Duck in and explore the progressive politics, vibrant arts scene, and natural beauty of a city that is active in every sense
College is a time not only for learning but for exploring, and few towns are better suited for both than Eugene, Oregon. Home to the University of Oregon, with dozens of art galleries, music and theater venues, and secondhand bookstores, Eugene beckons students and visitors alike to poke around and explore. It's a city where philosophies and political perspectives are regularly investigated and challenged in earnest idealism, and where peace-and-love holdovers from the 1960s reside next to radical, antiestablishment anarchists and even a few staunch conservatives.
Eugene's freethinking people are matched by many free or low-cost cultural events, as well as budget-friendly food and lodging. It's also surrounded by the raw beauty of the Pacific Northwest, which is indisputably one of the best places in North America to explore.
The two best resources for planning a visit to the Eugene area are the local Convention & Visitors Association (115 W. 8th Ave., Ste. 190, 800/547-5445, travellanecounty.org) and the Eugene Weekly, which lists all the upcoming week's events on campus and in town. Grab a copy in print (free, distributed all around town) or view its calendar online at eugeneweekly.com, and you'll find art openings, environmentalist discussion groups, political lectures, films, and concerts-the vast majority of them for little or no charge.
Exploring campus Covering nearly 300 acres, the "U of O" (541/346-1000, uoregon.edu) is dotted with redwoods and Douglas firs, ivy-covered nineteenth-century buildings such as Deady Hall, and grassy sections that invite you to plop down on a sunny day. For a basic overview of campus, student-led tours (sprinkled with fun tidbits, like the fact that party flick Animal House was filmed here) depart from Oregon Hall at 10 a.m. Monday to Saturday and 2 p.m. weekdays.
Alternately, head directly to the Erb Memorial Union (at 13th and University, 541/346-3705), which is the heart of campus. Inside you can scout out the upcoming day's events via bulletin boards and various free publications, grab coffee or a cheap bite to eat, or simply hang out and absorb the atmosphere. The ground floor of the EMU brims with a broad range of activity, from the production of the radical rag the Insurgent, to workshops in woodworking, sculpture, jewelry making, and such at the Craft Center (open to the public; some single-day classes start at only $25).
During the school year, visitors have their pick of campus events daily. On a fairly typical Tuesday this past April, there was an ensemble performance of classical music for $5 in Beall Concert Hall, a free Indian film in Pacific Hall, a free lecture on slavery in Knight Library, and a free reading in the bookstore caf, from Portland-based author and storyteller Mitch Luckett. Utilize the Eugene Weekly or head online to duckhenge.uoregon.edu/calendar to find out what's happening.
Campus proper ends at Kincaid Street, but you'll still get that student vibe by crossing it to the shops, bars, and caf,s on 13th Avenue. Swing by at lunchtime-most eateries post specials for $5 or less.
Delving into downtown
There's nothing more Eugene than its Saturday market (541/686-8885, eugenesaturdaymarket.org), which takes over the corner of 8th and Oak weekly from April to November. Bongo-playing hippies in tie-dyes, farmers with fresh produce for sale, 200 artisans hawking their works, two dozen food vendors, and live music are some of what you can expect. The only sight that might make a local blink is someone wearing a tie. Across the street, in front of the county buildings, there is always some kind of protest about cultural imperialism, global warming, or the logging industry in progress. Somehow, it all just works. It's all Eugene.
People in Eugene are passionate not only about politics but about artwork, which explains the plethora of galleries downtown (especially along Willamette Street). Browsing is, of course, free, but once a month a guide will pepper you with details about the artists, inspirations, and the galleries themselves on Eugene's First Friday Art Walk. (Call the Convention & Visitors Association for information.)
The Hult Center for the Performing Arts (1 Eugene Center, 541/682-5000, hultcenter.org) is the premier spot for concerts and theater in the Willamette Valley. Symphonies and plays regularly start at $12 to $14, and there are free shows in the lobby most Thursdays at noon. Sign up online for the Hult Center's e-news and you'll get details on two-for-one ticket specials, free events, and lectures. Other price-friendly possibilities are the Lord Leebrick Theatre Company (540 Charnelton St., 541/465-1506, lordleebrick.com) and the Actors Cabaret of Eugene (996 Willamette St., 541/683-4368, actorscabaret.org), each charging under $10 for some performances, and shows at the university (like the student-run Pocket Playhouse, admission $1).
When it comes to getting around, Eugene practices what it preaches with a progressive (and cheap!) public transportation system. Ride the local hybrid-electric shuttle, known as the Breeze, for a quarter. Or hop aboard the regular bus, connecting Eugene to surrounding towns and far removed National Forest areas, for $1.25 a ride, $2.50 for a day pass (valid all day on all buses). All buses have bike racks too, which you can use at no extra cost. More info: Lane Transit District (541/687-5555, ltd.org).
Serious runners know Eugene as Track Town, U.S.A., for the city's and university's glorious tradition of putting one foot in front of the other really fast. You can remember Steve Prefontaine (the running world's James Dean, who died tragically at age 24 in 1975) at spots such as the Nike Store (248 E. 5th Ave., 541/342-5155), featuring memorabilia about "Pre" and a history of the company (which originated in Eugene); Pre's Trail, a rigorous running path in Alton Baker Park; and Pre's Memorial, at the spot near Hendricks Park where he died in a car accident. All free, of course.
Getting fed, getting a bed
There are chic, upscale restaurants in Eugene, but they are the exceptions. Most establishments offer hearty, and hardly expensive, fare. The L&L Market (at Willamette St. and 16th Ave.) is uniquely Eugene, with a bakery, butcher, coffee stand, sandwich shop, and rows of tables inside, and breakfast or lunch will only cost a few dollars. Choices inside are many, but French Horn Bakery (1591 Willamette St., 541/343-8392) has particularly scrumptious cinnamon rolls, soups, and pastries. Another local favorite is the Glenwood Restaurant, with two locations (a block from campus at 1340 Alder St., 541/687-0355; and 2588 Willamette St., 541/687-8201), offering diner-style breakfasts, and a dozen or so dinner entr,es (including soup and salad) for under $8.
Lodging shouldn't make that big a dent in the bank account, either. The cheapest bed in town is at the Eugene International Hostel (2352 Willamette St., 541/349-0589; $19 dorms, $16 for members), but it's rather cramped and grungy. With two people splitting costs, a motel offers privacy and arguably better value. Pick from more than a dozen, well-located accommodations starting under $60, ranging from the clean, somewhat small rooms at the 66 Motel (755 E. Broadway, 541/342-5041; $43 double) to the Campus Inn (390 E. Broadway, 541/343-3376; $58 double including breakfast and in-room refrigerators), which is an easy walk to campus and downtown.
Trash or treasures?
It's with great pain that locals throw anything into the trash in Eugene. If at all possible, everything is recycled, resold, or reused. As a result, the city is a treasure chest of thrift shops, flea markets, and yard sales. This intellectual town's best gems are found at its dozen-plus bookstores. Two of the finest shops are Smith Family Bookstore (two locations: 525 Willamette St., 541/343-4717; 768 E. 13th Ave., 541/345-1651) and J. Michaels Books (160 E. Broadway, 541/342-2002), both with wonderful collections of secondhand reads.