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Why Portland is the USA’s coolest city right now

From artisan coffee and farm-to-table cuisine to a long-standing cycling community, exploding crafts scene and the largest collection of microbreweries in the nation, Portland punches way above its weight when it comes to creativity, culture and livability. A native of California bikes around the burgeoning Eastside to discover the secret behind Portland’s ascendance.
Words Serena Renner.


Cycling along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, I have a startling realisation: I could live here.

Not only is Portland one of the best places in America to eat, drink and work right now, it’s a city bounded by forest, roughly the same distance from the nearest ski slope as the closest surf break.

Locals canoe, kayak and even windsurf between the dozen bridges that span the river. And it’s one of the smartest (in terms of literacy rates), greenest and most bike-friendly cities in the US, too.

I’m not the only one attracted to Portland’s livability. ‘Bridgetown’ (also known as Beervana and the City of Roses) is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. Between 2013 and 2014, it had the 10th-highest rate of domestic migration, and it’s now seeing rents increase more than nine per cent annually.

As a California native who recently lived in San Francisco, I have long been intrigued by the misty, maker city to the north.

In the 1970s and again in the ’90s, flocks of jaded Californians made the northern migration in search of cheaper rents or fresher air. A similar exodus seems to be occurring now, with newcomers seeking the craft beer, artisan coffee and locavore food culture made famous by the satirical TV show Portlandia.

International travellers are visiting as well, with some of the highest numbers coming from Australia, New Zealand and China.

I thought it was about time to make my first visit and investigate Portland’s peaking popularity, and my main mode of transport? Bicycle of course.

The city is still growing, Scott Klees, my Pedal Bike Tours guide, says at the first stop of our ride. “They’re expecting another million people in the next 20 years.”

We’re pulled over on the east bank of the sparkling Willamette to check out the newly opened Tilikum Crossing, a two-tower bridge with white cables that stretch out like strings on a weaving loom.

The ‘Bridge of the People’ – tilikum means ‘people’ in the indigenous Chinook language – is the first new bridge since the 1970s, and it’s only open to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.

“They want to preserve the livability of the city, and the only way to do that is by getting people to use alternative modes of transit,” Klees continues. “Buses, the light rail, the streetcar, walking, biking.”

On our leisurely cruise down the wide, green-striped boulevards of Portland’s transitioning Eastside, we pass converted warehouses and condo construction zones as well as wood-shingle family homes tucked behind rose bushes and Doug fir trees.

We also pass throngs of two-wheeled commuters; cycling culture goes back 40 years here. In fact, Portland is the largest of the four cities that have achieved Platinum status from the League of American Bicyclists (the highest honour to date).

We park our bikes at Cartopia to experience another thriving Portland scene: food truck pods. In 2008, this spot in the Hawthorne district kicked off a trend that now includes some 700 food carts citywide, most of them clustered in parking lots turned al fresco dining spaces.

“Food truck food makes up 85 per cent of my diet,” Klees laughs, as we try Thai shrimp and jalapeno-bacon-cherry peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from PBJ’s Grilled. They’re surprisingly tasty, but I’m grateful for a hibiscus soda to wash the shrimp down.

Before Cartopia, this spot was an empty lot that developers wanted to turn into a Starbucks. But a fries and poutine truck, Potato Champion (which also runs a small record label), joined forces with the landowner and opened a food truck co-op instead.

“Almost overnight, these empty lots turned into community gathering spaces,” Klees says. “It was like hanging out in a parking lot with a porta-potty and a couple of food carts, but people were here on a Saturday night watching movies on a projector screen, sitting around fire pits.”

One of the newest pods, Tidbit, shows how far the culture has come. Marked by picnic tables, fairy lights and a vintage Airstream selling locally made jewellery and body products, Tidbit’s trucks offer everything from Korean-Hawaiian barbecue to beer-infused ice cream pops.

