All hail Portland! The Pacific Northwest trail-blazer is a vibrant hub that celebrates the four cool “Cs” of coffee, cycling, craft breweries and (food) carts. What’s more, new direct flights four times a week in summer with Delta from Heathrow start on 27 May, making what was a torturous journey – with connections in either Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco or Vancouver – a more bearable 11-hour trip.
This is a contradictory, rapidly evolving and messy place, which for many is teetering on the brink … of boom or bust. See, Portland is about much more than those tourist must-have buzzwords or hipster hit lists.
The city of roses is also a city of protest – against police brutality, against Trump. Its many bridges across the Willamette river give it an industrial look, yet it is surrounded by lush Oregon landscapes, with Mount Hood, the Columbia river gorge and Cascade mountains a short drive away.
It has been lampooned in the TV comedy Portlandia, especially for its cyclists, yet cars still dominate – even if the many new apartment blocks don’t offer parking. But then another irony is that public transport via bus, streetcar and the MAX light rail line is an efficient and affordable way to get around. What I really love Portland for, though, is its “otherness” – its celebration of the outsider. In his book Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon, Fight Club novelist Chuck Palahniuk asks local writer Katherine Dunn about the city. “We just accumulate more and more strange people,” she said. “All we are is the fugitives and refugees.”
Against this backdrop, Portland has one of the world’s best bookshops, Powell’s City of Books, hosts a major tango festival and, for all its craft breweries, the wine scene is just as vibrant. It also retains the problem of homelessness that distressed travel writer Jan Morris during her visit in the 90s, and which she documented in A Writer’s World. I left with the feeling that maybe Portland could do with just switching off for a few minutes to regroup. But that’s never going to happen because, amid all the tumult, there’s too much stuff going on.
WHAT TO DO AND SEE
Promise of a rose garden – and more
A hike in Washington Park, with its views to Mount Hood, is a short MAX light rail ride from the centre. Kids will enjoy Oregon Zoo and Children’s Museum, but the scene-stealers are the Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden. The former has just had a $33.5m expansion overseen by Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium architect Kengo Kuma and offers the beauty of bonsai, a moon bridge and serene gardens and pavilions. The Rose Garden – celebrating its 100th anniversary – is another calm spot, with vivid blooms and city views.
• Adult $14.95, child 6-17 $10.95. 611 SW Kingston Avenue, japanesegarden.org
Jet boat down the Willamette river
With a skyline marked by offices and spiralling concrete roads, Portland is not a stereotypically picturesque place. But this river-divided city does do a fine line in bridges. Seeing them from a jet boat provides fresh air, the occasional fast turn and splash, and an architecture lesson on, among others, the Burnside, Hawthorne and Steel bridges. The start/end point outside the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) offers an opportunity for further fun learning – or to dry off!
• Tours from $31 adult, $21 4-11s, +1 503 231 1532, willamettejet.com
Explore the neighbourhoods
Downtown Portland isn’t overrun with chain stores, and there’s an independent spirit on its streets and in the group (pods) of food carts, but my love of the city grew through exploring its neighbourhoods. Go north-east to the Alberta district for arts and crafts, the wonderful community-owned Alberta Co-op Grocery, bars (Radio Room, Alberta Street Pub) and a theatre. Venture south-east to Hawthorne for the ragged charm of the Bagdad Theater, an atmospheric place to catch a (cheap) movie, or visit one of the outposts of Tender Loving Empire for local art and souvenirs at a store that runs its own record label. The Mount Tabor district has its own extinct volcano, and the superb Tabor Bread bakery. But don’t stop with this trio: Mississippi Avenue has craft breweries and the musician-owned Mississippi Studios … and then continue exploring in Division, Belmont and Nob Hill.
For rainy days – and Portland has its fair share – as well as creative inspiration, Portland Art Museum is a must. Founded in 1892, it’s in two buildings joined by an underground walkway and has an array of Native American, north-western, modern and contemporary art, plus fantastic photography. For smaller-scale shows visit Old Town/Chinatown, where the Blue Sky gallery majors on photography; just feet away are the equally impressive Charles A Hartman and Froelick galleries.
