Best Things to Do in Portland

Portland's biggest attractions reflect city's literary reputation, connection to nature

With its temperate climate and lush greenery, Portland, Oregon is a great city for outdoor enthusiasts. The many gardens scattered throughout the city show off the wide array of flora that thrives here, as well as some of the most beautiful garden designs in the country.  The Chinese Garden is nationally recognized for its adherence to tradition as well as the creative beauty of their constructions.  The International Rose Test Garden is famous for its 400+ varieties of roses.  Then there is Tom McCall Waterfront Park, home of the Portland Saturday Market, which is recognized as one of the best green spaces in a city within the United States.

Beyond gardens, Portland is home to a thriving art scene, Portland's Art Museum offers an impressive collection of classic and contemporary exhibits from cultures spanning the globe. Anyone who enjoys books will marvel at Powell's, one of the world's largest and most comprehensive books stores that over time has become a Portland landmark of sorts. The Oregon Zoo is extremely impressive with thousands of animals.  For a medium-sized city, Portland is bursting with art and culture and offers visitors of all ages a multitude of attractions both entertaining and edifying.   


Financial District

This public square is affectionately referred to as Portland's "living room," thanks to its popularity as a gathering place and as a site for public festivals and events. In past years, the site was occupied by a school, a hotel, and a parking garage. In 1974 the city obtained the land and created a beautiful space that exists today. Much of the funding was through private donations; as a result, you'll see bricks imprinted with the names of donors throughout the space. Open since 1984, the square hosts activities year-round, including special outdoor concerts and city celebrations. They have a calendar on their website with a list of events.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Pioneer Courthouse Square is Portland's living room in the heart of the city and constantly has fun things to see and do there.

Meagan's expert tip: Grab food from one of the food carts here and enjoy lunch on the steps. The egg sandwiches from Fried Egg I'm in Love are phenomenal.

Read more about Pioneer Courthouse Square →

West Hills

Forest Park is Portland's own enchanted forest. Forest Park is well known for being the largest urban forest in the country located within a city. Forest Park encompasses more than 5000 acres full of dense trees, rivers, waterfalls, and bridges. It has more than 40 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails. Most trails are wide and well taken care of, making them good for runners and bicyclists. The park can be found on the eastern portion of the Northwest Hills and is only 10 minutes from downtown. Taking even a short hike through Forest Park allows you to truly appreciate Oregon's beauty. Deciding where exactly to enter can be confusing. McCleary Park at 29th and Upshire is a good place for entry.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Forest Park is 5,000 acres of forest in the middle of downtown Portland.

Meagan's expert tip: Research exactly where you want to go before your first visit like the Witch's castle.

Read more about Forest Park →

Voodoo Doughnut
Photo courtesy of By Rock-O-Billy for Voodoo Doughnut

Voodoo Doughnuts serves doughnut creations unlike anywhere else, because where else can you find a bacon maple bar, a chocolate donut covered in cocoa puffs, an apple fritter "as big as your head", or buy a coffin filled with donuts. You can even get married at its sister location in Northeast Portland while chowing down on a sweet, yeasty treat? Voodoo doughnuts are the talk of the town and indeed, the world and thanks to an eclectic blend of flavors and toppings, a selection of vegan doughnuts, and yes, the benefit of legal weddings performed by ordained ministers. They also serve Stumptown coffee.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Everyone must visit Voodoo Doughnuts at least once while in Portland.

Meagan's expert tip: Try the ODB doughnut! You cannot go wrong with a combination a peanut butter, oreos, and chocolate.

Read more about Voodoo Doughnut →


Housed in a five-story building that occupies an entire city block, calling Powell's a "City of Books" is hardly hyperbole. By far the largest bookstore in Portland, Powell's claims to be the largest independent bookstore in the nation. Ever been to The Strand in New York? Powell's is bigger. Selling both new and used books, shoppers will be able to find pretty much anything in print at a great price. With 1.6 acres of floor space, shoppers may have to use a map (free at the front desk) to navigate through the many color-coded rooms. The Powell's coffee shop is one of the best places in Portland to bring out of town guests for an afternoon snack. Aside from the "City of Books" Powell's has several satellite locations throughout the Portland area, including three at the airport. Online, Powell's Books competes head to head with Amazon.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Powell's Bookstore has been a staple amount downtown Portland so long it has become a landmark.

Jason's expert tip: Check out the Rare Book Room on the 5th floor.

