City Slicker: Portland
Oregon celebrates 150 years as a US state this year. Campbell Reid discovers just what makes its first city one of the best places to visit in America
Sunday 10 May 2009
Tucked away in the north-west corner of the United States, Oregon – which turned 150 this year – is perceived to be a wilderness destination. Certainly, huge tracts of virgin forest and the Cascade Range of mountains and volcanoes confirm this impression.
Even the state's largest city, Portland, is situated in a rural location, beside two rivers – the Willamette River, which winds through the centre, and the Columbia River to the north.
Yet Portland is thoroughly modern and urbane in its outlook, having quietly become one of the US's most desirable places to visit and live. It's typical of the praise heaped upon Portland that it has been voted the Greenest City in America by Popular Science magazine. And it's easy to see why it can win such accolades. Far-sighted building restrictions imposed in the Seventies controlled speculative development, resulting in Portland making the best of what it has. Regenerated areas such as the Pearl District have grown out of old warehouses which now house bars, restaurants and homes, opening up the riverside to the people. There's also been huge investment in public transport and cycling.
But it's not just the environmental approach that makes Portland such an interesting destination. Locals are fond of describing their home town and America's north-west as the last bolthole for radicals and free-thinkers. This might be a little romantic, but it's clear that the best things in the city have been built from the bottom up, with a vibrant arts and music scene to the fore. Interestingly, Travel Portland, the local tourist board, has tapped into this by backing such initiatives as indiemusicportland.com which pulls together venues, bands and hotel deals based around gigs in the city.
Typical of this grass-roots approach is the championing of local food and drink. The farmers' markets are a regular haunt of the best chefs in town. The top restaurants all feature local meats, cheeses and berries. Combined with the delicious pinot noir, which is produced just 30 miles south of the city, it's easy to see why The Food Network recently described Portland as America's Best Eating Destination.
However, not all locals are happy. There is a feeling that planning restrictions have pushed up house prices, forcing the creative heart out of the downtown area. The flipside is that there is a burgeoning bar and arts scene in the neighbourhoods that spread out from the centre. Head to areas such as Alberta, in the north-east of the city, where on the last Thursday of each month there is a street-based arts festival. In keeping with Portland's green credentials, it's easy to get there by public transport.
Don't miss ...
The Chinese Classical Garden (portlandchinesegarden.org).
An authentic celebration of the Chinese contribution to the city.
Nob Hill (nobhillbiz.com).
These wooden shutter-clad houses span a whole block and are home to individual boutiques and small restaurants.
The Oregon Historical Society (ohs.org).
An approachable museum which houses a great collection of local artefacts.
A walk or cycle by the river.
The city has opened up the Willamette River with walkways and cycle paths. Look out for the fascinating Steels Bridge, built in 1912, with its tram car and lift.
The local beer.
The micro-brewing scene in the city is huge, so avoid the chain bars and you're likely to find an IPA that's been brewed out the back (oregonbeer.org).
Take the Burnside Bridge and cross from downtown over to the city's funky eastside. The area combines an edgy post-industrial architecture with a fast-growing bar and arts scene. The catalyst for change in this area is the Doug Fir lounge and music venue. This huge log-cabin-style structure looks as if it has been dropped in from the Oregon forests. But it's a magnet for local creativity. Lots of little galleries and boutiques are located in the roads that spin off the main East Burnside drag – most notable is the Launch Pad Gallery (launchpadgallery.org) at 253 SE Oaks. Other bars worth checking out are Rontoms – a spacious lounge-style bar – on East Burnside.
Voted Portland's restaurant of the year in 2008, Sel Gris is run by multi-award-winning chef Daniel Mondok. The name is derived from the French for grey salt reflecting the chef's emphasis on fusing European-style cooking with the north-west's best local ingredients. The restaurant has an open kitchen where a tight team delivers star dishes such as saddle of venison as well as cleverly designed structural desserts. This place is deservedly popular, and with early local dining times and a non-downtown location, it's best to book ahead.
Just opened last summer, this new and much-needed downtown hotel has filled a gap for mid-priced accommodation in the city. However, there is nothing average about the fit. Restyled from a Fifties hotel, it splendidly updates the mid-20th-century modern architecture with contemporary styling. Inside, many of the soft furnishings and furniture have been sourced from Italy to bring the look bang up to date. Considerable investment has been made in local art which adorns the communal areas and suites. All the facilities you'd expect from a modern hotel are here such as free Wi-Fi, and fun activities including wine tasting sessions that preview unsung local wines from Oregon.
It's not often you walk into a bar in a foreign country and feel totally at home. The vibe in Valentine's is so down to earth that you'll quickly be in conversation with a stranger. Tucked up a little alley in the downtown area and open only in the evenings, the bar attracts a lively crowd of musicians, stylists and other local hipsters. The bar is a key player in the local underground music and art scenes with activities running through the week. If you pop in expect to find a mixture of DJs, films and left-field bands. The unconventional website gives a great flavour.
Details: valentineslifeblood .blogspot.com.
Insider's secret: Kristin Rogers-Brown
Kristin Rogers-Brown is the art director at the Oliver Wyman Leadership Development.
"North Portland's varied and rapidly growing restaurant and shopping scene continues to surprise and delight even locals. For fans of the classic cocktail, Secret Society Lounge is a particular find. The dark wood bar and cosy nooks give the feel of a prohibition-era speakeasy. The Sazerac they serve is an American classic, but don't miss the martini made with Oregon-distilled Aviation Gin. After a few, slink downstairs to the Wonder Ballroom to catch some live music."
Details: Secret Society Lounge, 116 NE Russell St.
How to get there
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Seattle from £420 per person. Alaska Airlines (00800 2527 5200; alaskaair.com) flies from Seattle to Portland from $161 (£108) return, or Amtrak (00 1 800 872 7245; amtrak.com) offers return rail fares from $56 (£38).
Travel Portland (travelportland.com).
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