Most Oregonians know Lincoln City for two things: the casino and the outlet mall. Situated along a 7-mile stretch of Highway 101, Lincoln City could easily be dismissed as a seaside retirement village if you only drive from one point to the other.
But the town—a union of six other small communities in Lincoln County, incorporated in 1965 and named by some unimaginative local schoolchildren—has more to offer than discounted Chico's and the occasional Air Supply concert.
You'll also discover shockingly good eats, homey watering holes, rewarding hikes and odd pieces of local culture that belie the city's undercover weirdness. Where else on the coast can you find monuments to both Abraham Lincoln and a one-eyed sea lion, the world's (alleged) smallest river and a restaurant crazy enough to call itself Lil Sambo's?
Grab pre-dinner drinks
The Taft district, one of Lincoln City's six commercial zones—referred to collectively as "the String of Pearls"—is located at the southern end of town, where you'll find Tiki's at 51st (1005 SW 51st St., 503-996-4200, facebook.com/tikis51st), a kitschy faux surf shack along the main promenade a pebble's throw from driftwood-laden Siletz Bay.
The vibe is less Waikiki than SpongeBob SquarePants, but there's charm in the goofy details: drinks garnished with plastic squids and mermaids; decorations seemingly purchased from a Polynesian party store; a parrot named Gypsy who hangs out front and squawks "I love you" at passersby. Stop in for a pre-dinner mojito, then walk across the street to where the bay meets the ocean and maybe see harbor seals relaxing on the sand.
Get your fish 'n' chips fix
Pier 101 (415 SW U.S. Highway 101, 541-994-8840, pier101deluxebarandgrill.com) started in 1972 as a blue-collar pool hall before pivoting into a "deluxe bar and grill." But the restaurant, identified by the mural of a swole-looking crab on its north-facing side, hasn't strayed too far from its tavern roots. The interior is classic fish house: porthole windows, saloon doors, decorative netting, dark-wood decor and even darker lighting. Per the signs out front, you won't find any "yuppie food" on the menu. Here's where you get your coastal standards, including excellent clam chowder, fish 'n' chips (the "chips" being pier-plank potatoes, which look like flat-ironed jojos) and the alleged "best steamed clams in the world."
Go bar hopping
Lincoln City doesn't have quite enough bars for a proper crawl, but if you're looking to clink glasses with the locals, there are two solid options within a two-minute walk of each other. Opened in 2011, the Nauti Mermaid (1343 NW U.S. Highway 101, 541-614-1001) has a prefabricated "funky college bar" feel, with a penny-top bar, giant Jenga, live music and self-consciously tacky maritime bric-a-brac, including a life-sized topless mermaid statue. (Its sister bar, the Nauti Mermaid Beach House, is a half-mile south and offers an ocean view.)
For a less tongue-in-cheek dive experience, try the Old Oregon Saloon and/or Tavern (1601 NE U.S. Highway 101, 994-8515), where the official name is sort of unclear but they have felt poker tables for seating, hippie tapestries pinned to the ceiling and a naked-lady velvet painting behind the bar. Grab a pint of locally brewed Rusty Truck IPA and strike up a conversation.
Hunt for treasure
Every year during the drizzly months, Lincoln City's tourism bureau plies visitors with the promise of a treasure hunt. From October through Memorial Day, thousands of colorful glass orbs—"floats" in fisherman parlance—are hidden in daily batches up the beach for the Finders Keepers float hunt. As the name implies, if you spot one, it's all yours. You have to get up damn early to find any, but even if you don't, it's a good excuse to cruise the shoreline, which is laden with highly 'grammable driftwood. Start your search at the D River, which, at only 440 feet long, makes a disputed claim to being the shortest in the world.
Bone up on local history
Did you know Lincoln City once had its own destination amusement park? In the late '60s, the owners of popular roadside diner Pixie Kitchen opened pioneer-themed Pixieland. Intended as a major tourist attraction, the place went bust in five years. We'd like to tell you that means there's a creepy abandoned fun park nearby, but sadly, the infrastructure was demolished in 1980. You can, however, view leftover memorabilia at the free North Lincoln County Historical Museum (4907 U.S. Highway 101, 541-996-6614, northlincolncountyhistoricalmuseum.com), housed inside what was once City Hall. Along with 19th-century logging equipment, you'll also find exhibits on the Green Onion cottage and its rentable bathtub, the now-shuttered Lacey Doll Museum and the Redhead Roundup, an annual beauty contest exclusively for gingers.
Shop for used books
Robert's Bookshop (3412 SW U.S. Highway 101, 541-994-4433, robertsbookshop.com) is a bibliophile's dream and an agoraphobic's nightmare. Established in 1987, the place is an absolute maze of cramped aisles, low ceilings and tight corners, with the inventory practically exploding off the shelves.
While the focus is general in the extreme—you'll find everything from cookbooks to century-old pirate fiction—the store is especially proud of its Erle Stanley Gardner collection, which it claims is the most comprehensive in the world. (In case you haven't noticed, Lincoln City is the world's biggest maker of sweeping, semi-verifiable statements.)
Nearly every inch of wall space is occupied by some kind of miscellany, too, whether it's ancient Greek arrowheads, a taxidermied ram's head or the original cover art from various pulp paperbacks. With hidden nooks and old movie theater seats beckoning you to sit and skim a spell, it's an easy place to get lost in, figuratively and literally.
One of the first Lincoln City landmarks you'll spot driving in from Portland is the quaint Wild Flower Grill (4250 NE U.S. Highway 101, 541-994-9663, thewildflowergrill.com). A converted cottage overlooking a picturesque pond, it looks like Grandma's house and is decorated like it, too—you'll swear that same cat painting is hanging in your own Nana's kitchen. Although known for its homestyle breakfast, Wild Flower is open for lunch and dinner as well. From the enclosed patio, you can watch ducks frolic in the marshland below while splitting the $12 ahi tuna po' boy, which comes with thick-cut fries and is more than enough for two people trying to carb-load before a day hike.
