Are you wondering what the best things to do in Portland are? Then look no further because this list will cover Portland’s iconic attractions that you must see as well as cover the quintessential things to do so that you can get to know this gorgeous city in the Pacific Northwest a little more intimately.
The city of Portland in northwest Oregon has several nicknames; Rose City, Bridge City, and Stumptown, and after reading this guide to Portland you’ll be able to understand why the city has earned itself so many monikers.
Portland has become known for many things and has garnered a reputation for being one of the quirkiest cities in the USA, however some of the stand out things about Portland would have to be its thriving craft beer and culinary scene which is regarded as being among the most innovative on the west coast. This city has a plethora of quality breweries, restaurants, and food trucks that are guaranteed to dazzle you.
But there is a lot more to Portland than beer and food. Here are some of the city’s best attractions that you shouldn’t miss, especially on a first time trip!
Iconic Attractions You Must See In Portland
1. St Johns Bridge
St. Johns Bridge is a steel suspension bridge that spans the Willamette River in Portland. This bridge is the most iconic landmark in Portland, therefore is a must see for all first time visitors to the ‘City of Bridges’.
The steel structure is not only one of the most famous bridges in Oregon, but also one of the most beautiful bridges in the United States. Its gothic arches and stunning light green color stand in contrast to the temperate forests that surround the area making it a visual delight and a photographer’s dream!
What makes this bridge incredibly beautiful and unlike others is that its beauty is solely derived from creating structural elements that are themselves attractive, rather than adding superficial decorations to an ugly structure, which is how most other bridges are designed. For example, the distinctive gothic arches in the piers and steel suspension towers of this bridge are attractive, but they also function as part of the actual structure and contribute to the strength and stability of the bridge.
The concept of making the actual bridge structure beautiful is rarely seen in modern bridge construction today, which has instead returned to the less sophisticated and less attractive concept of adding superficial decorations to bridge structures.
Basically, St. Johns Bridge is the pinnacle of bridge aesthetics, and stands out as increasingly rare and significant in the world of bridge design and construction.
St. Johns Bridge is located at Cathedral Park in Northwest Portland. The park, which was named after the Gothic cathedral-like design of the bridge towers, is a great place to view the amazing architecture and decorative concrete of this bridge.
In the summer, Cathedral Park is a wonderful place to picnic, and during autumn it’s a particularly great spot to see fall foliage.
The St. Johns neighborhood itself has a great selection of restaurants and bars so after visiting the bridge, be sure to walk up to the main street through St. Johns to check out the food scene.
2. Pittock Mansion
The Pittock Mansion tells the story of Portland’s transformation from pioneer town to a modern, industrialized city through the history and legacy of the most influential family in Portland.
In 1853, Henry Pittock (1834-1919), at the age of nineteen, headed west on the Oregon Trail to seek his fortune. When he arrived, Portland was a frontier ‘stumptown’, competing with Oregon City to become the major trade and industrial center for the region.
He found work as a typesetter at The Oregonian at a time when the newspaper industry was financially risky and fiercely competitive. By 1860, Pittock was given ownership of the newspaper in exchange for back wages, and managed to transform The Oregonian into a successful daily newspaper that is still printed to this day.
While best known for being a successful newspaper publisher, Henry Pittock also built a financial empire by investing in real estate, banking, railroads, steamboats, sheep ranching, silver mining, and the paper industry.
In the early 1900s, Henry Pittock wanted to use his fortunes to build a ‘mansion on the hill’ on property that had panoramic views of Portland, and in 1912, construction on the Pittock Mansion began and by 1914, Henry and his wife had moved into the property. Unfortunately, the couple only lived in the mansion for four years before they died.
Today, the Pittock Mansion is an iconic landmark in Portland and very popular with tourists and Portlanders. Visitors can explore the 16,000 foot French Renaissance style mansion and tour its twenty-three opulent rooms.
Even if you don’t have time to tour the lavish home, the property grounds are still worth visiting for the incredible views of the city, Willamette River, and Cascade Mountains in the distance. The property sits one thousand feet above Portland and on a clear day you can see Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and Mount. St. Helens.
3. Portland Aerial Tram
For a unique perspective of Portland, plan to ride Portland’s iconic Aerial Tram for unparalleled views of the city and beyond. Not only are the city views outstanding, but on a clear day, you may be able to see Mount Hood and possibly Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams too.
