Portland, in the northwest US state of Oregon, is a walking town. Unlike many American population centres, you don’t need car to enjoy its vibrant, compact downtown area. That’s just as well, because Portland has more craft breweries than any other US city. And with its hundreds of street food stalls, you’ll have a lot of calories to walk off too!
“It’s not so car-centric,” Bob Fisher of Portland Walking Tours told me. “People are out, people are walking, people bike. It feels like a European city.” I wish I had earned a Euro for every time I heard that. So you might wonder why bother visiting at all, when Europe is just an hour-long flight away from the UK?
What Portlanders really mean is that they’ve selected the best bits of the old world cities and created something special. There’s fast, efficient and ‘joined-up’ public transport. We take that for granted in Europe but it’s not the norm in America. In Portland, you can ride the modern overground light railway, the ‘Max,’ and the downtown and suburban streetcar networks using a day pass. That ticket can also be used to get into the city centre straight from the airport.
As Bob led our small party during his two-hour ‘Best of Portland’ walking tour, his pride for the city’s alternative approach was obvious. “We have a strong recycling culture,” he told us. Minutes later we were shown the city centre electric car charging points. They were all in use – very European.
The city’s cycling culture also makes Portland feel European, like an American Amsterdam. English ex-pat Emily Seabrook told me that city centre cycling is popular – something you wouldn’t attempt in many other US cities like Los Angeles or Chicago. “Portland drivers are great and I can’t think of another city that has such a big bike community,” she enthused. There are bike lanes everywhere and they’ve even made marking the routes on the roads into an art form. Icons depicting recently-departed David Bowie and Prince have been painted onto the tarmac.
Bob explained that Portland-based sports giant Nike sponsors the city’s rent-a-bike scheme and that you can hire one for an hour or for a day. There’s an even quirkier green transport option – a dedicated skateboard lane downtown. That epitomises the Portland ‘feeling’, which makes it stand out from other US cities.
Portland’s neighbourhoods thrive with bustling bars and vintage stores. The words ‘artisan’ and ‘alternative’ crop up a lot and you’ll see stickers saying Keep Portland Weird. And it is, but in a good way. It’s a hip, happening place without being shabby or too radical.
“Portland is very tolerant,” Bob told me. “People can get facial or neck tattoos or they can dress however they want and we just accept it. Some cities are more judgmental and not as tolerant of differences as we are. Portland is a great place where you can be yourself and nobody will try to rein you in.”
Back to the walking tour, and we didn’t have to walk too far. US cities tend to use a grid system creating ‘blocks’ and there are usually eight blocks to a mile. But in Portland, there are twenty blocks to a mile. This city’s are shorter because canny developers back in the 19th century realised that properties on corners attracted higher rates. So they made the corners occur more frequently.
I was interested to hear that the vibrant, bustling city streets are the product of planning. Back in the 1970s residents deserted the city’s downtown and it became run down and dodgy. Bob said the council had a vision to make the centre attractive again. They removed any street furniture obscuring the view along the roads, such as parking meters, signs and metal bus shelters. “A lot of downtown areas have a claustrophobic, valley effect. They are dark and windy,” said Bob. “Portland was one of the first cities in America to put a height restriction on buildings so it’s a very squat city. We only have two buildings which you would consider tall.”
Today, Portland’s centre remains busy, even after offices close for the day. “Other cities in America are now copying Portland and they call it ‘Portland style’ development or planning. The city leaders want to make Portland a liveable city.”
Bob’s tour took us into some office blocks to share facts and insights only known by locals. We stopped at the Standard Plaza building, which forecasts the weather. The rooftop weather beacon light glows red if warmer weather is forecast or green if it’ll be cooler.
And in this leafy city blessed with 279 parks and green spaces we visited the world’s smallest park. Mill End is just 452 square inches – yes, inches! – and is simply some shrubs on a roadside traffic island. It is recognised in the Guinness Book of Records. Bob explained how it came to be an official park. “In the 1940s, newspaper columnist Dick Fagan wrote about how he had seen council staff dig a hole for a street light but the workers didn’t return to put one in the space. Plants quickly grew inside their excavation. Dick started writing about the ugliest patch of earth in Portland. One day he wrote that leprechauns had transformed this into a beautiful park overnight. It became a long-standing joke and was eventually adopted by the city as a park. The city parks website advises that it offers ‘ample parking,’” laughed Bob.