Hike to a waterfall
Drive about 15 minutes out of town and then up a winding road through Siuslaw National Forest, and you'll end up at one of the best low-effort, high-reward hikes in Oregon. The muddy terrain can make it feel like you're in Jedi training on Dagobah, but the trek is a swift 1.5 miles along narrow trails shaded by a canopy of maple and alder trees. The payoff is worth sacrificing your shoes for: a gushing 75-foot waterfall, which you can get reasonably close to via a suspension bridge that towers high above the canyon. If you feel like going a little farther, cross to the other side and trudge another quarter-mile down to the creekbed, where you can take in the majesty of both man and God's creation in a single view. From Lincoln City take U.S. Highway 101 north and turn right on North Bear Creek Road. Bear Creek Road becomes NF-17. Follow it to the trailhead.
Refresh, then get dinner
Hiking naturally begets beer, so clean yourself up and slake your thirst at Autobahn 101 (1512 SW Highway 101, 541-614-1811). The handsome blond-wood parlor offers a full slate of German ales (including Ayinger's Kirtabier, an extremely rare find in the U.S.), plus schnitzel and warm potato salad. But don't spoil your appetite—save it for Blackfish Cafe (2733 NW U.S. HIghway 101, 541-996-1007, blackfishcafe.com), the best restaurant in Lincoln City. That's not a qualified statement—it'd rank pretty high in Portland, too. Chef Rob Pounding's seafood-focused bistro has been knocking out visitors for 18 years. The entrees are seasonal, but if you see the bacon-wrapped albacore or decadently buttery ocean trolled salmon on the menu, don't hesitate to simply point and drool. The clam chowder is a staple and worth a reservation on its own.
Beat your high score
Go from fine dining straight to classic gaming. Game Over (2821 NW U.S. Highway 101, 541-614-1150, gameover-arcade.com) is an arcade and bar located right across the street from Blackfish, with more than 100 old and newish machines, from Joust to Flappy Bird, crammed side by side in a space not much bigger than an average neighborhood market. While it might take a bit of glowering to dispatch the young couple hogging the two-player Mario Kart racer, you'll feel better dropping quarters here than at that other gaming palace up the road.
Visit a problematic landmark
On your way out of town, stop at Lil Sambo's Family Restaurant (3262 U.S. Highway 101, 541-994-3626, lilsambos.com), if only to satisfy your curiosity about the yellow building with the tiger carrying an umbrella in its tail out front. Yes, it is indeed named for the deeplyproblematic 19th-century children's book. No, it is not part of the restaurant chain of the same name that was shamed out of existence. If you take your photo next to the pancake-wielding elves under the "Lil Sambo's" sign, maybe think twice before putting it on social media.
Get the coast's best breakfast
Hold off on brunch until you reach Otis Cafe (1259 Salmon River Highway, 541-994-2813) in the small town of Otis, about 7 miles east of Lincoln City. The tiny, long-running highway diner is considered one of the best breakfast spots on the entire coast.
You can't go wrong with almost anything on the menu, but the white-cheddar hash browns are the most famous item—even The New York Times called them "legendary.
Visit a "Ghost Forest"
On your return home, save time to stop off at one of the state's great natural wonders. As the scientific theory goes, thousands of years ago, an earthquake sunk a forest of Sitka spruce trees into the ground near the ocean.
When conditions are right, the stumps protrude from the surf, and they indeed look like tombstones in a tidal graveyard. Your best shot at seeing it is in winter, at low tide. But even if you're there at the wrong time, you can always get a photo of Proposal Rock, the Oregon Coast's second most famous boulder.
From Lincoln City: Take U.S. Highway 101 north, then turn right at Logan Road. Turn left at Summit Road. Turn left toward Hawk Drive. Turn right onto Hawk Drive. Turn left onto McMinnville Avenue. Turn left onto Breakers Avenue. Turn left onto Salem Avenue. Turn right onto U.S. Highway 101 south to arrive at the Neskowin Beach State Recreation Site.
WHERE TO STAY
1452 NE 6th Drive, 541-994-2002
Devils Lake is the only state park in Oregon located in the middle of a city—the entrance is, like, 70 feet off the highway—so it's hard to ever feel you're "roughing it." But staying in a yurt helps preserve a certain amount of rusticity. For the uninitiated, a yurt is like a cross between a cabin, a teepee and a studio apartment—a tiny dwelling with a wooden foundation, thick canvas for walls and enough room for bunk beds and a foldout couch. (Make sure to bring your own bedding; otherwise you'll be sleeping on nothing but a vinyl mat.) There's no kitchen, but there are fire pits for grilling anything you pull out of the water. The 10 yurts available at Devil's Lake rent for $45 per night, which means if you're reading this in the summer, it's probably already too late. But you can still visit the lake itself, which offers guided wildlife kayaking tours through Labor Day.
2945 NW Jetty Ave., 541-994-2191, surftideslincolncity.com
Opened in the 1930s, Surftides has been renovated and remodeled many times over the decades but manages to maintain a retro charm. The rooms at this beachside boutique are sleek and bright with a nautical aesthetic—light-up anchors, mermaid pillows—that's cute without being overbearing.
There are outdoor fire pits for roasting s'mores (get your supplies in the lobby) and an indoor pool encased in a stucco dome that looks like something out of a 1950s world's fair. Ocean-view rooms go for $170 a night and come with private balconies. When the tide is high, it won't just feel like you're next to the surf—it'll seem like you're in it.