It may have the cool, rainy climate of the Pacific Northwest and the progressive sensibility of Western Europe, but Portland’s quirky, laid-back vibe is all its own. This is a place where locals wear shorts to the symphony and you can get legally married in a doughnut shop. It’s a newly popular destination for foodies too; over the last decade or so, the latest generation of Portland chefs has revitalized the city’s dining scene with a focus on creativity, sustainability and locally sourced ingredients. And don’t forget the beer and wine! There are more than 65 breweries in Portland (a city with a population of about 600,000), as well as hundreds of wineries in the nearby Willamette Valley.
Nicknamed the City of Roses, Portland is a place where nature is never far away. A short drive will take you to the forests of Mount Hood and the tumbling waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, but green spaces are plentiful even within city boundaries — like the nation’s oldest rose test garden, and the leafy waterfront park where locals jog and bike as the sun rises over the Willamette River. (Speaking of parks, Portland is home to the world’s smallest: Mill Ends, which measures a mere 24 inches across.)
Portland’s green, livable downtown is no accident. In 1972, the city created a comprehensive “Downtown Plan” to improve the quality of life and draw residents back to Portland’s urban core. Among a raft of other changes, the Plan mandated the expansion of public transportation, offered a vision of a more open and attractive waterfront area, and encouraged the beautification of downtown streets with trees and planters.
In the decades since then, Portland’s leaders have continued the trend of careful city planning, instituting an urban growth boundary to prevent sprawl and requiring that a certain percentage of all building construction funds given by the city be spent on public art. Sustainability and environmental responsibility are also an important part of the mix, visible in the many bike lanes, solar-powered parking meters and LEED-certified buildings scattered throughout the city.
Visitors will find Portland’s orderly streets easy to navigate. You’ll see the abbreviations NW, NE, SW or SE in most local addresses; the Willamette River divides the city into east and west, while the north/south boundary is marked by Burnside Street. Numbered avenues run parallel to the Willamette River (the lower the number, the closer you are to the river). North of Burnside on the western side of the river, named streets go in alphabetical order (Couch, Davis, Everett, Flanders…).
It’s easy to get around Portland on two wheels; pick up a bike map of Portland from the tourist information center or at your hotel.
Portland, Oregon Attractions
Pioneer Courthouse Square is the heart of Portland’s downtown area, often called the city’s “living room.” Attractions here include the city’s tourist information center, a weather machine (which plays a fanfare each day at noon to announce the day’s weather forecast) and various works of public art, including several large chess boards where locals sit and face off. Hundreds of concerts, festivals and other events are held on the square each year.
Get an insider’s view of the city with Portland Walking Tours. The company offers several leisurely and informative walking tours each day, including “Best of Portland,” the foodie-friendly “Epicurean Excursion” and “Underground Portland” (which covers Portland’s seamier, spicier side). We also like the “Beyond Bizarre” tour, dedicated to ghost stories and supernatural sightings.
The Portland Art Museum — the oldest art museum on the West Coast — has a wide-ranging collection with special emphasis on Native American art, English silver and works by Northwestern artists. The museum also regularly hosts visiting exhibitions. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday, with extended hours on select weeknights.
The exquisite Portland Japanese Garden is worth a visit any time of year, but it’s particularly stunning in the spring, when azaleas, magnolias, dogwoods and rhododendrons burst into bloom, and in the fall, when Japanese maples blaze with fiery color. Highlights of the garden, considered to be the most authentic example of Japanese gardening techniques outside of Japan, include a traditional teahouse, a Moon Bridge over a serene pond, and the aptly named “Heavenly Falls.” On clear days there’s also a striking view of Mount Hood to the east.
The landmark Portland Building, located at 1120 SW 5th Avenue, is one of the world’s first postmodern buildings. Designed by Michael Graves, it represents a break from modernist schools of architecture with its small windows, multi-colored facade and decorative concrete ribbons on one side. (Architecturally significant it may be, but we’ll let you decide how attractive it is.) Looming over the main entrance is Portlandia, a hammered-copper statue of a woman — the second-largest of its kind in the United States, behind only the Statue of Liberty.
Home to more than 10,000 rose plants in several hundred varieties, the International Rose Test Garden blooms into a riot of color during the summer months (usually from late May through September). The garden serves as a testing ground for new varieties of roses. Be sure to stop by the Shakespeare Garden, which includes roses named after characters in the Bard’s plays. The International Rose Test Garden is free and open to the public all year round.