Portland’s streets are filled with quirky sights and sculptures and each one has a story that Bob was keen to share. He paused at a bronze statue of a nude woman. A poster depicting what appeared to be a flasher opening his raincoat in front of this sculpture went viral in the 1970s. The caption Expose Yourself to Art made Bud Clark, the flasher in the photo, famous and he was later elected as mayor, Bob explained.
Just around the corner, we paused at some bronze beaver casts. They honour Oregon’s mascot. “We’re the only state in the country that has a rodent on their flag,” he joked. “Beavers were instrumental in the development of the state. Some of the first Americans that came to the northwest were looking for beaver pelts.”
But the best-known sculpture in the city is Portlandia. This 34-foot high statue of a woman kneeling down, with a trident in her left hand and beckoning with her right, represents the city’s seal. It’s the second largest copper sculpture in the states, after the Statue of Liberty. She appears bronze because the sculptor, Raymond Kaskey, insisted she is waxed to stop oxidation and bird poo gathering on his work. Apparently he will sue if Portlandia’s image is used for commercial purposes. “So you go to any gift shop in town and you won’t find any Portlandia shot glasses, playing cards, postcards, calendars, mouse pads, key fobs or pint glasses,” said Bob.
The post-modern 1980’s tower block supporting Portlandia gave our group a chance to share their opinions on modern architecture. Half the tour group voted in favour of this pink block, with its tiny windows and blue tile decoration. Half didn’t like it. I bet Prince Charles would enjoy Bob’s tour. “Travel and Leisure magazine produced a list of the 25 ugliest buildings on the planet and this made number twelve on the list,” Bob told us. “What was most insulting was that the other 24 were either former Soviet Union secret police buildings or Kim Jong Ill vanity pieces in North Korea!”
There are few skyscrapers in downtown Portland. It has charm with its red brick pavements, leafy streets, squares and parks. You’ll find the Brewery Quarter, as well as cool bars and cafés, some in converted warehouses, in the Pearl District. Take a short streetcar ride to drink or dine in Nob Hill’s tree-lined streets.
For the best way to get your bearings, take in the expansive view from 500 feet above the city. The Portland Aerial Tram is a commuter cable car, which takes four minutes to complete its 3,300-foot run. A return trip to the University campus on the hill costs under $5 and, if it’s clear, you’ll see Mount Hood, fifty miles away. Its volcanic peak looks just like the Paramount movie logo. You can also view the multiple bridges crossing the Willamette River, which flows through the city.
Across the water, there’s hip shopping and dining streets in neighbourhoods like Alberta, Hawthorn and Belmont, all just a short Max train ride away and well worth visiting, according to Emily Seabrook. “The misconception is that people go downtown, but you need to go across the river to find where everything happens,” advised Emily. “Visit the Hawthorne neighbourhood and check out the vintage shops and the food. Every district has a different feel.” At the very end of Hawthorne is Mount Tabor Park, which is an extinct volcano. I hope that park remains a peaceful place to visit!
If you need a bit of quiet, there are two places to head for. The walled Lan Su Chinese Garden is filled with curated collections of magnolia, rhododendron, bamboo and rare Chinese plants. It’s set around a two-story traditional wooden teahouse, fishponds and waterfalls. Venus Sun is the garden’s visitor experience manager. “I’m Chinese and this is the most authentic Chinese garden I’ve seen in North America. We are very proud of that,” she told me.
Venus explained that the garden was created to mark a special friendship. “Its history can be traced back to the early 1980s. The city of Portland and the Chinese city of Suzhou became sister cities. Suzhou is famous for this type of traditional garden, which we call a scholars’ garden. To honour the sisterhood, they set up a traditional garden in downtown Portland.”
Another relaxing place, this time indoors, is Powell’s, the world’s largest independent bookshop. “The Guardian last year picked Powell’s books as the world’s best bookstore.” That’s quite a recommendation and I could understand why Miriam Sontz was so proud of her store. She’s worked her way up from sales assistant to CEO.
Powell’s covers a whole city block and is a mass of shelves, filled with books from floor to ceiling. It’s overwhelming. Staff hand out store maps directing you around its various sections. They are colour coded according to subject. “We are unique. We are different. People think they know what a bookstore this size is like but until you walk in, you really don’t have any concept of what it’s like to be in 75,000 ft² with over a million books,” said Miriam. “At any one time there can be close to 1,000 people walking in and around the store. It has a pulse and a rhythm that is unlike anywhere else on this planet.”
