Cultural Portland

Text and photographs Mandy J Watson

Spring in Portland, in the US state of Oregon, is a sensory experience of note. Months of grey, rainy weather make way for sudden bursts of colour and heady scents as flowering plants in unfenced garden after unfenced garden burst into bloom to the delight of passersby, of which there are many as Portland is a walking and biking city (even in the rain), due to the inhabitants’ outdoor-centric lifestyles and environmentally conscious leanings. ‘Keep Portland Weird’, one of the city’s unofficial mottos that can be seen on bumper stickers and T-shirts, is a philosophy that infuses individual expression and, as you spend time there, you begin to feel the culture of respect. Add to that a high standard of living, minimal crime and an emphasis on the outdoors, and you can fully appreciate the effort put into gardens and homes that are to be seen and enjoyed for what they contribute to the whole. And what an amazing whole it is. Portland is divided into five ‘quadrants’ – a joke very much in line with ‘keeping it weird’ – and each has a personality and culture. Northwest, with its alphabetised-grid street network, comprises leafy, green suburbia, the Pearl District (an industrial sector that has seen retail- based urban renewal), Chinatown, and a small corner block of homeless people with protest signs that exclaim their displeasure. Southwest, or Downtown Portland, is largely home to the Portland State University campus buildings, which intermingle effortlessly with offices and residential apartments; the largest concentration of public art, running along 5th and 6th avenues; and numerous food-cart ‘pods’. Depending on the location, they cater to the nutritional needs and schedules of students, office workers or late-night revellers at nearby night spots. On the other side of the Willamette River, which divides the city into east and west, is North, a mix of residential, retail, and industrial spaces, including N Mississippi Avenue, a hub of arts and food. North also features the St Johns Bridge, a Gothic steel suspension bridge that connects N to NW. Much of Northeast is somewhat artsy run-down suburbia that’s being revitalised (think Woodstock in Cape Town) and, on the first Thursday of every summer month, a street fair is held on NE Alberta Street. As you wander around the stalls and past street performers doing everything from juggling to break-dancing you’ll catch glimpses of a variety of street-art murals. NE also features the Hollywood District, named for the Hollywood Theater, a historic cinema built in 1926. Finally, in Southeast, you’ll find the Hawthorne District, where hipsters gather around stores and microbreweries, as well as some of the biggest concentrations of food carts in the city, many selling traditional cuisine from places all over the world but often with a typical Portland spin of vegan options and local, organic ingredients. Confusing highway spaghetti and an assortment of bridges connect the opposite sides of the Willamette River. The bridges each have a distinct architectural style, such as the red Broadway Bridge, the longest Rall bascule bridge still in use in the world, which was built in 1913 and sees heavy bicycle traffic every day. The through truss double-lift Steel Bridge, with its heavy industrial presence in the Portland skyline, has a lower deck for trains, bicycles and pedestrians and an upper deck for cars. However, the public-transport system, comprising an extensive bus and train network, as well as a street car, is easy to navigate and it will get you around with little difficulty. Between the artisan coffee and beer (and doughnuts and wine and bakeries), an emphasis on organic, local produce, and the unique food-cart culture, food is quite the art form in Portland. If you can find it, Willamette Week‘s annual restaurant guide is a useful resource but if you remain stuck for ideas ask the locals – they’ll be happy to oblige. Screen Door (2337 E Burnside Street; serves Southern cuisine with an expected Portland twist in the form of a seasonal organic menu that changes every few weeks and comprises fresh local ingredients. Our waiter, covered in tattoos and piercings and wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, spoke in a thick Southern drawl and was attentive but unobtrusive as he served me my grits, roasted cauliflower hash, and Texas Black Gold cocktail of Sauza Gold tequila, blackberry purée and lemonade.
In NE Alberta Street visit Al Forno Ferruzza (, a friendly Sicilian pizzeria, bakery and café where you watch the baker make the home-made pizzas and tasty dessert cannoli by hand, and I can’t not mention Bartini on NW Glisan Street (or Urban Fondue,, its sister establishment next door with its brazenly all-red interior). Bartini has two happy hours a day (not unusual in Portland), neither of which is an hour long (ditto). The menu comprises around 100 Martinis, from the classic to the incredibly exotic, and in happy hour almost all of them are half price. There’s more than enough to do in the city besides eat. Wander around on foot to take in the public art and visit some of the parks, or head to the Lan Su Chinese Garden in NW (, which was built by artisan landscapers from Suzhou in China. The emphasis is on contemplative wanderings so switch off your cellphone and spend some time reflecting on your life and experiences. If you prefer to shop there’s a wide selection of boutique stores, art galleries and eateries along any of the main roads – NW 23rd Avenue is a particular favourite – as well as a Saturday farmers’ market in SW on a university common, and a weekend general market at the river under the Burnside Bridge near the famous Portland white stag neon sign. The largest independent book store in the world, Powell’s City Of Books, is on NW Burnside Street. It takes up an entire city block and in some sections is four floors high – expect to lose hours browsing. You might also consider day trips further afield, in the east to snow-covered Mount Hood and Timberline Lodge (recognisable as the exterior of the Overlook Hotel in the horror movie The Shining) or Multnomah Falls, a spectacular two-tiered waterfall a few steps from Interstate 84 with hiking trails that overlook the Columbia River Gorge and Washington State. To the north west is Cannon Beach, a quaint resort town with a long fine-sanded beach that famously houses Haystack Rock, which was featured in the 1980s adventure-comedy film The Goonies. Next door is Ecola State Park, which has a hiking trail to semi-secluded Indian Beach and beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean. A 30-minute drive north of that is the town of Astoria, where most of The Goonies is set and where numerous Hollywood movies have been filmed. Whatever you choose to do, Portland’s combination of food, nature and art is a good way to nourish your soul without forsaking civilisation’s comforts. Exposure to the cultural attitudes and friendliness is really where the charm of the experience lies and it’s almost guaranteed to rub a little Oregon Zen off on you. Hold on to it tightly and bring it home.
KLM flies from both CapeTown and Johannesburg to Amsterdam and code shares with Delta Airlines, which flies directly to Portland. WHERE TO STAY NW: Inn @ Northrup Station boutique hotel, SW: Hotel Modera boutique hotel, FOOD CARTS TO TRY NW: PBJ’s grilled gourmet sandwiches ( on NW 23rd Avenue. N: The vegan dishes at Native Bowl ( and the crepes at Cafe de Crepe, both at 4233 N Mississippi Avenue next to the German pub Prost! ( Also try the waffle sandwiches at Flavour Spot (810 N Fremont Street, This article was originally published in the October 2012 issue of House and Leisure.