Portland, Oregon, is the Pacific Northwest’s second-largest city – the anchor of a metropolitan area some two million people strong. Just don’t confuse it with Portland, Maine, its older and much smaller East Coast namesake.
Thanks to its prime location in the crook of the Willamette-Columbia River junction, its proximity to the open Pacific Ocean, and its resource-rich hinterland, Portland has long been a hub of transport and industry. Back in the 19th century, the city sprang up and grew along a gentle bend in the Willamette, where its downtown core and densest neighborhoods still lie, and later spread out along the hills above its fair valley.
Today, the West Coast’s long-running tech boom is transforming Portland into a vibrant back office for big Seattle and Silicon Valley companies. There’s also evidence it’s emerging as a startup hub in its own right, as increasingly aggressive angel investors and venture capitalists seek opportunities outside larger West Coast markets.
That’s both good and bad for Portland. Like Seattle, Portland’s population is swelling with transplants from other parts of the country and world – notably California, which has been sending economic refugees north for years. The new arrivals have pushed the city’s construction industry into overdrive, transformed formerly downtrodden neighborhoods into yuppie redoubts, and pushed working-class residents into less convenient areas on the city’s periphery. Then again, the boom is also a gold mine for small entrepreneurs keen on serving hip Portlanders’ insatiable demand for all things local and artisanal – an apparently primal urge skewered to hilarious effect in “Portlandia,” the IFC cult show.
But you don’t need to find “Portlandia” funny, or consider yourself hip in the slightest, to have a good time here. Portland is a beautiful, cosmopolitan place with the cultural amenities of a major coastal metropolis and the laid-back ethos of a small Northwestern town.
Despite rapidly rising rents in core neighborhoods, Portland is also not outrageously expensive to visit, as long as you don’t mind scouting out Airbnb rentals or staying in one of the dozens of unpretentious motels within the city limits. Portland’s plentiful food trucks, cafes, and breweries make for cheap refueling. And, perhaps most importantly, Oregon is one of the few states with no sales tax. Depending on what you’re used to in your hometown, this alone could cut anywhere from 5% to 10% off the cost of your discretionary spending here.
I spent four late spring nights in Portland, hitting as many attractions, neighborhoods, and locally owned businesses (definitely not difficult in this part of the world) as I could. Thanks in part to the generosity of the kind folks at Travel Portland, the city’s excellent travel bureau, I was able to check out many of the budget-friendly spots listed below. The attractions and points of interest that I didn’t have time to visit have been thoroughly researched (again, thanks in part to Travel Portland) and won’t blow a hole through your travel budget.
Historical Sights and Tourist Attractions
Portland won’t celebrate its 200th birthday until 2045, but that doesn’t mean it’s a historical blank slate. Oregon’s largest city has seen plenty in its relatively short lifespan. If you’re interested in learning more about Portland’s historical and cultural journey, check out some of these tourist-friendly sights and attractions.
1. Lan Su Chinese Garden
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 4pm (November 1 through March 14); daily, 10am to 7pm (March 15 through October 31)
Occupying an entire block in the heart of Portland’s Old Town Chinatown neighborhood, Lan Su Chinese Garden is a formal Chinese garden with mesmerizing water features, delightfully detailed landscaping, engaging architecture, and a cozy (but busy) tea house. High walls keep out street noise and bring inner peace within reach. I can attest to Lan Su’s quiet power – I meant to zip through in 10 minutes and ended up staying for 30.
2. Portland Japanese Garden
- Adult admission: $14.95
- Hours: Monday, 12pm to 7pm and Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 7pm (March 12 through September 30); Monday, 12pm to 4pm and Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 4pm (October 1 through March 11)
Located adjacent to the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park, Portland Japanese Garden is a larger, slightly wilder cousin to Lan Su Chinese Garden. Instead of a self-contained block, this space is an irregularly shaped collection of thematic settings: a bonsai display, a meticulously arranged riverine landscape, and a perfectly pruned shrub garden. Don’t miss the excellent views of Mt. Hood from the bonsai area.
3. Hoyt Arboretum
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 5am to 9:30pm (visitor center open Monday through Friday, 9am to 4pm, and on weekends as volunteer availability allows)
Spread along nearly 160 acres of heavily forested West Hills habitat, just above (and north of) the Oregon Zoo and World Forestry Center, Hoyt Arboretum is a nonprofit-run celebration of all things arboreal. It contains a host of native and nonnative species – more than 2,000 in all, many of which are marked with helpful Latin and English placards. Highlights include a towering redwood grove – my personal favorite – and a recently installed bamboo forest that seeks to dispel myths about this invasive-yet-sustainable species.
4. Pittock Mansion
- Adult admission: $11
- Hours: Daily, 10am or 11am to 4pm or 5pm, depending on the season
Pittock Mansion‘s tagline is “Every house tells a story. This one tells Portland’s.” Sure, it’s a story told from the perspective of a wealthy founding family, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.
Built in 1914 by Henry Pittock, the publisher of The Oregonian newspaper, and now owned by the city of Portland, Pittock Mansion is a majestic great house that contains a century’s worth of historical and cultural artifacts. It’s all the more remarkable for what happened after the Pittocks left: In 1962, a violent storm seriously damaged the then-vacant house, exposing its interior to the elements for 18 months and requiring a marathon 15-month restoration project. Walking through the house today, you’d never know.
5. Powell’s City of Books
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 11pm
Calling Powell’s a bookstore is like calling the Louvre an art museum: technically accurate, but wildly understated. The flagship location on Burnside (on the northern fringe of downtown Portland) contains more than a million individual volumes. Four satellite locations serve outlying areas of the Portland metro area; the entire enterprise employs upwards of 500 people.
If you spend any time in downtown or Northwest Portland, take 15 to 30 minutes to browse the flagship location, just to get a sense of the place’s scale. If you’re a bookworm, you could easily spend your whole trip here.
