Must-do's in Portland

Portland is most famous for being one of America’s quirkiest cities. The eccentric city keeps true to its’ famous “Keep Portland Weird” motto. An offbeat destination, Portland offers endless interesting & unique attractions 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.

Easy access to Natural wonders

Multnomah Falls near Portland, Oregon
At 620 feet, Multnomah Falls is the tallest waterfall in Oregon and one of the tallest year-round falls in the US. This is the most popular tourist attraction in the Pacific Northwest, and definitely worthy of a visit, either by a quick drive or via a tour.

In addition to all the unique attractions 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 located within a half hour-45 minute drive of downtown.

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, with a focus on both cultural and natural attractions.

1. Spend the day exploring Washington Park

Peaceful views at the Portland Japanese Garden

Washington Park is hands down the best attraction in the Portland region. Conveniently, this natural oasis is 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, being that it is home to a diverse mix of animals including many endangered species. Unique features include an underwater seal exhibit, a fantastic elephant exhibit, an impressive polar passage exhibit, and a beautiful Pacific Northwest section featuring native plants and animals. 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.

The really unique aspect of Washington Park, 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. This is a great way to get in a nice workout while also enjoying the beautiful natural scenery of the area. Anyone looking to relax can opt to take the free (seasonal) shuttle.

More info on Washington Park

2. Check out the local coffee scene

Americano and White Mocha at Cafe Ponte in Portland, Oregon

Portland is home to 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. True coffee connoisseurs will be impressed with the Portland scene.

3. Take your pic by the famous Keep Portland Weird sign

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 have the extra time, you may want to check out the free Secrets of Portlandia tour which will take you past the Keep Portland Weird sign, as well as many other interesting sites. Meet up by the Pioneer Courthouse at 11am to partake in this fun and free tour.

A few odd sights to check out

Portland is known for all sorts of oddball attractions. Below is a brief overview of the more interesting sites.

  • Peculiarium – An odd artifacts museum.
  • The Witch’s House – Haunted stone ruins in a creepy forest which were once the site of many murders – old remains can be viewed via a 1/2 mile hike.
  • The Vacuum Cleaner Museum – Spotlights more than 100 vacuums from the late 1800’s to 1960.
  • 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).

Simpsons tour – 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 are a sweets lover, you will want to check out the massively popular Voodoo Donuts located right next door to the Keep Portland Weird sign. 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.

Gigantic donut at Voodoo Donuts in Portland, Oregon

4. Indulge in a scoop of “safe to eat” cookie dough

The Cookie Dough Cafe in Portland, Oregon

We’ve all been told never 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. This tasty treat 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 (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. Everything from Oreo, to gluten-free Oatmeal, to a Naked cookie dough (for those who prefer to skip the chocolate chips) is available. You really cannot go wrong with good old classic chocolate chip cookie dough.

Check out the full Cookie Dough cafe menu

5. Take a stroll along the waterfront

Waterfront Park in Portland, Oregon

Portland’s lively waterfront is the perfect place to take a jog or walk on a nice day. This is also the location of the popular Portland Saturday Market, the largest continuously operated outdoor market in the country. Every Saturday & Sunday, all sorts of vendors are out. You can find just about anything here including exotic foods, fresh produce, arts and crafts, clothing, jewelry, and much more.

The market is located within walking distance of the thriving Old Town neighborhood. Thus, you can easily stroll over to many fantastic coffee shops and restaurants from here. This is also the locale where you will have the best view of the iconic Portland white stag sign. Do enjoy lunch/dinner at Kell’s Irish Pub which serves delicious fish and chips and the tastiest Irish nachos anywhere.

Fish and Chips at Kells Irish Pub in Portland Oregon

Along the waterfront, you will find a nice little paved path where you can jog, walk, ride a bike, or rent a classic 4 person surrey bike, while enjoying the quaint river scenery. It’s a nice little area for tourists, particularly during the summer months when the weather is a bit warmer and sunnier. Portland Spirit Cruises offers a number of themed cruises, including brunch, dinner, and sightseeing cruises.

6. Explore the local food scene

Pasta Primavera at Mama Mia in Portland, Oregon

Portland rightfully earns its’ place amongst the top foodie destinations in the US. Every street downtown is loaded with a variety of ethnic restaurants, local donut shops, bakeries, coffee shops, brunch hotspots, cafes, and so on. In fact, the Washington Post recently rated Portland number 1 amongst America’s top food cities. This is a notable distinction considering Portland is much smaller than many of the other top ranked cities.

If you like food trucks you are in luck as Portland has over 600. The food cart scene has received rave reviews by numerous major publications across the country. The exotic ethnic options and convenience (you will be within walking distance of a number of food trucks no matter where you stay downtown) draws many foodies. Personally, I am not a fan of food carts and prefer sit down restaurants. Here are a few of my recommended restaurants.

Mama Mia 

Mama Mia is the best Italian dining choice in Portland. The dining room is gorgeous and the service is great. Do try the wonderful 3 course meal option which includes delicious homemade soup, an entree, and a decadent dessert.

Amaretto cheesecake at Mama Mia in Portland, Oregon
Treat yourself to a slice of homemade Amaretto cheesecake!

