Why Portland Is One Of A Kind (And Why You Should Go)

29 November 2018
Read Time: 4.8 mins

“Have you experienced the weird in Portland?” asks Christi, my Uber driver and a Portlander since 1996. “I just like to stand back and watch.”

Man playing piano in street, Portland, Oregon Non-profit Piano. Push. Play. invites local artists to transform donated pianos for impromptu summer concerts around Portland. (Image: Portland Oregon Visitors Association)

While the ubiquitous ‘Keep Portland Weird’ bumper sticker slogan actually originated in the ‘other’ hipster city of Austin, there’s no denying Portland fully embraces its mantle as the undisputed fiefdom of weird. More officially, Portland has the most craft breweries in the world, the highest rate of cycling commuters in the US, and the world’s smallest park (Mill Ends Park at just 61cm across). But what does ‘weird’ mean, exactly?

Bike on street in fall, Portland Portland is known as America's bike capital. (Image: Portland Oregon Visitors Association)

In his book, This Is Portland: The City You’ve Heard You Should Like, Alexander Barrett argues that the Oregon city with many nicknames should be called “kooky at best”.

“And even then, only on rare occasions. Maybe during the annual naked bike ride,” he writes. “But those people know exactly how kooky they’re being, it doesn’t count.”

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Beer flight at Deschutes Brewery, Portland Sample your way through Portland's craft brews on a tour. (Image: Cassandra Laffey)

Yes, there’s self-awareness with the weird, but it’s never contrived. The TV sketch comedy, Portlandia, shot in and around Portland, has done a great job of gently parodying the lifestyle and inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest city since the show’s debut in 2011.

“It’s funny, because it’s true,” admits Heather Anderson, Travel Portland’s international tourism manager, noting the recognisable element of truth in Portlandia’s hipster tropes.

Whether it’s Portland Psychic School students divining the Portland Trail Blazers’ NBA season destiny in Portland Monthly magazine or the fact the city has more cannabis dispensaries than pharmacies (recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon, with caveats), weird is kinda normal in the Rose City. Plus Portlanders are just so darn nice, which makes visitors feel right at home.

Voodoo Doughnut signature donut Not surprisingly, Voodoo Doughnut has a cult following for its donut creations. (Image: Portland Oregon Visitors Association)

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The local passion for gourmet donuts, craft brews, food carts and artisan coffee that borders on religious fervour could be construed as weird if it wasn’t totally warranted. A food cart in an old schoolbus that only sells grilled cheese sandwiches, donuts in the shape of male appendages and pioneering the cold brew coffee trend – there’s a plethora of choice in Portland, and it’s all good.

The best way to experience it all is to get walking. Portland is easy to explore on foot, with a compact downtown area and half-size city blocks. As always ­– but especially in Portland – don’t forget to look up and down as you get around the characterful neighbourhoods. Spot the bike lane markers that transform the one-dimensional symbols into musicians like Prince or Bowie and even a chicken crossing the road by bike, or perhaps avert your eyes when the World Naked Bike Ride (the largest of this global event) cycles into town each June.

paste-up art on Mississippi ave, portland Paste-up art on Mississippi Avenue spans political and pop culture. (Image: Cassandra Laffey)

The Eastside is where you’ll get a taste of the real Portland. Along Mississippi Avenue in the Lower North Portland area aka the ‘Brooklyn of the Pacific Northwest’, you’ll find Portlandia central with shops solely specialising in light bulbs (Sunlan Lighting), the all-vegan Polynesian cuisine No Bones Beach Club, and Paxton Gate, a curio store filled with taxidermy, dinosaur fossils, crystals and books on foraging for mushrooms, which, while not for all tastes, does seem particularly at home amid the eclectic shops and colourful Victorian houses that line Mississippi.

Close-up of coffee cup Coffee culture is a local obsession in Portland. (Image: Cassandra Laffey)

Amid all the stereotypes of naked cyclists, polite motorists, craft brews, coffee roasters, artisan donuts, food carts, vegans and vacuum museums (yes, really!), Portland sounds less weird and more like the place you really want to be. I’ll leave the last word to author Alexander Barrett, who suggests this replacement bumper sticker: ‘Keep Portland Portland!’. I couldn’t agree more.

This article orginally appeared in Travel ideas: Wow List 2018.

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Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Portland.

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Main image: Portland Oregon Visitors Association

Cassandra Laffey

Consumed with unrequited wanderlust, I get my fix in 24/7 cities and hippie retreats. I'm still looking for the ultimate combo of secluded beach and major metropolis, and my happy place is a 5-star hotel room all to myself - sigh.