Portland is a hub for the car-free and carefree

When guests at Portland's studiously hip Ace Hotel want to break away from their bedside turntables (yes, LPs) for urban exploring, they can borrow a Dutch-designed cruiser and a cycling map laced with hints: Do steer clear of train tracks and yield to pedestrians; don't blow through red lights or ride while using a cellphone.

"And remember," the map cautions. "Drinking and smoking while riding is for professionals only. Do not attempt!"

Good advice, considering this Pacific Northwest city is home to so many micro-breweries that it's been dubbed Beervana, and to enough artisanal distilleries that a walking tour of "Libation Alley" is in the offing.

But it certainly doesn't apply to the Zoo Bombers, a tribe of gonzo Portland cyclists (and sporadic intrepid visitors) that convene a few blocks from the Ace on Sunday evenings.

Their agenda: Climb aboard one of the light-rail MAX trains that crisscross the metro area, get off at the Oregon Zoo, and careen downhill on souped-up kiddie bikes. Bruises and broken speed limits — not to mention the occasional intoxicant — are par for the course.

No matter how you choose to get around this outpost of half a million free-wheeling souls, car keys aren't required.

Founded in the mid-19th century as a shipping and logging center (which prompted one of its first nicknames, Stumptown), Portland has been a poster child for progressive urban planning for decades. And as lofty fuel prices drive destinations to tout their pedestrian- and biker-friendly attributes, the city's extensive mass transit, green credentials and neighborhood-centric culture are garnering even more attention.

"We still have parking lots filled with SUVs," says Shelby Wood, who writes PDXgreen, a column and blog about sustainable living, for Portland's daily newspaper, The Oregonian. But here, she adds, "it seems normal to do things that still strike other parts of the country as awfully different" — from raising free-range chickens in backyards to creating crosswalk "bike boxes" that let cyclists get ahead of cars at busy intersections, with the goal of reducing collisions.

Forget the rental car

Among the smitten is Paul Kahn, a Philadelphia lawyer who recently arrived in Portland via Amtrak from Seattle. After hopping a MAX train for a seven-minute ride from downtown to lushly forested, 130-acre Washington Park, Kahn and his wife, Janet, are ensconced on a free shuttle bus that runs May through September between the zoo and two of the city's best-known attractions, the International Rose Test Garden and the Japanese Garden.

"We never considered renting a car, because it's so compact and easy to get around," says Kahn, whose appreciation of what he calls Portland's "edgy East Village" vibe extends to the tattoo of mountains and waterfalls that spreads across his middle-aged bus driver's right calf.

Along with the MAX trains that whisk visitors from airport to downtown in 40 minutes, a sleek, tourist-friendly spoke of Portland's public transportation system is its expanding network of streetcars. Launched in 2001, the Czech-made cars run every 12-15 minutes and cost $1.75 to ride all day. They link downtown with such neighborhoods as Northwest/Nob Hill, home to a gaggle of high-end emporiums and restaurants, and newly developed South Waterfront, where a $4 aerial tram ride delivers million-dollar views of the Willamette (rhymes with "dam it") River, Mount Hood, and the downtown skyline.

Streetcars also have played a prominent role in the Pearl District's evolution from an industrial landfill and stomping ground for hustlers and junkies — local indie filmmaker and resident Gus Van Sant shot 1989's Drugstore Cowboy here — to a trendy loft and condo-laced enclave.

The Pearl is still home to much-beloved Powell's City of Books, which sprawls up to four stories high over an entire block and claims to be the world's largest independent bookstore. But now, it's also a place where a waiter at the Tea Zone & Camellia Lounge serves Virtual Buddha tonics while sporting a "Genius by Birth, Slacker by Choice" T-shirt — and where a century-old warehouse, reborn with recycled materials as the Ecotrust Building, shelters such tenants as Patagonia and the Wild Salmon Center.

Over the river

Whether they're on foot, rental bike or public transportation, most Portland visitors without cars confine their civic expeditions to downtown and other areas west of the Willamette. But tourists who venture across one of the 10 bridges that span the river in or near the city center will gain an even better appreciation of the town's decidedly quirky DNA.

One popular loop extends about 3 miles from the Steel Bridge at the northern end of Tom McCall Waterfront Park, site of a former freeway, across the Willamette and down the walkers-and-bikers-only Eastbank Esplanade to the Hawthorne Bridge.

Along the way, Lower Burnside Avenue has gone from industrial zone to a still-gritty magnet for foodies and indie music fans. They can chow down on lamb BLTs and beef-cheek bourguignon at Le Pigeon, catch a cult favorite at the Doug Fir Lounge — described by a critic as "Paul Bunyan's vacation home in outer space" — and crash next door at the retro-hip Jupiter Hotel.

Here, tattoo artist Joe Bass can create anything from a modest rose to an elaborate underwater scene for a fee of $100 to $125 an hour, but the valentines to his adopted hometown are free.

"I'd been in the airport about 45 seconds when I decided to stay," says Bass, a father of two teenagers who moved here from Arizona four years ago. "You can bike or ride the bus everywhere, there's a park on every corner, and an underground perspective permeates everything."