It may have the cool, rainy climate of the Pacific Northwest and the progressive sensibility of Western Europe, but Portland's quirky, laid-back vibe is all its own. This is a place where locals wear shorts to the symphony, the mayor commutes to work on his bike and you can get legally married in a doughnut shop. It's a newly popular destination for foodies too; over the last decade or so, the latest generation of Portland chefs has revitalized the city's dining scene with a focus on creativity, sustainability and locally sourced ingredients. And don't forget the beer and wine! There are more than 30 breweries in Portland (a city with a population of about 584,000), as well as hundreds of wineries in the nearby Willamette Valley.
Nicknamed the City of Roses, Portland is a place where nature is never far away. A short drive will take you to the forests of Mount Hood and the tumbling waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, but green spaces are plentiful even within city boundaries -- like the nation's oldest rose test garden, and the leafy waterfront park where locals jog and bike as the sun rises over the Willamette River. (Speaking of parks, Portland is home to the world's smallest: Mill Ends, which measures a mere 24 inches across.)
Portland's green, livable downtown is no accident. In 1972, the city created a comprehensive "Downtown Plan" to improve the quality of life and draw residents back to Portland's urban core. Among a raft of other changes, the Plan mandated the expansion of public transportation, offered a vision of a more open and attractive waterfront area, and encouraged the beautification of downtown streets with trees and planters. In the decades since then, Portland's leaders have continued the trend of careful city planning, instituting an urban growth boundary to prevent sprawl and requiring that a certain percentage of all building construction funds given by the city be spent on public art. Sustainability and environmental responsibility are also an important part of the mix, visible in the many bike lanes, solar-powered parking meters and LEED-certified buildings scattered throughout the city.
Visitors will find Portland's orderly streets easy to navigate. You'll see the abbreviations NW, NE, SW or SE in most local addresses; the Willamette River divides the city into east and west, while the north/south boundary is marked by Burnside Street. Numbered streets run parallel to the Willamette River (the lower the number, the closer you are to the river). North of Burnside on the western side of the river, named streets go in alphabetical order (Couch, Davis, Everett, Flanders...).
TriMet, Portland's public transportation system, operates light rail trains, streetcars and buses throughout the metro area. Within the Free Rail Zone (which covers much of downtown Portland), you can ride the light rail and streetcars at no charge. It's also easy to get around Portland on two wheels; pick up a bike map of Portland from the tourist information center or at your hotel.
--written by Sarah Schlichter, with contributions from Carolyn Spencer Brown