6. Shanghai Tunnel/Portland Underground Tours
- Adult admission: $13 plus online ticketing fee
- Hours: Tours start at 6:30pm on Wednesday and Thursday; 6pm and 7:30pm on Friday; 4pm, 6pm, and 7:30pm on Saturday; and 4:30pm on Sunday (times subject to change by season and availability)
The Portland Underground, also known as the Shanghai Tunnels, is definitely among the weirdest and most depressing of Portland’s historical attractions: an underground tunnel system, not unlike a smaller version of the Paris Catacombs, that human smugglers used to transport unsuspecting victims in the late 19th century.
The best, and only completely legal, way to access the tunnels beneath Old Town Chinatown is to take a 90-minute guided tour operated by Cascade Geographic Society (CGS), a local nonprofit that donates a portion of its proceeds to the fight against modern human trafficking. Tours come in several flavors: Heritage, Ethnic Heritage, and Ghost Tours (including a special Friday the 13th paranormal tour).
CGS provides flashlights, but you’re welcome to bring your own. It also recommends dust masks for people with respiratory issues, as the underground air quality is pretty poor.
7. Oregon Zoo
- Adult admission: $14.95 from March through September; $9.95 from October through February
- Hours: Daily, 9:30am to 6pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day; Daily, 9:30am to 4pm, Labor Day through Memorial Day
Located in Washington Park, the Oregon Zoo features dozens of animal species in a variety of spacious habitats. Its collection ranges from North American favorites such as cougars and harbor seals, to more exotic inclusions such as colubus monkeys and orangutans. I visited on a Friday morning, when the place was swamped with field-tripping students thrilled to be out of the classroom on a beautiful day – though their adult chaperones didn’t seem to mind either.
8. The Grotto
- Adult admission: $6
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 4pm, 5pm, 6pm, 6:30pm, or 8:30pm, depending on the season (longer hours in summer)
The Grotto (officially called The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, The Grotto) is an internationally renowned Catholic shrine operated by the Order of Friar Servants of St. Mary. With more than 200,000 visitors per year, it’s among the western United States’ most significant Catholic sites. The centerpiece is a 110-foot cliff and cave containing dramatic religious sculptures and a candlelit shrine. Well-kept gardens and lush wild foliage, including rhododendron shrubs and towering fir trees, dot the remainder of the 62-acre property. Even if you’re not Catholic (or not religious at all), The Grotto is a sight to behold.
9. Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden
- Adult admission: Free from Labor Day through February; $5 from March through Labor Day during peak hours (Wednesday through Sunday, 10am to 6pm)
- Hours: Daily, 6am to 10pm, April through September; 6am to 6pm, October through March
Located in Southeast Portland, near the woodsy campus of Reed College, Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden is one of the best places to see Portland’s famous rhododendron shrubs abloom. The flowering show lasts from March through June, depending on weather conditions. The first shrubs were planted here in the late 1910s, and at least one still remains from that period. Nearly 2,500 individual bushes have since joined them, mostly via patron donations. A spring-fed pond and some 94 bird species round out the appeal.
10. Portland Aerial Tram
- Adult admission: $4.70 (round trip fare)
- Hours: Weekdays, 5:30am to 9:30pm; Saturday, 9am to 5pm; Sunday, 1pm to 5pm (closed through summer 2018)
Portland Aerial Tram is technically part of Portland’s transit system, but its practicality as a legitimate mode of conveyance is pretty limited. It’s better viewed as a fun diversion for tourists looking to kill some time with stunning views of downtown Portland and the Willamette River valley.
Connecting the upper and lower campuses of Oregon Health & Science University, a major medical school and research institution, the tram gains 500 feet of elevation in approximately 3,300 linear feet. The ride takes about four minutes, and trams depart approximately every six minutes. On busy days, be prepared to wait.
Like most major cities, Portland has first-rate cultural and educational institutions for kids and adults alike. These are some of the most popular.
11. Oregon Museum of Science & Industry
- Adult admission: $14.50; planetarium shows usually range from $5 to $10 (lot parking is $5)
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30am to 5:30pm
Located on the southern fringe of inner East Portland, right across the river from Portland State University, Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (OMSI) is an engaging, larger-than-life look at fascinating, complex scientific concepts – from space exploration, to ocean dynamics, to sustainable agriculture, to human reproduction.
Much of the material is geared toward older children and teens, but it’s not so simplistic as to be boring for adults. If you’re not traveling with kids in tow, don’t miss the submarine tour, an adult-friendly look at maritime and martial history. In the evenings, the planetarium’s trippy laser light shows might as well be adult-only.
If you’re feeling peckish, check out Theory, an affordable museum eatery that emphasizes fresh, local ingredients in innovative presentations. It’s located within the main museum building, on the south end.
12. Portland Art Museum
- Adult admission: $19.99
- Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10am to 5pm; Thursday and Friday, 10am to 8pm
Located in the Pearl District, adjacent to Portland’s business district, Portland Art Museum is the oldest art museum in the Pacific Northwest. With a second-to-none Native American art collection, it’s also among the most culturally fluent. (I visited in the midst of a special exhibition celebrating Native American fashion through the ages – hands down, one of the best art exhibits I’ve ever seen.)
Other highlights include an extensive Asian art and archaeology collection that includes rare Japanese screen prints and intact pottery dating back to the 4th millennium B.C.; and the Gilkey Center for Graphic Arts, a 26,000-print collection featuring work from Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and other American artists whose work defined the American West during landscape photography’s heyday.
13. Portland Children’s Museum
- Adult admission: $10.75
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm (7pm in summer)
Portland Children’s Museum is a decidedly kid-friendly museum in Washington Park, adjacent to the Oregon Zoo and Discovery Museum/World Forestry Center. (It’s definitely worth pairing with both attractions, as well as the Washington Park area’s other highlights.) Its best offerings include a hands-on “construction zone,” a clay studio that’s perfect for creative kiddos, and a make-believe veterinary clinic “where [kids’] love of animals meets the joys of science.”
