‘Portland, Oregon, is like everything that’s good about San Francisco, but without the bad parts,” announced my sister — and as a longtime, devoted denizen of the latter city, she ought to know.
Drop-dead beautiful, outdoorsy and hip? Check. Funky coffee houses? Double check. Infectiously earnest foodie scene, with great restaurants and a cool vegan subculture? Check. Laid-back, welcoming Jewish community? Check.
“All that, yet the streets are clean, and the parking is ridiculously easy,” swooned my sister.
I was amused by her enthusiasm, but not surprised. Portland has been winning over savvy travelers for several years now, as locally sourced vegetarian bistros, eco-friendly clothing boutiques and offbeat arts festivals have added a hip young vibe to this eternally stunning location.
The cool factor is official with the recent debut of “Portlandia,” a show on the Independent Film Channel that celebrates the city’s bohemian spirit. Recent episodes have featured locavores, Sarah McLachlan and, of course, a music festival.
Straddling the verdant banks of the Willamette River, capped by the snowy peaks of Mt. Hood, Portland is a compact, manageable city that’s delightful to explore. My sister wasn’t kidding about the parking, either. And a convenient light-rail system and an ever-expanding network of bike paths make it easier than ever to leave the car at home.
The Pacific Northwest’s legendary dampness means that spring comes early here, with hillsides turning pink and yellow in a riot of blooms, and joggers, Rollerbladers and bikers turning out in a whirl of Patagonia fleece. Green in every sense of the word, Portland is particularly lush this time of year — nowhere more so than in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, where cherry trees blanket the scenic river banks in a sea of pink.
But it’s roses what really give this city its blushing tint. With a horticulture-friendly climate, Portland calls itself “The Rose City,” and roses play a major part in the local cultural life — from the many lovely public gardens to the International Rose Festival of May and June.
Tickets are now on sale for the festival’s major events, which include a spectacular floral parade. Spring is also the ideal time to visit Portland’s famous International Rose Test Garden, where even non-botanists will be floored (fleured?) by the profusion of blossoms on display.
As drab winter rain gives way to spring sunshine, a favorite gathering spot to enjoy the flowers is the Pittock Mansion, a French chateau and gardens high on a bluff in Portland’s West Hills. You can tour the lavishly furnished interior during the day and hike the adjoining trails with views of the Cascade Mountain range. Or do as the locals do, bring folding chairs, a bottle of Willamette Valley pinot noir or a local microbrew to the mansion's flower-filled lawn, where a sloping hillside with dramatic city views is the perfect spot to take in a West Coast sunset.
Jewish culture is also in bloom this spring. April showers bring the Portland Jewish Film Festival, which runs from April 13-17 and counts as a major event on a coast that’s celluloid-obsessed. The Jewish Film Festival follows the largest film event on the Northwestern calendar — the 34th Portland International Film Festival, which is currently on, with its last screening on Feb. 26.
In the heart of Portland’s left-bank historic district, the once-homeless Oregon Jewish Museum has flourished in a lovely new space since 2000, and is increasingly considered one of the city’s most vibrant and relevant institutions.
On view through May 8 are the stark, compelling black-and-white photographs and musical memorabilia of Ernest Bloch, the Jewish composer and late-in-life Oregonian best known for his mournful “Kol Nidre” melody. The images that make up “Ernest Bloch — Framing a Vision of the World” are the fruit of research begun by Eric Johnson while he was a student at the University of Oregon. Johnson served as guest curator for the exhibit, which reveals the composer’s lesser-known photographic talent.His images serve as important historical documents.
“MAKING MUSIC — Jazz Photographs by Fran Kaufman,” an exhibit on view through April, offers a look at a different musical genre — one that complements the currently running 2011 Portland Jazz Festival, with concerts and events through Feb. 27 (see the website for information).
From the museum, stroll across the river on a footbridge for a swing through Portland’s funkier, hippyish side, the Buckman neighborhood. Housed in a shabby-chic Victorian building on Southeast 12th Street, the Rimsky Korsakoffee House attracts lots of serious-looking men with beards — but that’s where any similarity to the Russian composer ends.
With its ironic name and fashionably late opening time, Rimsky Korsakoffee House is a mecca for grungy young artist-types seeking caffeine, chocolate and liberal-minded conversation. Portlanders take both their coffee and their conversation very seriously. This is, after all, home to the cult-favorite Stumptown Coffee Roasters, as well as the home base of Powell Books, a destination for those seeking rare or niche volumes.) n