Learn about Portland’s past at the Oregon Historical Society, located just a few blocks from the Portland Art Museum. Exhibits, which change regularly, focus on various aspects of Oregon’s history and culture. Be sure to check out the eight-story mural on the exterior of the building, which captures scenes from Oregon’s pioneering history.
Enjoy a shady stroll along some 12 miles of trails at the Hoyt Arboretum, another free, year-round attraction. More than 2,000 species of trees and plants are represented here. In the summer, wildflowers bloom in the meadows, and even in the winter there are plants to see — check out the Winter Garden at the north end of the Magnolia Trail. Maps of the arboretum are available at the visitor center.
Kids (and parents!) will love their visit to the Oregon Zoo, where they can meet Samudra, Rose-Tu and other members of the zoo’s popular Asian elephant program. Don’t miss the Africa exhibit, home to hippos and giraffes, or the creepy-crawly Insect Zoo.
Delve into Portland’s lively arts scene at one of numerous venues around town, many overseen by Portland’5 Centers for the Arts (see Portland5.com for listings of concerts, poetry readings, dance performances, lectures and more). Or check out the work of Portland Center Stage, a theater company that performs at the Gerding Theater at the Armory.
Program a robot, walk through a giant ear, excavate dinosaur fossils and learn why human beings age at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). This hands-on museum offers a wealth of intriguing exhibits for kids and adults, as well as a planetarium, U.S. Navy submarine and IMAX theater.
Join the locals for a stroll, jog or bike ride along the Willamette River at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. (You can rent a bike at Waterfront Bicycles, located at the corner of Naito Parkway and Ash Street.) The tree-lined path offers memorable views of Portland’s skyline on one side and its many bridges on the other.
The elegant Lan Su Chinese Garden offers visitors a glimpse of what a traditional scholar’s garden might have looked like back in the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). Visitors can walk through buildings such as the Hall of Brocade Clouds, where a scholar would have received and entertained guests, and Reflections in Clear Ripples, a lounge where the scholar’s family would have gathered. The buildings surround a central lake fringed with hundreds of native Chinese plants. Be sure to stop for a cup of tea — poured and served in accordance with traditional Chinese rituals — in the Tower of Cosmic Reflections.
At the Portland Children’s Museum, kids can “drive” a TriMet bus in the Vroom Room, go shopping at the Grasshopper Grocery or create a lasting masterpiece in the Clay Studio. The museum is designed for children ages 12 and younger.
The opulent Pittock Mansion, richly decorated and brimming with antiques, was built in 1914 at the behest of Henry Pittock, owner of the Oregonian newspaper. The mansion is located in the hills overlooking the city and offers jaw-dropping views of the Portland skyline and the Cascade Mountains beyond.
Southwest of Portland is the Willamette Valley, home to more than 500 wineries. (Visit WillametteWines.com for a map of the wineries and a guide to which ones offer tastings and tours.) The region also offers a number of wooden covered bridges, farmers’ markets, waterfalls and hiking trails, making it a great place for a day or weekend excursion from Portland.
For true outdoor adventure, head out of town to Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. The region offers attractions all year round, from winter skiing on Mount Hood (Oregon’s highest peak) to camping, hiking, mountain biking and white water rafting in the warmer months. Multnomah Falls — the second largest waterfall in the U.S. — is one highlight of the region, as is a winding scenic drive along the Columbia River Gorge, which stretches for 70 miles.
Portland, Oregon Restaurants
Whether you’re an omnivore, herbivore or “locavore,” you’ll dine well in Portland. The city is at the cusp of America’s “farm to table” movement, with many chefs relying on local ingredients sourced from the fertile Willamette Valley. Sustainable and organic fare is top of mind — and menu — at many restaurants, and vegetarians rarely lack for options. Portlanders tend to eat early and dress down (it’s not unusual to see jeans at a fancy restaurant).
Looking for a quick bite? Don’t miss Portland’s many food carts, which can be found in every flavor from Ethiopian to Brazilian. Check out FoodCartsPortland.com to search by location, operating hours or type of cuisine.