It’s no surprise Tidbit is on Division Street, one of the fastest-developing areas of the city, which rose to fame thanks in part to such Portland institutions as Stumptown Coffee Roasters, one of the founders of the ‘third-wave coffee’ movement (the post-Starbucks era concerned fair-trade practices, roasting and extraction) and Pok Pok, chef Andy Ricker’s Thai street food restaurant that’s gained a cult following from coast to coast.

Across the street from Pok Pok, Salt & Straw is a local ice-cream chain that’s become the unofficial barometer of a neighbourhood’s cool – maybe because one of their flavours blends Stumptown coffee with local bourbon.

Although I’m staying at the Hotel Vintage Portland – a new wine-themed Kimpton concept in the downtown area west of the river – I’m continually pulled eastward. One morning,
after exploring downtown landmarks Blue Star Donuts and Powell’s Books, I borrow a melon-hued public bike from Hotel Vintage and head east.

Once I rattle through the lower bike deck of the Steel Bridge, I’m on my way to the Alberta arts district to meet Jason Leonard, who seems like a good example of Portland’s new creative class.

Leonard moved to Portland from San Francisco in 2003 and soon acquired the Affiche Studio, which restores vintage posters. He’s also an illustrator and a musician and has just finished transforming a historic building into a space for both his poster business as well as dinners, music nights, cooking classes and drawing workshops.

“The thing for me with this space is just getting people together,” Leonard says. I ask him what the biggest Portland trends are of late. “The maker movement for sure, particularly leather products.

Oh and companies that have ‘and’ in their name,” Leonard jokes. “Do you know Wood & Faulk?” Wood & Faulk (known for its belts, bags and accessories) shares a warehouse with an apothecary company, and Tucker Martine, who has recorded tracks for local band the Decemberists as well as the latest My Morning Jacket album, has a studio across the alley.

Rather than stick to the rustic leathers, woods and wools so prominent in Portland, Leonard chose a clean and bright (mostly white) design for his studio, offset by original wood beams.

“When you’re restoring something, you’re keeping part of its age,” he says. “There are tons of old buildings that are getting destroyed, old churches and stuff, but I wanted to keep the history of this building.”

The last Portlander I meet is Damian Magista, the founder of Bee Local, which shares a factory and storefront near the Hawthorne district with the Jacobsen Salt Co. Bee Local makes honeys with flavours determined by the location of its hives, since bees only forage in a two- to three-kilometre radius, Magista tells me.

In addition to its line of honeys, Bee Local partners with other businesses on products like a honey salt with Jacobsen, drinking vinegar for Pok Pok and a smoked honey co-produced by Smokehouse 21.

“That’s one of the fun things about Portland,” Magista says. “If you have a good idea, people really support you. I don’t think I could repeat this in New York or San Francisco.”

Perhaps that’s what biking, food cart pods, and artisan collaborations all have in common: they’re built by and for a community, a creative and conscious community like Portland, which you might not want to leave.

What to do on Portland’s Westside

Forest Park
The largest natural parkland within a US city – covering 2092 hectares – Forest Park is a refreshing escape of hiking and mountain bike trails that access old-growth Doug fir trees, rambling brooks and dozens of bird species.

Lan Su Chinese Garden
A partner project between Portland and sister city Suzhou, China, this block-long oasis of ponds, rock paths and wood bridges with a tranquil tea house at one end is considered the most authentic garden outside China.

International Rose Test Garden
Established in 1917, Portland’s beloved rose garden features 10,000 plants that comprise 590 varieties, including Climbing Ophelia and Sweet Juliet.
The gardens’ views extend from Downtown to snow-capped Mount Hood.

Museum of Contemporary Craft
America’s oldest-running crafts institution laid the foundation for Portland’s modern makers.
The 418-square-metre venue showcases rotating exhibits from leading artists as well as pieces from the 1300-object collection that emphasises the legacy of the Pacific Northwest.

