To get a sense of the vaunted "livability" of Portland, Oregon, you can visit the city's west side, with its flourishing downtown and leafy Park Blocks, its lovely Rose Garden and festive Saturday Market. But while Portlanders use the west side, they live on the east, and to get closer to the spirit of the city you must eventually cross one of the 12 bridges spanning the Willamette River.

No east side neighborhood better epitomizes Portland's relaxed, adventurous character than the Hawthorne District. Do as the locals do, and walk, cycle, or bus across the Hawthorne Bridge to the eight-block area between 31st and 39th Avenues, a mile from downtown.

The side streets, sleepy and decidedly residential, are lined with foursquare bungalows, most with lush gardens and Craftsman details, built in the early 19th century to accommodate working-class families. But the district's main commercial strip has endured a series of sea changes. Through the sixties, Hawthorne Boulevard was a no-nonsense lineup of hardware stores, groceries, barbershops, and the like. Hard times hit the area in the seventies, and storefronts were boarded up. Drawn by its low rents and distinctive character, artists and craftspeople gradually infused new life—and new cachet—into the neighborhood. And, as the story so often goes, the trend-seekers followed. Today slackers, graying Aquarians, antiques hunters in minivans, and young parents pushing strollers are all at home on Hawthorne Boulevard.

Unlike many urban American neighborhoods, where the historical layers are obliterated, Hawthorne is a palimpsest. The onion-domed, rococo splendor of the Bagdad Theater (3702 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/230-0895) embodies its hybrid nature. Built in 1927 as a vaudeville theater, it later became a movie house, then a cineplex, before shutting down in the eighties.

In 1991, in a fusion of civic responsibility and marketing acumen, McMenamins, one of Portland's premier microbreweries, restored the Bagdad's murals and mirrors, polished the chandeliers, and recast the place as a combination pub/movie theater/café. At the refreshments counter, you can buy draft flagons of Terminator Stout and generous wedges of first-rate pizza. The movies are classics or recent second runs; in a paean to movie houses of yore, all shows cost a dollar.

Head down the block to Nick's Famous Coney Island Restaurant (3746 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/ 235-4024) for another dose of nostalgia. Owner Frank Nudo, a Joe Pesci double, has been dispensing straightforward dogs and suds, as well as pungent observations on baseball and life, since the fifties.

Pastaworks (3735 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/232-1010) is a more recent arrival on the food scene, a 3,000-square-foot shrine for aspiring chefs, selling cookware, fine cheeses, luscious produce, and, of course, fresh pasta. For guidance on what to do with all those epicurean products, stop at the adjoining Powell's Books for Cooks and Gardeners (3747 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/235-3802). You'll find every other type of book a few doors down at Powell's Books on Hawthorne (3723 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/238-1668), a branch of the west side's mother-ship store, legendary for its massive stock.

Replenish your mental energy at the Bread and Ink Café (3610 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/239-4756; dinner for two $50). The food is delicious and fairly priced, and everything from bread to ketchup is prepared on the premises. Fresh Pacific Northwest seafood—salmon, halibut, sturgeon—plays a leading role throughout the eclectic menu.

Seven blocks west of Bread and Ink is Artichoke Music (3130 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/232-8845), one of the best folk-music stores on the West Coast. You don't have to be a musician to admire Artichoke's collection of vintage mandolins, accordions, and guitars. Headline folkies playing Portland regularly drop by; you might run into Jackson Browne or David Grisman. With the addition of a 100-seat performance space in August, Artichoke now stages a regular series of folk and jazz concerts.

The neighborhood's principal venue for performing arts is the Echo Theatre (1515 S.E. 37th Ave.; 503/231-1232), across the street from the Bagdad. The funky Echo is home to the nationally recognized troupe Do Jump! Movement Theatre, which performs an exhilarating pastiche of dance, acrobatics, and trapeze acts.

Hawthorne has plenty of cafés for post-theater coffee and dessert. Tabor Hill Café (3766 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/230-1231) serves wonderful blackberry pie; the Cup & Saucer Café (3566 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/236-6001) will transport you back to the fifties, with its formica-topped tables and vinyl kitchen chairs. If you'd rather slow your pulse than accelerate it, drop in for a Guinness at Biddy McGraw's Irish Pub (3526 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/233-1178), the Gaelic heart of Portland; or visit the new Hawthorne St. Ale House (3632 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/233-6540; lunch or dinner for two $30), run by BridgePort Brewing Co., another marquee name among local microbreweries. The bar's spare, sleek look rankles some mossbacked locals, but no one argues with the delicious wood-fired pizza or the India pale ale.

You could easily spend an hour eyeballing the collectibles and antiques at Sorel Vintages (3713 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/232-8482), where you might find Deco-style bedroom sets, wood kitchen hutches, and old cedar cigar boxes. There's no better restaurant for decompressing after a hard day of touring than the 3 Doors Down Café (1429 S.E. 37th St.; 503/236-6886), an intimate bistro that specializes in innovative seafood dishes. One good bet: the Northwest salmon cured with molasses and brown sugar, served with onions and peppers. It's the kind of place that will make you reluctant to re-join the tourists on the city's west side.

JOHN BRANDT is a contributing editor of Outside magazine.