Huge street murals, adorning the sides of otherwise normal buildings, bright and bold. Artisanal coffee shops serving house-made dairy-free milk and organic chocolate. Locally sourced, homemade, fair trade, sustainable and eco-friendly wares. Creative cooks, dedicated to the perfection of a single cuisine alongside innovators, brewers, distillers, artists and master craftsmen. Portland is a truly unique destination, offering a world of experiences for the keen traveller, far more than I could ever pack into this guide. If you’re planning a trip and need some inspiration, here’s my list of 26 awesome things you absolutely must do in Portland. #YouCanInPortland!
1. Japanese Garden
Of all the wonderful things I saw and experienced in Portland, the Japanese Garden was by far my favourite. Funny thing, I almost didn’t make it out there because I thought it was a bit too out of my way. Thankfully I planned my day better, caught an Uber there and ended up finding myself in one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever visited. The Japanese Garden is absolutely magical and well worth the $14.95US admission fee. I did a lap around the gardens then went back to my favourite spots again, I figured I’d only need an hour or so there but ended up spending two – it was definitely a highlight!
2. Powell’s City of Books
Love books? You’ll love Powell’s City of Books, the largest independent bookstore in the world! As an introvert I find the unspoken but totally mandatory peace and quiet of a bookstore to be my best friend, so I nearly fainted on the spot when I pushed through the doors of Powell’s into a swarming sea of book lovers. This place is super popular and for good reason, there’s a huge range of new and used books on offer and loads of shelves to explore. I got my hands on Powell’s tote (so cute!), you can also make the most of the on-site cafe by cosying up to your new book while sipping a latte.
3. Pine Street Market
Take a trip to Portland’s first food hall, Pine Street Market, where you’ll find nine of Portland’s best chefs under the same roof. Your food memory bank and your taste buds will thank you for it. You’ll find Pine Street Market located Downtown, boasting a casual, open layout with a really friendly and welcoming atmosphere. It’s a chance to sink your teeth into some top-notch food, like Bless Your Heart Burgers, Kim Jong Smokehouse, Kure, Marukin Ramen, OP Wurst, Pollo Bravo, Trifecta Annex, Wiz Bang Bar and Brass Bar Barista. Seriously, the vegan ramen at Marukin is amazing!
4. Visit a few breweries
It turns out Portland has an amazing craft beer scene! You’ll find breweries dotted all around the city and outskirts, offering up a huge range of unique, interesting and delicious beers. So, it’d be rude not to visit a few and sample their goods, right? Right! You might like to plan a visit to Grixsen Brewing, Scout Beer, Wayfinder or Mt. Tabor Brewing. Consider scheduling a stop at Ancestry Brewing, Double Mountain Brewing, Zoiglhaus Brewing or a trip to Great Notion Brewing, Royale Brewing or Coin Toss Brewing.
5. Visit a few whisky distilleries
Continuing on with the booze theme, you’ll find some fantastic local distillers in Portland. Consider making a visit to Bull Run Distillery, Hopworks Urban Brewery, New Deal Distillery, Stone Barn Brandyworks, House Spirits Distillery, McMenamins Edgefield Distillery as well as the Clear Creek or Hood River Distilleries.
6. Poke Bowl at QuickFish
Love Poke Bowls? Be sure to stop in at one of the two QuickFish locations in Portland. What’s great about this place is they only use the highest quality, sustainable fish on the market. The result is a really delicious menu that’s guilt-free! You can eat at the shop, nabbing a bar-style seat inside or a table outside or grab your bowl to go and head to the park for a low-key picnic.
7. Cycle Portland Tour
Portland has a reputation for being bike-mad (it’s a good reputation to have!) so it makes sense to see Portland by bicycle! I joined the Foodie Fieldtrip with Cycle Portland Bike Tours and absolutely LOVED it. It was a really fun, easy way to see the city and get my bearings, as well as being taken directly to the very best food spots. It got me away from the go-to tourist areas and into the backstreets of Portland, really giving me a good sense of what the city’s truly about and the chance to glean some great local knowledge from my awesome guide. If a food tour isn’t quite the right fit for you, they also offer Essential Portland and a Brews Cruise or you can hire a bike do a DIY tour (pre-book or walk-in).
8. Case Study
Get your hands on a fantastic cup of coffee at Case Study Coffee Roasters. In addition to its kick-ass beer culture, Portland’s also famous for its coffee culture. You’ll hear a lot about third-wave coffee, a movement to create high-quality coffee. If you haven’t heard of the concept before, your basic cup of brewed coffee poured from one of those American-diner style jugs is first-wave, Starbucks is your second-wave and the rise of artisanal coffee and speciality roasts is your third-wave. Case Study is a third-wave hero and the perfect place to visit if you’re keen to dive latte first into Portland’s third-wave coffee scene.