14. World Forestry Center Discovery Museum
- Adult admission: $7
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day; Thursday through Monday, 10am to 5pm, Labor Day through Memorial Day
There are few better places, at least in the continental United States, for the World Forestry Center Discovery Museum. It’s located in Washington Park, within sight of Oregon Zoo and Portland Children’s Museum.
This unique museum, first opened in 1971, educates visitors about “the importance of forests and trees in our lives, as well as environmental sustainability” – a crucial lesson for residents of the heavily forested Pacific Northwest. The first floor looks at forest ecology and sustainability through a local lens, while the second floor offers global perspective on the relationship between people and woodlands across the world.
15. Oregon Maritime Museum
- Adult admission: $7 ($6 with AAA membership)
- Hours: Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 11am to 4pm (closed December 25 through January 31)
Portland might be located 80 miles by road (and well more than that by river) from the ocean. But, true to its name, it’s very much a maritime town. Oregon Maritime Museum, which protects the United States’ last operating steam-powered sternwheeler tugboat, is a great introduction to the city’s illustrious seafaring history. Permanently docked off Waterfront Park at SW Naito Boulevard and Pine Street, this is quite literally the only place to see a once-ubiquitous class of 19th century ship in action. Bring the kids.
Free Urban Parks and Outdoor Areas
Portland’s green ethos extends beyond its progressive politics and sustainable infrastructure. It’s also literally green. According to Travel Portland, nearly 30% of the city is covered by tree canopy.
It’s no surprise, then, that Portland has one of the best urban park systems in the country. Here’s a look at the highlights. Unless otherwise noted, all Portland parks are free to enter and explore, though certain attractions within parks may charge fees. Observe posted hours and use caution at night.
16. Washington Park
- Hours: Daily, 5am to 10pm
Washington Park is a 159-acre space in the West Hills. Adjacent to some of the city’s fanciest neighborhoods, this impeccable green space carries a grandeur befitting its surroundings. Must-see highlights include the grotesque gargoyles in the Chiming Fountain and the 34-foot Lewis and Clark Memorial Column, a tall granite shaft visible from the main entrance.
Washington Park is close to other popular West Hills attractions, including Hoyt Arboretum, Portland Children’s Museum, and the Oregon Zoo. If you plan to hit some or all of these, use the free Washington Park circulator shuttle, which doubles as a scenic chauffeur through the area’s hilly, winding, heavily forested roadscape.
17. International Rose Test Garden
- Hours: Daily, 7:30am to 9:30pm; Daily free tours at 1pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day only
Portland isn’t called “Rose City” for nothing. The Willamette Valley’s climate is ideal for cultivating thorny beauties, and the International Rose Test Garden is its undisputed rose capital. If you have even a passing interest in horticulture, make your way up into the West Hills (the garden is near Washington Park) for a look at the more than 8,000 roses on display here. Blooms tend to be active from May through September. I visited in early June and found the place awash in a five-alarm color fire. And, even if the bushes aren’t in season, the downtown views aren’t too bad.
18. Forest Park
- Hours: Daily, 5am to 10pm
Covering more than 5,000 acres and spanning eight miles along the crest of the West Hills in Northwest Portland, Forest Park is the largest wooded urban park in the United States. It contains 70 miles of paths, including part of the 30-mile Wildwood Trail, and boasts easy connections to Washington Park and other nearby green spaces. According to the city of Portland, more than 112 bird and 62 mammal species make their homes here.
19. Westmoreland City Park
- Hours: Daily, 5am to 12am
First a farm, then a golf course, and finally an open, well-kept park, Westmoreland City Park is a busy 42-acre spread in Southeast Portland. With basketball and tennis courts, football and soccer fields, softball and baseball diamonds, and a picnic area, it’s a great place to bring kids to blow off some steam (or enjoy a quiet meal outside).
20. Marquam Nature Park
- Hours: Daily, 5am to 12am
Marquam Nature Park is a wooded, 178-acre preserve in Southwest Portland. It’s known for its quiet nature trails and relative lack of improvements – it’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of a major metropolitan area here. Marquam’s trail system hooks up with Wildwood Trail, which continues into Washington and Forest Parks, so this is a good starting point for a longer urban hike.
21. Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge
- Hours: 5am to 12am
Located southwest of downtown Portland, adjacent to the quiet Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge is a low-lying wetland that once served as a sanitation landfill. The city acquired the property in the 1960s to protect against the development of an industrial park, which local residents staunchly opposed.
Today, it’s one of the last remaining wetland areas within Portland’s city limits. If you like bird-watching, Oaks Bottom should be high on your Portland to-do list.
22. Mt. Tabor City Park
- Hours: Daily, 5am to 12am
Fun fact about Portland: It sits atop an extinct volcanic formation known as the Boring Lava Field. Back when the Boring was active, it spat up dozens of little cinder cones, some of which remain visible around metropolitan Portland today. Mt. Tabor, rising some 636 feet above sea level, is the largest cinder cone within Portland’s city limits – the West Hills are higher, but they’re geologically distinct. Come in the evening, when the sinking sun silhouettes downtown Portland against the hills and sets Mt. Hood’s snow-cap aflame.
23. Rocky Butte Natural Area
- Hours: Not listed
A few miles northeast of Mt. Tabor lies Rocky Butte, another volcanic cinder cone with amazing views. Because its summit is a bit less wooded, Rocky Butte’s views are arguably better than Mt. Tabor’s. However, it’s farther out from the city center and thus isn’t the most convenient park on this list.
24. Waterfront Park
- Hours: Daily, 5am to 12am
Back in the 1970s, when most other cities were building freeways like there was no tomorrow, Portland was charting a different course. In 1974, the city permanently closed and decommissioned Harbor Drive, a freeway hugging the west bank of the Willamette (and, prior to the completion of I-5 in 1966, served as the principal north-south route through central Portland).
Its replacement, Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park (or, simply, Waterfront Park), now occupies a 1.5-mile stretch of prime downtown riverfront. It’s a popular event space that doubles as an excellent people-watching vantage, especially on weekends. Fixed highlights include Salmon Street Springs (a large fountain) and Japanese American Historical Plaza. Just watch out for the geese – they (and their leavings) are everywhere.
