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Portland, Ore.

The downtown skyline with Mt. Hood in the distance. (©Travel Portland) The downtown skyline with Mt. Hood in the distance. (©Travel Portland)
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Situated at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, Portland, Oregon, with a metropolitan population of roughly two million, is a city of discreet charms. That it claims a rose garden as one of its biggest attractions should give you an idea of just how laid-back this city is. Sure, Portlanders are just as attached to their cellphones and PDAs as residents of other urban areas, but this is the City of Roses, and people still take time to stop and smell the flowers. Spend much time here, and you, too, will likely feel the leisurely pace seeping into your bones.

While nearby Seattle, Washington, has zoomed into the national consciousness, Portland has, until recently, managed to dodge the limelight and the problems that come with skyrocketing popularity. For many years now Portland has looked upon itself as a small, accessible city, vaguely European in character. Clean and friendly are the two most common descriptors of the city. However, as word has spread about overcrowding in Seattle, people looking for the good life and affordable housing have turned to Portland, which is now experiencing the same sort of rapid growth that Seattle began going through more than a decade ago.

Portland does not have any major tourist sights. Instead, it is a city of quiet charms that must be searched for and savored -- the shade of the stately elms in the South Park Blocks, the tranquillity of the Japanese Garden, the view from the grounds of Pittock Mansion, the miles of hiking trails in Forest Park. Sure, there's a good art museum and a world-class science museum, but these are not nearly as important to the locals as the many parks and public gardens. Not only does Portland claim beautiful rose gardens, the most authentic Japanese Garden in North America, and the largest classical Chinese garden in the country, but it also has both the world's smallest city park and the largest forested urban park in the country.

The city is also the nation's microbrew capital. Espresso may be the beverage that gets this town going in the morning, but it is microbrewed beer that helps the city maintain its mellow character. There are so many brewpubs here in Portland that the city has been nicknamed Munich on the Willamette. Wine bars are also popular hangouts, which shouldn't come as a surprise, considering how close the city is to the Willamette Valley wine country.

Portland itself may be short on things for visitors to do, but the city's surroundings certainly are not. Within a 1 1/2- to 2-hour drive from Portland, you can be strolling a Pacific Ocean beach, walking beside a waterfall in the Columbia Gorge, hiking on Mount Hood (a dormant volcano as picture perfect as Mt. Fuji), driving through the Mount St. Helens blast zone, or sampling world-class pinot noirs in the Oregon wine country. It is this proximity to the outdoors that makes Portland a great city to use as a base for exploring some of the best of the Northwest.

Did You Know?

The flasher in the famous "Expose Yourself to Art" poster is none other than Bud Clark, the former mayor of Portland.

Portland is the only city in the United States with an extinct volcano within the city limits (Mount Tabor).

Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, got his start in Portland.

More Asian elephants have been born in Portland (at the Oregon Zoo) than in any other city in North America.

Twenty downtown water fountains were a gift to the city from teetotaling early-20th-century timber baron Simon Benson, who wanted his mill workers to have something other than alcohol to drink during the day.

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