The great leftie city of the American West has landed on the travel map

·9-min read
Portland Oregon - Getty
Portland Oregon - Getty

It is a little after 10am at the farmers’ market, and what appears to be half the city is fumbling its way through an overcast Saturday morning, ambling between the stalls dotted along SW Park Avenue. Coffee helps, of course – but there are more exotic possibilities than caffeine for those hoping to shake off last night’s excesses.

Great Tang is selling “steam-fried Chinese pies” with beef, onion and curry fillings. Quiche Me If You Can has a nice range of cheese-heavy pastries as well as its self-amused name. And the queue next to Enchanted Sun Breakfast Burritos is so long that a polite sign identifies a specific “Burrito Waiting Area”. I order the $7 standard, with scrambled eggs and green chilli, and join the patient throng. As I do so, drizzle begins to swirl, in damp defiance of the June date in the diary. By the time I collect my food, the rain is arrowing in sideways.

This, you might argue, is an in-a-nutshell representation of Portland – that fabled haven of American west-coast hipsterism whose popular profile effectively adds up to this very scene; soy-milk lattes, Mexican carbs to see off hangovers, grey skies. It is an image so ingrained, in fact, that it was lovingly lampooned for seven years (2011-2018) by the US television 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 is Oregon’s biggest and most populous dot on the map (home to 650,000 people) – although not its capital (that is little Salem, some 45 miles to the south-west). It is a place of a discernible touchy-feely hippyness – a legacy both of the Sixties and its relative proximity to the countercultural epicentre, California’s rainbow warrior San Francisco.

It is also, in most things, defiantly left-wing – a political leaning that was clearly visible two summers ago. Portland was arguably the US city that wore its fury at the murder of George Floyd, on May 25 2020, most openly. The demonstrations – which at times escalated into riots and looting – continued all the way into the September.

One description you have not, traditionally, been able to pin to it, is “easy to reach”. At least, not from Britain. Portland has stood largely alone among the major cities of the American Pacific coast in having no direct air connection with the UK.

Where San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle and even San Jose all welcome non-stop services from various British airports, Portland has, for the most part, required a change of plane. 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 inaugural take-off was on June 3 – is a significant development. Flight BA0267 will operate five times a week, covering the 5,000-mile distance in 10 hours - landing at a compact airport, 10 miles north-east of Downtown, that is notably shorter of passport queues than some of its regional colleagues. The west-coast aviation jigsaw is complete.

Of course, a caveat is required here – in that Portland is not strictly coastal. While it sits high up in the north-west of Oregon, close to the “border” with Washington, it is not pushed so firmly into the far corner of the state that it can boast a position on the Pacific.

Instead, it is connected to it, 70 miles inland, by the twin channels of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers – deep-water conduits which allow it to fulfil the “Port” element of its name. But then, even this is a partial red herring. The city’s moniker was chosen in 1845 by the pioneer settler Francis Pettygrove, in tribute to his home city of Portland in Maine.

This founding footstep left an imprint nonetheless – Portland grew quickly as a shipping and lumber town. Yet the construction of the railroad into its rival Seattle – which does stand by the ocean, 175 miles to the north, in Washington – in 1885 would help to eclipse it. By the 1890s, the city had stagnated into lawlessness – regarded, even during the frontier era, as a dank nest of bars, brawls and bordellos. This reputation lingered into the 20th century. In the Forties and Fifties, Portland was seen as a hotspot of organised crime.

Its detractors would probably say that this air of danger has not entirely dissipated. Certainly, the more violent incidents of mid-2020 did not paint it in an especially flattering light. The scars of that season of skirmishes are not difficult to spot. Even now, the Apple store on SW Yamhill Street is wholly swaddled in a protective outer cage – which makes it feel more like a besieged medieval castle than a place to purchase 21st century tech. Opposite, every exterior window of the city’s Louis Vuitton boutique is still lost behind boarding (although the shop is accessible via the adjacent Pioneer Place mall).

And yet, to characterise Portland as a city of turmoil would be vastly inaccurate. In reality, it is far more Instagram Story than CNN newsflash, its inherent artiness shining through. Even the wooden panels obscuring Louis Vuitton glow with murals, the words “Black Lives Matter” stencilled across the aerosol swirls.

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 plenty of its focus local – a full floor of indigenous works, including dramatic carvings by Kwakwaka’wakw sculptor Calvin Hunt Jr; the bright, multi-coloured paintings of Isaka Shamsud-Din (including Rock Of Ages, the Portland artist’s loving 1976 tribute to his father, caught smiling in his garden).

Creativity of a different sort thrives at the Heathman Hotel. Opened in 1927, it clings to the Art Deco ambience of its formative decade – thanks to an extensive 2018 renovation which restored its grandeur. At the forefront of this is a ground-floor library, awash with illuminated stained glass, where books range from Russian poetry to children’s literature.

Scanning the shelves, I cannot find a copy of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Maybe the association is too close. The hotel features in EL James’s series of erotic fiction, and has purportedly attracted couples keen to enjoy their own “adventures” in its spacious rooms.

Powell’s City of Books
Powell’s City of Books

Christian and Anastasia are present – or, at least, available to buy – a short stroll away, at Powell’s City of Books. But then, almost any title you might care to read is on sale at a temple of the written word which calls itself “the world’s largest independent bookstore”. Wandering through it, I can readily believe the claim. Cavernous yet crowded, Powell’s occupies an entire block. In this, it is the emblem of the Pearl District, Downtown’s neighbour, directly to the north – even if the nearby Deschutes Brewery and its blur of afternoon drinkers is more reflective of the louche vibe in this revitalised warehouse area.

Portland has plenty of these pockets of urban bohemia. NW 23rd Avenue feeds into the relaxed ambience on the Pearl District’s west flank – in trendy ice-cream parlour Salt & Straw (flavours 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 spirit brand born in the city in 2006, partially owned by the 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 hindered by the Willamette, which flows south-to-north through the city, but only interrupts the party in necessitating a cab ride to the fast-changing Eastside –where further fun and games await. The meeting 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 dishes 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 clank behind) - everything from Korean and Lebanese fare to Philly Cheesesteaks on offer to the informally hungry.

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

The clue is there, on the hillside above NW 23rd Avenue, where Portland Japanese Garden changes the tone. The antithesis of the fractiousness of the summer of 2020, it was set up 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 on, it still serves its purpose – its ornamental bridges, koi-carp ponds, sand gardens and maple trees forging a special oasis.

The picture is just as pretty if you slip away into the surrounding Oregon. It is roughly a 90-minute drive to Rockaway Beach, where the Pacific lashes the shore with a relentless rhythm. There is much to be said, too, for ignoring the American instinct to go west – instead journeying 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 unfailing in its magnificence – Latourell Falls crashing 249ft (76m) in a single pale stream. Multnomah Falls is even more wondrous, plunging 620ft (189m) in two tiers of roaring, spraying water. You return down the trail with your clothing damp from the experience, aware that you have encountered that version of the American West which owes nothing to dust, deserts and diamondbacks – yet is no less magical for their absence.

Essentials

Getting there

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

Staying there

Double rooms at the Heathman Hotel (001 877 628 4408; provenancehotels.com) start at $134 (£112). A four-night stay, flying out directly 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

Further information

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

Covid rules

All travellers must show proof of full vaccination

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