At number nine on the TripAdvisor list of things to do in Portland is the MAX Light Rail. That’s right — the public has decided that the ninth-best attraction in Oregon’s largest city is a train. For most cities (and for the people who rate things on TripAdvisor) this would be damning. But for Portland, it feels oddly apt.
This is partly because everything above it is outdoor space — valleys, parks, gardens, lakes and grottos. This is indicative of Portland’s tree-huggy embrace of its position in the green, forested heart of the Pacific Northwest. But it’s also an indication that the city has a different mindset from most others.
Blundering into Portland uninitiated is likely to lead to confusion. Where’s the must-do museum? What about the classic photo op spot? Or the big historic building? The truth is Portland doesn’t have any of these things. It is unequivocally a place to be, rather than a place to see. That doesn’t mean you can’t go with a large set of boxes to tick — it’s just those tickboxes are likely to be breweries, or restaurants, or distilleries, rather than conventional attractions.
It’s Portland’s status as a relative backwater — something even Portlanders will happily admit to — that has given it space for fermentation. Without the glare of the spotlight or relentless pressure to cover extortionate rents, people have been free to try things. They’ve roasted their own coffee beans; they’ve experimented with different hop combinations; they’ve ferreted out the best local farms and put the resulting finds in the oven.
In turn, this has attracted people from other cities who want to do the same. It has led to a remarkably symbiotic, buzzing hive of small businesses and self-employment. Imagine that one newly cool neighbourhood every city has, mushroom it across virtually the whole urban landscape, and it’s Portland.
There are several pockets of brewpubs and food trucks, crafts stores and coffee shops, but on the whole, the experimental, quality-focused joints are spread throughout the city. This makes it a slowburner of a place, tough to put a finger on immediately, but gradually unveiling.
There’ll be a few happy accident discoveries just wandering around, but talking to locals and a little advance research goes a long way. The resulting small finds all set off a little tingle, with no one in particular giving the full firework display. But they mount up, firing like synapses until suddenly the city makes consummate sense.
See & do
Cycle Portland:The bike lane network makes cycling the ideal way to get around. Cycle Portland offers rentals and tours like the Foodie Field Trip — a great way to stumble on coffee shops, food trucks and ice creameries.
Oregon Historical Society museum: Offers an insight into what makes Portland and Oregon tick, from the fur trade and farming to key 1970s environmental policies and relationships with Native Americans.
Brewvana brewery tours: At last count, there were 71 breweries in Portland (the craft beer capital of the US) and Brewvana’s tours take in a few of the best. Heroically, it’s had its bus designated as a tasting room so you can keep drinking between stops.
International Rose Test Garden: Part of the humongous Washington Park, this garden is where new breeds of roses are bred and tested out, with over 500 varieties on display.
World Forestry Center: Also in Washington Park, the World Forestry Center offers an interesting take on forests, from the flora and fauna living at different levels of hulking great Douglas firs to the fearless ‘smokejumping’ firefighters.
Portland Walking Tours: Offers several tours, with the Underground Portland option providing a fascinating look at the city’s darker history: shameless Prohibition-era bar owners, people being tricked into working on ships for years and corrupt cops raking in backhanders.
Alder Street food cart pod: Other cities have food trucks, but Portland goes all-out. The Alder Street pod, downtown, is extraordinary for both size (surrounding an entire city block car park) and variety. Options include jambalaya from Mumbo Gumbo, Hawaiian loco moco from 808 Grinds, Iraqi shawarmas from Al Mawj and Ethiopian doro watt and injera from Emame’s.
Powell’s City Of Books: The name is apt. The self-styled largest independent new and used bookstore in the world is, in equal measures, intimidating and bewitching. Amid the canyons of tomes, colour coding and section-numbering are essential navigational aids; the Pacific Northwest section is hearteningly huge.
Union Way: Opposite Powell’s, Union Way is a stylish mini-mall with a local indie
focus. Danner specialises in outdoor gear — particularly shoes and boots — while Will Leather Goods offers everything from leather travel bags that feel like they’ve been passed down through the generations to old-school footballs. 1022 W Burnside Street.
