Astoria: Surprising gem on the Columbia waterfront

Astoria: Surprising gem on the Columbia waterfront

Astoria has been called "a little San Francisco on the hill," an image easy to understand considering its Victorian architecture, riverfront trolley and the age-old vision of ships passing by the city on their way out to sea.

There are lots of chances to touch history here, but the vision of Astoria is planted firmly in the future.

Astoria has a working waterfront, a ribbon of canneries, warehouses and maritime concerns. Columbia River Bar and river pilots maintain offices here, regularly ferrying out to the huge ships that travel the river to help make safe passage. Listen for ship whistles-that's the way the ship pilots talk to each other.

Your first view of the city from the Washington side of the Columbia, with the pale green towers of the Astoria Bridge rising into the sky, makes many think of the mythical city of Oz. Crossing the 4.1-mile-long, razor straight causeway from Washington on a sunny day strengthens that impression, as snowy Mount St. Helens glistens to the east.

Turning left at the bottom of the bridge will take you into downtown, an area in the midst of impressive restoration, including the gem-like Liberty Theater, which local leaders have purchased and are in the process of making into a major performing arts venue. Fine restaurants, art galleries, antique stores and other attractions round out Astoria's central core. Farther east, you'll come to the Columbia River Maritime Museum, 1792 Marine Drive. A nationally acclaimed museum, it has one of the most extensive collections of nautical artifacts on the West Coast. It, too, is undergoing a major renovation which should be largely complete this year.

The docks near the museum are abuzz with activity. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains two cutters there, the Alert and the Steadfast.

The parking lot at the museum is good place to leave your car for the trolley ride uptown. The fare is $1, and it takes about 35 to 45 minutes to make the round trip.

The city's 17th Street Dock also has space for the public to tie up. In the past few years, Astoria has become an increasingly popular cruise boat destination.

If you look up the hill from the Maritime Museum, you'll see the indoor swimming pool and recreation facility. The Astoria Aquatic Center offers opportunities for residents and visitors alike to get in a swim.

Look farther up the hill and spot the Clatsop County Heritage Museum, a must-see for history buffs. There are several other museums in town, including the Flavel House, a restored mansion on the west end of downtown.

Travel to the very top of the hill and you'd find one of the city's crown jewels: The Astoria Column. This 125-foot monument commands an awesome view of the river and the surrounding area. Its 164 steps are great way to burn off kids' excess energy. To get to it, follow the signs from downtown.

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