The Portland Aerial Tram connects the city’s South Waterfront neighborhood and the Marquam Hill neighborhood. It is one of only two commuter aerial tramways in the United States, the other being New York City’s Roosevelt Island Tramway.
The tram travels a horizontal distance of 3,300 feet (1,000 m) and a vertical distance of 500 feet (152 m). Trams (named Jean and Walt) depart about every five minutes and take four minutes to complete a one-way trip.
Trams feature expansive floor to ceiling windows so bring you camera and be prepared to snap a few photos as you travel high above the city.
Summers in Portland have predictably clear skies, however outside of summer, you’re more than likely in for rainy and foggy weather which might hinder visibility. Just something to keep in mind 😉
Travel Tip: Start your trip at the lower tram terminal in South Waterfront. You can reach the tram terminal from downtown Portland by taking the Portland Streetcar or the MAX Light Rail (Orange Line).
4. Washington Park
Washington Park is a 458 acre forested area that stretches for seven miles in length situated within walking distance of downtown Portland. The park is a great place to stretch your legs, hike, and get acquainted with Oregon’s lush forests along more than eighty miles of trails.
The beautiful park is to Portland what Central Park is to New York City, that is, the park is part of the city’s identity and culture so a visit to Washington Park shouldn’t be missed if you really want to know what makes local residents tick.
Located inside the park is Hoyt Arboretum, a museum of living trees featuring more than 2,300 species from around the world that you can see along twelve miles of hiking trails. Trail maps are available to visitors to help with exploring.
The arboretum encompasses 190 ridge-top acres and was founded in 1928 to conserve endangered species and educate the community. There is no admission fee to visit the arboretum.
Hoyt Arboretum’s grounds are open from 5am to 10pm daily. The park is just two miles from downtown and can be accessed by car, public transit, walking, or biking.
Portland’s iconic park isn’t just full of big trees. There are also two museums, a rose and Japanese garden, and a zoo, within the park’s boundaries. Don’t miss this place of beauty and serenity.
5. Portland International Rose Test Garden
While Portland has many nicknames, the ‘City of Roses’ is actually Portland’s official nickname. Georgina Pittock, wife of Henry Pittock, founded the Portland Rose Society in 1889 after she invited her friends over to exhibit their roses in her garden. After that, the city became obsessed with roses, planting them so they bordered the streets.
In 1905, Portland held the Lewis and Clark Exposition, its only world fair, to attract people to the city and boost the regional economy. To attract visitors, the City of Portland planted around 10,000 bushes of the revered Madame Caroline Testout rose (a popular breed of hybrid tea rose) along Portland’s streets. At that time, there were twenty miles of rose-lined streets, and it was then that Portland was named the City of Roses.
Portland is still obsessed with roses, and this is visible at the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park. Founded in 1917, the Rose Test Garden is the oldest official continuously operating rose garden in the United States.
At the Rose Test Garden are over 10,000 rose bushes, which are typically in bloom from May through October, although June is probably the best time to view them. The month of June is also when the Portland Rose Festival takes place each year where visitors can attend carnivals and parades.
The Rose Garden has an incredible view of Portland’s skyline and of Mount Hood on clear days so be ready with your camera to capture some very beautiful moments.
The grounds are open every day of the week from 5am to 10pm. Free guided tours are available daily at 1 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, with departure from the Portland Rose Garden Store. Admission is free!
6. Portland Japanese Garden
Portland Japanese Garden is a peaceful place where you can let go of worldly thoughts and enjoy tranquility at one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of Asia. The meticulously maintained garden encompasses an authentic tea house, meandering streams, waterfalls, and intimate walkways.
At the gardens, visitors can immerse themselves in traditional Japanese arts in the Cultural Village through performances, demonstrations, and seasonal activities. Some of the activities you may encounter include demonstrations on ikebana, the delicate art of flower arranging, a demonstration on yukata (Japanese kimono), and learning about chado (The Way of Tea) during a tea demonstration.
Every season brings something new to the Japanese Garden. For example, autumn brings changing colors to Japanese maple trees in the park, and is a time when the Pacific Northwest’s renown year-round greenery reveals some brilliant shades of red and gold. During this time of year, the garden hosts autumn moon-viewing nights which features live music, tea and sake service, and serves seasonal Japanese food, under an illuminated sky.