9. Spot Street Art
I spent half a day wandering around Portland just looking at all the incredible street artworks bringing the city to life. You’ll find everything from huge murals taking up the entire side of a building to small, hidden pockets of art tucked away down alleyways. If you don’t mind losing track of time and just wandering, I recommend letting your feet guide you. If you need a bit more of a plan, the Portland Street Art Alliance has some great information here, including a map of artwork locations. You can also download the free Tip Tour app which will help you take a self-guided walking audio tour of the Alberta Arts District!
10. Cup and Bar
“More coffee,” you say? Well, who am I deny to you, my friend? You’ll most likely plan to spend a lot of time in and around the Downtown area so why not head over to the other side of town and visit another third-wave hero, Cup and Bar. Trailhead Coffee Roasters teamed up with Ranger Chocolate Company to create Portland’s first coffee and chocolate tasting room. Yes, heaven is real! You can grab a light bite, listen to live music or simply sip their out-of-this-world mocha.
11. McMenamins Kennedy School
You’ve never been anywhere quite like McMenamins Kennedy School. Actually, yes you have! Get ready to turn your teenage nightmares into your grown-up wonderland because, at Kennedy School, drinking is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. A historic Elementary School converted to a very unique hotel, Kennedy School allows you to enjoy a pint in The Classroom or whisky in Detention then catch a movie in the Old Auditorium. Though the old rule of ‘don’t run in the hallway’ still stands, only so you don’t spill a precious drop of beer.
12. Portland Art Museum
Another unexpected highlight for me was my visit to the Portland Art Museum. I spent a little over an hour here, enjoying the peace and quiet of the gallery while exploring the exhibitions. I was lucky enough to catch the Etchings Of Whistler And His Circle Exhibition, a really lovely collection of stunning etchings that just kind of pull you into them. The gallery is beautiful and a great spot to escape for a little while, getting a good dose of culture in the process.
13. Explore the Saturday Market
One of the best ways to get a really good feel for a new destination is to visit a local market. I always find them to capture what the local area is really about in one small area, like a living snapshot or something. You get a really good sense of the food scene because you get to see all the local, seasonal produce, which also gives you a good feel for what you can expect to eat. You get to see locals interact, which shares insight into real life here and the arts, crafts and fashion stalls share the local flare. If you’re interested in really exploring Portland, a trip to the Portland Saturday Market is a must. Great shopping, cool things you’ve never seen before, beautiful plants, delicious food, fresh bites and so much more!
14. Salt & Straw
I gotta say, I’m not usually one to join a queue and wait for food. Most of the time it’s over-hyped and more about boasting you’ve been there on Instagram, rather than actually enjoying what you’re eating. Turns out, Salt & Straw is worth the wait. There’s denying, queueing up is annoying, but they handle it really well. The line moved pretty quick and it gives you time to decide what to try (yes! samples!) I LOVED the ice cream and treated myself to TWO scoops – roasted strawberry coconut (vegan) and chocolate gooey brownie, packed atop a perfectly golden waffle cone. You guys, it was amazing.
15. Catch a gig at the Crystal Ballroom
If you love live music you should check out the upcoming gigs at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom. The historic venue is over a century old and is a truly beautiful place to check out. I was lucky enough to catch Fade To Light, a dynamic fashion show encouraging local designers to push the boundaries, think outside the box and showcase their creations. Music lovers can also hope to catch acts like Vance Joy, Future Islands, Milky Chance, Oh Wonder, Tyler The Creator and The Dandy Warhols!
16. Voodoo Doughnut
Another Instagram must-do and another one I wanted to try but didn’t want to get too swept up in the internet fan-fare. I won’t lie, when I saw my first Voodoo Doughnut I was a bit overwhelmed and intimidated. The amazing creations Voodoo come up with look like something out of a mad baker’s laboratory. I took one bite, expecting it to be so sickly sweet and over-the-top that I’d get an instant headache and be done, instead, I ended up eating the WHOLE thing! If you find Instagram obsessions a turn-off like me, push those thoughts out ya mind, cos a Voodoo Doughnut is delicious, worth the visit and a unique PDX experience.