25. Downtown Park Blocks
- Hours: 5am to 9pm
The nearly two dozen so-called “park blocks” are among the many quirky aspects of downtown Portland. They’re just as they sound: city block-sized parks in the downtown core. Set aside early in the city’s life, they’ve remained protected from the increasingly intense development all around them.
If you’re into amateur photography, the park blocks’ ready-made vanishing points are a dream come true. They’re also great for walking in quiet contemplation while taking in the city’s sights and sounds. The principal park blocks are the South Park Blocks, near Portland State University, and the North Park Blocks, in inner Northwest Portland.
Notable Neighborhoods and Local Attractions
Your Portland experience depends, to a great extent, on where you choose to spend your time. The city is divided into several major districts and dozens of smaller neighborhoods, each of which has its own distinct look and feel. Here are several of the city’s most notable neighborhoods.
26. Portland’s Directional Quadrants and Major Districts
Portland visitors quickly learn that the local address system divides the city into directional quadrants. Confusingly, there are five official quadrants: Northeast (NE), Southeast (SE), Southwest (SW), Northwest (NW), and North (N). There’s also an unofficial sixth quadrant, East, which comprises the more recently annexed (1980s) neighborhoods on the city’s eastern fringe. However, East Portland’s address system doesn’t use the ‘E’ directional – the northern part retains the NE designation, while the southern part sticks to SE.
Even more confusingly, the term “inner Eastside” is frequently used to refer to the old industrial neighborhoods along the east bank of the Willamette River, in the northwestern part of the Southeast quadrant. It’s miles from the “other” East Portland.
Linguistic quirks aside, locals insist that each quadrant has its own distinct character, but, of course, it’s difficult to generalize about large districts of a major city. Southwest Portland includes the downtown core (often referred to as “City Center”) and Portland State University, as well as extensive tracts of parkland and affluent, low-density neighborhoods in the West Hills.
North Portland is a historically downscale area that’s rapidly gentrifying, especially along the Mississippi and Williams corridors. Beyond the inner Eastside, Southeast Portland is a more established, middle class area popular with families, and contains a number of self-contained neighborhoods with quiet side streets and lively commercial centers.
Northeast Portland has beautiful, affluent pockets, as well as more affordable areas favored by younger singles. And Northwest Portland – outside its industrial and undeveloped pockets (including Forest Park) – is a densely built, gentrifying area popular with young professionals and tech workers.
27. Downtown Portland/City Center
Downtown Portland, also known as “City Center,” is the most densely built section of Portland. Thanks to its many small parks and squares (including the North and South Blocks), walkable streets, ample tree cover, historic architecture, and impressive hill and river views, it’s among the most engaging parts of town too.
Many notable attractions, including some of Portland’s oldest buildings, lie within the downtown core. Don’t miss Pioneer Courthouse Square, a centrally located gathering place sometimes referred to as “Portland’s living room.” Also worth a visit is the beautiful Portland State University campus, on downtown’s southern fringe – and Waterfront Park, on its eastern riverfront.
28. Old Town Chinatown
Just north and east of downtown is Old Town Chinatown, a gritty but tourist-friendly neighborhood with cobblestone streets, Cantonese signage, and plenty of well-preserved reminders of early Portland’s Pacific Rim influence. It’s nothing compared to bigger, better-known Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York City, but it’s worth a visit all the same.
Cheap dive eateries abound here – House of Louie, noted for its lunchtime dim sum, is one of many. If you’re in town on Saturday, check out Portland Saturday Market, which takes place most of the year (January and February excepted) under the Burnside Bridge in Waterfront Park.
29. Pearl District
Immediately west of Old Town Chinatown, and north of downtown Portland, lies the Pearl District. Really an artsy extension of downtown, this densely built, funky area crawls with art galleries, upscale coffeehouses, twee eateries, and independent retailers.
Grab a pastry, hit Portland Art Museum, walk through the North Blocks, pop into a gallery, and retire to one of the independent breweries (BridgePort Brewpub is a local favorite, and claims to be Oregon’s oldest craft brewery) on the neighborhood’s northern end. If your trip schedule aligns, visit on the first Thursday evening of the month, when galleries post extended hours and the art party spills out into the streets.
30. Lloyd District/Inner East Portland
Right across the Willamette River from downtown Portland lie the Lloyd District and Inner East Portland. These two contiguous neighborhoods feature an extended swathe of large public buildings (such as the Moda Center, where the Portland Trail Blazers play, and Oregon Convention Center) and variably sized industrial structures in various states of use, disuse, and repurpose.
Inner East Portland is thick with breweries – Cascade Brewing Barrel House and Hair of the Dog are especially well-liked (and affordable), but you really can’t go wrong. For a pick-me-up, check out Cup & Bar, a hip coffee-and-chocolate joint that’s usually quiet enough for a conversation or remote work session. Depending on how you define it, OMSI marks the southern edge of Inner East.
Often described as a “small town within a city,” Sellwood-Moreland is a teardrop-shaped, mostly residential district with a quiet, family-friendly vibe and a slew of tidy, locally owned businesses along SE Milwaukie Avenue, SE 13th Avenue, and SE Tacoma Street. Don’t miss Stars Antique Mall, one of Portland’s most popular antique shops. If you’re into historic architecture, visit Oaks Pioneer Church, a mid-19th century structure that looks (almost) as good as the day it was built. For a respite from city traffic, dip into Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge.
32. Belmont and Hawthorne
SE Belmont Street and SE Hawthorne Boulevard cut for miles through Southeast Portland, roughly a quarter-mile apart. They’re like hipster cousins: Hawthorne’s neon signs, secondhand stores, and dive bars preserve echoes of Portland’s honky-tonk past, while Belmont is one of the best places in town to find cheap, unpretentious eats – and, in a town where it’s hard to walk five blocks without stumbling into a food truck pod, that’s saying something.
