The Saturday City: Portland

portland signPortland, Oregon is a city located in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and one too often overlooked by tourists, living in the shadow of cities like L.A., Seattle, Vegas, Chicago, or New York City. But Portland is one of America’s most unique (and liberal) cities, famous for its outdoor adventures, micro-brewed beer, green living, parks, and boutique food.

My first trip here was a few years ago for Thanksgiving. While in Spain I made friends who lived in Portland and paid them a visit on my way to Asia. Then last year I came back and spent more time eating my way around the city. What started as a like during my first trip turned into love on my second. And now, I can’t wait to return next month as part of my book tour. Portland has joined the very tiny list of cities I would actually live in.

What I really love about Portland is the high quality of life. It’s easy to get around, there is good public transportation available, it’s compact, there’s delicious food, the locals are friendly, it’s environmentally friendly, and, most importantly, there’s great beer.

I think Portland has a lot to offer travelers. It’s a shame this city gets overlooked so often. But if you do make it here (and you should), here’s my list of top things to do:

See Pittock Mansion – A stunning Victorian mansion in the western part of Portland that dates back nearly a century. The mansion contains beautiful artwork and furniture collected by the original owners. You can explore the mansion by yourself or on a guided tour.

food trucks in portland

Explore the Portland Underground – The Portland Underground Tour explores a series of tunnels in the Old Town section of Portland. The tours focus on the history of the tunnels, where kidnappers sold their victims to work aboard boats leaving port. I love underground city tours; I find learning about how cities grow and build on top of themselves fascinating (Seattle and Edinburgh underground tours are especially interesting) and this tour is no exception. They also offer paranormal related tours but I tend to stay away from those.

Wander Downtown Portland – The heart of the city is centered around Pioneer Square and is a great place to explore local shops, hang out in the square, and just wander around. There’s nothing really special about this area but I like grabbing a drink, sitting in the square, and people-watching on a nice day.

portland, oregon at night

Hang out in the Pearl District – A very hip and trendy neighborhood on the streetcar line. It is an excellent place to hang out and people-watch while eating at some of the best restaurants in the city. On the first Thursday of every month, all the art galleries open their doors for casual viewing, and many serve wine and cheese. The famous Powell’s Bookstore is also located in this area. (I’ll be stopping there as part of my book tour!)

Hike Forest Park – Located in the hills northwest of downtown, Forest Park is one of the nation’s largest urban parks at 5,000 acres in size. There are many great hiking and biking trails to be found winding through this natural forest setting. Portland is famous for its proximity to nature and this is one of the best places in the city to “get away from it all.”

Lan Su Chinese Garden – I love the peacefulness of Chinese gardens. This beautiful urban retreat is in the heart of Chinatown and features a pond, a teahouse, pavilions, and lots of gardens. If you are on a budget, you can peek through the ornate open windows and see much of the gardens without paying admission.

pioneer square in portland, oregon

Enjoy Laurelhurst Park – A beautiful park designed by a horticultural expert from the same team that designed New York City’s Central Park. This park has a great atmosphere in good weather, with lots of locals and visitors enjoying the duck pond, the bike paths, and the off-leash dog area.

Visit Washington Park – Washington Park is a classic urban park with a whole bunch of trails that take you between the stands of trees, around the hills and through the canyons. The park contains memorials for the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Holocaust, and the Lewis and Clark expedition, and also offers beautiful vistas of Portland and Mount Hood. It’s just another example of how “green” this city is.

Gorge at the Food Trucks – Portland is famous for its gourmet food trucks that dot all corners of the city. Around Alder St. you’ll find the main concentration of them, with trucks serving every type of food you can imagine. When I’m in town I tend to eat the majority of my meals at these food carts because the portions are so big, the food so damn delicious, and the prices reasonable. If you’re not eating here, you’re missing out on a huge part of Portland culture. You can even take tours of all the food trucks.

Deschutes brewery beers in portland, oregon

Drink Some Great Beer – Portland is one of the beer capitals of America with over 70 microbreweries in the city. They take beer seriously here and Portlanders will tell you they have the best beer in the country. That might be a stretch though. Visit Deschutes for a wide selection of beers as well as Widmer Brothers and BridgePort Brewing. Most of the breweries also double as restaurants and some allow you to take brewery tours as well.

Portland is one of my favorite American cities and I’m looking forward to the fact that I get to be there twice this year (once for my book tour and later for a conference). The city gets some attention in the U.S. but not a lot overseas; despite its domestic recognition, I still don’t think enough people go visit. Make Portland one of your next destinations, especially in the summer, when the city really comes alive.

  1. Vee

    Hi Matt: I love Portland! Personally, I would add the Hawthorne District to the list… it’s the Haight-Ashbury on a smaller scale. Looking forward to your book tour in DC this Monday.

  2. Portland is an amazing town. I lived there for almost ten years and it will be my home when I return to the U.S. Powell’s books is the best bookstore in the world…

  3. Thanks for giving a shout out to where I live! The food carts and beer is a must! We also have amazing wineries, distilleries, art, theatre and public spaces. Also amazing tea and coffee! I lived in LA and NYC before moving to Portland…it’s different, much more affordable, and there are fun, cheap things to do.