Powell’s Books
A bookworm’s heaven, Powell’s is the largest independent bookstore in the world, so vast the rooms and levels are colour-coded.
It’s no wonder Portland is one of the most literate cities in the nation.

Portland’s best food and drink tours

Third Wave Coffee Tours 
Discover Portland’s integral role in the ‘third-wave coffee’ movement on a walking, streetcar or even a running tour that visits the most acclaimed java companies, from Stumptown to Coava, and breaks down the technicalities of coffee sourcing, roasting and brewing.

Steven Smith Teamaker
The founder of Stash Tea and Tazo Tea has created a new line of small-batch infusions.
Visitors can witness the production process and make their own custom case.

Brewcycle
Board a 15-passenger, pedal-powered ‘bike’ and sample ales and even hopped ciders from some of the 50-plus microbreweries that have made Portland into ‘Beervana’.

Epicurean Experience
Taste 30 goodies, which might include voodoo doughnuts and Willamette Valley pinot noir, during a three-and-a-half-hour walking tour.

Food Carts Portland
Tour some of the city’s favourite food cart pods with Brett Burmeister, the de facto food truck ambassador who’s been tracking the growing culture since the
first lot opened in 2008.

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This article appeared in issue 21

Featuring:

  • 48 reasons to travel in 2016
  • The must-visit places to explore this year
  • Hottest travel trends we're loving and more!

Have your say

Comments

  • Marie says:

    If you want to know more about how and why Portland got to be this way, check out piecesofportland.com

  • Amana says:

    This is such BS. People have moved here in droves, ran up real estate prices, that locals are forced out. There is a housing crisis, homeless people sleeping on the streets, parks doorways, and the biggest gang and drug problem ever.

  • Pdx says:

    Learn all about Portland’s unique neighborhoods at http://www.portlandneighborhood.com. 95 neighborhoods and each has something different to offer!

  • Katie says:

    Portland is great, yes. Portlanders are nice, for the most part. Do Portlanders hate when Californians move in? Oh yeah. Haha

  • Cyrus says:

    Nice read….. Here’s a great site for a “non” Oregonian perspective. http://www.wannabeportlandy.com

  • Portlandia says:

    Every Portlander wants you to delete this article now. Stop promoting our town, because with all the people you’re telling to move here? You guys are the reason Portland is losing every aspect that makes it amazing. PROMOTE AS A TOURIST DESTINATION!!

  • Dan says:

    “Cycling along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, I have a startling realisation: I could live here.”
    Yeah well, don’t.

  • Pdx native says:

    I sincerely hope this is satire.

  • pdx9284 says:

    Portland native here. You people are permanently destroying our city. Please stay the hell out.

    • James says:

      If you love something, let it be. The moment you tout it as a trophy it rusts.

    • No bs says:

      Go back to CALI. You Californians are tearing our culture apart. I seriously don’t think you people get it! We can spot you from a mile away, even if you do change your plates. Btw, stop bringing you cars!

  • Rae says:

    It’s because of articles like this that has caused tremendous gentrification throughout Portland. It’s not as progressive as people claim it to be – and homophobia and racism are alive and well here. Stop giving such glowing reviews unless you’ve lived here for at least a decade and have experienced oppression first hand. It may be great for some, but really not so great for many more.

  • Susan says:

    This is a light skimming of all Portland has to offer, and what you miss is the sincerity…. the heart. The subject deserves more space! We appreciate visitors ~ really, we do!

  • Kayla says:

    Yeah, what everyone needs is an article a Californian wrote about Portland, and how cool it is. You guys are ruining our city.

  • BobDobbs says:

    This article is a load of crap. Portland is not some magical nirvana. We have a huge homeless and gang problem as well as some of the highest rent in the country right now. Couple that with a scarcity of good paying jobs and it’s a real great place if you like anxiety.