Higgins has been at the forefront of Portland’s sustainable food movement since the mid-1990s, when chef Greg Higgins opened this restaurant dedicated to highlighting the best of fresh, local, organic ingredients. Menus change seasonally and even weekly, featuring Northwestern specialties like salmon, mushrooms, berries and rhubarb. Vegetarians always have plenty of options.
Pok Pok brings the spicy flavors of Southeast Asia to a residential neighborhood of Portland. Dig into Thai green papaya salad, Vietnamese fish sauce wings or curry noodle soup (a specialty of Chiang Mai). Prepare to wait, as the restaurant does not take reservations for fewer than six people.
Portland may be incredibly vegetarian- and vegan-friendly, but carnivores need not go home hungry. At lunch time, Laurelhurst Market serves up hearty sandwiches piled high with choice meats from its butcher shop; in the evenings, it transforms into one of the city’s best steakhouses. In addition to the melt-in-your-mouth steaks, there are always a few seafood dishes on the menu.
Noble Rot may bill itself as a wine bar — and it’s got a fantastic selection of regional wines — but you’ll want to go for the farm-to-table cuisine. Chef/owner Leather Storrs sources much of his produce from his own organic garden on the rooftop of the restaurant.
In a city as health-conscious and eco-friendly as Portland, there’s no need to resort to a greasy fast food joint when you want a quick meal. The Laughing Planet Cafe has nearly a dozen locations around the city, each serving up a wholesome menu of burritos, salads, soups, smoothies and “bowls” (like the Bollywood Bowl: grilled chicken and steamed veggies on a bed or brown or jasmine rice).
Can you truly say you’ve lived if you haven’t tried a doughnut topped with maple frosting and bacon — or vanilla icing and Froot Loops? These quirky combos are just the tip of the iceberg at Voodoo Doughnut, one of Portland’s food institutions. At its two Portland locations, Voodoo serves up the city’s most creative — and creatively named — doughnuts, including the “Gay Bar” (with rainbow-colored cereal on top) and the “Captain my Captain” (topped with Cap’n Crunch cereal). Doughnut-loving duos can even get hitched here; the owners are ordained and can perform legal wedding ceremonies.
Tea lovers will delight in Tao of Tea, where the extensive menu includes dozens of teas from China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka and more. As you sip, enjoy light snacks such as Southeast Asian spinach rolls, dal with rice, or smoked vanilla ice cream. The company’s original teahouse, with its soothing rock waterfall, is located on Portland’s east side; there’s also a Tao of Tea outpost in the Tower of Cosmic Reflections at the Lan Su Chinese Garden.
Shopping in Portland, Oregon
There’s no sales tax in Oregon, so a visit to Portland is a guilt-free opportunity to make that big splurge you’ve been considering — or simply to do a little browsing through the city’s many unique shops and galleries. There are stores here you simply won’t find anywhere else (such as Powell’s City of Books), and the city’s various outdoor markets are perfect for finding that one-of-a-kind local art. Of course, there are plenty of big-name chains here too, particularly downtown.
For true bibliophiles, Powell’s City of Books is enough of a reason to visit Portland. Occupying three stories and an entire city block, Powell’s offers over a million new and used tomes arranged in color-coded rooms (on our visit, we checked out cookbooks in the red room, travel memoirs in the orange room, and poetry and Pulitzer Prize winners in the blue room). The flagship store on West Burnside is open daily till late; there are a number of other locations around town.
Despite its name, the Portland Saturday Market is held on Saturdays and Sundays (from March through December). Showcased at the market are hundreds of local artisans, offering everything from jewelry and pottery to musical instruments and stained glass.
Portland’s premier downtown shopping area is the Pioneer Place Mall, where you’ll find well-known names like H&M, Coach, Tumi and Kate Spade. If you need a break from shopping, there’s a movie theater here too.
Head to the neighborhood of Nob Hill, along Northwest 21st and 23rd Avenues, for clothing, high-end shoes, housewares and other unique items. There are plenty of coffee shops in the area where you can refuel and watch the world go by.
For a funkier shopping experience, try Hawthorne Boulevard, particularly the area east of 30th Avenue; here you can catch a glimpse of Portland’s counterculture in the neighborhood’s many bookstores, coffee houses and vintage clothing stores.
Once an industrial neighborhood full of warehouses, the up-and-coming Pearl District is now home to some of the city’s best art galleries, as well as plenty of boutiques and home design stores.
–written by Sarah Schlichter, with contributions from Carolyn Spencer Brown