There are three kinds of responses you get when you tell someone your headed to Portland. The confused one: ‘Portland, in Maine?’; the dismissive one: ‘Why Portland? Never heard of anyone who goes there’; and finally the favourable one: ‘Oh, Portland – great city, you’ll love it’. I had a good enough hunch about the place to begin with, and, thanks in no small measure to the NY Times, there were New Yorkers a plenty who gave me a thumbs up for my decision to head ‘all the way west’.
Admittedly, and for the uninitiated, Portland (in the state of Oregon!) is best known for being home to two of the most popular brands in the world – Nike and Intel! The Intel part of my trip was somewhat taken care of by hanging out with a friend who works with them, while the Nike part involved an actual visit to their campus in Beaverton – first stop on day 1!
Needless to say, the campus was everything I could have imagined and more – the kind that makes you instantly want to be employed by them! A sprawling campus – 200 beautifully landscaped acres of it no less – including a man made lake, a protected wetland and a running trail that encircles it all. 17 well designed buildings – each named after a Nike athlete – dot the lush campus and include 2 state of the art (hate that term!) recreational centres, one of which – aptly, the Lance Armstrong centre – I swam in!
Now for some etymology.. In the mid 19th century, land was cleared to accommodate the city’s rapid growth, leaving behind several tree stumps which were not cleared till much later. Hence the name Stumptown! Portland has more than one nickname though – with a climate that’s ideal for rose growing, the city boasts several rose gardens, but you don’t have to go to far to see why its known as ‘The City of Roses’..
Roses aside, Portland is the greenest city in the US today – no mean feat that! Greenest aside, it is also a foodie delight – whether you come from the organic / vegan school of thought or ‘I eat anything that moves’ school of thought! The city caters to all tastes and all budgets, with a strong emphasis on keeping it ‘local’. To that extent, it is green for more than one reason!
Things are cheaper to begin with in Portland (plus there’s no tax on anything!) so the food never really gets to expensive. If the reasonably priced and totally amazing Saint Honore Boulangerie (2335 NW Thurman St, pictured above) is not to your liking or budget, then the city offers a few hundred food carts – a lot of them clustered together as ‘pods’ – offering everything from Burritos to Korean BBQ!
Also on Thurman St – in the very charming Nob Hill neighbourhood – is a recently opened branch of the legendary Portland institution, Kenny & Zuke’s – a Jewish Deli rumoured to have the best Pastrami west of NYC! I say ‘rumoured’ cause I only got around to trying their Corned Beef!
Right next door to their original location (1038 SW Stark St) is an outlet of Stumptown Coffee – a must make pit stop for any coffee lover – recently rated by NY Mag as the best coffee roaster in the United States! Take that Seattle!!!
The ‘thing’ to do, I was told, after your done gorging yourself silly at K&Z’s, is to pick up your mug of ‘Stumptown to go’ and chill in the lobby of the adjoining Ace Hotel – the cosy, homely, ‘makes you feel wanted’ kind of lobby, might I add!
Portland has two more delightful credits to its name – the highest number of breweries and strip clubs per capita in the United States! 😉 With no less than 28 micro breweries, it has more breweries than any other city in the US. Unfortunately, a similar figure is not available for strip clubs, yet!
Hopworks Urban Brewery (2944 SE Powell Blvd) is the city’s first eco-brewpub offering an impressive range of organic beers. If your not driving there yourself, be sure to try their sampler!
As with Roses, you don’t have to put in much of an effort to find strip clubs in Portland – right next door to Hopworks was Safari, a strip club, which seemed to have its priorities a little mixed up 😉
If the incessant coffee and beer drinking has managed to dehydrate you significantly, there is plenty of water available at hand, and for that you have Simon Benson to thank!
Portland abounds in all kinds of fountains – the drinking water variety known as ‘Benson Bubblers’ – a legacy left behind by Simon himself, a turn of the century lumber baron who wanted to discourage his workers from drinking alcohol in the middle of the day! Go figure..
For the literary inclined, Powell’s City of Books is not to be missed! Even if your not inclined that way – like myself – it’s worth heading there just for the experience of being in the largest independent bookstore in the world, where the information desk provides free maps to navigate through their store!
The novelty of this store is that it sells new and used books side by side! I didn’t buy either! Instead I browsed their Asterix & Tintin collection, spent the rest of my time in their cafe carefully studying the store map, and eventually bought a tee shirt on my way out!!
There is plenty to do in Stumptown, no doubt, but it is also amazingly effortless to get around in. The downtown area is as compact as it gets and one can walk the diagonal across Portland’s core in about 30 minutes, even if not in a hurry!
If walking is not your cup of tea (or coffee as the case may be!), the city has an extremely efficient public transit system comprising buses and light rail. Commonly credited with starting the light rail renaissance in North America, the city operates a network of high speed light rail trains (MAX) connecting its suburbs to downtown, and a streetcar system exclusively for its downtown area, with two new lines under construction!
To discourage motorists from driving into downtown, the city has earmarked a geographic area known as ‘fareless square’ where rides on all public transit vehicles are free! If that’s not enough, there’s the ‘transit mall’, made up of two key north – south arteries, dedicated to buses and light rail, with restricted access to automobiles!
And finally, there are free rides every Sunday on Vintage Trolleys, with priceless views of the Willamette River to boot!
The Willamette River is a tributary of the Columbia River (the largest River in the Pacific NW and one which empties in to the Pacific Ocean) and splits the city almost evenly. On its course through the city, it is spanned by no less than 11 bridges of varying size, type and function – a lot of bascules (draw bridge), some truss’s, a steel arch and a suspension bridge, to sight a few examples. In short, the city is also bridge lover’s paradise! Every year, an annual event, ‘Bridge Pedal‘, is held to celebrate the crossings over the Willamette, and the bridges are thrown open to bikes and pedestrians alike!
Next year, the Hawthorne Bridge (a truss) completes a century. It is the oldest vertical lift bridge still in operation in the United States and I was fortunate enough to be held up for a ‘lift’ while crossing it!
The Hawthorne Bridge is also one of the most heavily ‘biked’ bridges in the country with 5000 bike crossings on a typical week day.
Biking – yet another reason to love the city! Portland is highly regarded as one of the most bike friendly cities in the world, and while its numbers might pale in comparison to some of the more evolved European ones, at a very respectable 10%, the city has 10 times the national average of commuters biking to work! It is, without the least bit of doubt, the mecca of biking in North America!
All public transit vehicles – be it trains or buses – accommodate bikes; bike parking can be found at every major intersection; bike lanes are omnipresent and special signage across the city provide bikers with direction, mileage and time estimates!
A good way to orient yourself with the city’s biking culture – and take in some sights – is to do the downtown loop via the Willamette River promenade.
The not so extreme weather ensures that Portland’s outdoors are to be enjoyed all year round with limitless options to boot! Parks abound across the city, the river is a beehive of activity, the Pacific Ocean is only an hour’s drive away, and then, there are the mountains!! Mount Saint Helens (a dormant volcano) and Mount Hood – both easily viewable from pretty much anywhere in the city, and of course from high up in the air 😉
Of the 12 big cities I have seen in the US, Portland is only the third one outside of NYC that i could see myself living in! They say that Seattle is the Vancouver of the US and that Portland is the Seattle of Oregon – if that makes any sense at all??!! That said, if Portland is anything to go by, I have extremely high expectations from the other two 🙂
A full set of pictures can be seen here.