  • Kelli says:

    Not for long if people keep writing starry-eyed postings like this – Portland is NOT what it used to be… I’ve lived here for over 20 years… there is a housing crisis, all the artists and creatives that made this city amazing can’t afford to live here anymore… Homeless at every on ramp to the highway – rush hours that start at 2 pm and end at 7pm… smashed windows so someone can steal a coat and gloves off my carseat because they are cold and can’t afford to buy one… and I live in the Alberta Arts District – bought my home over 12 years ago… and I have one question… what the hell is a exploding craft scene??

  • Jill says:

    This is a travel article – please do not tell the world they should come and live here! Feel free to visit, but we are having a housing crisis, employment problems and majir traffic due to all the people thinking this is such a livable city- it is no more. p.s, it rains here ALL THE TIME!!!

  • Bob says:

    No way. Portland sucks. Don’t waste your time going there.

  • Malk says:

    So here is the problem with your article… it is already becoming out of date because all these new people are knocking down our old buildings, driving up housing prices, and essentially destroying the things that made this city great. And then, as an added bonus, they complain that Portland isn’t enough like the cities they just moved from (usually NYC or LA).

    Stay in LA and NYC, guys. You’ll like it better.

    Also, Portlandia is a satire that attacks the people who we all hate. If you watch that show and think “Awesome, it’s a city of people like me!” you’re missing the point of the show, and you’re in for a pretty bad time if you move here.

  • James says:

    You left out the massive amounts of homeless (a full blown crisis), heroin addicts, and street kids. I’ve lived here my entire life (44 years) and have never seen the Willamette sparkle. Despite spending a fortune on a huge sewer project, the river still fills with sewage during heavy rains. Great place to work? Hardly. The job market is ultra-competitive due to the influx of trust funders from the NE and remote tech workers from silicon valley. Biking is great, until your bike gets stolen which happens a ton too. Look, Portland is great, but its not without its deep flaws too. Rosie articles like this don’t really paint the true picture.

  • Lee says:

    Unfortunately, Portland’s heyday is over. The art and beauty that made this city once unique is being drained by all the laggards and late-adopters that simply want to consume and profit off its beauty.

  • Bun says:

    NO ITS NOT COOL! STOP MOVING HERE EVERYONE

  • The Man from N. Alma Street. says:

    A story about Portland without mention of Dignity City, Lents Park or points east of 82nd is suspect. And we’re expecting 1million more in 20 years? Better start adding more buses and Max options because they certainly refuse to improve their street or highway system.

  • PDXNO says:

    Most awful city ever. Rains all the time. Cold. People are rude. Housing is overpriced. No jobs. Move to Denver.

  • PortlandBorn says:

    STOP MOVING HERE. STOP PROMPTING PEOPLE MOVING HERE. Our rent is spiking drastically, people are losing their homes, and if we build any more we’ll start losing this beautiful ‘city among the rainforest.’ Gang violence went from “haha, wannabe gangsters” to me watching the news and hearing about THREE GANG INITIATION MURDERS in ONE DAY. Traffic went crazy! Rush hour times have increased by a minimum of an hour in some places, and even up to 2 or 3 hours in others. I love this region for everything that is being destroyed as more and more people move here.

  • Ashley says:

    Sparkling Willamette….. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

  • Tia Ossenkop says:

    Saddly, you guide didn’t introduce you to the downside of this giant influx of people due to our city inviting everyone to live here. Our homeless population is exploding due to the fact that the elderly, handicapped and poverty level workers can no longer afford their homes. This due to the city planning to create mini cities out of the areas that these folks currently or recently have resided in. There are tent and she’d cities coping up everywhere behind grand homes, next to highways and hospitals . That plan is create something extremely similar to San Francisco. The place and similar places, that you are wanting to flea from. Available jobs exist for those who already have jobs, and MI imum wage jobs are becoming part time positions more and more week by week. Yes we have grateful and wonderful things here, and they are grateful to visit, but the more people who migrate here so fast, the more damage is being done to the people who helped create it. Is that what being humane, is all about?

