• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Travels in Portlandia

One of the planet’s most bike-friendly cities, Portland is also known for its great beer.


Coffee and doughnuts. The two essential food groups for the morning after the night before are reviving my traveller’s spirit. The Pacific Northwest sunshine is also kicking in, and against all odds I’ve arrived at Voodoo Doughnut’s downtown Portland location before the morning rush. There’s a small queue introducing curious visitors to loyal locals, but within minutes I’m inside the garish interior that’s a dedicated monument to kitsch. A velvet airbrushed painting of soul legend Isaac Hayes – the patron saint of Voodoo Doughnut, according to the store’s pop culture iconography – looks down, while the playlist shuffles between Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails and Johnny Cash.

Ignoring the store’s mantra, “The Magic is in the Hole!”, I bypass circular options topped with M&Ms or Oreos and sign up for the signature bacon maple bar. Bacon and maple beer from Oregon’s Rogue craft brewery is also available, but I wisely kick on to another Portland institution a few doors down. The music at Stumptown Coffee Roasters is defiantly local, with Portland indie favourites the Shins and the Decemberists the soundtrack to the choreography of the tattooed baristas.

Refuelled and recharged, I take to two wheels to discover why Portland is one of the planet’s most bike-friendly cities. It has more than 350km of bike lanes, so my exploration only scratches the surface, but as I head northwest to the Pearl District, the city’s reputation is soon backed up. Vehicles stop with patience and consideration, eco-friendly street cars cruise carefully past and medium-rise apartments align to create concise urban villages. It’s tempting to optimistically imagine Auckland emerging from the city’s much-discussed Unitary Plan with a similar vibe.

Given I’m riding a bike named after American author Ursula Le Guin, it’s only appropriate that I stop at Powell’s City of Books, the planet’s biggest independent bookstore, spread over 6300sq m. Going walkabout in the departure-lounge-sized travel section, I fill my day pack with hard-to-find tomes on hard-to-reach countries, before setting off again with a considerably heavier load.


Portland’s street-food scene is another revelation our country’s biggest centre should seek to emulate. From Gonzo Falafel and Hummus to The Grilled Cheese Grill, more than 600 food carts dot the city’s streets, many gathered into “pods” either side of the Willamette River. Uptown, carts open for lunch for eager groups of local desk jockeys and apartment dwellers, whereas downtown the vibe is more after-dark catering to drinkers and club-goers.

To encourage new operators and promote diversity, monthly rental for food carts is kept at around US$700, and for many local chefs an outdoor and mobile location is an affordable alternative to opening an actual restaurant. Savvy cart operators have amassed sizeable followings on social media and new openings in the city are afforded wide and often reverential coverage on quirky Portland-based blogs.

Innovative up-and-coming chefs like the crew at Eurotrash trial challenging flavours, while hardworking recent immigrants grab a slice of the action by dishing up culinary memories of home. Savour southern Indian flavours at Tiffin Asha and Colombian-style arepas and empanadas at El Pilón, or mop up zingy Ethiopian curries with spongy injera bread at Dalo’s Kitchen. It’s a truly global scene, and a few carts have even opened at Portland International Airport to offer a last-minute international flavour infusion for travelling foodies.

Later in the afternoon, it’s time for the No 1 reason I’ve come to Oregon, so I board Brewvana’s retro school bus to explore Portland’s reputation as one of the world’s great beer cities. More than 50 craft breweries lubricate a population of about 600,000, and our international crew of beer nerds departs in search of Pacific Northwest hop bombs, Belgian-style saison beers and robust stouts crammed with chilli and chocolate. At the wheel, a shaggy beer geek called Matt entertains with stories of home brewing gone horribly wrong, classic James Brown the musical accompaniment to the heady expectation of hoppy good times.

As we cruise through the industrial-meets-residential grid of east Portland, the diversity of the city’s beer scene is revealed within a few blocks. Hiking and climbing are celebrated at Base Camp Brewing, with beers including their In-Tents India Pale Lager available in lightweight aluminium bottles for expeditions to nearby Mt Hood or the Columbia River Gorge. Mountain bikes and vintage urban cruisers are lined up outside cyclist-friendly Hopworks Urban Brewery, and the unassuming Gigantic Brewing Company presents the biggest and boldest beers of the day in a compact garden bar filled with bearded locals.

I continue my research back across the river at Bailey’s Taproom. The bar’s huge screen lists the 20 brews currently on tap and what’s coming up next. A group of hipsters enjoy the old-school thrills of a game of Connect 4, but I’m too busy working through my tasting paddle, with eclectic brews such as a barrel-aged wheat beer with kaffir lime leaves and versions laced with coffee and star anise.

Across the lane, Tugboat is known for Chernobyl, a double Imperial stout packing a whopping 13% punch. It’s tempting, but after a big day, it’s time to call it a night. I’ve got more of the quirks and qualities of Portland to explore tomorrow. With a bit of luck, a coffee and a doughnut will set me right.

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.