The Japanese Garden is located in Washington Park. Guided tours are included with the cost of admission.
7. Portland Stag Sign
The Portland Stag Sign is an iconic Portland landmark and one of the most instantly recognizable parts of the Portland skyline. Seeing the sign in person and taking a selfie is an obligatory experience for all first-time visitors to Portland.
The sign is illuminated every night and during the Christmas holidays, the nose of the stag glows red in imitation of Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer. If you’re visiting during Christmas, don’t miss the opportunity to snap a cute holiday picture with the sign.
Originally constructed in 1940, the sign has carried different messages advertising Portland companies but the longest lasting was for the White Stag Sportswear brand (1957 – 1997), which is why the Portland, Oregon sign is often referred to as the ‘Stag Sign’.
In 2010, the City of Portland took ownership of the sign and the lettering was changed to ‘Portland Oregon’. The sign is located in downtown Portland in the Old Town Historic District. Find it at 70 NW Couch Street near the Burnside Bridge.
8. Keep Portland Weird Sign
The ‘Keep Portland Weird’ mural is another iconic spot in Portland and a popular destination with Instagrammers looking for cool photo opportunities.
The mural was actually inspired by a ‘Keep Austin Weird’ sign in Texas and the idea was imported to Portland in 2003. However, Portland’s reputation as being weird officially began after Music Millenium owner began printing ‘Keep Portland Weird’ bumper stickers which quickly gained popularity with residents who proudly displayed the slogan on their cars and unicycles.
Is Portland really weird though? I personally wouldn’t call Portlanders weird, but certainly they are an interesting bunch. The sign is supposed to represent the fun and quirky nature of Portland, a city where individuality is celebrated and respected and applies to everything from lifestyle to art, food, and music.
While the mural is indeed an iconic spot in Portland and an easily recognized feature of the city, I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to track the mural down, unless of course you like hunting down photo opportunities.
However, since the mural is only a block away from another iconic Portland institution, ahem, Voodoo Doughnuts, you’d be silly not to wander on over after grabbing a few fried treats. More than likely you’ll stumble across the sign while hunting for a parking space if you’ve rented a car for your trip.
The mural is painted on a wall behind Dante’s nightclub. Because the mural is facing a parking lot, it is difficult to get a good photo without any cars blocking the sign. That is unless of course you are committed to capturing a great shot and plan to get here VERY early in the morning.
Quintessential Things To Do In Portland
9. Portland Saturday Market
The Portland Saturday Market is a beloved open-air market that has been in operation since 1974! In fact, these markets are considered to be the largest continually operating arts and crafts fair in the United States.
At the markets you’ll find over one hundred local vendors selling handmade arts and crafts like jewelry, paintings, pottery, photographs, clothing, and more. There is a strict policy that all vendors must design and produce all of their own products so you can expect high quality, unique and original items when you shop here.
Some of the vendors have been long-time residents such as artist Todd Tessmer who has been creating wood art pieces here for over twenty-two years.
If you’re in the ‘market’ for unique Pacific Northwest inspired artistic pieces or shopping for souvenirs and gifts for loved ones, be sure to visit the Portland Saturday Markets.
Besides arts and crafts, the Saturday Market also hosts a number of food trucks serving up tasty dishes like Best Taste Of India who offer yummy options like samosas, pakoras, tikka masala, chicken jalfrezi, and strawberry lassi. You can also find other international dishes here like pupusas, tamales, tacos, chicken shawarma, falafels, and more.
The market’s location adjacent to the riverfront make it a particularly nice place to spend a few hours, especially in summer when local buskers are out playing music and the water fountains are turned on for the children. Spring is also a great time time of year to visit the markets when the cherry blossom trees are blooming alongside the riverfront.
Portland Saturday Markets operate on Saturdays from 10am to 5pm. Keep in mind parking in the area is paid and limited. If you are staying in downtown, it is recommended that you walk to the markets from your hotel.
“We wood be nothing without trees. No air, no life, no imagination. We’ve been rooted in visual art long before we can remember and do knot know where we’d be without a sustainable Mother Nature” – Todd Tessmer
10. Grab A Coffee From Stumptown
Just like Seattle, Portland is well-known for its buzzing coffee scene. While there are many quality coffee roasters in the city, Stumptown are the original roasters who put Portland on the map and one of the reasons the city is now synonymous with coffee beans.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters who first opened their flagship cafe and roastery in 1999, has grown to become a massive brand that has now been acquired by Peet’s Coffee with locations in cities that include Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, and even New Orleans.