Read more about Powell's City of Books →

Lan Su Yuan, the garden's official name, means "Garden of Awakening Orchids," and is considered the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China. Having opened in 2000, the garden was a joint project between Portland and its Chinese sister city Suzhou. Set behind a wall, the garden is a tranquil, urban oasis that fills a full city block. As a living work of art, the garden contains a balance of the five traditional garden elements: rocks, water, plants, architecture and literary inscriptions. Paths wind through the courtyards, pavilions and bridges. The Tao of Tea offers visitors a chance to experience a traditional tea service in recreated Ming Dynasty tea house.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Classical Chinese Garden is another of the beautiful must-see gardens in Portland.

Jason's expert tip: In addition to tea, the tea house has great snacks like moon cake and dumplings.

Read more about Lan Su Classical Chinese Garden →

Of all of Portland's public gardens, The Rose Test Gardens are certainly the most grand, though the Peninsula Rose Gardens are probably the most architecturally beautiful. With over 400 species of roses, the Test Gardens are proving grounds for new rose hybrids before being released into the commercial market. Portland, often referred to as the Rose City, offers the perfect climate for rose breeding, and they grow here as well as anywhere. Built on terraces in the West Hills above downtown, the Test Gardens off dramatic views of Portland. In the summer months, the roses create a rainbow of colors and scents. The best blooms start appearing in late June. Summer concerts and close proximity to other Washington Park attractions make these gardens one of Portland's most popular destinations.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: During the warmer months, this Rose Garden is a must-see attraction in Portland.

Jason's expert tip: Although there are no blooms it's worth the trip in winter just for the view. From here you can see Mt. Hood.

Read more about International Rose Test Gardens →

Known by the acronym OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is a favorite family day trip for locals and tourists alike. Kids will find a wide range of interactive exhibits that both educate and fascinate. Younger children have a whole exhibit hall geared towards hand-on exploration called The Science Playground, built for kids 6 and under. Science labs throughout the museum encourage experimentation that deepens visitors' understanding of life, the world and the universe. Aspiring astronomers will love the Kendall Planetarium, the largest and most advanced planetarium in the Northwest. The Omnimax theater has a five-story high domed shaped screen creating an incredibly immersive Imax movie experience. Visitors also have the rare opportunity to tour a vintage Navy submarine, mored in the Willamette River directly behind the museum.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Oregon Museum of Science is a huge science museum with hands-on activities for all ages.

Meagan's expert tip: Anytime kids are out of school, on rainy days it may seem as though all of Portland is at OMSI.

Read more about Oregon Museum of Science and Industry →

Cultural District
Portland Art Museum

The Portland Art Museum (PAM) is the seventh oldest museum in the country and the oldest art museum on the West Coast. In addition to a permanent collection that includes pieces from antiquity to Post Modern, PAM also owns one of the nation's largest Native American art archives. With exhibits from all continents, there is a wing dedicated to contemporary pieces and a gallery of photography. Part of PAM is the Northwest Film Center which has regular film screenings in the Whitsell Auditorium located on the Museum's lower level. Check the website for special family events and traveling exhibits from all over the world.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Portland Art Museum is an internationally recognized art museum with a large collection.

Meagan's expert tip: The fourth Friday of each month has free admission during the afternoon.

Read more about Portland Art Museum →

Financial District

Among Portlanders with kids, spending a day at the zoo is probably the most favorite of family activities. Located up above the city in Washington Park, the zoo is home to more than 1000 animals. The staff work constantly to improve the living environments and enrich the lives of the many species they house. Exhibits mimicking the environments on all seven continents add to visitors' understanding of the natural world while offering great views of authentic animal behavior. During the summer, the Zoo's main lawn is a popular live music venue with a broad range of evening concerts. During the Holiday Season, more than a million bulbs create a shimmering wonderland called Zoolights.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Oregon Zoo is simply amazing, one of the best zoos in the United States.

Meagan's expert tip: Kids love the train ride!

Read more about Oregon Zoo →

Despite its name, the Portland Saturday Market is open on Sundays too, every weekend from March through December. Located on the West Bank of the Willamette River, the Market is sheltered by the Burnside Bridge and a glass-roofed structure custom made for open-air shopping on rainy days. Scores of venders sell their art and crafts â€" all original creations, unavailable anywhere else. All sellers at the Saturday Market only sell that which they fashion themselves. This includes the freshly cooked, international food which shoppers can eat while sitting in front of the stage featuring free, live music every market day. Buskers throughout the area round out the entertainment.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Portland Saturday Market showcases many of the region's bests artists.

Meagan's expert tip: Come early on summer mornings, as the market can get very crowded in the afternoon.

Read more about Portland Saturday Market →


Meet Meagan Wristen

Meagan Wristen is an Oregon resident by choice and thinks Portland is a tremendous city that everyone should visit. Originally a Texas girl, she has lived all around the United States,...  More About Meagan