The large left-wing city in the American West has landed on the travel map

Portland Oregon - Getty

Portland Oregon – Getty

It’s a little after 10 a.m. at the farmers market, and what seems like half the town is groping its way through an overcast Saturday morning, circling among the stalls along SW Park Avenue. Coffee helps, of course – but there are more exotic options than caffeine for those hoping to shake off yesterday’s excesses.

Great Tang sells “steamed Chinese pies” filled with beef, onion and curry. Quiche Me If You Can has a nice selection of cheese-heavy pastries in addition to its self-amused name. And the line next to Enchanted Sun Breakfast Burritos is so long that a polite sign identifies a specific “Burrito Waiting Area.” I order the standard $7, with scrambled eggs and green chili, and join the patient crowd. As I do, a drizzle begins to fall, in damp defiance of the June date in the diary. By the time I gather my food, the rain darts in sideways.

This, you could argue, is a nutshell representation of Portland – the storied oasis of American West Coast hipsterism whose popular profile effectively sets up this very scene; soy milk lattes, Mexican carbs to avoid hangovers, gray skies. In fact, it’s an image so ingrained that it was lovingly highlighted for seven years (2011-2018) by the US TV sketch show Portlandia – all vegan diets, swingers and asymmetrical haircuts.

Portland farmers market - Travel Portland

Portland farmers market – Travel Portland

As such, it is easy to describe. It’s Oregon’s largest and most populous dot on the map (home to 650,000 people)—though it’s not the capital (little Salem is, about 45 miles to the southwest). It’s a place of a noticeable sensitive hippyness—a legacy both of the Sixties and its relative proximity to the counterculture epicenter, California’s rainbow-warrior San Francisco.

It is also, for the most part, defiantly left-wing – a policy direction that was clearly visible two summers ago. Portland was without a doubt the American city that bore its fury after the killing of George Floyd, on May 25, 2020, most openly. The demonstrations – which at times escalated into riots and looting – continued well into September.

A description you have traditionally failed to attach to it is “easy to reach”. At least not from the UK. Portland has largely stood alone among the major cities on the US Pacific coast in not having a direct flight to the UK.

Where San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle and even San Jose all welcome direct services from various UK airports, Portland has mostly required a flight change. A Delta service to Heathrow, launched in 2016, was dropped the following year.

In this context, the launch of a new direct British Airways route from Heathrow – the first departure was on 3 June – is a significant development. Flight BA0267 will operate five times a week, covering the distance of 5,000 miles in 10 hours – landing at a compact airport, 10 miles northeast of Downtown, which is notably shorter in passport queues than some of its regional counterparts. The jigsaw on the west coast is complete.

Of course, a caveat is required here – in that Portland is not strictly coastal. While it sits high in northwest Oregon, near the “border” of Washington, it’s not pushed so hard into the far corner of the state that it can boast a position on the Pacific Ocean.

Instead, it is connected to it, 70 miles inland, by the twin canals of the Columbia and Willamette rivers — deep-water canals that allow it to fulfill the “Port” element of its name. But then, even this is a partial red herring. The city’s moniker was chosen in 1845 by pioneer settler Francis Pettygrove, in homage to his hometown of Portland, Maine.

This basic footprint nevertheless left its mark – Portland quickly grew as a shipping and lumber town. Yet the construction of the railroad into rival Seattle—which stands by the ocean, 175 miles north, in Washington—in 1885 would help eclipse it. By the 1890s, the city had stagnated into lawlessness – even during the frontier era considered a dank nest of bars, brawls and brothels. This reputation persisted into the 20th century. In the forties and fifties, Portland was seen as a hotspot for organized crime.

Opponents will probably say that this air of danger has not completely disappeared. Certainly, the more violent events of mid-2020 didn’t paint it in a particularly flattering light. The scars from that season of skirmishes are not hard to spot. Even now, the Apple store on SW Yamhill Street is completely encased in a protective outer cage — making it feel more like a besieged medieval castle than a place to buy 21st-century technology. Opposite, every exterior window of the city’s Louis Vuitton store is still lost behind boarding (although the store is accessible via the adjacent Pioneer Place mall).

And yet, to characterize Portland as a city of turmoil would be wildly inaccurate. In reality, it’s far more Instagram Story than CNN news flash, its inherent artificiality shining through. Even the wood paneling that hides Louis Vuitton glows with murals, the words “Black Lives Matter” stenciled across the aerosol.