• Adult $19.99, 17 and under, free. 1219 SW Park Avenue, portlandartmuseum.org
‘Soccerball’ – with a cutting edge
With no major baseball or NFL franchises in town, the sporting spotlight falls on basketball side the Trail Blazers and the 2015 MLS Cup-winning Portland Timbers football (soccer) team. The Timbers’ 21,000-capacity Providence Park is a short stroll, bus/tram or bike ride from Downtown and a fun venue to watch the kick-and-rush of US football. A highlight is watching mascot and lumberjack Timber Joey chainsaw a slice off a tree trunk when the home side scores. Tickets sell fast – and the 4,000-seat expansion isn’t due till 2019 – so book.
• Tickets from $18, Providence Park, +1 503 553 5400, timbers.com
WHERE TO EAT
Breakfast and brunch
In the Alberta district, the Tin Shed Garden Cafe serves brunch until 3pm and is a rambunctious, fun, dog-friendly spot that bustles on weekends. Try its big hit burrito ($12) or one of the doggy-themed scrambles: the Fetch (bacon and egg) or the Stay (with mushrooms, seasonal greens and roasted sweet potato (both $9.50). The nearby Cup & Saucer Cafe is a good backup option, the Tommy-go-Hammy omelette ($10.50) is recommended. In Downtown, Kenny and Zuke’s is a deli-diner to fall in love with – great french toast ($10.50) and bagels (from $2.50). At Tasty n Alder and award-winning sister restaurant Tasty n Sons, the trendy set either arrives early or is prepared to wait in line for the frittata with Italian cheeses and salsa verde ($10) and/or the lemon ricotta pancake with blueberry syrup ($7). If patience deserts you, try Cheryl’s on 12th, where breakfast is served till 4pm – the croque monsieur ($12) really delivers.
Lunch and dinner
In an airy, industrial-chic space in the Belmont district, Afuri Ramen is the Tokyo-based chain’s first branch outside Japan. Apparently, the owners picked Portland for the softness of its water – vital for making the broth integral to a good bowl of ramen. The yuzu shio ramen ($15) makes a fine light lunch, though dumplings, sushi and salads are also excellent. Pok Pok PDX on Division Street is chef Andy Ricker’s take on Thai street food, and has spawned branches across the city. Portland’s ever-changing food cart scene is simply too big to do justice to here, but a good way to learn about the carts’ history is on a tour with Brett Burmeister (foodcartsportland.com).
Noble Rot on East Burnside keeps it seasonal by growing many of its ingredients on its rooftop garden, while the views across the river aren’t too shabby either. Try the sweet potato falafel, quinoa, roast vegetables, harissa and sumac yogurt ($23). In Hawthorne, Café Castagna is a more affordable alternative to the adjacent, Michelin-starred Castanga restaurant – its baked penne with gruyère, caramelised leek and onion ($15) has a definite wow factor. And server, bar staff and taxi driver recommendations (all suggested several times) include: Coquine (modern American), Ox (steaks), and Kachka (Russian).
More than a few people suggested that Blue Star Donuts (around $3, five locations) had stolen the halo of heavenly sugar provider from Voodoo Doughnut. My chocolate and almond ganache certainly powered me through the afternoon! If ice-cream is your scoop, then Salt & Straw (four locations) will tickle the tastebuds. The one-scoop sea salt with caramel ribbons plus hot fudge ($5.10) I had made for a super Sunday sundae.
WHERE TO DRINK
Venture to this Eastside bar to try a cavalcade of local craft brews. It claims to offer 99 Oregon beers on tap and, though I can’t personally vouch for all, the Ancestry Golden was light, the Yachats was smooth, the Block 15 was malty and the Oakshire Overcast Espresso Stout was a creamy, energising shot of success. The staff seem to know the intricacies of each brew. Happy hour is 3pm-6pm, daily, and the food list includes amazing sausages.
• Tasters from $2, 16oz from $5. 710 SE 6th Avenue, loyallegionpdx.com
Portland City Grill
The pink granite facade of the US Bancorp Tower has earned it the nickname Big Pink, and the skyscraper is one of Downtown’s most distinctive landmarks. However, it’s the views of the Cascade mountains from Portland City Grill on the 30th floor that really grab the attention. There’s an extensive food menu, but come for the cocktails (try the Portland city streetcar, $12, or the Huckleberry, $10) plus prolonged happy hours (Mon-Sat from 4pm-7pm and from 9pm to closing, Sunday noon to 11pm, drinks from $4.75).