If you want to do your part to keep Portland’s hyperlocal business culture alive without draining your bank account, set aside a few hours for a Belmont and Hawthorne tour. And, if you visit in September, don’t miss Belmont’s annual food- and music-fueled street fair.
33. Mississippi (Boise)
The Mississippi area, centered on historic North Mississippi Avenue in the Boise neighborhood, is one of several Portland tracts in the throes of out-and-out gentrification. Once the heart of Portland’s small but vibrant African-American community, it’s increasingly a redoubt for techies and creatives, many of whom aren’t originally from Portland. They’ve pumped money into the area’s housing stock, with predictable results for local housing costs. They’ve also transformed the Mississippi Ave corridor from a quiet retail stretch primarily focused on serving longtime residents’ basic needs into a bustling destination district that’s all about entertaining tourists and newly transplanted locals well into the evening.
Still, this area is worth a visit. For affordable refreshments, check out Ecliptic Brewing, ¿Por Que No? Taqueria (one of several locations around the city), or Mississippi Marketplace (the food truck pod at Mississippi and Skidmore – if it’s still there when you visit). For a more laid-back neighborhood experience, head about a half-mile east to North Williams Avenue – an engaging, but quieter and more grown-up, alternative.
34. Alberta Arts District
Northeast of Mississippi, the Alberta Arts District stakes its claim as one of Portland’s funkiest neighborhoods. As the name suggests, it’s all about art and design.
Centered on NE Alberta Street, Alberta Arts is a great place to find unique, affordable crafts and wall art from independent sellers. Guardino Gallery is a must-visit, even if you don’t make a purchase – it’s one of the founders of Alberta Arts’ (locally) famous Last Thursday on Alberta, a play on more common First Thursday art celebrations elsewhere.
35. Ladd’s Addition
Ladd’s Addition is a small, historically significant, almost entirely residential neighborhood in inner Southeast Portland. Though it’s not a hot spot by any stretch, Ladd’s Addition is notable for its unusual layout – on a map of Portland, it’s immediately identifiable for its X-shaped intersections and small, regularly spaced parks. In fact, 126-acre Ladd’s Addition is Portland’s oldest planned residential neighborhood, and one of the oldest planned communities anywhere in the western U.S.
Part of the National Register of Historic Places since the late 1980s, it’s a treasure trove of well-preserved, early 20th century craftsman, Tudor, and Colonial Revival houses. If you’re at all interested in architecture or urban design, Ladd’s is definitely worth a 30-minute wander (or 10-minute bike circuit). Just be sure to bring your own water and sustenance – you won’t find many shops or cafes here.
36. Northwest Portland (Nob Hill)
Hemmed in by Burnside Street, I-405, and the West Hills, Nob Hill is a densely built residential and shopping district popular with hip, affluent young people. Adjacent to downtown, it’s one of Portland’s older neighborhoods, and boasts plenty of old craftsman and Colonial Revival houses to prove it.
Though Nob Hill’s sit-down restaurants are a bit pricier than outlying neighborhoods’ food truck pods, it’s hard to resist the incredible array of global cuisines available here. If you visit during the warm months, don’t miss Salt & Straw’s NW 23rd location – I didn’t have a chance to try it myself, but its ice cream gets rave reviews from locals and visitors alike.
Regional Day Trips and Excursions
Portland’s hinterland is breathtakingly scenic. As the destination for thousands of 19th-century pioneers, this part of northwestern Oregon also has a surprising supply of historic towns and charming, well-preserved rural outposts. If you’re looking to get out of Portland and explore for a day (or longer), check out these regional destinations.
37. Columbia River Gorge
- Admission: Free to drive through, $5 per day to enter
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a 292,000-acre protected area spanning what’s widely regarded as the prettiest part of the lower Columbia River, the Pacific Northwest’s largest inland waterway. The Pacific Crest Trail, a popular long-distance hiking trail that’s surprisingly accessible for day-segment hikers, bisects the gorge.
The Burdoin/Coyote Wall/Catherine Creek Recreation Area, located in the drier eastern portion of the scenic area, is another great spot for day hikers. If you’re not up for walking, simply drive east from Portland along I-84, which hugs the river. Cross north, into Washington State, for a slightly more remote (but equally beautiful) drive along Washington State Highway 14. Don’t miss Multnomah Falls, a 620-foot cataract spilling into the gorge.
38. Fort Vancouver
- Admission: Free to enter the visitor center, $5 to visit the reconstructed fort site
Located on the north bank (Washington State side) of the Columbia River, within sight of Portland, Fort Vancouver is among the Pacific Northwest’s most historically significant sites – and one of its oldest European outposts. Even if you make it to the Oregon Historical Society Museum, Fort Vancouver is a great place to see the early history of Oregon Territory up close, and to discover the painful, still raw legacy of colonization.
39. Vancouver, Washington
Fort Vancouver gave its name to the thriving, if sometimes overlooked, city that now surrounds it. Not to be confused with much larger Vancouver, British Columbia, the American Vancouver is easily reachable by bike or car from central Portland.
After visiting the fort, spend some time walking around Vancouver’s historic downtown, or head about a mile north to the campus of Clark College, which has spacious plazas and lawns with nice views of the Columbia River valley and Portland’s West Hills. If you’re thirsty, Loowit Brewing Company is affordable and conveniently located near the highway back to Portland.
40. Cannon Beach
Cannon Beach is a small, charming beach town on the remote Oregon coast, about 80 miles northwest of Portland. It’s well worth the drive: Cannon Beach is routinely cited as one of the most scenic towns on the entire U.S. Pacific coast, which is obviously saying something.
The main attraction here is Haystack Rock, an iconic monolith that juts out of the shallows just beyond the beach. Just inland, the unspoiled Coast Range mountains teem with wildlife. Just remember to pack a jacket – even when it’s sunny and warm in Portland, it’s likely to be gloomy and cool here.
41. Mt. Hood National Forest
- Admission: $5 for a day pass to the national forest
Snowcapped Mt. Hood, an imposing (and potentially active) volcano, is approximately 50 miles east of central Portland. The huge Mt. Hood National Forest begins just 20 miles from the city and sprawls across thousands of square miles of forested foothills, alpine meadows, and tundra-like high country.
