Friday, Mar. 26, 2010


Portlanders are perhaps the most self-satisfied city tribe in the whole United States. To pass for one of them (and who wouldn't want to?), here's a tip: do not carry an umbrella. Yeah, it tends to rain a bit here, but it's the drizzly sort of precipitation that's best weathered under a hat or a hoodie. Plus, a rainy morning often turns into a gorgeous afternoon, and you don't want to be the dork carrying around an umbrella in the sun. Another tip: pin stripes are not only unnecessary, but actively discouraged. So unless you want to play dress up Portland-style — with a skinny tie or a vintage dress — leave your dry clean–only garb at home.

1. Forest Park

Portland has a reputation for being a republic of tree huggers, and understandably so. As soon as you walk out the door, the trees are right there, arms stretched out, waiting to pull you in. How can you resist? One of the best and most convenient places to enjoy them is the aptly named Forest Park, a bosky Eden where natives like to take their morning run, bike, dog walk or daily constitutional.

Forest Park flanks the hills on the west side of the city, just 10 minutes by car from downtown, and overlooks Portland's main waterway, the Willamette River (another tip for fitting in with the locals: it's pronounced will-AM-it and rhymes with "dammit"). This natural getaway, which is the largest wooded urban park in the United States, is filled with more than 70 miles of walking and hiking trails, which can make you feel like you're alone in a jungle paradise rather than mere blocks away from a freshly steamed latte.

There are many entry points to the park; here's a handy Google map. The Forest Park Conservancy website offers maps and tips, including directions to the park by public transportation.

Don't be frightened when total strangers offer a hearty hello to you as you pass them on the trail — Portlanders are friendly like that. This resident has come to love the phenomenon she has dubbed "The Forest Park 'Hi!'"

2. Ride Over the Bridges

When a waterway slices through a city as the Willamette River does Portland, there's bound to be a bunch of bridges. And this being Portland, they're going to be beautiful, functional and one-of-a-kind. Eight bridges span the river downtown, creating the sense that the whole city is holding hands (Kumbaya, anyone?). Among them is the Steel Bridge, a telescoping double-decker vertical lift bridge that is the only one of its type in the world, and the nifty Hawthorne Bridge, the oldest operating lift bridge in the U.S. Portlanders love their bridges — except when they're stuck in their cars waiting helplessly as they rise to let a boat through.

You could take a walking tour of Portland's bridges, but a better way to experience them is by bicycle, just as the natives do. More than 6% of Portland residents commute by bike daily, according to a 2009 Census Bureau survey, and Bicycling Magazine routinely lists the city as a top bike town. Companies such as Pedal Bike Tours and Portland Bicycle Tours will be happy to show you around, but you can just as easily rent bikes from either place and tool around on your own.

3. Microbrews and Spirits

In certain hoppy circles, Portland is known as Beervana, due to its high number of top-quality microbreweries: 31 breweries operate here, according to the Oregon Brewers Guild — that's more than any other city in the world. The beer scene is undeniably awesome, and you can get a good sense of it by touring local pubs such as BridgePort Brew Pub, MacTarnahan's Tap Room or one of the many McMenamins pubs around town.

But if you are after The Next Big Thing, skip the suds and head for the hard stuff on Distillery Row in Southeast Portland, where the city's passion for entrepreneurship, culinary excellence and getting sloshed come together with great results. Many of the microdistilleries here offer tours and tastings on Saturday, and some have weekday hours by appointment. Leading the charge is House Spirits whose credo is: "Old World Philosophy for the New World Palate." Whether pumping out its pre-Prohibition style Aviation Gin or its small-batch Apothecary Line of one-of-a-kind liquors, House Spirits is top-shelf central. Also of note is New Deal Distillery, whose line of vodkas has become de rigueur for aficionados in Portland and beyond.

4. Powell's Books

It's the largest independent chain of bookstores in the world, and when you visit the aptly named flagship shop, Powell's City of Books, you'll need a map to find your way around (the store provides one). For a long time, Powell's enormity was a measure of how much Portlanders loved books. But now, with even big-box bookstores flailing, Powell's continued success points to Portland's wily, geeky business acumen: the store does a brisk online business, holds money-making book events and still utterly beguiles everyone else in the world who loves books. Cruise the aisles, grab some coffee and enjoy the lost art of thumbing through bound paper stamped with words.

