The very best things to do in Portland, and the best areas to stay on your visit

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things to do in PortlandPortland is the largest city in Oregon, and is a place that is famous for the spectacular scenery of the area and for its vibrant and lively cultural scene, with plenty of live music and arts venues around the city. Although it is quite a large city for the region with a population of around 600,000, it is still relatively small compared with the rest of the country, which gives it a more welcoming small city atmosphere, while local authorities have worked to engender this atmosphere in the city. There are tons of great things to do in Portland, so here’s a short guide of our favorites.

Related reading — Why the town motto is “Keep Portland Weird.”

The city grew and developed as it lay at the confluence of two important trading rivers, and was also close to the end of the Oregon Trail which saw thousands of people emigrate west in the nineteenth century. The timber industry grew to employ many people in the area, while these large rivers also made the area a transport hub for moving the timber around the country. The city has also developed into a place that is noted for its counter-culture and liberal elements since the 1960s. This includes great public transport, many people who cycle every day and a population that place a premium on living in an environmentally friendly way.

The Key Attractions Of Portland

One of the most attractive aspects of any visit to Portland is that it does have a climate that means that all kinds of plants grow well here, making it one of the greenest cities you can visit, with plenty of parks and open spaces. It is often called the ‘City of Roses’ because they bloom especially well in the moist climate and the heavy clay soil of the region, and even have a garden dedicated to roses with over 650 varieties grown there.

Portland is also often used as a base for those going climbing or walking in the Cascade Mountains, with the imposing Mount Hood being the largest of the peaks and considered one of the best things to do near Portland.

Mount Hood near Portland

The music and cultural scene of the city is another of the reasons that many people will want to visit Portland, with a huge range of venues from those that host international superstars through to local bars. The Pearl District is particularly popular as one of the trendier parts of the city, with many of the former warehouses having been converted into art galleries or music venues, and is a great place to enjoy live music.

There are also many theatre groups and classical music organizations in the city, with the Portland Opera and Oregon Symphony also among the performing groups in Portland.

Portland also enjoys a great outdoor culture, despite the regular rain of the climate, with many people enjoying cycling and walking around the city. One of the events that is hosted annually in the city is the Portland World Naked Bike Ride, which is held in June to raise awareness of cyclist safety and also to emphasize the importance of being comfortable with the human body. It might be one of the most unusual things to do in Portland.

Visitors can then feed that human body in one of the many restaurants in the city, with the food culture being one of the aspects of Portland that the locals are particularly proud of.

Downtown Portland

The Downtown area of Portland is on the west bank of the Willamette River, and is where you find the commercial center of the city, with a series of high rise towers where many major companies are located. However, even here you cannot get away from how green and attractive the city is, with the Tom McCall Waterfront Park being one of the areas where the business people of Portland will spend lunch hours and evenings after work. This park runs along the riverside area and has a wealth of plants including some lovely cherry blossom displays when they are in bloom. This park is also a key part of the annual Portland Rose Festival.

the waterfront area in portland

Tom McCall Waterfront Park

At the heart of Downtown Portland is the Pioneer Courthouse Square, which is an open area in front of the courthouse that seems to be constantly busy, whether it is visitors enjoying the atmosphere or locals going around their business. There are several fountains and chess boards on the square, along with Kvinneakt, a life size bronze nude statue that became known by a famous poster of a man appearing to ‘flash’ the statue with the caption ‘Expose Yourself To Art’. This area is also a great area for food, with a rotation of street food trucks that are regularly welcomed to serve food on the square.

This area also has a good selection of museums that you can visit, with the Portland Art Museum having a huge collection including Native American art and the art inspired by this part of Oregon. They also have an impressive range of modern art, including works by Renoir, Van Gogh and Monet. Nearby is the Oregon Historical Society Museum, which has a collection of exhibits looking at the history of the state including the Portland Penny, which was tossed to decide the name of the new settlement when it was founded. On the riverfront is the Oregon Maritime Museum, which is housed on the ‘Portland’, a steam powered sternwheel tugboat, with collections looking at the maritime history of the state.