North Mississippi Avenue: This street in North Portland is emerging as the new bar and restaurant strip of choice, but there’s also a lot of shopping options. PDXchange offers Fairtrade and locally made bags, ceramics, metal carvings et al, while Black Wagon does a superb line in toys that grown-ups might secretly want for themselves.
Jupiter hotel: A converted, hipped-up motel, the Jupiter comes with chalkboards on doors and encouragements for guests to express themselves. Reception doubles up as an art gallery — artists have been brought in to do individual feature walls and the neighbouring bar hosts plenty of bands.
Mark Spencer hotel: Free cookies, old newspaper cuttings on the walls and lots of plant-filled public space give the Mark Spencer a bit of character. Most rooms come with kitchenettes, there’s a policy of always upgrading if there’s space and there are beer growlers (jugs) in the room that can be filled at the nearby Fat Head’s Brewery.
Hotel Lucia: One wall is filled with old cameras, receptionists have a line in sassy chat, while the minibars have locally made chocs and ‘love kits’. And, if you choose to forgo your room being made up, they’ll give you $5 minibar credit. It’s high on quirks, but done with panache.
Loyal Legion: The hundred-strong draft list is broken down into types such as amber, farmhouse, IPA and nitro. Tasting flights are the way to explore a range of local brews, with knowledgeable bar staff on hand to help you choose.
Coopers Hall: A hangar-like space, with one wall stacked with wine barrels and another lined with on-tap wines — Cooper’s Hall does wine in a very Portland way. There are flight options to sample, but this feels nothing like a snooty, scene-y wine bar.
Multnomah Whiskey Library: There are so many whiskeys here that they have to be stored on shelves, like books in a library, with staff climbing ladders to get at them. And the drinks list isn’t a piece of card — it’s a book. As spectacular as the choice is the rich man’s private club decor, with chopped wood by the fireplace, chandeliers and glorious leather seating.
Cartopia: On the corner of SE 12th Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard, this was where the food truck pod movement started. Potato Champion does a mean satay poutine, Tahrir Square goes Egyptian and PBJ’s does a hefty, spicy Thai-style crispy coconut shrimp sandwich with peanut butter and orange marmalade.
Ned Ludd: With a cool cabin look, wood-fired oven and a tent outside, the Ned Ludd riffs on rustic kitsch. There’s an inventive simplicity to the food, with fare like rabbit or roasted trout served up with reverentially treated vegetables.
Andina: A sprawling, multi-levelled jigsaw of a layout is combined with novo-Peruvian food. Each dish is practically an essay, with the sources and treatments of all ingredients described with a love that borders on the weirdly meticulous.
Like a local
Credit card splash: Oregon is one of the few states in the US that doesn’t have a sales tax — which means there are no nasty surprise additions to bills. It also makes it a relatively bargainous place for shopping, with sporting goods and outdoors gear being particularly good value due to the likes of Nike and Columbia being Oregon-based.
The ball game: Portland is one of the only US cities where football (as in proper football, played with the feet) is the most beloved sport. The Portland Timbers games at Providence Park attract big crowds, and sports bars tend to have a good atmosphere when they’re playing.
The hard stuff: Micro-distilleries have been popping up across the city in recent years — mainly in the south east. Eleven have banded together to offer a $30 (£24) tasting ‘Passport’ that grants free samples at their establishments.
Getting there & around
Delta launches direct flights to Portland from Heathrow in May. Until then, there are several options for one-stop connections within the US. Alternatively, a KLM/Delta codeshare via Amsterdam offers flights from multiple UK airports, and Icelandair goes via Reykjavik from six airports, including Glasgow and Manchester.
A combination of the MAX Light Rail (which goes from the airport into town), buses and streetcars makes the public transport better than most US cities. It’s also bike-friendly, and Uber is a good bet if on a decent mobile roaming plan. Try Broadway Cab (T: 00 1 503 227 1234) if you need a taxi.
When to go
Winters are drizzly, with temperatures around 9C. Parks are best experienced May-September.
How to do it
Expedia offers a seven-night break in Portland, staying at the Hotel Lucia and flying via Chicago from Heathrow with American Airlines, from £1,091 per person.
Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)