The Northwest's second city has a draw that's all its own.
Eminently sophisticated yet decidedly unconventional, Portland, Oregon has enjoyed unprecedented attention in recent years, garnering kudos for everything from its stellar restaurants to its fervent embrace of "green" environmental practices and visionary urban planning. Oregon's largest metropolis lies at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, in a fertile valley that's within a 90-minute drive of rugged Pacific beaches, snowy mountain peaks, and celebrated Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris vineyards. It's an easy city to explore extensively, with an efficient network of light rail, streetcars, and buses providing access to Portland's wealth of verdant parks, offbeat outlying neighborhoods, acclaimed brewpubs, and edgy performing and visual arts venues.
5… Cart food: You know you want it
Foodies wax rhapsodic about Portland's astoundingly varied and accomplished culinary scene. In this food-obsessed city, you can eat extremely well without spending a fortune. The best bargains come from a relatively unexpected source, the humble food cart. In Portland, these squat, low-frills take-away spots line several downtown blocks. You'll find notable cart colonies at S.W. Alder St. at S.W. 10th Ave., and S.W. Stark St. at S.W. 5th Ave. And they serve everything from Bosnian meatballs to Korean-fusion barbecue tacos.
Across the Willamette River in the hipster-infested Hawthorne neighborhood, a cluster of food carts (S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. and S.E. 12th Ave.) has become ground-zero for cheap, gourmet noshing on the fly. Consider the hand-held savory and sweet crepes served at Perriera Creperie, which also concocts luscious honey-lavender milkshakes. Next door, Potato Champion doles out crisp Belgian-style frites topped with rosemary-truffle ketchup, as well addictive gravy-laden fries also known as the French Canadian delicacy poutine. Across the lot, you can sample everything from oyster po'boys at Bubba Bernie's BBQ to sublimely delicious cherry turnovers at Whiffies Fried Pie Cart. Worried about finding time to check out this finger-food paradise? Fear not - most of the carts are open from lunchtime until 3 AM.
4… Get booked and caffeinated like a local
It says a lot about Portland that quite possibly its most renowned attraction is a bookstore, in this case Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651, www.powells.com), the world's largest emporium of both used and new titles. Portlanders appreciate bookstores almost as much as they do coffeehouses - and there's an excellent one of these, World Cup Coffee, right inside Powell's. Opened in 1971, the bookstore has become a bona fide city treasure, as much a place to people-watch as to browse for obscure tomes on Pacific Northwest wildflowers or ancient Celtic folkways. The multilevel store encompasses a full city block on the edge of the Pearl District, which has morphed over the past decade from a down-at-the-heels industrial zone into a hip neighborhood of elegant restaurants (Bluehour, Andina, and Fenouil are among the standouts), swank boutiques, and high-end loft condominiums.
While in the Pearl, be sure to see what's playing at the Gerding Theater (128 N.W. 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, www.pcs.org), home to the prestigious Portland Center Stage - it occupies an imposing former armory building that's been ingeniously converted into a state-of-the-art, eco-friendly performing arts center. And if the weather's nice, consider venturing into nearby Old Town Chinatown for a walk through the blissfully tranquil Lan Su Chinese Garden (N.W. 3rd and Everett Sts., 503-228-8131, $8.50, www.lansugarden.org).
3… Hit the weekend markets
Just about every neighborhood in Portland supports a weekly farmers market. By far the largest and most popular, the Portland Farmers Market at PSU (S.W. Park Ave. and S.W. Hall St., at the campus of Portland State University, free, http://www.portlandfarmersmarket.org) was greatly expanded in 2010 and meets on Saturdays from 8:30 until 2. The bounty of locally raised and produced foods available here boggles the mind: goat cheese, cherry jam, artichokes, pinot noir, hazelnuts, fig-anise panini rolls, Asian pears - the list goes on.
In the afternoon head to city's famed Portland Saturday Market (S.W. Ankeny St. and Naito Pkwy., 503-222-6072, free, www.portlandsaturdaymarket.com), which exhibits the high-quality wares of some 350 artisans - it's open from late morning until late afternoon, on both Saturday and Sunday. The market takes place at a shiny new open-air pavilion beside the Willamette River, a 20-minute walk from the farmers market. You'll find a dazzling variety of goods here, from intricate stained-glass hummingbird feeders to stunning yet rustic tables hand-carved from Oregon hardwoods. Live folk and pop bands entertain the crowds, and more than a dozen international booths feed them. Both the Farmers Market at PSU and the Saturday Market are closed January and February.
2… Head for the hills
A dramatic, densely forested ridge rises some 800 feet above Portland's west side - it's one of the city's defining features, not to mention a wonderfully prolific source of exploration and recreation. Much of this area falls within 5,156-acre Forest Park (503-823-7529, free, www.portlandonline.com/parks), a swath of emerald green wilderness that's laced with hiking and mountain-biking trails.
It's a smaller section, Washington Park (S.W. Park Pl., off S.W. Vista Ave., 503-823-7529, free, www.washingtonparkpdx.org) that positively abounds with diversions and is easily reached on foot from downtown or by bus and light rail. Here you can lose yourself for hours, examining the nearly 7,000 blooming bushes that carpet the International Rose Test Garden, from which you're also treated to dazzling views of snowcapped Mt. Hood. Just up the hill, the serene Portland Japanese Garden (503-223-1321, $9.50, www.japanesegarden.com) encompasses 5.5 acres of artfully landscaped terraces, streams, and paths. Venture farther into the park's upper reaches, and you'll discover the Oregon Zoo, Portland Children's Museum, World Forestry Center Discovery Museum, and Hoyt Arboretum.
1… Get happy for an hour or two on the riverfront
There's no better way to observe sunset in Portland than with a walk along downtown's scenic Willamette River, which is spanned by several historic bridges and lined on both sides by paved paths. Even better, try combining this activity with appetizers and cocktails at an outdoor café. Happy hour is observed devoutly in Portland, to the point that virtually every prominent restaurant features a fairly extensive menu during this celebrated late-afternoon period (many establishments hold late-night happy hours, too). We're not talking about soggy eggrolls and dreary cocktail wieners in chafing dishes - happy hours in Portland typically yield creative small plates of freshly prepared food.
At the south end of downtown's waterfront, the RiverPlace promenade and marina is home to a few first-rate happy-hour venues with expansive Willamette views. Inside the RiverPlace Hotel, sophisticated Three Degrees (1510 S.W. Harbor Way, 503-295-6166, www.threedegreesrestaurant.com) restaurant serves juicy burgers and beet-chevre salads on a scenic river-view terrace for around $5. A few doors down, Thirst Wine Bar (0315 S.W. Montgomery St., 503-295-2747, www.thirstbistro.com) pours first-rate Northwest wines at bargain prices, along with charcuterie, cheese, and similarly tempting tapas for a few bucks apiece.