There are plenty of accommodation options in the Downtown Area, and here are a few suggestions:

Budget – AAE Portland Downtown – Offering both dorm beds and private rooms, this hostel offers air conditioned rooms and a nice social area. The hostel has a great location for the Downtown area, and is on one of the free tram routes in the city. Dorm beds from around $27.

Mid-range – Downtown Value Inn – Offering simply furnished rooms with a TV, mini-fridge and microwave in each room, with the TV offering satellite channels as well. The hotel does have a small amount of free parking on site, and offers a good location for exploring Downtown Portland. Rooms from around $80 per night.

Luxury – Kimpton Hotel Monaco Portland – Just a stone’s throw from the Pioneer Courthouse Square, this attractively furnished hotel offers some impressive surroundings from which to explore the city. There is a spa, restaurant and social area with live music every day, and free tea and coffee. Rooms begin at $185 per night.

Pearl District

Northwest of the Downtown area, the Pearl District is a former industrial area of Portland that has seen significant regeneration over the last half century, and is now one of the liveliest parts of the cities. Bars and coffee shops rub shoulders with restaurants and a great range of shops, with fashion boutiques and a wide range of stores. Powell’s City of Books is one of these impressive stores, and claims to be the largest independent bookstore in the world. The night life here is particularly good, with Portland’s passion for microbreweries meaning you can find a huge range of different local beers to match your tastes.

powell's books

One of the most important events in the Pearl District’s calendar is the Art in the Pearl Festival, which is an annual arts festival which draws over 100 artists every year, working in a range of different mediums. This is held on the Labor Day weekend, and draws thousands of people to the area. You will also find plenty of outdoor areas to relax in the Pearl District, with Jamison Square Park having a large fountain where people go to cool off in the summer, while Tanner Springs Park is a peaceful place with wetlands and is a location where people regularly practice yoga or simply sit and enjoy this little oasis of tranquility.

There are several accommodation options to choose from, but you may need to stay in a nearby district if you are on a tight budget.

Mid-range – Crystal Hotel – This artistically decorated hotel is one that certainly shares the hip atmosphere of the Pearl District, with high ceilings and a great location. There is a restaurant and bar on-site with regular live music, and in the basement there is a saltwater soaking pool. Rooms begin at $105.

Luxury – Residence Inn Portland Downtown/Pearl District – The suites here offer a full kitchen and a free breakfast, with rooms that are spacious and include flat screen TVs. The hotel also has a pleasant courtyard area with fire pits where you can relax, while they also offer a free grocery shopping service. Rates begin at $161 per night.

Old Town / Chinatown

This area of the city center is nestled between Downtown and the Pearl District, with the Willamette River running alongside the northeast of the district. This is where many of the historic areas of Portland are located, as it was here that the first settlement developed. There are still many signs of the old commercial areas that were in use when the area was in its heyday as a port. One of the most interesting aspects of this area of the city is that there is a network of tunnels beneath the district that would connect many businesses with the main commercial district, and were used for the moving of people and illicit goods which one made Portland a city with quite a rough reputation. There are tours of these tunnels on offer if you would like to see these areas known as the ‘Shanghai Tunnels’.

asian garden

Although not as large and bustling as the Chinatown in San Francisco for example, this part of Portland shares the history of welcoming the Chinese community, and there is a large Chinese gate marking the entrance to this part of the district. One of the most attractive parts of the Chinatown district is the Lan Su Chinese garden, with a beautiful shallow lake surrounded by paths that you can explore, and featuring a wide range of Chinese plants and water plants and is for me one of the more chill things to do in Portland. The Japan American Historical Plaza in the district also recognizes that a large number of Japanese immigrants also arrived in the US through the city of Portland.

There are a couple of accommodation options in this part of the city:

Budget and Mid-range – The Society Hotel – In a building that was once a hotel for the sailors when they were on-shore, today it offers bunks or rooms, with even the bunks equipped with large twin bed sized mattresses. There is a nice café on-site, and there is also a pleasant rooftop terrace where you can relax and stretch out. Bunks begin at around $40, with rooms from around $88.

