written by James Sinks | photos by Greg Vaughn
Eugene is a kaleidoscope. It is a swirl of color against a verdant backdrop. Oregon’s second-largest city, Eugene is home to 157,100 people, the University of Oregon, has miles of bike paths and a vibrant cultural scene. Like a kaleidoscope, Eugene varies depending on your point of view.
Near downtown, at the base of Skinner Butte (the native Kalapuya tribes called the 682-foot-high hill “Ya-Po-Ah”), and close to where city founder Eugene Skinner built a cabin, a tile-decorated column stretches thirty feet into the sky above the Willamette Valley. Around the base, the word “welcome” is inscribed in several languages, along with notations of important historical milestones. Among them: The first farmers’ market in 1908 and the 1995 death of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia.
The Douglas fir forests that ring the southern Willamette Valley helped to fuel the mills that sustained Eugene through its formative years, but two towering contemporary figures helped shape the city’s personality today. Novelist and counterculture icon, Ken Kesey, drove across the country with his band of “merry pranksters” in the multihued “Further” bus and dabbled in recreational chemistry in the 1960s. He lived just outside the city until his death in 2001. University of Oregon track star and Olympian Steve Prefontaine cemented the reputation of Eugene as Track Town, USA before he died in an auto accident in 1975 at the age of 24. Olympic-caliber runners from around the world still settle in Eugene to live and train.
When you visit, don’t forget a bike and your running shoes. The city is the birthplace of Nike and offers many ways to break a sweat—even a rockclimbing park in a former basalt quarry on the flank of Skinner Butte. In the winter, Willamette Pass Ski Area is an hour’s drive into the Cascades.
Introduce yourself to the Willamette. The Willamette River glides through the heart of Eugene, through the city’s rose garden and past the campus of the University of Oregon. The best way to experience the river is by bike on the Ruth Bascom Riverbank Trails. Named for a popular Eugene mayor who died in 2009, the system of paved paths parallel the river with several bridges spanning the water.
To market to marché we go. Even in the persistent gray of the Willamette Valley winter, there is a place you can see blue sky every day. The eclectic Fifth Street Public Market includes fresh-cut flowers, boutiques, and back-lit ceiling frescoes. Adjacent to the courtyard, you’ll find a wood-fired pizza oven, bartender’s pantry, charcuterie, French pastries and wine tasting side-by-side at Marché Provisions. It’s a short walk to the retro Modern furniture store, the swanky Café Lucky Noodle, and the upscale Oregon Electric Station, with its lounge in a former train depot. You can grab hip Southwestern fare at Red Agave and award-winning brews at Steelhead Brewery on East 5th Avenue.
At The Vintage Restaurant & Dessert Bar, in a small Victorian house nestled between buildings downtown, you’ll find fondue and crepes, tapas, local and organic entrees, and a drink menu with a twist: house-made infused liquor. In a collection of multicolored jars across the top of the bar, the booze absorbs the flavor of orange, hibiscus, lavender and jalapeños. Try the spicy Cuban ($7), made with jalapeño-infused vodka. There are no reservations accepted for this local favorite. Afterward, catch a show at one of Eugene’s award-winning performing arts venues, including the Hult Center, Historic McDonald Theatre, Lord Leebrick Theater and The John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts.
It wouldn’t be Eugene without a quick morning run. Take a lap on the Adidas/Rexius Trail System in southeast Eugene, which follows Amazon Creek and makes a loop through Amazon park. Then, grab coffee or tea, and a ham and provolone croissant ($3.75) at Hideaway Bakery tucked behind Mazzi’s restaurant. Pets are welcome on the patio, and there’s even a sandbox for the kids. Between May and November, head to the corner of Oak and 8th streets downtown for Eugene’s famous bazaar of the sometimes bizarre—Saturday Market. From humble beginnings, the market now fills three city blocks and is a whirlwind of sound, handmade products, earthy aromas and tempting organic fare.
While in Eugene, a quick road trip is in order. Drive twenty-five minutes south of the city and visit the spectacular King Estate Winery, which sits on a hilltop near Lorane. Wine tasting is free, or $5 allows you to sample from a wider array of varietals. The winery, established in 1991, bottles one of the nation’s top-rated Pinot gris. Its restaurant has spectacular views and serves a burger with foie gras and truffled fries ($18).
For the evening, make reservations at Rocky Maselli’s new Italian restaurant Osteria Sfizio, which features an array of local fare in an updated Italian menu. Allow time before your reservation to browse Osteria Sfizio’s neighbors at the Oakway Center. The local Nike store and the Euphoria Chocolate Company are good counterpoints to visit while you’re at the Oakway Center. If you finish dinner before 9 p.m. on Friday or Saturday, check out live glass blowing downtown at Studio West. Grab late dessert (even if it’s just a macaroon) at Cafe Zenon, which is open until 10 p.m. Want to catch a movie instead? The venerable Bijou Art Cinema plays cult films to thought-provoking blockbusters in a former church near the university campus.
After two days of indulgence, a Prefontaine workout offers a good balance. If you brought running shoes, you won’t want to leave town without making at least a loop on Pre’s Trail, an easy four-mile path along the river that also takes you past Autzen Stadium. Afterward, head across the river to the university main campus and see the birthplace of Track Town: Hayward Field.
Now that you’ve taken in Pre’s athletic history, dial back the clocks to prehistory Oregon at The Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History (admission $3) on campus. Among the displays are fossils and 9,000-year-old sagebrush bark sandals that were discovered in a cave at Fort Rock in Lake County. Across campus, you can view an ambitious collection of art and sculpture at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (admission $5).
Duck into some shops. An assortment of bars, ethnic eateries, and clothes and bike shops line the
two-block stretch of 13th Avenue, just west of campus. If you want a good book, you’ll find stacks at Smith’s Family Bookstore on East 13th. The UO Bookstore is a must-visit to load up on green and yellow garb. Want to people-watch or catch a game on TV? Check out longtime hangouts Rennie’s Landing or Taylor’s. If none of the fare on 13th Avenue is sufficiently tempting, follow the wellbeaten path to Track Town Pizza. After 5 p.m., try Beppe and Gianni’s Trattoria, which consistently earns favorable reviews. Top it all off with a visit to Prince Puckler’s ice cream just across the street.