Notable points of interest include Government Camp, an ironically named private mountainside community at nearly 4,000 feet above sea level; nearby Timberline Lodge, an early 20th century hotel featured in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining“; Timberline Ski Area, a minimally developed ski area known for year-round skiing on its high slopes; and Timothy Lake Recreation Area, which surrounds a stunning alpine lake and contains a popular segment of the Pacific Crest Trail.
42. Sauvie Island
- Admission: Free
Sauvie Island is a massive island at the junction of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, approximately 10 miles north and west of Portland. Most of the island is minimally developed, with a host of inland water features, secluded beaches, and dozens of private farms that take advantage of the rich bottomland soils and frequent river mists. Few cities of Portland’s size have such a beautiful agricultural asset within sight of the downtown skyline.
Sauvie is a great destination for a long-distance bike ride from central Portland. Once you reach the island, pedal north on NW Sauvie Island Road, which hugs the eastern shore and offers one majestic valley view after another.
43. Oregon City
Portland visitors of a certain age no doubt remember the popular 1990s computer game “Oregon Trail.” It’s only slightly oversimplifying matters to say that Oregon City was the ultimate destination for thousands of pioneers who made the arduous journey along the trail.
Located at a strategic Willamette River cascade less than 30 miles south of present-day downtown Portland, this was the first incorporated city west of the Rockies, and one of (if not the) most important economic engines in Oregon Territory, of which it was briefly the capital. The boom times of course didn’t last, but Oregon City today is a charming, tidy hub with a well-preserved, walkable downtown.
Pro Tip: Don’t set foot in Portland without first checking Groupon and Living Social for social coupons and daily deals in the city. Groupon is bigger and more prolific, but both apps are free, so there’s little downside to downloading them if you’re not already a hometown user. Plus, since they’re super popular with independent, locally owned small businesses, social coupons are ideal for people who prefer to support local businesses when they travel. And there are few better places to get into that mindset than quirky Portland.
If you’re structuring your time in Portland on a laptop or desktop computer, rather than opportunistically taking advantage of deals in the field, check out Groupon’s Portland page for current opportunities. This page refreshes multiple times daily and doubles as an itinerary-builder – a great complement to guides like this one.
One more point: Even if you’re not in love with push notifications, I’d recommend turning on Groupon’s when you’re on the road. Over the years, I’ve taken advantage of several “pushed” deals at the last minute, all on activities or services for which I’d have happily paid full price. That’s lowered my aggregate travel spending by hundreds of dollars, leaving more room in my budget for personal necessities and savings. Restaurant meals offer a particularly compelling use case for push notifications – if you know you’re going to eat out anyway one night, why not choose the restaurant offering a 50%-off social coupon?
When to Visit and What to Bring
Like other low-lying parts of the Pacific Northwest, Portland has a modified Mediterranean climate marked by chilly, rainy winters and warm, dry summers.
The rainy season runs roughly from October through early May, peaking in November, December, and January. Highs average in the 40s and 50s during the winter, slowly rising into the 60s as spring approaches. Frozen precipitation is rare, and any ice or snow that does fall usually melts quickly – though it’s likely to cause traffic havoc in the meantime. If you’re unlucky enough to visit Portland during a cold snap, you may need to hunker down in your hotel or short-term rental until it passes.
By contrast, Portland summers are pleasant, if occasionally hot. The months of July and August average less than one inch of rain apiece – just an occasional stray shower or thunderstorm to break up the pleasant monotony of sun and warmth. If you’re used to sultry East Coast or Midwest summers, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that oppressive humidity is rare during Portland’s warm months. My visit coincided with an unseasonable June heatwave during which daytime highs cracked 100 degrees, but I never felt overwhelmed by the heat, and temperatures quickly dropped in the evening – to the point that we were able to shut off the A/C and throw open the windows by bedtime.
Unless you like gloom, it’s definitely advisable to visit Portland during the dry season. Here’s a quick look at what to bring when you visit:
- Rain Gear and Moderately Warm Clothing. Unless you visit at the height of summer, pack an umbrella, water-resistant shoes or boots, and a lightweight rain coat. In the dead of winter, consider a water-resistant jacket capable of handling cold, possibly freezing nights, plus a hat, gloves, scarves, and tights. A light windbreaker, cardigan, or zip-up fleece is a good idea at any time of year.
- Sturdy Footwear and Other Hiking/Walking Gear. Portland’s safe streets and excellent transit tempt visitors to see the sights on foot or by bike. Bring sturdy, closed-toed shoes with good traction, especially if you plan to head into Washington Park or other unpaved locations in the West Hills. If you’re planning a longer hike near Mt. Hood or out by the coast, bring heavy-duty hiking boots, sun protection (especially important at elevation), and anything else you need to be comfortable on the trail.
- Hydration Gear. Portland’s humidity-free summer weather is deceptive: That soft, pleasant sensation on your exposed skin is actually sweat evaporating on contact with the dry air. Pack a refillable water bottle and drink regularly, even if you don’t feel thirsty. If you’re planning an out-of-town hike or long bike excursion around town, consider a larger, wearable receptacle, such as a Camelbak.
- Backpack or Shoulder Bag. If you plan to spend lots of time out and about in Portland without a car, bring a sturdy backpack or shoulder bag into which you can fit all the other stuff you’ll need: water bottles, extra clothing layers, snacks, maps, chargers, whatever. I got quite the workout huffing my mostly full backpack up and down the West Hills.
- Seasonal Sun Protection. Portland isn’t the world’s sunniest city, but dry-season visitors will definitely see their share of blue skies. Coupled with long summer daylight hours, that’s a recipe for sunburn. Be sure to pack sunblock, hats, SPF lip balm, and any other sun-resistant accessories you think you’ll need. On the bright side, Portland isn’t particularly buggy, so you can probably leave the mosquito spray at home.
