Posted: 7/12/21 | July 12th, 2021
Portland, Oregon, is one of America’s most unique cities. While it often gets overshadowed by Seattle to the north, Portland is one of the US’s best and most interesting metropolises. With a world-class food scene, plentiful local breweries, and postcard-perfect scenery, it’s surprising that more people don’t visit this eclectic city.
Nicknamed “the City of Roses” (after roses became a common garden staple in the late 19th century) and “Stumptown” (due to lots of tree stumps remaining after the city expanded and clear-cut the surrounding area in the mid-19th century), Portland is known for its liberal tendencies, its food trucks, and its hipsters (thanks, Portlandia).
My first trip here was back in 2011 for Thanksgiving. While in Spain, I made friends who lived in Portland and paid them a visit on my way to Asia. What started as “like” during my first trip turned into love on my second.
And, since then, I’ve visited nearly every year. Portland is on the very tiny list of cities I would actually live in (the nearby Oregon coast is stunning too!
What I really love about Portland is the high quality of life. It’s compact and easy to get around, there is good public transportation available, the locals are friendly, it’s environmentally conscious, and, most importantly, the food and beer scene here is amazing.
While the city has developed a bit of a bad rap the last year, the overwhelming majority of that has been overblown by the media. While Portland isn’t perfect (no city ever is), it’s not nearly as “dangerous” as certain people would like you to believe. A city of over 600,000 people, it’s not being burnt to the ground and problems are confined to a small section downtown. Don’t let the media make you afraid to visit this incredible city.
To help you make the most of your visit, here are my favorite 14 things to see and do in Portland:
1. Take a Walking Tour
I always start my visits to a new city with a walking tour. It’s the best way to learn about a destination, get the lay of the land, see the main sights, and have an expert local guide answer all your questions.
Portland Walking Tours offers more than half a dozen different tours around town, focusing on food, the main sights, and Portland’s underground and alternative culture. Tours last a couple hours and cost around $23 USD. They’re a great way to kick off your visit. I really liked their Underground Tour, which focused on a series of tunnels below the city that have been used for all kinds of nefarious purposes.
2. See Pittock Mansion
Built in 1914, this is a stunning French Renaissance-style mansion located in the western part of town. The 46-room estate, originally owned by a wealthy couple from England, is part of the National Register of Historic Places and contains beautiful artwork and furniture collected by the original owners. You can explore the grounds (which span over 40 acres) and buildings by yourself or take a guided tour (the price is the same; however, guided tours are only scheduled when volunteers are available).
3229 NW Pittock Dr, +1 503-823-3623, pittockmansion.org. Open Thursday-Monday from 10am–5pm (4pm in the winter). Admission is $12 USD.
3. Hike Forest Park
Located on the northwestern edge of town, Forest Park is one of the nation’s largest urban parks. Covering a sprawling 5,000 acres, it’s home to over 70 miles of hiking and biking trails. There are over 100 species of birds here, as well as 62 different species of mammals. It’s also home to the Witch’s Castle, an abandoned stone building covered in moss. (It has no connection to witches. The name came from students who used to use the site for secret parties in the 1980s).
Some trails worth checking out are the Wildwood Loop trail (easy, 2 hours), Forest Park Ridge Trail (moderate, 1.5 hours), and the Dogwood Wild Cherry Loop (easy, 1.5 hours).
4. Browse at Powell’s City of Books
This is the largest independent and used bookstore in the world, home to over a million books. Established in 1971, the store takes up an entire city block and has 3,500 different sections. It buys upwards of 3,000 new and used books each and every day so if you’re a book lover like me, you could easily spend a good chunk of time here!
1005 W Burnside St, +1 800-878-7323, powells.com/locations/powells-city-of-books. Open daily 9am–10pm.
5. Devour Delicious Donuts
Portland is known for its donuts. If you Google the city or search for it on social media, donuts will inevitably pop up. Voodoo Doughnut put the city on the map with its weird and wonderful combinations, such as Cap’n Crunch or maple bacon. It also makes cream-filled phallic donuts as well — so you can see why it’s become a quirky staple of the city.
Some locals might argue that Voodoo is for tourists, preferring donuts from Blue Star instead. You can’t go wrong with either choice. Why not try both and see for yourself. You only live once, after all!
6. Wander the International Rose Test Garden
Home to over 10,000 rose bushes and 610 varieties, this garden is where many companies test new varieties of roses (some are tested here years before they are commercially available). It’s the oldest rose test garden in the country. During World War I, roses from all around the world were sent here for testing and safekeeping. They also host an annual competition for the city’s best rose. The roses are in bloom between April and October, though there is also an amphitheater here that holds all kinds of events, such as classical music performances and plays. Don’t miss the Shakespeare Garden, which only has types of roses referenced in Shakespeare’s plays.
400 SW Kingston Ave, +1 503-823-3636. Open daily 5am–10pm. Admission is free.
7. See the Japanese Garden
Located near the Rose Test Garden, these Japanese gardens were created in the 1960s as a symbol of peace between World War II adversaries. Today, it’s considered the best Japanese garden outside of Japan. Spanning 12 acres, it contains traditional gazebos, waterfalls, ponds, Zen sand gardens, and lots of walking paths. It’s super relaxing and serene and beautiful all year round, though it’s particularly stunning in the autumn when the leaves are changing. It receives no funding from the city, so it’s not cheap, but if you want to escape the city for a while, then it’s worth every penny.
