9 Must-Do’s While Staying in Downtown Portland, Oregon
Portland is most famous for being one of America’s quirkiest cities and keeps true to its’ famous “Keep Portland Weird” motto. This eclectic city offers a new & interesting sight at every turn, thus, making it a great choice for tourists seeking a unique vacation destination. From the highly touted foodie scene, to eclectic art and funky shops, oddball attractions & interesting museums, a never ending supply of local coffee shops, and a lineup of strange events throughout the year (did you know that there is an annual Naked Bike run?!), there really is something interesting to do anytime of the year in Portland.
Besides all the uniqueness to be found within the city limits, there are endless natural wonders to explore, many of which are within an hour drive from downtown. Four of the best waterfalls in the gorgeous Columbia River Gorge (the most concentrated waterfall region in the country) are all within a half hour-45 minute drive of downtown. Staying in downtown Portland is your best bet as you will have easy access to all of the trendy restaurants, bars, and special events, yet will still be close enough to enjoy the area’s best outdoor based attractions.
While I recommend staying downtown, there’s also much beauty lurking right outside of the downtown limits that should not be ignored. Gorgeous hiking trails, parks, waterfalls, scenic drives, and more can all be enjoyed via a short drive (or convenient tour). Here’s a nice starter list of 9 must-do’s while visiting Portland, focusing on both cultural and natural attractions.
1. Spend the day exploring Washington Park
Washington Park is hands down the best attraction in the Portland region and conveniently located just a 10 minute drive (or Lyft/Uber ride) from downtown. This massive park is home to the Oregon Zoo, the Portland Japanese Garden, the Hoyt Arboretum, the Portland Children’s Museum, as well as hundreds of miles of beautiful woodsy trails.
The zoo, while small at just 60 acres, is pretty impressive with a diverse mix of animals including many endangered species. There are lots of great features here including a great underwater seal exhibit, a fantastic elephant exhibit, and a beautiful Pacific Northwest section featuring plants and animals native to the area. A nice easily walkable layout and lots of trees give this zoo a really natural feel as opposed to most others. The mix of indoor and outdoor exhibits comes in handy weather-wise, as there are plenty of places to escape the inevitable rain. A new expansive Polar Bear exhibit is opening in 2020.
The really unique aspect of Washington Park, and that which really sets it apart from many other urban parks, is the wonderful trail system. Here you can choose to hike a number of connecting trails as a means to get to and from various attractions, as opposed to taking the free (seasonal) shuttle. This is a great way to get in a nice workout while also enjoying the beautiful natural scenery of the area.
2. Check out the local coffee scene
Portland has an amazing independent coffee scene. With a number of local shops lining every street, you never have to resort to a common Starbucks here. Most of the shops feature big open windows so you can people watch while enjoying a great cup of locally roasted coffee. Case Study, Cafe Ponte, Stumptown, and Spella are a few excellent choices to check out during your trip.
Most local coffee shops focus on high quality single origin beans and roast in small batches to produce a flavorful brew as opposed to the burnt and bitter undertones which are all too commonly present in the coffee at big chains.
If you are a true coffee connoisseur and would like to check out the full range of Portland’s best coffee houses, check out Eater’s list of the top 20 coffee shops in Portland.
3. Take your pic by the famous Keep Portland Weird sign
Most of us are well aware of Portland’s status of being the king of weird. In fact, it’s a prime reason the city sees so much tourism each year. You really cannot leave without getting your picture next to the famous “Keep Portland Weird” sign. If you are a sweets lover, you will want to check out the massively popular Voodoo Donuts located right next door. This eclectic sweets shop offers over 2 dozen specialty donut flavors, with everything from Captain Crunch, to a Mexican Hot Chocolate, to vegan varieties on the lineup.
Portland is known for all sorts of oddball attractions like the Pecularium (a weird museum with all sorts of odd & creepy artifacts), The Witch’s House (these haunted stone ruins in a creepy forest were once the sight of many murders – old remains can be viewed via a 1/2 mile hike), The Vacuum Cleaner Museum, and Rimsky-Korsakoffee, the oldest coffeeshop in Portland and also one of the most haunted places in town (plan for a dessert & drink in this most unusual setting). Fans of The Simpsons will also want to check out this Self Guided Portland Simpsons tour (Simpson’s creator Matt Groening is from Portland and many of the characters and places in the show were inspired by actual places in the city).
If you have the extra time, you may want to check out the free Secrets of Portlandia tour which will take you past the Keep PortlandWeird sign, as well as many other interesting sites. Meet up by the Pioneer Courthouse at 11am to partake in this fun and free tour.
4. Indulge in a scoop of “safe to eat” cookie dough
We’ve all been told not to eat raw cookie dough due to salmonella concerns, however, sometimes it’s just too tempting to resist. I’ve never made a batch of chocolate chip cookies without indulging in a spoon (or 2). Lucky for us, some clever entrepreneurs decided to take advantage of everyone’s love of cookie dough by creating safe to eat cookie dough which manages to skip the raw eggs while still maintaining the same delicious raw cookie dough flavor and consistency that we all love.
At The Cookie Dough Cafe in downtown Portland (which you may have seen featured on Season 5 of the popular reality TV show Shark Tank), you can test out about a dozen flavors of safe to eat cookie dough flavors, with everything from Oreo, to gluten-free Oatmeal, to a Naked cookie dough for those who prefer to skip the chocolate chips. Although there are a number of specialty flavors available, you really cannot go wrong with good old chocolate chip cookie dough: the classic which brings up fond childhood memories of licking the beaters and bowl clean after mom whipped up a fresh batch of dough.