Luxury – The Hoxton Portland – A tastefully designed and quirky hotel, the rooms here have been well designed with interesting artwork, and great bathrooms. The hotel also has a coffee house and bar downstairs and a rooftop restaurant. Rooms from around $140.

Southwest Portland

The southwest of the city is generally considered to be the area south of Downtown and on the west bank of the Williamette River, and as you explore further from the city center there are plenty more parks and open areas to enjoy. The riverbank is currently being redeveloped and offers another nice area to go for a stroll, while a short distance south of Downtown is the station for the Portland Aerial Tram. This is a cable car that connects from the riverbank to a hill just to the west. The views from this cable car can be spectacular on a clear day, offering views over the downtown area, and the peaks of the Cascade Mountains in the distance.

botanical gardens

One of the most interesting places to visit here is Washington Park, which has a wealth of attractions to enjoy. The park is the home to the Oregon Zoo, which has a range of animals including elephants, leopards and tigers among the animals that can be seen there. The park is also home to an impressive arboretum and the International Rose Test Garden, which has around 650 different species of roses that can be seen, which is a beautiful site when they are in bloom. The park is also home to the Portland Japanese Garden, which is often considered to be the finest Japanese garden in North America.

There are also several universities in this part of the city, including the Oregon Health and Science University and the Lewis & Clark College, which makes this a popular residential area.

You will find a few accommodation options where you can stay in this part of the city, including:

Mid-range – River’s Edge Hotel – This boutique hotels offers nicely designed rooms which have comfortable beds and large flat screen TVs, along with a few luxuries such as a Keurig coffee maker. There is also a spa and fitness center, along with an attractive bar and café area. Rooms begin from around $122 per night.

Mid-range – Travelodge by Wyndham Portland City Center – Located just south of the Downtown area, this hotel offers simple accommodation with a free continental breakfast. Rooms have air conditioning and include a microwave and fridge, along with a TV with premium channels. Rates begin at around $90 per night.

Northwest Portland

To the north and west of the Pearl District, Northwest Portland covers many of the suburban areas of the city, and covers the area north of Downtown and on the west bank of the Willamette River. This is one of the most popular shopping areas of the city, with Northwest 23rd Avenue being home to many upmarket fashion boutiques along with a range of cafes and restaurants. Because of the fashion connection, it is often called Trendy-Third. Northwest 21st Avenue is one of the night-life centers of Portland, with a range of bars and venues present, and can be particularly lively at the weekends.

Pittcock Mansion

One of the grand places to visit in this part of the city is the Pittock Mansion, which is in a prominent hillside location with views back over the city, and it was built in 1914 in the French Renaissance style. Forest Park is another great area to explore, which is a large park that offers some great footpaths and trails to enjoy, whether your preference is by foot or on the back of a mountain bike. If your preference is to enjoy a little taste of something alcoholic, you will also find the Bull Run Distillery and Clear Creek Distillery, offering tours and tastings of their boutique spirits, along with the chance to buy a bottle or two.

There are several options for accommodation in this part of the city, including:

Budget – Hostelling International Portland Northwest – This hostel offers a good range of facilities with a barbecue area, free bread and a café, along with arranging regular social events. There are dorm rooms and private rooms available, along with cycle rental and a library area. Dorm beds begin at around $28 per night.

Mid-range – Portland International Guesthouse – This guesthouse offers rooms with air conditioning and a homely feel, with a kitchen and a balcony for your use. Convenient location for 23rd and 21st Avenue, and a warm welcome from the host of this independent guesthouse. Rooms from around $90 per night.

Luxury – Inn at Northrup Station – This hotel is one that really does embrace the ‘Weird Portland’ vibe, with brightly colored rooms and themed nights including movie night Monday and Wine Down Wednesday. Rooms have large comfortable beds and a nice sitting area, while there is also free Keurig coffee. Rates begin from around $130 per night.

