Vibrant Food Culture Surrounded by Lush and Diverse Landscapes

In 2005 I quit my job and committed to full time freelancing and travel blogging. So, my wife and I had a decision to make: we could move anywhere we wanted within the United States, where should we go? Our answer was immediate and united. Portland, Oregon was quick to draw us to it as a uniquely quirky West Coast city with a fast-growing reputation as the best restaurant and food scene in the nation.

On top of that, Portland is surrounded by nearly every West Coast ecoregion possible: lush river valleys, grasslands, dense coniferous forests, wide open deserts, snowy mountain peaks, and rugged Pacific coastline.

Since our move, Portland’s profile as the epicenter of the American outdoorsy-progressive wonderland has grown even faster, and the city has ballooned at breakneck speed. Real estate has been in a perpetual boom state, rising rents mean further gentrification and problems with homelessness, and Portland citizens openly wonder if the growth comes at the expense of the city’s unique culture of weirdness.

Portland is a city of small neighborhoods, which are often more important to the scene than the city’s downtown itself. As a travel blogger, I can’t help but observe changes in each of these neighborhoods, but despite the costs of growth, Portland is as vibrant as ever, and I grow more in love with Portland each year. Here are a few reasons why:

Mathilde’s Kitchen 
7238 SE Foster Rd.
Portland, OR 97206

Portland pioneered America’s food cart scene, and today the city features over 500 converted trucks, pods, and carts spread throughout the city. The business model allows young chefs the opportunity to start a business quickly or to flex their creative muscles and, for many, the food cart becomes a jumping off point towards owning and operating a full-fledged restaurant.

Mathilde Aurelian-Wilson serves up authentic Haitian cuisine at Mathilde’s Kitchen, one of several Latin American & Caribbean-themed food carts in the Portland Mercado public market. I suggest the garlicky chicken thighs, served with rice, beans, and spicy cabbage slaw.

Olympia Provisions 
107 SE Washington St.
Portland, OR 97214

One of the first things you’ll notice about Portland is the absence of the cultural trappings of many U.S. cities: there are few large billboards, almost no mall culture, and national restaurant chains are few and far between inside city limits.

Portlanders love to support restaurants that serve local, seasonal ingredients. Try the bar at Olympia Provisions in the industrial southeast neighborhood. This location is a salumeria, producing a wide range of cured meats. But the restaurant itself, which serves Mediterranean style cuisine with a Pacific Northwest influence, is a great example of the dining experience in Portland. Sit at the bar and watch as the chefs prepare shared plates. Or in the warmer months sit by the large open windows to people watch while you sip a craft cocktail or Oregon wine.

Mt. Tabor Park SE Salmon St. Portland, OR 97215

Urban parks are kind of a big deal. Portland park pride runs deep, and locals make use of them year round for running, playing, and sitting alone with your thoughts. You can also find festivals, farmers markets, and other events at parks across the city. If I had to pick a favorite though, Mt. Tabor Park would be it. Located on top of a volcanic cinder cone, the park is an ideal place for morning walks, bird watching, and taking in impressive views of Portland.

We often take a long stroll on one of the twisty trails among the trees, then reward ourselves with a light lunch at nearby Cheese Bar on SE Belmont. As the name suggests, it’s an emporium of more than 200 different types of cheese that also serves delicious seasonal menus with beer and wine pairings to go with all that amazing cheese.

Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach US 101, Cannon Beach, OR 97110

Part of the lure of Portland is its proximity to the coast. The Pacific Ocean is ninety-minutes away, and despite the speed of growth in Portland, the entire Oregon Coast feels lost in another time. Miles of coastline often remain empty, especially outside of summer months. Mornings are drenched in a marine layer of fog, which helps to bring out the scent of the ocean and the perfume-and-pine smell of the nearby Sitka spruce trees.

A heavenly morning begins with coffee and pastries at Sea Level in Tolovana just sound of Cannon Beach, followed by a barefoot walk to the nearby 72-meter Haystack Rock, which juts out from the water just feet from the coast. Haystack Rock is a protected sanctuary for seabirds. Ask the local volunteers to help you find the brilliantly-colored Tufted Puffins, which nests on the rock during spring and summer months.

Wildflower Hikes in Hood River Hood River, OR 97031

Hood River, a small city nestled at the foot of Mount Hood, looks out over the Columbia River. Hood River is recognized internationally for its windsurfing and kiteboarding, but we use it a base to explore nearby wildflower-strewn hills.

Not only is Hood River situated between mountain and river, it’s also in a thin zone between the misty, wet Pacific Northwest and the dry rain-shadow deserts of eastern Oregon. This unique transition zone makes for brilliant wildflower displays in spring and early summer. Explore the easy Rowena Plateau trail, five miles east of Hood River, or Catherine Creek, east of nearby White Salmon on the Washington side of the river.

Like Portland, Hood River has plenty of microbreweries producing tasty craft beers. My favorite is pFriem Taproom, located right on the river, facing Hood River Waterfront Park. Or try a traditionally hoppy IPA at Double Mountain Taproom, located in downtown Hood River.

“Whether you are just in town for a few days or have some extra time to explore the wild and still rugged and extremely beautiful natural landscape around Portland, I hope that you enjoy all that this Pacific Northwest gem has to offer and help us to keep Portland weird!”

About Erik Gauger
Erik Gauger is a father, a freelance web consultant, and amateur travel writer based in Portland, Oregon. Gauger has been writing and photographing for Notes from the Road, his personal travelogue, since 1999. He catalogues his travels with handmade maps, large format film photography, travel sketches and illustrations, and long form essays on subjects ranging from travel philosophy to local characters to history and science. Gauger champions the idea that travel blogging is a powerful medium that is part art, part journalism, and that travel journalism plays an important role in activist issues about the impact of tourism, development, and local cultures.