• 111 SW 5th Avenue, portlandcitygrill.com
More than a few locals I spoke to referred to John Harris, who started Ecliptic in 2013, as a “legend”. The Oregon brewer certainly has a rich craft beer legacy, having worked for McMenamins, Deschutes and Full Sail. Ecliptic is near the Fremont Bridge in the Mississippi district and the cavernous bar-restaurant is home to its brewery (tours available Mon-Tue, Thur-Fri). My six-flight tasting selection ($11) featured pilsners, IPAs, sours and porters.
• 825 N Cook Street, eclipticbrewing.com
Established in 1879, this is Portland’s oldest restaurant and its historic dining room is on the US National Register of Historic Places. It has a classy members’ club feel with wood panelling, marble floor and seats at the bar, traditional tables and booths. The seafood is sumptuous, the roasted turkey recommended but what’s essential is the flaming Spanish coffee ($11) made with Bacardi, triple sec and Kahlua and topped with whipped cream. It’s prepared and served tableside with a huge dose of panache (and potency).
• 411 SW Third Avenue, hubers.com
A five-minute walk from Loyal Legion, Commons is a brewpub with a focus on European-style ales. It has 13 taps: 12 for beer and one for cider. The menu specialises in cheese and meat, with an array of boards (from $10) and sandwiches (from $7).
• 630 SE Belmont Street, commonsbrewery.com
Multnomah Whiskey Library
Portland isn’t only about beer. The spirits connoisseur should sniff out this “library” room of leather sofas and armchairs, wood panelling and moody lighting, enhanced by a wall of whiskey bottles awaiting investigation.
• 1124 SW Alder Street, mwlpdx.com
WHERE TO STAY
The Crystal Hotel
There’s a swimming pool in the basement open till 1am and a cellar bar (Al’s Den, named for infamous gambler Al Winter) in this hotel on the edge of the Pearl district – but the high notes are hit by its musical heritage. Each of the 51 rooms – en suite or shared bath – is named after a song performed at the Crystal Ballroom venue, a minute’s walk away. Choose from Arcade Fire’s Wake Up, Sleater-Kinney’s Let’s Call it Love or even the Black Keys’ Strange Times. For more music-related stays, try the Jupiter Hotel at 800 East Burnside Street, with its adjacent venue the Doug Fir Lounge.
• Doubles from $145 room only, mcmenamins.com/crystal-hotel
Caravan – the Tiny House Hotel
Tiny Houses are a big deal in the Pacific Northwest and nowhere more so than at this cool, characterful and affordable six-property “hotel” in the Alberta district. Each Tiny House – like a real house but on wheels and blessed with space-saving innovations so they can include showers, toilets and stove tops – has been created by a different designer. Approaches range from the vintage-industrial of Skyline and the floating bed in The Amazing Mysterium, to the stained-glass and wood stylings of the wheelchair-accessible Pacifica. The houses are grouped around a fire-pit to, as co-owner Deb Delman says, “provide guests with the communal vibe of a hostel but their own space to retreat to”.
• From $155 a night for two plus $25 per extra guest (some accommodate four or six guests), tinyhousehotel.com
The Society Hotel
Originally opened in 1881 as a sailor’s mission – and after stints as a hospital and boarding house – the Society was reborn as a boutique hotel and hostel in 2015. The facade is still retro and dramatic, the interiors suitably “exposed brick”, there’s a cafe to hang out in and a roof terrace from which to gaze on the Old Town/Chinatown district. Rates are good for a location close to Downtown, though the neighbourhood remains synonymous with the city’s homeless and hostels of a less-trendy nature.
• Doubles with shared bath from $99 room-only, bunks from $45. 203 NW 3rd Avenue, +1 503 445 0444, thesocietyhotel.com
Its colourful lobby and light-filled Bottle + Kitchen restaurant give Hotel Rose a vibrant, fun atmosphere. Allied to that is a fantastic location adjacent to Downtown but also right next to Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Breakfast options include the light (granola, fruit, yoghurt, $8) and the sizable (eggs Benedict, $14). Rooms are spacious, with some offering river views, and the Eat & Sleep package (from $155) provides $20pp to spend on food and drink at the hotel.
• Doubles from $149 room only, hotelroseportland.com