Last Updated on March 2, 2022 by Jim Ferri
There are many things to do in Portland, Oregon. But just what can one say about a city revered for its food, beer, and wine; its beautiful downtown and abundance of urban green spaces; and the World Naked Bike Ride? Quite a bit, in fact…
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
By Jim Ferri
There are a lot of things to do in Portland, Oregon, a city I fell in love with decades ago. And I can tell you it’s only gotten better with age.
For years, it was relegated to playing second fiddle to the symphony of delights travelers found in Seattle.
Now, though, the laid-back Pacific Northwest city has taken center stage for legions of visitors, many attracted by young chefs who have propelled the city through the gastronomic stratosphere.
But it’s not only chefs that are bringing international attention to the city. Portland also boasts scores of breweries, award-winning wines from vineyards a cork toss away, a large number of green areas in and around the city, and a vibrant arts and culture environment. And, of course, all those festivals.
Best yet, it’s downtown is highly walkable, and its neighborhoods easy to access on a modern public transportation network. Streetcars give the city a nostalgic feeling.
Food, Food, and Food Carts…One of the Great Things to do in Portland
Perhaps more than anything else Portland, Oregon is a food and beer town.
The city was the home of celebrated chef James Beard, and just about everywhere you go in it you find an overabundance of restaurants, cafés, bars, breweries and street-food trucks. In national surveys, travelers now consistently rank Portland, Oregon as one of the top food cities in the U.S.
Wonderful wine, much of it Pinot Noir, flows in from the nearby Willamette Valley, and the city boasts more breweries per capita than anywhere else on earth. It is hops heaven for beer drinkers.
Also popular are the multitude of street food carts you find all over the city, some gathered in “cart pods’ in the city center. Within just a few blocks of one another downtown, there are four pods with a total of more than 100 carts. It’s a phenomenon you’ll find nowhere else.
Café Culture and a Voodoo Doughnut
Portland also boasts a café coffee culture that’s second to none, and you trip over coffee bars all over town.
Walking from Pioneer Square to the Pearl District we passed Case Study Coffee on SW 10th Avenue, at four o’clock in the afternoon filled with people sipping their favorite brew while either reading a book or working on their laptops at the bar.
A few bicycles leaned against the wall by the entrance, something you see in many cafés in this bicycle-loving city.
In addition to coffee bars, there are also plenty of quirky places to indulge your palate, as well.
One is Voodoo Doughnut in Old Town, a Portland institution, that’s become a tourist trap. It’s acquired a near-cult following with outrageously designed donuts topped with bacon, Captain Crunch, Oreos and other creative ingredients.
Its kaleidoscopic interior is often filled to overflowing so be prepared to spend time there; when I visited there was an hour wait to get in.
Portland is a potpourri of distinctive neighborhoods, each with its charm and attractions.
In Downtown, you find lively Pioneer Courthouse Square where more than 300 events take place every year. The city’s original downtown, the adjacent Old Town / Chinatown, is now more of an entertainment district, and locale of the famous Portland Saturday Market.
The popular Pearl District, an area formerly filled with warehouses, has morphed into an area of trendy bars and restaurants along with glitzy lofts. Here’s where you’ll find the famous Powell’s Bookstore and the Museum of Contemporary Craft.
Museums and galleries pepper the nearby neighborhoods, while in the Northwest / Nob Hill area Victorian homes, boutiques and restaurants abound.
Other neighborhoods – including Central Eastside, just across the Willamette River from downtown, as well as Hawthorne / Belmont, the Lloyd District, and the Alberta Arts District – all resonate with their own flavors.
Things to Do in Downtown Portland
It’s nearly impossible to visit Portland without finding yourself in the compact downtown area. Front and center in the district is Pioneer Courthouse Square, often used as a meeting point by tourist and local alike since it’s at the convergence of Portland’s shopping, business, and cultural districts.
