Set at the junction of Oregon’s McKenzie and Willamette Rivers, Eugene is a university city with recent history rooted in the hippie movement and counterculture. The Eugene Saturday Market and the Oregon Country Fair are hippie institutions that continue to thrive into their fifth decade, and help perpetuate progressive ideas like ethical sourcing, knowledge-sharing, gifting and environmental awareness. The arts are also taken seriously in Eugene, as the imposing Hult Center and its busy calendar will prove. Beyond Eugene the Willamette Valley is one of America’s most expansive and idyllic wine regions, home to hundreds of vineyards.
1. Eugene Saturday Market
Proof positive that the counterculture lives on in Eugene, this craft market at Park Blocks has been around since 1970 and is held all day long on Saturdays from April to November. It’s as much a social gathering as a commercial enterprise and you can easily make a day of it, catching some live music, getting a bite at the international food court and browsing the wares of the 200 local artisans who pitch up here. Not strictly part of this market, but just across the street is a weekly farmers’ market, where you can buy fresh produce cultivated in the Willamette Valley.
2. Oregon Ducks
If you’re visiting Eugene from abroad, it helps to know that most American colleges take sports seriously. Few more so than the University of Oregon, whose sports teams all go by “The Ducks”. The most prestigious of all the Ducks are the football team, which plays its games in front of 59,000-capacity crowds at Autzen Stadium. The football season runs during the autumn months, but if you’re visiting at another time of year you could catch a basketball, track & field or baseball event. Whatever you prefer, the standard is guaranteed to be high – Ducks are regularly drafted by professional sports franchises.
3. Willamette Valley wine
Eugene and the Willamette Valley get a soft Mediterranean climate, which favours a burgeoning wine industry vaunted for its sophisticated pinot noirs. The wineries are also worth experiencing for their scenery, where endless rows of vines are bordered by pine woodland on gentle rolling hills. There are 300 wineries in Willamette Valley, so to avoid getting bogged down by the huge choice you can set off on a choice of themed wine trails. These have been designed to take you through the best landscapes and include both restaurants and overnight lodgings.
4. Oregon Country Fair
Taking place on the second weekend of July and going back to 1969, this arts event grew out of a hippie fund-raiser. The fair started out in Eugene to raise money for an alternative school, before moving 20 minutes west to the city of Veneta where it has remained ever since. The Oregon Country Fair has 18 stages devoted to anything from live music to vaudeville, juggling, comedy and drama. The whole thing is non-profit, and the organisers rely on large crews of volunteers each year. The fair has a particular family-friendly philosophy, with face-painting, puppet shows and educational zones, while alcohol is banned on the site.
5. Hayward Field
This stadium enjoys near-mythic status in the world of track and field. It belongs to the University of Oregon and was built in 1919, over the years providing a filming location for movies and TV shows about athletics. To this day it continues to host some of the most prestigious events for this discipline: The United States Olympic trials are regularly held here, while the national track and field championships were hosted by the stadium in 2001, 2009 and 2011. In 2021 Hayward Field will also hold the 18th International Track and Field World Championships.
6. Hendricks Park
Eugene’s oldest city park, Hendricks Park is on the southern side of the city and is adored for a rhododendron garden that boasts 6,000 varieties of this plant alone. There are also many 200-year-old Douglas fir trees, which you’d normally only encounter out in the wilderness, except here you’re within Eugene’s city limits. Hendricks Park is also the northern trailhead for the Ridgeline Trail, so you can use it as your point of departure for a 12-mile hike through the lovely countryside south of the city.
7. Mount Pisgah
The undulating hill just to the southeast of Eugene is prized by the town’s hikers and dog-walkers for its natural splendour and well-tended trails. Energetic walkers can get to the 467-metre-high summit for panoramas of the wider area including Eugene and the local small towns of Springfield and Pleasant Hill. For a small fee you can also enter the Mount Pisgah Arboretum, a managed eco-system with seven miles of walking trails that wind along the Willamette River. Particularly special is the arboretum’s variety of woodland, with a rare swathe of oak savannah and its ancient Douglas firs woodland. There are also mushroom and wildflower festivals at the arboretum in autumn and spring.
8. Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
This attraction belongs to the University of Oregon and opened in 1933 after a large donation of oriental art by the collector Gertrude Bass Warner. These majestic and historic pieces from China, Korea and Japan are still the essence of the museum’s permanent exhibits, but the museum has also curated a compelling collection of American art and photography since the 30s. The museum building was designed by contemporary dean of architecture Ellis F. Lawrence and is in the gothic revival style with geometric brickwork and a beautiful cloister next to a courtyard garden.
9. Oregon Air and Space Museum
This display of vintage aircraft and models at Eugene’s regional airport is just the ticket if you’re into military hardware. The best of the collection are two planes dating from the First World War: The Nieuport 17 was a single-seat fighter designed by France, and its counterpart is a German-made Fokker Dr 1 Triplane, the same model flown by the famous Red Baron. The Cold War is represented by a McDonnell Douglas A4 Skyhawk and MiG-17 that served in Vietnam. Also at the museum is a timeline of the history of space exploration, with models, vintage photographs and NASA memorabilia.
10. Lane County Historical Museum
A diverting little attraction if you want to get a feel for Eugene, the Lane County Historical Museum is a window on the life and times of Eugene’s earliest European settlers. You’ll get to study the tools and skills needed for historic domestic chores like canning and soap-making. Logging was a big local industry in the 19th century and you can peruse a collection of mill blades, axes and the earliest chainsaws. Dioramas showcase homes and workshops from the early days, while among the display of vehicles is a Model T Ford from 1910.
11. Lane County Fair
This fair is held every year in late-July or early-August. Beginning in the middle of the week and culminating on the Sunday, it’s a traditional event with entertainment for everyone. All the usual carnival rides, midway and fair food are here, and of course these are combined with old-time County Fair activities like livestock competitions and agricultural shows. Concerts take place each day, usually by high-profile bands and solo artists. Take the chance to see the arts and crafts exhibition to see the best that Eugene’s artisans have to offer.
12. Hult Center for the Performing Arts
As a small city Eugene sure punches above its weight for culture, a point driven home by this imposing glass building on Willamette Street. The Hult Center was built by Eugene locals in the early-80s and is owned and operated by the city. Inside there’s a 2000-seat concert hall, 500-capacity theatre and an intimate performance studio. The Center welcomes high-profile touring artists and bands, but also has resident companies for ballet, opera and choral performances, each held to a high standard. Whenever you’re in Eugene there will be something going on here, whether it’s home-grown or in town a couple of nights.
13. Ninkasi Brewery
There are daily tours at this craft brewery that has become a cherished fixture in Eugene. The brewery was setup by two young brewers in 2006 and has ridden the craft beer wave, expanding several times over the last ten years and now distributing throughout the western United States and Canada. Ninkasi has eight different year-round beers to check out, and depending when you visit there are five seasonal brews too. From the staff to ingredients, almost everything about Ninkasi is local to Eugene: At the tasting area you can even accompany your beer with local artisan cuisine from carts on the patio outside.
14. Oregon Dunes
The Pacific coast is closer than you might think, at only 60 miles to the west. A great reason to make the drive is for the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, which is one of the biggest sand dune systems in North America created by millions of years of wind and rain. The system encloses lofty dunes, coastal lakes and forest at the mouth of the Umpqua River. It doesn’t get much more Instagrammable than this; the crests of some of these dunes reach well above 150 metres and the system rolls on for miles. As you’d guess the otherworldly environment is a favourite for horseback-riding, hiking and kayaking.
15. A Day Out in Portland
There are lots of good reasons to head north to Oregon’s largest city for the day. One of the best is for the great cuisine: The streets of Portland have hundreds of licensed street food vendors, running the gamut from oriental noodle bars to Middle Eastern, Italian and classic American fare. There’s nothing else like it in America. Portland is also known as the “City of Roses”, as the climate here is perfect for rose cultivation. So it follows that one of the top draws in the city should be the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park where in the warmer months some 7,000 roses from 550 varieties are in bloom. Also see: Best Things to do in Portland