Street Play

A budget trip to this progressive city finds colorful sidewalk scenes, bohemian shops and cheap public transportation

$500 Getaway // Portland, Ore.

April 20, 2008|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Reporter

IN A DRIZZLY SUNDAY IN PORTland, Ore., I had no immediate obligation other than to became one with the languorous and the buzzed at World Cup Coffee and Tea.

There, over an economical Americano, I contemplated the city's appeal, particularly for budget travelers: Portland is its own piece of performance art, a place where everyday life is a public spectacle and the price of admission is negligible. It's lifestyle as theater. Commuters ride skateboards to work, tricksters post amusing dog portraits on public bulletin boards, and sidewalk-cafe society materializes as soon as the sun comes out.

In most cases, flying to the West for a long weekend on a $500 budget might seem farfetched -- even with the advantage of a $240 (including tax) round-trip ticket on Southwest. Not if you go to Portland. With the city's fine public transportation system, (free within central "fareless square"), renting a car made no sense. A single room in the comfortable hostel where I stayed cost $45 a night. Expenses for food, coffee and miscellany were also modest, and there's no state sales tax, sorely testing my best efforts to spend the allotted $500 during a three-day stay this past winter.

At first, I was a tad leery of visiting this progressive outpost, routinely nominated as the greenest, fleeciest, foodiest, microbrewiest place to live in the United States. Check out, where you'll note that FitPregnancy magazine even called the city the best place in America to give birth.

There's more -- folk-rock indie idols the Decemberists and the well-stirred orchestra Pink Martini were conceived in the town often referred to by its airport code, PDX. Besides pulsing with music, theater and the visual arts, Portland is also home to Powell's City of Books, the largest independent bookstore in the universe. All this, and shaving your legs is optional.

For a Baltimorean, would a weekend in Portland be as annoying as visiting your straight-A, skinny sister, who does everything smart the first time? I wondered whether near-perfection robs citizens of the challenge of carving out an identity or making a dent in the urban fabric. If it's all there already, why bother?

Skepticism quickly fell prey to a soft spot for artful urban living. By that standard, the city delivered in a slew of entertaining and beguiling ways.

I arrived on Thursday during a spell of clear and balmy weather that Portlanders called the "February tease." Within 15 minutes of landing, I was on the MAX, the city's light-rail system, bound for the Northwest Portland International Hostel in the Nob Hill neighborhood.

Located in a restored home built at the turn of the 20th century, the hostel percolated with nomadic energy as travelers read e-

mails, perused the bulletin board for rides, and shared tales of the road while preparing meals in the kitchen. I checked into a single room (hall bathrooms were ample, clean and included hair dryers), received a "map tour" of Portland from intern Rieko Ikoma, and set off on foot to tour the post-industrial Pearl District.

After a lunch of brown rice, tempeh and grilled vegetables at Get Bento, an organic restaurant in a former filling station, I meandered through the gentrified community of warehouses now home to an inordinate number of shelter stores, as well as boutiques,

coffee bars and galleries.

At Matisse, a slightly louche boutique, new clothing assumed a vintage air: a scrupulously crumpled wedding gown, satin-doll frocks and aloha prints that could pass for relics of your mom's 1955 trip to Hawaii.

Next door, Cargo contained a warehouse full of Indonesian artifacts, South African folk art and other decorative items and furnishings from around the world -- a tableau that formed a vivid connection to the city's port history. Next, I visited Jamison Square, a park crammed with moms, nannies and little ones -- testifying to Portland's recent accolade as a birthing haven.

Fortified by a chocolate coconut gelato from Via Delizia, I continued to Tanner Springs Park, where the Pearl District's former incarnation as a wetlands is honored with an expanse of wild grasses and water rippling with koi.

Later that day, I made my way to the Nob Hill commercial district, near the hostel. In Cannibals, a gallery devoted to art made from recycled materials, I met artist Alicia Justus, who wore siren-red lipstick and a breastplate she had sewn from old buttons and trimmed with trailing pheasant feathers.

Justus, an employee of the gallery and the vintage-clothing shop next door, spoke solemnly of "the Portland mission," the charge she and peers have accepted to celebrate all things local and sustainable, from Willamette Valley Rieslings to hazelnuts to the eclectic contents of the gallery itself.

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