As far as cities go, Portland is one of the fairest. There’s fair-trade coffee at nearly every corner cafe. There’s Fareless Square─a downtown transit loop along which riders travel for free. There’s even a fair-trade music movement, seeking minimum wage for performing artists in the city. For their part, travelers too can participate in all the do-gooder and do-it-yourself dogma, filling days with visits to edgy galleries-cum-artist cooperatives in the Pearl District and up-and-coming Alberta, eating from chef-run “mobile restaurants” (please don’t call them catering trucks) along Stark Street, and dropping in at enterprising brewpubs. [Editor’s note: Beginning January 1, 2010, buses will start charging a nominal fare and square will be known as Free Rail Zone].
Despite its rainy reputation─which is great for the city’s famous rose gardens─this Pacific Northwest city is also passionate about the great outdoors with plenty of hiking, biking (locals are ardent cyclists), and skiing at nearby Mt. Hood now that winter storms are dumping on the Cascades. Considered one of the country’s greener cities, Portland also boasts numerous parks and open spaces, along with a citywide and citizen-wide commitment to the environment and sustainable living, meaning you just might feel like a better person for visiting.
And now with the holidays in full swing, there are also plenty of activities to help you celebrate the season, including the annual Gingerbread Display at the Benson Hotel (300 work hours, 75 pounds of gingerbread, 20 pounds of chocolate… you get the idea); Zoolights, the seasonal spectacle which transforms the Oregon Zoo into a winter wonderland of a million twinkling lights; the stately and traditional Christmas displays at the Pittock Mansion; and a wandermelon favorite, the Holiday Ale Festival, held downtown in a covered tent below the boughs of an enormous decorated tree (more below).
In short, there’s plenty to eat, drink, and do during the holidays (and year around) in Portland, come rain or shine. Where to start? Here’s wandermelon’s shortlist:
Portland Gourmet Trucks and Brews
Holiday Ale Festival (Dec 2-6, 2009)
For more than a decade, Portlanders have been gathering in Pioneer Square to sample seasonal brews and limited release beers from microbreweries in the area, along the West Coast and even as far away as Hawaii and Belgium. This year, Portland-based Widmer Brothers (featured below) debuts a black raspberry Russian-style stout; or try the Barleywine from Bridgeport Brewing Company.
Give Pizza A Chance
Even New Yorkers are jealous of the piping hot pies coming out of this oven-cum-truck. Chef and owner John Eads wakes up in the early morning hours to perfect his whole wheat dough, but we’re convinced the secret is in the sauce: a tangy tomato. Eads even dabbles in mixology, i.e. the homemade and fizzy lemon-mint and ginger sodas. Don’t leave without ordering the Compost slice, appropriately named for all the seasonal veggies piled high on it. You’ll go back the next day for more; I did. (SW Stark Street between 4th and 5th Aves., 503-333-4434)
“Welcome to Beervana” reads the brewery page of the Travel Portland website, which devotes an entire section to the city’s liquid assets, including 32 breweries. Among them, this legendary pioneer and its prized Hefeweizen. The largest brewery in the state of Oregon, Widmer Brothers hosts daily tours complete with beer samples. (929 N. Russell St., widmer.com)
Rumor has it that Portlanders duck into a coffeehouse whenever it rains, and this local coffee spot, which sources fair-trade beans from Indonesia, Africa and Latin America, is indeed a great shelter, storm or no storm. Here, coffee roasting is nothing short of an art, with your cup serving as the canvas. Get your java jolt with the heady, but equally smooth espresso. www.stumptowncoffee.com
Portland Arts and Crafts
Museum of Contemporary Craft
This cultural institution began as a ceramics studio in the 1930s and only moved to its new address─within the DeSoto building─two years ago, from an out-of-the-way location in the city’s western hills. The museum continues to challenge the definition and notion of craft and speaks volumes about Portland’s do-it-yourself spirit.
Run by 15 local artists, this pint-sized gallery-cum-cooperative is along Alberta Street, a once-gritty district that now hosts a weekly art walk. Few visitors make it to Alberta, as it’s a bit out of the way, in a northeastern corner of the city. Those who do make the trip will be rewarded for their efforts. Start at Talisman, where you can catch rotating shows of painting, photography, and even mosaic work. Then, refuel at Helser’s, a popular brunch spot.
Portland’s Chic Sleeps
Ace Hotel Portland
This 79-room hotel is budget without the boring, flaunting cheap-chic much like its sister hotels in Seattle and Palm Springs, and the recently opened property in New York. Extras like the retro photo booth and analog turntables add quirky charm; while the complimentary bikes and Stumptown coffee outpost next door are incredibly convenient and cool too. We love that it’s practically across the street from the gargantuan Powell’s City of Books.
In the historic Meier & Frank department store building, this 331-room hotel blends contemporary furnishings like tufted white leather headboards with turquoise velvet chairs fit for Marie Antoinette. Even if you don’t stay, stop in to tour the impressive art collection─more than 400 locally commissioned pieces─from a two-and-a half foot long sculpture of stilettos with hot pink soles to a chandelier meant to evoke local bird songs. (Tel: 503-222-9996).