Arriving in Portland
Like any big city, Portland is fully plugged into the American intercity transportation network. Here’s what you need to know about getting into town.
Arriving by Air
Most Portland visitors arrive at Portland International Airport (PDX), about 10 miles northeast of the city center. It’s a busy hub with nonstop service to dozens of major North American cities (Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Chicago) and a slew of smaller West Coast airports (Santa Rosa, Bozeman, Tucson). I paid about $300 for a round-trip flight from Minneapolis, but you can probably do even better if you wait for last-minute deals or check blind-booking sites like Hotwire.
Getting from PDX to Portland proper is pretty easy. If you’re staying downtown, just hop the MAX Red Line: The $2.50 ride to Pioneer Square takes about 40 minutes and affords the occasional glimpse of Mt. Hood. You can switch to the Green and Blue Lines at Gateway or Rose Quarter stations, and access the rest of the network (Yellow and Orange) at Pioneer Square.
Arriving by Car
If you live in the Pacific Northwest or plan a multi-stop road trip through the region, driving into town probably makes the most sense.
As I note below, you may not need a personal vehicle to get around Portland proper. If you don’t want to deal with street parking in busy neighborhoods, the best place to ditch your car upon arrival is the economy lot at PDX. It’s rarely full and costs just $10 per day. From there, you can walk to the MAX station and take the Red Line into town.
Arriving by Bus or Train
Portland has regular private bus and Amtrak train service.
Amtrak trains stop at Union Station, on the northwest side of downtown Portland. There’s a train to Seattle every few hours, a three- to four-hour journey. Service to farther-flung destinations is less frequent and reliable.
Buses stop at the Greyhound terminal and possibly other stops around central Portland, depending on the bus service. According to Wanderu, fares to and from Seattle reliably cost less than $20 and take just over three hours to complete. Getting to farther-flung West Coast cities, like San Francisco and Oakland, is a costlier and more time-intensive proposition: journeys from Portland to Emeryville, near Oakland, take at least 16 hours (compared with about 10 hours by car) and require multiple layovers.
How to Get Around Portland
Once you’re in Portland, you have plenty of options for getting around.
Personal Vehicles and Rental Cars
Much of Portland is compact and densely built, though there are large tracts within the city limits that are either suburban in character (mainly in more recently annexed areas of Outer East Portland and the city’s northern fringes) or haven’t been developed at all (because they’re too steep to build on, are protected from development, or lie on ground that floods frequently). The surrounding suburbs are similar: Some are walkable and well connected to the regional transit system, while others are remote and hard to get around on bike, foot, or public transit.
Determining Whether You Need a Car
If you’re planning to stay in a farther-flung city neighborhood or suburb, research local transit options to determine whether you’re likely to need a car. If you’re staying in a centrally located area or near a major transit line, a car could actually be a hindrance, especially where street parking is scarce or expensive. However, no matter where you’re staying, you should consider getting a car if you’re planning a day or overnight trip well outside the city limits, at least for the duration of that leg of your journey.
Portland visitors who do need cars can rent them at PDX, which is served by most major U.S. car rental agencies. Some agencies, including Enterprise, Hertz, Dollar, and Avis, have outposts in or near downtown Portland as well. On a casual search, I found leading brands charging daily rates as low as $20 for subcompact vehicles, and roughly double that for full-size models. Expect higher rates during the peak summer travel season.
Highways and Traffic
Portland is well served by the Interstate Highway system – I-5, I-405, I-84, and I-205 run through the city limits or close-in suburbs, and are complimented by several other limited access highways (such as US-26 in the western city and suburbs). Traffic can be a problem in the early morning and afternoon or evening, especially on Interstates and major surface roads, so it’s best to avoid driving during those times if possible.
On the bright side, the Portland area has no toll roads. There are just two toll bridges in the entire state of Oregon, both spanning the Columbia River well east of Portland’s sprawl.
Street Parking and Fines
Like other large cities, Portland’s street parking situation is “catch-as-catch-can.” In centrally located neighborhoods, such as downtown and the inner Eastside, street spaces are metered. According to the City of Portland, hourly rates generally range from $1 to $2 in these areas during extended business hours. Overnights and weekends are often free.
Pay careful attention to the signs (usually affixed to street meters) indicating local parking time limits, if any. On time-limited streets, you can’t remain in the same space for more than the allotted time, even if you’re prepared to pay enough. When streets do have time limits, they tend to range from 30 minutes to five hours.
Once you park, you can pay with cash (coin only) or card at the nearest “smart meter” (pay station). There’s usually at least one smart meter per block. Before you leave your car, affix the printed receipt to the curbside window (driver’s side for angled spaces).
If you prefer to keep your car under a roof, look for SmartPark garages scattered around downtown Portland and close-in neighborhoods. With more than 4,000 spaces between them, they’re rarely at capacity. Expect to pay $1 to $2 per hour, depending on the garage and time of day, with daily caps between $12 and $15. Most also have evening and weekend specials – if you park downtown after 5pm or on weekends, you shouldn’t pay more than $5 at any SmartPark garage.
Portland aggressively enforces parking meters and regulations. Tickets for an expired, unfed, or over-limit meter generally cost $44 for a first offense, but can be higher if you don’t promptly move your vehicle. If you fail to display a meter receipt, you’re looking at a $65 ticket in most cases. Tickets for parking in a permit-only street spot (common in densely populated residential neighborhoods) typically cost $85. For more information, check the full schedule of the city’s parking fines.
For a city of its size, Portland has an excellent, comprehensive public transit system. The entire system is operated by a single transit authority, TriMet. That means it’s less confusing to use than transit systems in places with multiple transit authorities, such as Seattle and the surrounding Puget Sound region.
Lines and Coverage
TriMet operates five light rail lines, three streetcar lines (similar to light rail, but with smaller vehicles), one commuter rail line, and several dozen bus lines. Coverage is comprehensive, as most commercial streets in Portland proper, and major arteries in suburban cities, have regular bus service (at least every 30 minutes during waking hours).