    I hope to stop by when you visit Portland next month!

  4. Teresa

    Portland is an AMAZING city! I’m proud to call it home for the last two and a half years and over that time have yet to find myself bored! Enjoy your visit.

  5. Portland is a great city. It wasn’t on my travel radar until my company got acquired by a Portland-based company last year. Rent a bicycle and ride all around the Willamette River. Once you are on the east side, you won’t even feel like you are in the city limits anymore. It is a great ride and so pretty.

  6. Valerie

    I live 45 minutes away from Portland and I’m embarrassed to say you have done more in that city then I have. I can spend hours researching far away destinations (or exploring your site) and dreaming of adventure but its so easy to look past what is right in front of me. So thank you for the reminder! :)

  7. I have visited every U.S. state except North Dakota and lived in or spent a significant amount of time in most of the major cities, plus traveled around the world for 12+ months. My husband & I could have chosen to live pretty much anywhere in the world and we picked Portland. We’ve been here for just over a year now (living in the heart of the Hawthorne district) and couldn’t be happier. And, yes, we’ve done everything on your list and then some! Let me know if you want to grab a drink while you’re in town (or if you need a place to stay). Our welcome “Matt” is always out. :)

  8. serena

    Portland is amazing but this list leaves out my absolutely favorite activities! Take a bike ride overlooking the train yards (or along the waterfront), check out Hawthorne, Belmont, Alberta, and Mississippi districts – all have great shopping/thrifting, food, and bars.

  9. E.K.

    Don’t forget PDX’s huge Vintage scene! Even though Portland was named ‘worst dressed city in America’, ironically we have a lot of emerging designers and fashion. Living here IS pretty fun. (be sure to check out local farmers markets, and street markets like first Thursday…)

  10. Danika Drotar

    Thanks for giving a nod to Portland, Matt! I’m not a native, but my parents live there now and I’ll be going back there soon. For sure it’s an awesome city for so many reasons. I’d add the Saturday Market in Waterfront Park to your list. You can find all sorts of really interesting artsy hand-made stuff there.
    Looking forward to your talk at Powell’s in April!

  11. My favorite Saturday City entry so far! I’ve only heard good things about Portland and since it has great options for vegans and vegetarians (including those famous food trucks) I’m sure Portland and I would get along very well. And I agree with you about Chinese Gardens. I visited one in Zurich and didn’t find such solitude or peaceful atmosphere elsewhere in the city, The Botanical Gardens were a close second.

  12. Great post Matt – forest park is wonderful and the international rose test garden is also fantastic – been to Portland once but once is not enough…Portland is a great city to explore and get lost in

  13. One of my friends has just finished an extended trip to Portland and loved it! Her stories piqued my interest in visiting and this post has settled it – Portland’s definitely on my list of places to see. (And you’re the fourth person that I’ve heard comment on the great craft beer scene!)

  14. Matt,

    Have you ever visited Hood River? I love visiting Portland, and the culture there, but the real adventure fun is in my hometown! Its only an hour away, I highly suggest you come by next time you visit Portland.

    Thanks for your blog, its always an inspiration to read and is a great place to look whenever I need a little encouragement to plan my next trip.

    Happy Travels!

  15. Portland’s always a place I’ve wanted to go. I’m not sure if its the weirdness, nature, or commitment to biking. I have a feeling its a mixture of all three. Someday I know I’ll get there. It’s unfortunate the US doesn’t have RyanAir…After reading this post I think I need to figure out a way to get there soon. Thanks!

  16. jon

    Here’s a great little tip for anyone flying in or out of PDX that needs lodging for the night. Near the airport, taxi out to McMenamins Edgefield -an amazing brewery / vineyard that has multiple restaurants and serves as a historic hotel and hostel ($30 dorm rooms which are rarely full). Plus they offer guests a free pass to their spa which has a heated pool with over head water spikets that pour out water to massage your back. They even have live music on the weekends, billiards / darts and a movie theatre on site.

  17. Those are beer samples, a lot of breweries around here offer them. I’d definitely recommend any of the McMenamin’s locations (they also brew delicious beer), one of my favorites is the Kennedy School location. If you’re a reader, do not miss Powell’s Books. I love that place.

  18. Red

    Asheville, North Carolina. Often regarded as Portlands rival in the South (though I suspect while similar our cities are both awesome and unique in their own ways). HOWEVER, we have been awarded the title of Beer City USA four years straight! The craft beer scene, amongst other scenes, is amazing here.
    So for those who can’t make it all the way out to Portland, Asheville is a great alternative.

  19. Michelle

    Portland is such an amazing place! I’m about an 8 hour drive away, give or take, and don’t make the trip nearly enough! Definitely putting it on the calendar!

  20. Patrick Smith

    Excellent post on our favorite US city! Planning on moving there later in the year! Your list plus comments really summarize the city. I would add hiking in the Multnomah falls area and visiting the wineries just south. Plus the coast and all the great towns! Really a GREAT city and Oregon is a great state.

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