The same principle plays out, in more structured form, seven blocks away, at the excellent art museum, which flirts with Van Gogh, Renoir and Monet but keeps much of its focus local – an entire floor of indigenous works, including dramatic carvings of Kwakwaka’ wakw sculptor Calvin Hunt Jr; the bright, multi-colored paintings of Isaka Shamsud-Din (including Rock Of Ages, the Portland artist’s loving tribute to his father from 1976, taken smiling in his garden).

Creativity of a different kind thrives at the Heathman Hotel. Opened in 1927, it clings to the Art Deco vibe of its formative decade – thanks to an extensive renovation in 2018 that restored its grandeur. In front of this is a library on the first floor, full of illuminated stained glass windows, where books range from Russian poetry to children’s literature.

Scanning the shelves, I can’t find a copy of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Perhaps the association is too close. The hotel features in EL James’ series of erotic fiction, and has reportedly attracted couples keen to enjoy their own ‘adventures’ in the spacious rooms.

Powell's city of the books

Powell’s city of the books

Christian and Anastasia are present – ​​or at least available for purchase – a short walk away, in Powell’s City of Books. But almost every title you could want to read is for sale in a temple to the written word that calls itself “the world’s largest independent bookstore”. Wandering through it, I can easily believe the claim. Cavernous yet crowded, Powell’s occupies an entire block. In this, it’s the emblem of the Pearl District, downtown’s neighbor just to the north—though the nearby Deschutes Brewery and its blur of afternoon drinkers are more reflective of the louche vibe of this revitalized warehouse district.

Portland has plenty of these pockets of urban bohemia. NW 23rd Avenue lives up to the laid-back atmosphere of the Pearl District’s west flank—at trendy ice cream parlor Salt & Straw (flavors include olive oil, honey-lavender, and pear-and-blue cheese), and chic chocolatier The Meadow. A few blocks up, at the top of Slabtown, Aviation American Gin—the bijou spirits brand born in the city in 2006, partly owned by Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds—has a flash new distillery-cum-tasting room on NW Wilson Street.

NW 23rd Portland Oregon - Justin Katigbak/Travel Portland

NW 23rd Portland Oregon – Justin Katigbak/Travel Portland

The situation is barely impeded by the Willamette, which runs south-to-north through town, but only interrupts the party and requires a cab ride to the rapidly changing East Side – where more fun and games await. The intersection of North Mississippi Avenue and North Shaver Street means lively bars and jazz clubs like The 1905.

The Richmond section of SE Division Street is alive with restaurants – funky Malaysian fare at Oma’s Hideaway; the burgers of PDX Sliders. And the Central Eastside goes full Portlandia in an area still shaped by factories and tracks. Hawthorne Asylum is a permanent encampment of food trucks in a former goods yard (trains still clatter behind)—everything from Korean and Lebanese food to Philly Cheesesteaks offered to the casually hungry.

It is a city where you can lose yourself in curious days and dizzying nights. And yet, it would be inappropriate not to look up from your cocktail and admire the majesty of nature.

The clue is there, on the hillside above NW 23rd Avenue, where the Portland Japanese Garden changes its tone. The antithesis of summer 2020’s fragility was set in 1962 – the happy product of a new twin-city relationship with Sapporo and a desire to reconnect with post-war Japan. Half a century later, it still serves its purpose – its ornamental bridges, koi carp ponds, sand gardens and maple trees form a special oasis.

The picture is just as pretty if you slip away in the surrounding Oregon. It’s about a 90-minute drive to Rockaway Beach, where the Pacific Ocean laps the shore with a relentless rhythm. There’s also a lot to be said for ignoring the American instinct to head west—instead traveling east into the Columbia River Gorge, the 80-mile channel where the state’s mother waterway forces a path through the Cascade Range.

Here, the geography is unmistakable in its grandeur – Latourell Falls crashes 249 feet (76 m) into a single pale stream. Multnomah Falls is even more stunning, plunging 620 feet (189 m) in two tiers of cascading, gushing water. You return down the trail with your clothes damp from the experience, aware that you’ve encountered the version of the American West that doesn’t owe dust, deserts, and diamondbacks—but is no less magical for their absence.

Essential

Get there

British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Portland five times a week from Heathrow, from £558 return.

Live there

Double rooms at the Heathman Hotel (001 877 628 4408; provenancehotels.com) start at $134 (£112). A four-night stay, flying direct out on September 5, costs from £1,566 per person through British Airways Holidays (ba.com/holidays).

Sightseeing there

portlandfarmersmarket.org; portlandartmuseum.org; powells.com; japanesegarden.org

More information

travelportland.com; traveloregon.com; visittheusa.co.uk

Covid rules

All travelers must show proof of full vaccination

Would you visit Portland now there is a direct flight from the UK? Let us know in the comments below

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