Eastside Portland

The eastside of the city is generally considered to be everything on the east bank of the Willamette River, and this does cover a significant part of the geographical area of the city. There are plenty of areas worth exploring here, with several parks including Laurelhurst Park, which was designed by the same architect as the one who designed Central Park in New York, offering nice cycle paths and green areas. As the name suggests, Mount Tabor Park has steeper slopes, but is also a nice place to explore and is also where the annual PDX Soapbox Derby take place, with many people coming out to watch these vehicles speed downhill.

portland soapbox derby

One of the interesting museums to enjoy in this part of the city is the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, which includes three steam engines on display, including Northern Pacific Class A and the GS-4, which are both around 110 feet in length and huge machines. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is another great place to visit, offering some fascinating displays, along with a planetarium and submarine that can be explored. If sports is more your bag, then the Moda Center is the home of the NBA side the Portland Trail Blazers, but make sure you buy your tickets in advance.

Adding to the theory that Portland is one of the greenest cities in the US, there is another impressive garden at the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, which has over 2,500 varieties of these flowers.

There are several accommodation options in this part of the city, including these options:

Budget – McMenamins White Eagle – This brewery owned hotel has a bar downstairs with live music every night, while in the grounds there are fire pits to make for a nice atmosphere. The rooms are simple and comfortable, and the most affordable rooms have a shared bathroom. Rates begin at $60 per night.

Mid-range – The Kennedy School – As the name suggests, this hotel is located in a former elementary school that has been turned into a comfortable hotel, decorated in a rustic style and with some original art and furnishings. There is also a lovely movie theatre and a soaking pool. Rooms from $139 a night.

Luxury – Embassy Suites by Hilton Portland Airport – The grand entrance to this beautiful hotel certainly catches the eye, and this hotel has an indoor swimming pool and whirlpool. The rooms are nicely furnished and include large screen TVs and a comfortable sitting area. Rooms from $199 per night.

How To Get To Portland And Getting Around The City

The Portland International Airport is located in the northeast of the city, and has routes serving US cities and countries in Europe, Asia and Central America. This airport also serves as an air force base in the city, so be aware you may see more than just commercial aircraft on the tarmac here. There is good access to the city center, with a regular bus service that takes around 30 minutes to get to the Downtown district. You can also find several routes into Portland served by train, at Amtrak’s Portland Union Station. Cities served by Amtrak include Vancouver, Seattle, Los Angeles and a long-distance route to Chicago.

Portland is one of the best cities for those who are looking to get around without needing a car, with an excellent network of bicycle paths for those who look to get around on two wheels. The public transport here is also very good, with the Portland Streetcar and MAX Light Rail connecting to most areas of the city. Where there are no light rail services present, the bus network in the city is also very good. If you are planning to spend a lot of time getting around the city, you can also buy a daily or weekly pass for the network of public transport options, which will help to reduce the costs when it comes to getting around Portland.

portland metro map

Food And Drink In Portland

Portland is a great destination for food lovers, where many of the restaurants take pride in knowing where their ingredients are produced, which leads to some simple but wonderful meals on offer in these restaurants. The range of farmers’ markets also gives you plenty of options for picking up fresh food if you prefer to cook for yourself. There is also a great culture of street food in Portland, and many of the squares and open areas of the city will often have several food carts offering a range of different cuisines. If you do have a sweet tooth, then you might want to head for Voodoo Doughnut, a shop open 24 hours which has a great range of doughnuts and a cool vibe.

When it comes to getting a drink in Portland, one of the interesting things is that there are free water drinking fountains throughout the downtown area, which have a nice attractive design and are known as ‘Benson Bubblers’. For something a little stronger, Portland is also known as the microbrewery capital of the world, with almost every bar or restaurant serving quality craft beer alongside the usual national varieties. As a part of its culture, Portland is also home to a great range of independent coffee houses, and many of these may also host live music, poetry or art events as a part of their operation, helping to give the city a great vibe when you relax and have a cup of coffee.

things to do in Portland things to do in Portland

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.