Cultured Cities

Explore Oregon and Idaho through the arts


by Cathy Carroll

Photo Courtesy: Portland Japanese Garden

Like travel, cultural experiences broaden an explorer’s inner horizons. Whether it’s through theater, music, dance or art, they offer a chance to see things differently via an enriching journey to connect with the essence of a place. The following destinations are options for discovering the beauty of what connects us, an opportunity to gain an understanding of the world and our place within it.

Portland, Oregon

Photo courtesy: Hopscotch Portland

On the banks of the Willamette River, with Mt. Hood gleaming on its horizon, Portland is nationally known for its trendsetting, intelligent and refreshingly genuine endeavors. Unconventional creative spaces are sprouting up like spring chanterelles in its lush forests. At the immersive art venue Hopscotch, launched in summer 2023, visitors can explore experiential and interactive installations by more than 40 artists from around the world in its 23,000 square-foot space. Additionally, the Portland Art Museum’s new multimedia center, PAM CUT // Center for an Untold Tomorrow, opened the Tomorrow Theater last fall, with world-class artists pushing boundaries in film, animation, gaming, virtual reality, performance and audio stories.

Timeless gems get their due in Portland, too. The Portland Japanese Garden lets visitors immerse themselves in traditional cultural arts, from tea ceremonies to horticultural demonstrations. A visit to the Japanese Garden is a must for anyone seeking tranquility and beauty, an ambiance heightened in March and April, when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

Drama unfolds on stages throughout the city, from large downtown theaters offering full-scale opera, ballet and big-name solo appearances, to smaller independent houses which take creative risks and put new talent in the spotlight.

Photo Courtesy: Portland Japanese Garden

Ashland, Oregon

Twelfth Night (2023) at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland | Photo: Joe Sofranko

Home to a cultural festival that essentially never ends, Ashland is renowned for its centerpiece, the award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival, much of which occurs in the nation’s oldest Elizabethan theater. Offering modern classics and edgy, new productions as well as those by the bard, the 2024 season features wide range of shows from mid-March to mid-October. Curated with a commitment to representing diverse people, ideas, cultures and traditions, the lineup ranges from “Macbeth” to “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender.” Also in Ashland, the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University is a community pillar, offering music, theater, art exhibitions and other public events. The center includes the Schneider Museum of Art, with 4,000 square feet of exhibition space, seasonal contemporary art exhibitions, docent-led Tuesday Tours at noon, and artist and curator lectures, all free to the public. More than 30 art galleries around the city feature works by a range of artists. Each spring, the Ashland Independent Film Festival showcases productions from filmmakers around the world, and in summer, the Rogue World Music Festival treats audiences to new global sounds.

Southern Oregon University Chamber Ensemble Oregon Center for the Arts, Ashland | Photo courtesy: Oregon Center for the Arts

Eugene, Oregon

Photo: Jeremy Running

From ballet and opera to belly dancing and folk music, Eugene has a passion for creative expression. The Hult Center’s nearly 2,500-seat Silva Concert Hall and the smaller 495-seat Soreng Theater are home to the city’s symphony and dance companies, as well as hosting touring headliners, Broadway musicals, concerts and comedy. Fresh ideas and attitudes flow freely in this college town. The University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art hosts four major annual exhibitions and galleries devoted to Chinese, Japanese, Korean and American art, including more than 3,700 works. Art enthusiasts can also explore hundreds of thousands of ethnographic and archaeological objects, fossils and biological specimens from Oregon and around the world at the University’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Just beyond the city limits, the annual Oregon Country Fair unfolds on 400 acres of forested land in Veneta, setting the stage for three days devoted to soul-nourishing, artful living. An iconic July “happening” since 1969, the fair draws 45,000 visitors to its 19 stages with aerial acts, poetry slams, jam bands, puppet shows, folk tunes, flamenco, jugglers, hip hop, dragons, unicorns, fairies and more. The 55th annual fair is set for July 12-14.

Boise, Idaho

Photo Courtesy: Treefort Music Fest

A cultural mainstay for Boise is the renowned Treefort Music Fest. The five-day indie rock festival features 13 venues or “forts’’ in a variety of cultural genres, ensuring there is something for visitors of all ages and interests. With art pop-ups and public performances throughout its downtown, the city comes alive with activity. Julia Davis Park houses the main stage, while additional festival venues are spread out across 20 more sites around Boise. Even the buses shuttling visitors to and from turn into performance spaces of their own. The 2024 lineup boasts roughly 259 emerging and renowned artists hailing from 28 U.S. states and 21 countries, including everything from Ukrainian “ethno-chaos” folk to New York hip-hop. Treefort Music Fest is a mega-festival like no other.

Representing the cultural heritage of the many Basque immigrants who settled in the Boise area as sheepherders during the late 1800s, the San Inazio Festival is a compelling example of conservation and documentation of a living ethnic neighborhood. Set for July 26-28, the music festival is one of the largest and most concentrated Basque celebrations outside of Spain, a testament to the region’s thriving Basque community. Every five years, Boise boasts Jaialdi, a major Basque festival featuring authentic dancing, music, food and drink, an event that attracts tens of thousands of visitors from around the world. Save the date, July 29-Aug. 3, 2025, when Jaialdi returns after a multi-year hiatus. 

Cathy Carroll is an award-winning journalist currently residing in Bend, Oregon. She has reported from around the world for major media organizations, covering Fortune 500 companies, entrepreneurs, travel and technology, education, outdoor recreation, food and wine.