If you love your coffee, you will definitely need to try Portland’s most famous coffee roaster while you’re in town. They have four locations; two cafes in downtown and two cafes in Southeast Portland.
The flagship store is on Division Street and on a Saturday morning you can almost guarantee there will be a line of people waiting outside the store to get in. Nearby is another Stumptown cafe on Belmont Street which is equally as popular.
But if you’d prefer to stay in the vicinity of downtown, head to 3rd Avenue where you’ll find a more spacious Stumptown coffee store just two blocks from Voodoo Doughnuts!
Inside this store you’ll find a full espresso bar as well as breakfast menu items, pastries, cakes, and other treats that pair well with coffee drinks.
We recommend trying the Woodblock Mocha, a deliciously dark and chocolatey drink, and the Matcha Latte. They also do tea, chai, and a good lavandar lemonade.
11. Donuts From Voodoo Doughnuts
Voodoo Doughnuts, with their clever marketing that involves donuts slathered in brightly-colored frosting (most often topped with cereal or candy), along with their signature neon-pink boxes, have managed to become nationally famous in the donut world.
Since the business’s roots originate in Portland, naturally you should add a visit to the original store to your Portland bucket list. Even though you may have had the opportunity to visit a Voodoo Doughnut store in Eugene, Austin, Denver, or perhaps in Orlando, I promise you, none of them will have the magic of the original store located in downtown Portland!
Founded in May of 2003, Voodoo have been a diet staple for PDX residents and a pit stop for road trippers passing through Portland on their way to the Oregon coast ever since.
The company like to think they had a hand in creating the world of gourmet donuts and were the ones who introduced the world to the Bacon Maple Bar. Whether that’s true or not, one thing is for sure, Voodoo certainly know how to get creative with their donuts!
Currently, they have over fifty rotating flavors to choose from which get shuttled from the back bakery to the shop’s front window display at their hot-pink painted store in downtown Portland. Although I’m not a fan of the cereal-topped donuts, I do love their Pina Colada and Grape Ape flavors.
I won’t lie, these donuts are on the EXTREMELY sugary side, and if you eat more than two, you’ll likely feel a little queasy, but when in Portland – do as the locals do! Even if you don’t fall under their sugary spell, you’ll enjoy the few moments spent inside this fun and colorful store.
Did I mention Voodoo Doughnuts is open twenty-four hours a day? Yup, it’s open all day and night so you’ll have no excuse not to fit a stop into your travel itinerary!
Travel Tip: Voodoo Doughnut now have another 24-hour store in Portland at 1501 Northeast Davis Street which doesn’t get as busy as the downtown location, and is therefore quicker to get in an out of.
12. Perouse Through Powell’s Book Store
Powell’s Book Store is yet another iconic institution in Portland and roaming the store’s labrynth-like rooms is a time honored tradition among Portland denizens.
This landmark book shop is the largest new and used bookstore in the world, therefore it deserves to be on every Portland bucket list.
Covering an entire city block, the store encompasses 68,000 square feet, three floors, nine rooms, and holds over one million books! Impressive, right? You can find rare books, banned books, strange books, and many other eclectic offerings that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.
This book store is the perfect place to spend a rainy day, which if you’re familiar with Portland weather, is basically every day outside of June through September. It’s open 365 days a year so there will always be a cozy and comforting spot waiting for you in here. Conveniently, there is a coffee shop located inside the store so you can get warmed up (and buzzed) with a hot and caffeinated beverage.
Powell’s Book Store can be found in the Pearl District of downtown Portland.
Travel Tip: Powell’s hosts frequent author readings and other special events in the Pearl Room’s Basil Hallward Gallery. Visit Powell’s Book Store facebook page to see their line up of weekly events.
13. Vintage Clothes Shopping
There is no doubt Portlanders have a penchant for the unique and unconventional, and are environmentally conscience people, so it’s no surprise that residents here love shopping for clothing in thrift stores.
In this city, shopping malls and big name clothing brands (unless it’s outdoor gear) are hard to come by, but what you will find are a plethora of small businesses selling used clothing, shoes, and accessories.