  • B. Seth Brown says:

    Come to Portland for the affordable big city with the small town vibe. Stay for the irony that it no longer exists, thanks to all of the yuppies and homeless that are flocking here…

  • B. Seth Brown says:

    As soon as the media discovers something and deems it “cool”, it immediately loses that status. Please visit, but please don’t move here! You are stressing out the environment and social services that once made this a cool place to live. Now it’s filled with angry drunks, rich snobs and desperate street dwellers.

  • Bob says:

    Just what we need… another Californian saying “I could live here.” Guess what: this town has been overrun with wealthy California refugees, driving real estate prices upward and pricing out the folks who have lived here for decades and made Portland the haven from commercial excess that it once was. Traffic clogs the streets at all hours, good luck finding an affordable rental, and yes, Amana is right: there are homeless people everywhere now, thanks to thoughtless and ignorant articles like Ms. Renner’s.

  • Scottie says:

    They forgot the skyrocketing rental rates, Daily increasing homeless, and the rapidly growing hipster communities that are making the city not as cool as it used to be. Coming from someone who just had to move away from there to avoid becoming homeless myself.

  • Nick says:

    If you like rain, asshole bike riders, liberalism, bad roads, traffic, high rent,hipsters and homeless peoplethis is place to live! My suggestion is to look somewhere else portland suuuuucks!

  • Steve says:

    I’ve read the article and I’ve read the replies and there seems to be one POV conspicuously absent; that of a Cali resident who has purchased a home on Portland.
    Like the author, my wife and I visited Portland and found ourselves with a love-at-first-sight connection to it. So, we visited again… and again and remained convinced that we would like to retire there. I am in my mid-fifties, so retirement is not an option yet, but it’s coming and, based on the way real estate prices are rising, if we didn’t make a move now, a Portland retirement would be out of the question. We had enough saved for a 10% down payment on a house and started an eight month search wrought with offers, and rejections (from the sellers and us) finally scoring a very rare Fannie Mae foreclosure. Though we had enough land, we did NOT tear down the house to build two skinny houses, but instead are lovingly restoring it. We visit as often as we can and while we are there we spend money! Since we don’t work there, we make no contribution to the commuting traffic problem. We shop, we eat, we drink, etc. We engage with our neighbors and we think they like us and respect our participation in the Portland experience. We are NOT ganstas, we have NOT put anyone out of a home or gouged them on rent. We are NOT taking anyone’s jobs. We are no more than a tiny influx of good will, good vibes and new money. And, to be blunt, it is ignorant to lay all of the population growth at the feet of migrating Californians; EVERYBODY is moving to Portland from everywhere! Cities nationwide and even worldwide are gentrifying. I’m originally from NYC; need I say more? So, to the Portanders who would paint all new residents from California with the same brush, maybe it is you who are sullying the best aspects of your city’s population, not us. I hear there are low rents and a burgeoning art scene in Detroit and they’d be beyond delighted to have you.

  • Michele says:

    I am a Portland native. I have watched the influx of people from everywhere destroy what was once a beautiful tiny city. People move here and then bitch about the rainy crappy weather we live with nine months out of the year. Then they bitch about the people here not being friendly. Yeah, we are not friendly. We can’t stand that you outsiders are moving here and destroying our town. If you visit, go home. This will preserve our beautiful home for your future visits.
    One last thing. Portland rents are skyrocketing. Check this out; http://www.wweek.com/2015/09/30/portlands-rent-spike-spreads-east-pressuring-low-income-residents/

  • Shannon says:

    Portland native here…40 years! Come visit..please don’t move here. Quit toting Portland as the “coolest” place to live…visit sure…we do not need more people moving here. Period.

  • Mhicheil says:

    Love Portland, but not so friendly to the other two wheeler community, aka motorcycles. Cars too busy texting and bicyclist not riding single file when we come down the road.

  • Barbie says:

    We can spot you Oregon natives as well..and?