The amphitheater-like square imbues the area with a feeling of excitement, something you don’t get in most other cities. Sit and relax on the steps or join the crowd often watching one of the events continually taking place there.
Since the blocks in Downtown are quite short (probably not even half the length of those in New York City), it takes only a few minutes to walk almost anywhere.
If you’re looking for something a bit more culturally oriented, the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Historical Society, and the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, locally known as “The Schnitz,” are only a five-minute walk away.
Just a few blocks over is the famous Portlandia, the second-largest copper repoussé statue in the United States, after the Statue of Liberty. Located above the entrance of the Portland Building, the huge statue is as beautiful as it is famous, made even more so by the hit TV series Portlandia.
Portland’s Pearl District
Powell’s City of Books, the largest independent bookstore in the world, occupies a city block with its 1.5 million-book inventory. If you’re looking for a book, any book new or used, this is the best place to likely find it.
It’s open 365 days a year and claims to have more than 7,000 visitors per day. Even if you’re not a bibliophile, pay it a visit, it’s that interesting. Get one of its maps to find your way around; the staff is quite helpful also.
After leaving Powell’s we wandered a few blocks past boutiques and galleries looking for a restaurant where the menu appeared interesting, but we wouldn’t have a wait.
We finally chose the Paragon, which promised to echo “the airy, spacious style of the surrounding art galleries” while being ‘industrial, yet approachable and comfortable…in perfect accord with its surroundings.”
Unfortunately the Paragon is no longer, after being permanently closed due to the pandemic.
Saturday Market, One of the Great Things to Do in Portland, Oregon
The Portland Saturday Market, the largest continuously operated outdoor arts and crafts market in the U.S. and another local institution, is part market, part vaudeville, and all fun.
It’s filled with an abundance of things for sale including arts and crafts, jewelry, apparel, any number of things, and draws a great crowd every weekend.
Along with a tsunami of things for sale, there was plenty of music, with bands playing at both ends of the market and other musicians scattered throughout the crowds wherever they could find a spot to play.
There’s also plenty of food for sale, just about every kind you’d crave, from Chinese to Philly cheese-steak, and ice cream, beer, and hard cider.
It’s open Saturday and Sundays, March through Christmas.
There are plenty of open green spaces within Portland and on its periphery including Mt. Hood, a National Forest with a historic lodge, only 60 or so miles outside the city. Within the city, there’s popular, and quite large, Washington Park that encompasses a zoo, forestry museum, arboretum, children’s museum, rose garden, Japanese garden, and amphitheater.
One afternoon I went out to the park – it’s easily accessible via public transportation – to see the renowned International Rose Test Garden, unofficially known as the Portland Rose Garden.
I took the light rail up to the Oregon Zoo, where I connected with the shuttle bus that took me to the Rose Garden. It’s a spectacular garden, set in a beautiful park, which I remembered well from years earlier.
Although it was beginning of September, typically not a good month for roses in Oregon, the plants were still in full bloom, with thousands of flowers all about.
There were people from all around the world visiting the gardens that day, but the one most memorable was Tony, a local musician who stood on one of the paths playing his saxophone, the soft notes of “La Vie en Rose” wafting through the air. It was a perfect day and a perfect outing.
Getting Around Portland
It’s easy to get around Portland since trolleys and light rail cross the city in several different directions. The fare from the Portland International Airport (PDX) – “voted the best in the USA”, according to the sign – to downtown is only $5 per adult and $2.50 for seniors, aka as “honored citizen” on the ticket machines.
You may also want to rent a bike since Portland is a popular biking city. Portlanders love their bicycles, and you’ll see them bringing their bikes into coffee shops, onto trolleys and light rail and into stores. It’s a love affair with two wheels you’ll see in few other places.
If You Go:
701 S.W. Sixth Ave.
Pioneer Courthouse Square
Portland, OR 97204
Tel: (877) 678.5263 / (503) 275-8355