Powell’s mixes new books with second-hand and out-of-print editions. They generally don’t have more than two copies of any one book so there is an incredible array of literature and non-fiction titles. “It’s our depth of inventory that makes us unique,” said Miriam. “If you walked into any store you might find one or two books by an author. If you walk into Powell’s you will have virtually every book by the author.”
People visit the city just for Powell’s. Miriam told me about a couple who had driven from a Southern state. “I met a librarian who told me that coming to the store was a kind of Mecca for her. She said she started crying when she saw the bookstore’s exterior because it was something she had been dreaming of for over a decade. We also had a UPS driver who only took routes that came through Portland so he could visit. We get a lot of stories like that. It’s a lot of fun working here because people are excited when they come in. If you love books and you walk into the store, you’re going to fall in love.”
If you want to come on holiday and eat your way through a city, drink your way through a city, and occasionally hike, this is the place to be. I took the Max to the Hollywood neighbourhood. I walked past the cool but kitsch, vintage Hollywood Cinema, then took a right, down a side street, to a bland single-storey shopfront.
The interior of the Velo Cult Bicycle Bar was a lovely surprise. On the right side was a bicycle shop, with wheels, spanners, pumps and repair paraphernalia. Cycles hung from the ceiling over long galley-style tables, like an interior beer garden. On the left side, was a wooden, homemade bar and behind that a cabinet capped with bikes, each with a colourful frame. Barman and bike repairer Jeremiah says the bar combines two Portland passions – pints and pedal power. “Bike servicing keeps the doors open and the bar is the icing on the cake,” he explained.
I could have spent more time in Velo Cult but there’s a bewildering choice of 76 (and growing) craft breweries in this city, which is approximately the size of Sheffield or Glasgow. Some of the bars are stylishly decorated, others are basically benches inside an industrial unit. Most of them provide a glimpse into the beer-making process and in many you can see the metal brewing vats and pipes in the background.
“Home brewing became legal in the United States in 1979. Oregon was one of the states that jumpstarted it,” explained beer expert Emily Bowler. “Some of the biggest craft breweries are based here and they started in the early 1980s. The other advantage is that everything is so close in Portland – you have that pub crawl culture.”
Emily studied brewing for her degree in the UK. Now she’s one of the team at Brewvana. They operate a range of brewery tasting tours every day of the week. “We have walking tours that focus on a neighbourhood and we will go into the history of the area. We have bus tours too,” she explained. I’d taken the ‘Tour de Funk’ trip that highlights the more unusual beers of the city. “It changes your perspective on beer,” said Emily. “We have another tour that features beer from barrels and we also visit a distillery on one trip. We are all about celebrating craft.”
We met at an industrial unit-style bar called The Growler Guys. A growler is a US keg and locals often fill these with their favourite brew for takeouts. We boarded a US-style school bus to be driven between breweries. But first, I had to sign a form warning me that excessive consumption of beer could make me feel unwell. Portland may feel European, but this is still the USA and they love their legal waivers!
As we drove around, Emily told me that she’s convinced that Portland has Brit appeal because of the beer. “After living in the UK for eight years and moving back to America I was really drawn to Portland because of the lifestyle. In America, for the most part, when you want to meet up with your friends, you go for a cup of coffee. In Britain you meet up for a pint. It’s the same in Portland. I love that beer is very much at the centre of what we do.”
It was time for our first beer stop and each member of the tour party was presented with a garland of pretzels to wear around their necks, in case they got the nibbles. Emily explained the three ways in which Portland’s craft beer is different to beer at home. “British visitors should know that beer is going to be boozier than they expect it to be. It can be double the alcoholic percentage. It’s also hoppier. It’s lighter in colour, it’s bitter in taste and stronger!”
My trip promised tastes of some quirkier brews. We headed to an award-winning brewery to sample the really trendy ‘Kettle Sour’ type of beer. It’s big here. They add ‘good bacteria’, the sort that you find in yoghurt, during the brewing process for a tart, often fruity and dry beer. We were also driven to sample the Oregon Mead and Cidery’s wares. I wasn’t looking forward to trying Oregon mead. I’d previously found the honey-fermented drink too sweet and sickly. Here they ferment with champagne yeast and the result is like a strong, sparkling dry white wine. It proved a hit and some of our tour party members bought bottles to take home.