17. International Rose Test Garden
Believe it or not, the International Rose Test Garden was another surprising highlight for me. After visiting the Japanese Garden I wandered over and spent about 20 minutes wandering the rows of picture-perfect roses. I’m not usually a rose gal and even I was blown away by just how freakin’ gorgeous the roses here are. There are benches dotted around, so you could always bring a coffee and a book to sit for a while and relax, or even some sweet treats or takeaway lunch to enjoy. Be sure to explore the different garden beds, you’ll find a huge range of roses of all shapes, sizes and texture. My favourite? The stunning dusty pink cabbage roses. P.S it’s free!
18. Get a Tattoo
Tattoo culture is alive and well in Portland! If you’re someone who loves to get fresh artwork done when you travel, as a way of remembering a time or place or even if you just appreciate great tattoo artistry, Portland is a great spot to have some work done. There are a lot of really talented artists based out of Portland. I love the bright, bold, unique work by Winston The Whale. Other popular spots include Wonderland Tattoo, Tenderfoot Studio, Grizzly Tattoo and Aardvark Tattoo Company. Need more? Read this.
19. Free Walking Tour
Trying to get your tourist on but need to watch the budget? I feel ya. Get your bearings with a free guided walking tour of Portland with Secrets of Portlandia. You don’t need to reserve a spot, just check the website for tour details and show up. The tour’s free and if you like what you experienced you can leave a tip in the tour guides hat.
20. Oregon Zoo
If you’re travelling with little ones or just love animals, a visit to the Oregon Zoo may be on the cards! You can get there easily by Uber or by public transport, just ask your hotel concierge for help. Once inside, get busy exploring the beautiful grounds and making friends with the animals who call the zoo home. For an Aussie like me, highlights include seeing a beaver, black bears, bald eagle and a bobcat! (It’s purely coincidence they all start with ‘B’).
21. Food Truck Crawl
Another wonderful thing Portland is known for is its epic food truck scene. Not only do food trucks serve up delicious food, because they usually focus on one thing and do it really well, they’re also much better on the pocket, perfect for budget travellers and food lovers alike. A few must-try food carts include Potato Champion, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, the Grilled Cheese Grill, Kim Jong Grillin’, The Whole Bowl, Artigiano, Viking Soul Food, Chicken and Guns and Bing Mi.
22. Explore the Pearl District
I spent a few hours of an afternoon wandering the streets of the Pearl District and really enjoyed it. The Pearl District has a distinctly cool, laid-back feel to it. Seriously, everyone just looks so cool! As a total tourist from the other side of the planet, this part of Portland just really appealed to me. Duck into a boutique that catches your eye, try different restaurants and cafes, dip into a bar or two, just wander. I also spent way too much time inside Whole Foods in the Pearl District. Again, gigantic tourist. Don’t judge me!
23. Lan Su Chinese Garden
Another stunning garden well worth visiting, the Lan Su Chinese Garden offers a tranquil respite from your big days of exploring. This spot is particularly enjoyable when the flowers come into bloom, so put it on your must-do list for those spring months. An absolutely beautiful setting, lush gardens, picture-perfect flowers and stunning structures, it’s a great destination for those who love gardens or anyone with an interest in photography.
24. Pok Pok Restaurant
The fish sauce wings at Pok Pok Restaurant are legendary, which makes it a must-visit food spot for anyone visiting PDX. Serving up creative Thai street food in a seriously understated setting, Pok Pok delivers on big flavours and memorable bites. The amazing charcoal roasted flavours coming out of this place are notorious and, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, you’ll find plenty of tasty dishes on the menu for you too.
25. Washington Park Gardens
As I was walking back to my hotel from the Japanese and Rose Test Gardens, I found myself wandering through the Washington Park Gardens and instantly fell in love with them. I’d heard so much about Portland’s incredible scenery and beautiful landscape and the Washington Park Gardens were a great spot for me to experience a little slice of this without having to leave the city. You may like to pack a picnic, ride your bike up there or even just head up for a stroll.
26. Fifty Licks
I think the best way to end this list is with another ice cream recommendation. If you aren’t keen to join the crowds at Salt & Straw, you may find a visit to Fifty Licks more your style. With its super cool Tin Tin wallpaper and old-school ice creamery fit-out, Fifty Licks is not just a spot selling yummy ice cream, it’s really, really cool! I loved the laid-back vibe of the place and the great range of ice cream and sorbet on offer. I can personally vouch for the blackberry sorbet (vegan) and Oregon strawberry.
Watch my vlog episode from part of my trip to Portland
Phoebe Lee is a travel writer and award-winning blogger with a love for storytelling. Phoebe creates practical, fun and engaging written content designed to inspire and energise travel-lovers and dreamers. Follow her and Matt’s adventures at home and around the world, right here on Little Grey Box and through Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.