The light rail system serves key destinations and commercial corridors in Portland and its suburbs. The streetcar system serves downtown Portland and close-in districts, such as Portland State University and inner East Portland. The light rail, streetcar, and many bus lines converge in downtown Portland, so it’s often possible to get downtown without transferring.
Though I didn’t personally visit many out-of-the-way points of interest during my stay in Portland, I was able to reach all the sites I did include on my itinerary by walking and using public transit, including the free Washington Park shuttle. Though a bike would have been marginally helpful for visiting some farther-flung neighborhoods, I never felt like I needed a car.
Fares and Payment
TriMet has a straightforward fare structure that’s consistent across all modes and distances. You can buy fares at all light rail, streetcar, and commuter rail stops, as well as onboard buses (2.5-hour and one-day passes only).
Common fare types include the following:
- 2.5 Hours: Unlimited rides and transfers for 2.5 hours from time of purchase, $2.50
- 1-Day: Unlimited rides and transfers for the entire purchase day (until 12am), $5
- 30-Day: Unlimited rides and transfers for 30 days from purchase day, $100
If you plan to use public transit to do any amount of sightseeing or exploring, it makes sense to get an unlimited one-day pass every day you’re in the area. The seven-day pass makes financial sense if you plan to stay in town for longer than five days. For convenience, be sure to download the TriMet Tickets app, which vends paperless tickets and uses your phone’s GPS to display real-time Lyft and car2go availability in your immediate area.
Ridesharing and Carsharing
Portland is well served by the two principal ridesharing services, Uber and Lyft, as well as popular carsharing services Zipcar and car2go. Uber and Lyft vehicles are widely available on demand in the downtown core and close-in neighborhoods, and typically available with 5 to 10 minute waits in outlying areas and close-in suburbs.
Uber and Lyft
Uber and Lyft fares vary by distance, time, and level of demand. If no demand surcharge is in effect, Uber rides carry a base fare of $1.25, a per-minute charge of $0.20, and a per-mile charge of $1.15, subject to a $5 minimum fare. Lyft’s fares are similar. Uber and Lyft rides originating in Portland carry a $0.50-per-ride surcharge – basically, a local tax on ridesharing. These prices are subject to change at any time.
Zipcar and Car2go
Zipcar vehicles are available at public lots in densely settled parts of Portland. Depending on your plan, Zipcars cost between $7 and $8 per hour (or $66 and $75 per day), in addition to an annual membership fee that ranges from $70 per year to $125 per month. Zipcar is ideal for medium-term rentals several hours in length – for example, day trips to surrounding towns or natural areas. However, it’s probably not worth the cost of membership if you don’t already use it (or plan to start using it) in your hometown.
car2go vehicles are available at public lots and street parking spaces throughout most of Portland, sparsely settled parts of Southwest and Northwest Portland excepted. Rides cost $0.45 per minute, subject to $19-per-hour and $79-per-day maximum charges, as well as a $1-per-ride driver protection fee. car2go is ideal for point-to-point travel within the city, especially of the one-way variety – for instance, driving to a destination with the intent to take transit or rideshare on the return trip. Journeys covering more than 150 miles accrue $0.45-per-mile surcharges.
As with ridesharing, carsharing fees are subject to change at any time.
Bike commuting is extremely popular in Portland. In fact, along with Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver, it perennially ranks as one of the top U.S. cities for cycling of any kind – recreational or work-related. I’d heard a lot about Portland’s bike infrastructure before I arrived, and I wasn’t disappointed. The city definitely has more protected on-street bike lanes than Minneapolis, my hometown, though Minneapolis (and its twin, St. Paul) have the edge in the separated bikeway and bike trail departments.
Portland was late to the bikesharing game – it didn’t have a functional network until 2017. But it’s caught up now thanks to the largess of Nike, a major local employer.
The athletic wear giant is the biggest backer (and namesake, sort of) of BIKETOWN, Portland’s public bikesharing system. BIKETOWN has about 100 stations and more than 1,000 bikes as of early 2018, and it’s still growing. Most stations lie within Portland’s downtown core and Inner East Portland, but there’s decent coverage in some farther-flung northern and eastern districts too.
To use BIKETOWN, you’ll need to spend $12 on a day pass (good for 24 hours from the purchase time) and $2.50 per ride. Rides longer than 30 minutes carry $0.10-per-minute surcharges, so you’ll want to plan a route that hits at least one BIKETOWN station every half hour.
It’s really easy, and not super costly, to rent a bike in Portland. If you plan to take a longer ride outside the central city, it’s almost certainly cheaper to opt for renting over sharing.
Spinlister, a sharing economy platform that allows individual bike owners to rent out their rides for short- and medium-term engagements, is popular in Portland. Spinlister is basically Airbnb for bikes (and, randomly, stand up paddle boards). Though selection and pricing varies from day to day, it’s generally possible to find a sturdy, good quality bike for less than $15. If you’re staying in town for more than a couple of days, consider weekly Spinlister rentals, which tend to be cheaper per day (often $60 per week or less).
If you prefer to rent from a brick-and-mortar store, Portland has plenty of bike shops that offer rentals. Brick-and-mortar rentals tend to be more expensive than Spinlister rides, but they also generally come with helmets, locks, lights, and other important gear – none of which are guaranteed with Spinlister. Everybody’s Bike Rentals & Tours, located in inner Northeast Portland, is representative: Rentals start at $25 for one day, $50 for two days, and $60 for three days.
In optimal conditions, Seattle is little more than three hours up the road from central Portland. If you have more than a weekend to see the sights, consider hitting both cities in a Pacific Northwest tour. I wish I’d followed this advice, as I visited Seattle and Portland separately, about six weeks apart. Both trips were fantastic, and I didn’t have to rent or borrow a car on either.
But I did miss out on the beautiful drive between the two cities, and the serendipitous experiences that only seem to happen on the road. If I had to do it again, I’d definitely allow some extra time to explore the area in greater depth. Come to think of it, maybe I will.
Have you ever been to Portland? What’s your favorite thing to do there?