5. International Rose Test Garden

One of Portland's nicknames is the City of Roses, and this town has long been an incubator for the scented beauties. Nearly a century ago, a farsighted citizen convinced the local government to set up a rose test garden during World War I to preserve the species of European roses that might be decimated by the bombings. Thus, in 1917, the International Rose Test Garden was born, and lives on as the oldest official, continuously operated public rose test garden in the United States. What does that mean for you? If you visit from April through October you can walk among 7,000 luscious rose bushes; June is when they're most bountiful. The garden is free, open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and might be a good place to ask someone to marry you. Find walking, driving and public transport directions here.

6. Food Cart Tour

Food carts first started cropping up around town to serve hungry workers looking for cheap eats to go, but this being Portland, they've now become a citywide vehicle for creative kitcheneers to dispense their locavore-friendly mayo. The city's carts are clustered in pods around town, and if you've got an extendo belly and lots of one-dollar bills you can become a master cart jumper. Here are a few picks from some of the major locations.

From the posse at SW 10th Ave. and Alder St., Nong's Khao Man Gai cart is not to be missed: utilizing the make-one-thing-but-make-it-great approach, Nong, a Bangkok native, offers khao man gai, an amazing Thai chicken dish (poached chicken with rice cooked in chicken stock and fat, with a side of addictive spicy dipping sauce) that's bundled up in butcher paper like a gift for your stomach.

It's hard to make one pick from the large cart crowd at SW 5th Ave. and Oak St., but the Czech specialists who run Tabor are the go-to guys for goulashes, spaetzles and a gut bomb they call the Schnitzelwich.

The cartopia at SE 12th Ave. and Hawthorne Blvd. hosts a late-night scene that sometimes feels like a well-catered rave. Poutine providers Potato Champion bring an indie-rock insouciance to frying potatoes: it may not look like much, but the utmost care and attention have been given to your cone of fries.

7. Lan Su Chinese Garden

The Lan Su Chinese Garden, smack dab in the middle of downtown, has a sweet story behind it. Portland's official sister city in China is a place called Suzhou, not far from Shanghai, whence some 65 workmen came to Portland in 1999 to build a 40,000-sq.-ft. Suzhou-style garden. They brought huge pieces of wood and hulking rocks from the homeland to make sure it turned out just so. Impressive! The garden is a tranquil break from the day-to-day grind, and there's a teahouse where you can sip some hot stuff and soak in the vibe. Plus, you can get some great gardening ideas for that scraggly backyard of yours.

8. Voodoo Donuts

If there was ever a business that captured the kooky essence of Portland, it's Voodoo. From the belly of two locations, sweet-fingered magicians concoct what might best be described as avant-garde doughnuts: when Voodoo first opened, it offered doughnuts glazed with NyQuil and dusted with Pepto-Bismol — until the health department put the kibosh on them. Lest that sound unappetizing, please know that Voodoo's other offerings are actually quite delicious. The namesake Voodoo Doughnut is shaped like a voodoo doll and oozes blood red jelly, while the official city doughnut, the googly-eyed Portland Crème, kicks Boston's keister. Also, if you want to get married (legally or not), Voodoo is more than happy to provide that service.

9. Strip Clubs

For a while now, Portland has claimed the title of most strips clubs per capita in the country. It's hard to discern whether this is an old sexy wives tale or statistical fact, but one thing is certain: this town has an abundance of eccentric and very naked establishments. The State Supreme Court has long protected the right of strip joints to host totally nude entertainment, so, of course, leave it to Portlanders to create a club for every taste: for instance, Casa Diablo serves only vegan food and allows its strippers to shed only non-animal-based clothing. Meanwhile, Acropolis Steakhouse serves up discounted, locally procured T-bones with your T. & A. (Check out the online mag Portland BarFly for listings.)

10. Movie Brewpubs

Going to the movies may not seem the most productive use of your vacation time, but you haven't been to Portland's famed movie brewpubs. If you've ever sat in a theater back home and thought, "Wouldn't this be so much better if there were comfy couches, an awesome meal and an array of house-brewed beer on tap?" then your dreams have come true, friend. Better yet, it'll cost you only $3 to see a fresh-off-first-run movie.

The originator and best purveyor of this concept is local zen hospitality guru McMenamins, a company run by two brothers who specialize in preserving local landmarks and turning them into artful entertainment centers. Some of their most interesting theaters are the Kennedy School, the Mission and the Bagdad.