind of scruffy charm that draws in painters and writers, and this one-time center of seafaring now serves as an artists’ retreat.
The Lewis and Clark expedition literally put Astoria on the map. The mouth of the Columbia was the western terminus of the Corps of Discovery’s journey, and they built Fort Clatsop—their encampment for the tough winter of 1805—06—just south of the future city. At the National Park Service’s fort replica, living history interpreters lead lours through the stockaded encampment, demonstrating such frontier skills as leather tanning and flintlock marksmanship.
Astoria itself was born just five years later when American fur traders working for John Jacob Astor established Fort Astoria in his name, on a rocky ledge above the Columbia. With its auspicious position at the mouth of the West’s largest river, Astoria grew wealthy through trade and fishing. Sea captains built magnificent trophy homes overlooking the river. Many of these flamboyant Victorian mansions, which cling to the steep hillsides behind downtown, have been painstakingly restored and afford incredible views of the high-arching Astoria Bridge. At over 4 miles, it is the world’s longest continuous truss bridge, connecting Astoria to Washington State. To glimpse the period’s grandeur, tour the ornate Queen Anne showcase built in 1885 by Captain George Flavel, now a museum. Stay at the Hotel Elliott, built in the Roaring ’20s and recently refurbished; it is Astoria’s most sophisticated hotel.
The former salmon canning center of the West Coast, Astoria’s waterfront isn’t the bustling fishing hub that il once was, but there’s still a sufficient fishery to supply the city’s restaurants with the freshest catch imaginable. Don’t be fooled by the scrappy facade of the Columbian Cafe: Chef-owner Uriah Hulsey secures the best of locally caught fish to serve in his tiny, vividly painted diner. While the decor is the epitome of Oregon funkiness, come here for first-class food, especially at dinner.
Astoria’s long fishing and seafaring history is the focus of the not-to-be-missed Columbia River Maritime Museum along the waterfront. The breadth of the museum’s collections is remarkable, from scrimshaw to harpoons, from the history of Pacific lighthouses to the evolution of boat design. Huge windows overlook the Columbia, an appropriate backdrop for viewing the museum’s classic fishing vessels and other historic watercraft.