611 SW Kingston Ave, +1 503-223-1321, japanesegarden.org. Open daily 10am–5:30pm. Admission is $18.95 USD
8. Visit The Freakybutture Peculiarium and Museum
If you’re looking for something decidedly weird and unconventional during your trip, visit The Peculiarium. This creepy emporium is full of all kinds of weird drawings and souvenirs, gag toys, unknown oddities in jars, and even a giant Bigfoot statue. There are fake severed body parts (which are super lifelike), and they also serve fresh-baked cookies…with bugs, scorpions, and mealworms inside and on them.
The city’s slogan is “Keep Portland Weird.” This place reflects that perfectly.
2234 Northwest Thurman Street, +1 503-227-3164, peculiarium.com. Open Wednesday–Monday 11am–7pm. Admission is $5 USD. Not suitable for kids.
9. Take a Food Tour
If you’re a foodie like me, you can’t visit Portland without taking a food tour. You’ll get to sample some of the city’s best food, learn about its culture and history, and meet other foodie travelers like yourself. It’s the best way to get the culinary lay of the land before you head off on your own to eat your way around town.
Forktown offers a few different food tours focused on different cuisines and regions of the city. It will give you a solid overview of what tasty offerings Stumptown can dish up. Tours last around three hours and cost 115 USD per person.
Lost Plate also runs a few speacizled food tours, including one that focuses on donuts and one that sticks entirely to food trucks. Their tours start at $49 USD.
10. Relax at Laurelhurst Park or Washington Park
Portland has tons of green space to relax in and enjoy. Laurelhurst Park was designed by the same team that designed Central Park in New York. It has a laid-back atmosphere and is popular with locals and visitors alike. There’s a duck pond, bike paths, and an off-leash dog area.
Washington Park is another great choice if you’re looking to lounge with a book and enjoy the weather. 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 Mt. Hood.
11. Indulge at the Food Trucks
One of the most important elements of the Portland food scene is its food trucks. The food trucks are a huge part of the local culture, and you can find pretty much every cuisine and every price point too. There are over 500 food trucks in the city, and they’re usually gathered in small pods so you can sample a few different ones without having to go far.
You can find plenty of tasty options on SW Fifth Ave and at the food pods (food truck lots) at Cartopia, Third Ave, and Hawthorne Asylum. Some of my favorites are MF Tasty, Burger Stevens, and Desi PDX.
12. Visit the Portland Art Museum
Opened in 1892, this is the oldest art museum in the Pacific Northwest. It’s also one of the oldest galleries in the country too (the seventh oldest to be exact). It’s home to over 42,000 items, from contemporary art to Native American works to Asian art and everything in between. There are permanent exhibitions, rotating temporary galleries, and an outdoor sculpture park. There’s a lot of variety here, so be sure to check the website to see what’s on during your visit.
1219 SW Park Ave, +1 503-226-2811, portlandartmuseum.org. Open Wednesday–Sunday 10am-5pm. Admission is $20 USD. Admissions is usually free on the first Thursday of the month from 5pm-8pm and just $5 USD on Fridays from 5pm-8pm, however these are currently on pause due to COVID.
13. Drink Some Beer
Portland is one of the beer capitals of America. There are over 70 microbreweries in the city — more than any other city in the country — and Portlandians take their beer seriously. The craft beer movement started here back in the ’80s, well before it caught on elsewhere. Many breweries have their own tours, as well as their own restaurants, so you can enjoy a pint and a bite to eat.
There are also multi-brewery tours from companies like City Brew Tours (tours start at $89 USD). There’s also the Eastside Craft Brewery Walking Tour, which lasts 2.5 hours and costs $55 USD. If you’re a craft beer aficionado, be sure to indulge (responsibly)!
14. Hike the Columbia River Gorge
If you’re looking to get out of the city and stretch your legs, head to the Columbia River Gorge. Located about one hour east of the city by car, it’s home to waterfalls, scenic vistas, and hiking trails. It’s the largest National Scenic Area in the country and makes for a nice place to spend a day. Oregon’s tallest waterfall, Multnomah Falls, can be found here, as well as a hundred-year-old observatory that offers up views of the surrounding picturesque landscape.
Some suggested hikes are Dry Creek Falls (easy, 2 hours), Wahkenna Falls Loop (moderate, 3 hours), and Starvation Ridge and Warren Lake (hard, 8 hours). If you don’t have a car, there’s a daily shuttle available for $20 USD (round trip).
Portland is one of my favorite American cities. It’s fun, eclectic, and energetic, and it has a lot to offer (especially if you’re a foodie or craft beer lover). It deserves far more attention than it gets — from domestic and international travelers alike. If you find yourself in the PNW, be sure to spend a few days here. Your tastebuds will thank you!
Book Your Trip to Portland: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned. Start with Skyscanner first though because they have the biggest reach!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- Safety Wing (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Want More Information on the United States?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on the United States for even more planning tips!