Portlanders do not turn their nose down at you if you aren’t wearing the latest fashion trends like in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York City. On the contrary, you are more likely to be revered if you’re wearing something that is recycled or is a one of a kind piece. The more unusual your attire, the more admiration you’re likely to garner. Seriously.
Portland has a plethora of small businesses selling second-hand items making it one of the best locations in the U.S. for thrift store shopping! The city is a haven for treasure hunters and the best place to shop for vintage clothing is in Southeast Portland.
In Southeast Portland, head to Hawthorne Boulevard and take a peek inside House of Vintage, Focus Group Vintage, Red Light Clothing Exchange, Crossroads Trading, and my favorite, Buffalo Exchange.
14. Visit A Brewery
Portland may very well be the Craft Beer Capital of the World. This city has over sixty breweries which has earned Portland yet another nickname – Beervana!
Portland’s beer scene emerged in 1985 when McMenamins opened Oregon’s first brewpub in Southwest Portland. Other Oregon brewing pioneers started to open breweries in Portland during the 1990s including Rogue Ales which started in Newport in 1989. Rogue now operates two Portland locations; Rogue Eastside Pub & Pilot Brewery and Rogue Hall. Legendary Deschutes Brewery from Bend moved into the Pearl District in 2008.
These three heavy hitters should be at the top of your list of breweries to visit in Portland but there are many more you could add to your Portland bucket list.
So what is the craft beer scene like in Portland? Well, this city is completely obsessed with hopped up IPAs! Hoppy IPAs have long been a staple in this city but there is also an abundance of dark beers like porters and stouts. Sour beers have recently been gaining in popularity here too.
If you would prefer some company as you explore Portland’s numerous breweries, there are several group-led tours you can join such as this three hour brew & bicycle tour that explores downtown, the Pearl District and Northwest Portland.
There’s even this haunted brewery tour where you can sample local beers as you walk through 19th century buildings and listen to stories about Portland’s era of kidnapping, gangs, prostitution and opium dens.
You can also join this brewery tour that will take you beneath Portland’s city streets to the infamous Shanghai Tunnels where local lore has it that a labyrinth of interconnected basements and underground tunnels ran to the waterfront making it easy to sneak illegal goods including shanghaied victims between shore and ship.
15. Explore The Food Cart Scene
Portland is famous for its large number of food trucks found throughout the city and a trip to Portland would not be complete without a visit to one.
Food trucks flourish in Portland’s culinary scene, although in Portland they are called food carts. The majority of these food carts stay put in groups dubbed “food pods” which can be found throughout different neighborhoods.
If you’re in downtown Portland, you can sample the legendary street food scene at the 5th Avenue Food Cart Pod. Explore international flavors here like Korean, Mexican, Thai, and Egyptian.
In Southeast Portland, stop by one of the longest established food pods Cartopia which dishes up crispy, twice-fried Belgian-style fries and gravy-doused poutine (the perfect post-drinking food).
One of the newest pods on the block is Hawthorne Asylum (opened in 2019) which features a fire pit that you can huddle around once the winter weather settles in. Stand out food trucks here include Smaaken Waffle Sandwiches and Burmese Delight. You can even get beer and cider at the onsite bar, Black Dagger.
Read More On Oregon
- 5 Best Day Trip Ideas From Portland
- 35+ Best Things To Do In Oregon
- 15 Wonderful Things To Do In Eastern Oregon
Where To Stay In Portland
The Nines – If you’re looking for a five star experience, choose to stay at The Nines, a luxury hotel in downtown Portland. This hotel features two restaurants, a bar, and rooftop terrace. Rooms here are a visual indulgence and feature satin drapes, electric fireplace, and original artwork by the students at Pacific Northwest College of Art. Rest on robin blue pillows and under delicate Frette linens.
Kimpton Riverplace Hotel – This refined hotel sits on the Portland river front offering water views from most guest suites and cottages. Guests of the Kimpton will enjoy complimentary tea and coffee each morning and a nightly hosted wine hour every evening in the lobby.
The Porter By Hilton – For an affordable yet still luxurious hotel, look into staying at The Porter, a modern and stylish hotel located in downtown Portland. Rooms here feature luxurious robes and slippers, premium bath amenities, in-room premium Italian coffee service by Caffé D’arte, and a deluxe Waldorf Astoria bed.
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