The Brewvana staff really understand brewing and can answer complicated chemistry-like questions, if you’re really into beer. Or you can just sip the many samples you’ll be offered and decide your favourite. With so much choice you’ll find one. If you don’t drink, you should raise a toast with your root beer to Portland’s breweries and how they’ve enhanced the city’s food offer. “The laws in Oregon require us to have food served with any sort of alcohol, even if it’s just beer and wine. Breweries have had to push the boundaries on food,” Emily told me.
And food is another area where Portlanders excel. You’re spoilt for choice and you can go as offbeat as you like. I found a Doctor Who themed bar serving British fish and chips on North Killingsworth Street – complete with a Tardis and David Tennant cardboard cut outs!
And I found people queuing around the block just to sample a Voodoo doughnut. When Anthony Bourdain, one of America’s celebrity chefs, visited and tried the company’s maple bacon doughnut, he said it was “a work of culinary genius.” According to local legend, the company used to sell doughnuts laced with a cold remedy drug for people who wanted comfort food that really did make them feel better. When the US medical authorities heard about that they quickly put pay to it! It had just the right amount of quirky, weirdness. They specialise in double entendre with their doughnut names. Their slogan is ‘The magic is in the hole.’
I headed to the city centre to a car park hemmed in by the food carts. It’s these that have really put Portland on the culinary map. Brett Burmeister, owner and managing editor of Food Carts Portland, explained that the local food experience is so important here that the chains that dominate most US cities have been edged out of the city centre. “The big fast food vendors like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell started leaving the downtown core in the early 2000’s. Street food vendor’s became our fast food.” Brett added, “We were recently voted the number one street food destination in the world. We beat Bangkok, Singapore and Istanbul.”
Brett has been writing about the street food scene in the city for the past ten years and gave me a potted history of the vendors and what make them unique. He promises that anybody going on his tour will be full at the end of it! The food carts are similar to those burger vans you see outside DIY stores. The food choices ranged from Vietnamese to vegan, Moroccan to Mexican. It takes a skilled chef to serve up often large menus in such small kitchens.
The collective term for the carts is a pod. Somebody felt that they cluster together like whales so they borrowed the term. “We have the biggest pod in the city at the junction of 10th Street and Alder,” said Brett. “There are sixty food carts covering one city block. You can basically eat your way around the globe without leaving the city.”
The pods don’t move but, technically, they should be mobile. Some of the neighbourhood food pods have tables and chairs, whereas you need to find your own place to eat when you buy from the downtown food carts. There was even a cart selling beer.
It was time to taste one of the Mexican tacos and with so much competition, each business has had to find its own special niche, as Brett explained. “When El Taco Yucataco opened, he introduced us to Yucatán cuisine. His signature dish is a Yucatán-style taco. The tortilla is put in oil and it puffs up a little bit. They cut it open and slide in black beans, reseal it and put it back in the oil to crisp it, but it is still a taco shell. Then shredded chicken, marinated red onions, tomato and avocado are added. It is very flavourful because the shell is infused with those black beans.” In many cases unusual food cart menus are introduced by new residents. “Most of the ethnic cuisine is from people who have moved to the city,” said Brett. “Portland is fast growing and diverse.”
Next it was time for some delicious smoked corn chowder, followed by an unusual Chinese spring-roll type snack. You can even find British food on offer, should you want it when on holiday. In downtown, there is a Scottish fish and chip shop food cart operated by a husband-and-wife duo. They even offer British-style curries.
The food carts usually open from around 11am, depending on whether they’re in the downtown area or outlying suburbs. A few open earlier, for breakfast sandwiches or burritos. Because the trucks are small, there’s limited space for stock – popular ones will close when they run out of food. Some of the neighbourhood pods open later into the evening, usually to around 8pm. Check out Food Carts Portland for details.
Portland is a year-round city and despite Americans joking about their excessive rainy weather, Emily told me it’s not as gloomy as Britain can be in the summer. “Even when it’s grey and rainy it still feels lighter than Britain – maybe because we are a little further south. Brits will be fine here – just bring your rain jacket!”
I asked Emily to sum up the city in a few words. “Chilled-out fun,” she retorted. “It’s a really great place. We are booming right now and we’d really like you all to come and visit us,” she added.
BA and Virgin fly the 11-hour route direct to Portland from London. It takes two hours longer, but it’s cheaper, if you use Icelandair, stopping at Reykjavik. Or do what I did – save hundreds by grabbing a cheap Norwegian Airlines flight from Gatwick to Oakland, near San Francisco, then take a low cost airline for the one-hour flight north to Portland.
You’ll find lots of useful information and suggested itineraries on TravelPortland.com.