Kells Irish Pub

Kells offers it all – a fun lively atmosphere, a friendly owner, the best fish and chips in town, and a nice historic ambiance. Since 1990, this pub has continued a unique tradition of tossing donated money upon the ceiling and sweeping it down every St. Pat’s Day. The owners donate proceeds to charity, while also matching the total (over $11,000 was donated last year!).

Delicious Irish Nachos at Kell's Irish Pub in Portland, Oregon
These Irish Nachos are even better than they look. Prob not so healthy, but worth the splurge!

Mother’s Bistro

Local breakfast favorite Mother’s serves up delicious brunch fare in a rustic, yet upscale setting. Highlights include friendly service, nice early hours for those on the go, and great people watching.

Breakfast at Mother's Bistro in Portland, Oregon
A tasty egg scramble at Mother’s

Portland Kettle

This local gem serves up a variety of housemade soups each daily. Try the most delicious creamy Broccoli cheese or a hearty chili served alongside super moist homemade cornbread.

Vegetable soup and homemade cornbread at the Portland Kettle
Vegetable soup and cornbread: a simple, yet satisfying lunch combo

Fuller’s diner

Classic comfort style diner fare in an old-fashioned setting, big portions, homemade food, friendly service await you at Fuller’s Coffee shop.

Great breakfast at Fuller's Diner in Portland, Oregon
A hearty omelet and perfectly cooked hash browns, served with homemade sourdough toast, at Fuller’s

7. Take the Aerial Tram ride

Great view of Mt Hood from the Portland Aerial tram ride

The Portland Aerial tram was originally created as a means of transport to the Oregon Health and Science University campus. This large public university is Portland’s largest employer. However, it is also open to tourists who want to take in the scenic vistas from the campus observation deck. And for only 8 bucks, it’s worth the small fee for the amazing views. The tram soars up 500 feet. The ride is very fast as the tram travels 22 mph and takes a mere 4 minutes to reach the top. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mt. Hood.

Taking the tram will not take up much of your time. The spectacular 360 degree view of the city and surrounding mountains in exchange for just a few bucks makes it one of the best values in the city. Although both daytime and nighttime rides are available, a day trip is definitely more worthwhile, especially on a clear day.

More details on the Portland Aerial tram

8. Book a waterfall tour

Gorgeous Bridal Veil falls near Portland, Oregon

There is a great tour company called Wildwood Adventures which offers various scenic tours including coastal, waterfall, and vineyard options. Any of these tours are ideal for tourists due to the convenient pickup from any downtown hotel. Due to the immense beauty of the Columbia River Gorge, the Half Day Gorge waterfall tour is the must-do in my opinion. The Gorge tour takes you to 4 of the best waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge. This beautiful natural area borders Washington & Oregon, and is known to be the most concentrated waterfall regions in the US. In fact, there are more than 70 waterfalls on the Oregon side alone!

The towering 620 foot, 2 tiered Multnomah Falls is the first and most dramatic tour stop. Multnomah lies just over a half hour outside of the city. The 3 others are all in close proximity along the Columbia River Gorge highway. Your tour will end (depending on weather conditions) at the gorgeous Vista House at Crown Point overlook. The views of the river from way up here are unparalleled.

This tour is worth the small $79 price tag, not only for the wonderful scenery, but also for the convenient pickup from downtown hotels. Tour guides are friendly and knowledgeable and all the waterfalls are breathtaking. There’s much beauty to be found right outside of the Portland city limits. And therefore, it would be a shame to come and go without exploring at least some of the natural beauty of the lush Pacific Northwest.

More info on Portland waterfalls

9. Treat yourself to a relaxing massage

Dosha Spa at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco in Portland, Oregon

It’s always a nice extra treat to get a massage while on vacation. This is especially so in a city like Portland where you will be on your feet all day exploring. If you plan on doing a lot of hiking, a nice massage will come in handy. Downtown, the most luxurious choice is Sante. Fancy amenities include a whirlpool, steam room, spa, and a UV room to soak up some much needed Vitamin D on overcast PNW days. A great mid range option is the Dosha Spa at the hotel Monaco. Prices here are very affordable (about 100 bucks for a 60 min massage with access to a steam room).

Knot Springs is a newish health club which just opened downtown. This spa includes a hot springs pool, a cold plunge pool, as well as a traditional steam room and sauna. The  Loyly Steam and Spa is located a few miles outside of downtown. However, it is a great place to enjoy a traditional Scandinavian style sauna experience. For just 30 bucks, you can relax in a European steam room and sauna, with options to add on massages.

Tips for a great Portland visit

Kimpton Monaco in downtown Portland, Oregon
Do stay at the gorgeous Kimpton Monaco. The property is beautiful inside and out with fantastic amenities! Love the gorgeous lobby, complimentary coffee and giant sized board games, wine hour, and beautifully decorated rooms!

*Stay at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco. It’s a gorgeous property that is centrally located to many great attractions and restaurants. Extra amenities include a wonderful free wine hour each evening and complimentary locally roasted coffee in the morning.

Update: This property is now Royal Sonesta Portland Downtown.

*Avoid walking around late at night. Like most major cities, common sense comes in handy. I recommend taking a Lyft or Uber as much as possible, especially at night!

*Book your waterfall tour ahead of time to ensure availability.

*Do not overplan. Leave some time to explore random sights and check out restaurants on the fly.

*Stop by Powell City of Books if you have the extra time. It’s the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world! This place is massive -they seriously have everything here for the book lover including a Rare Book room.