Nicknamed “the City of Roses,” Portland lies at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, framed by Mt. Hood to the east. Rich in beauty and natural resources, the area is known for its environmental efforts and the sustainability of its forests.
From stunning botanical gardens to internationally recognized festivals and science centers, visit Portland, Oregon to get a taste of the Pacific Northwest.
For centuries, the land was occupied by native tribes, the Multnomah and the Cascades. World explorers brought new diseases and the tribes were nearly obliterated from smallpox and malaria.
In the early 19th century, the area was known as The Clearing and was used by fur traders and travelers between Oregon City and Fort Vancouver, Washington. One early pioneer noted the promise of the Willamette to accommodate large ocean-going vessels and in 1843, laid claim to the land.
Later, he sold half his claim to a gentleman from Portland, Maine. Both wanted to rename The Clearing after their own hometowns. By a flip of the coin, Portland won the name and it was incorporated in 1851.
Portland hosted the 1905 World’s Fair titled the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition. This placed the city on the map. Then during WW2, Congress invested over $2 billion in the area to grow the Bonneville Power Administration and to produce materials for the war effort. One company, Kaiser, built two shipyards along the Willamette and began building ships and aircraft carriers.
The dot-com boom of the late 20th century brought an influx of people to work in technology and manufacturing companies such as Intel, Nike, and Columbia Sportswear. Drawn by employment, location, moderate climate, abundant natural resources, and the reasonable cost of living, the population swelled.
People still flock to Portland. It is now the largest city in Oregon with 600,000 people. With smaller cities bordering all sides, the population of the greater area is over 2.4 million. With a max light rail system, getting around is very convenient.
Here are 11 best things to do in Portland, Oregon.
1. Rose Festival
Held yearly in late May or early June, the Rose Festival draws local, national, and international visitors. Once acclaimed “the best festival in the world,” activities include three parades, big-name entertainment, fleet week, dragon boat races, milk carton races, and beer gardens.
Marvel at the floral-filled floats in the grand-daddy of the parades, the Grand Parade. As well as floats, you will enjoy the bands, equestrian units, marching groups, drill teams, vintage vehicles, and dancers. For two days after the parade, attend the Grand Floral Float Showcase where you can get up close and personal to the floats.
2. Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (OMSI)
Boasting the title of “one of the nation’s leading science centers,” OMSI has over 200 interactive exhibits and activities suited to all ages.
Plan to spend at least half a day here. There are science playgrounds for young children, physics and chemistry labs, a planetarium, natural sciences hall, and a reptile life lab.
Feel the shake of an earthquake and learn how to prepare for such an event. Explore the anatomy and physiology of the human body at the featured exhibit Body Works. Stop also at the exhibit detailing the development of a fetus. Step onto the USS Bluejack to experience life on a submarine. You can even sleep on the sub! Experience space and gaze up at the evening sky at the Kendall Planetarium.
Audio guides are also available for rent.
Time for a break. Enjoy lunch at the riverfront restaurant on the banks of the Willamette. There is also a cafe and a great gift shop.
3. International Rose Test Garden
Stop to smell the roses at the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park as you stroll through the paths lined with 10,000 rose bushes of over 650 varieties.
Roses bloom from April to October, with the peak season in June. Guided tours are offered daily at 1 p.m. during peak season. Parking is limited so it’s best to use light rail. There is a free shuttle inside the park which takes you to other sites such as the Japanese Gardens and World Forestry Center, both of which are detailed below.
4. Portland Art Museum (PAM)
Immerse yourself in art and history at the oldest art museum on the West Coast and the seventh oldest art museum in the United States.
The Portland Art Museum has collections of Asian, African, American, Native American, Pre-Columbian, Northwestern, and European artworks. There is also a photography collection of over 9,000 pieces. Upcoming exhibits include Freda Kahlo, Dierra Rivera and Mexican Modernism, Ansel Adams, and Queen Nefertari. Check the website for the latest information on exhibitions. Learn about the conservation efforts to preserve the artwork for future generations.
Be certain to pick up the gallery map. Look for the thinking and discussion ideas to help with planning your visit, use during your visit, and continue the dialogue after your visit.
Look also for guided tours, classes offered, Artists Talk Series, and the $5 after 5 p.m. Fridays.
Enjoy a break at the small cafe. Check out the gift store for unique gifts.
PAM also houses the NW Film Center. Learn about media production and appreciation.
5. Lan Su Chinese Garden
Another way to connect with nature is at the Lan Su Chinese Garden. Acclaimed as one of the “most authentic Chinese Gardens outside of China,” the garden was built by artisans from Suzhou, Portland’s sister city.
Relax in the tranquil setting and learn about Chinese culture and traditions. Stroll the paths and admire the rare plants native to China. Enjoy the formal tea ceremony and tarry awhile sitting on the benches amongst all the beauty and tranquility. Join a tai chi session or learn Chinese games like mahjong. Stop to admire the work of local, national, and international artists and visit the garden shop. Guided tours are available.
6. Pittock Mansion
High on the hilltop, with stunning views of the Willamette River and Mt. Hood, the historic Pittock Mansion is a testament to fine living in the early 20th century. Built in the French Renaissance Style, the 16,000 square foot home has 23 rooms all restored to their appearance in the 1930s and 1940s.
It was the home of Henry Pittock and his family who lived there from 1914 to 1958. In many ways, the house was ahead of its time with central heating, electrical lighting, an elevator, and a central vacuum system. Many of the furnishings and household items are original. Guided tours are available, or you may do the self-guided tour.
Stroll the 46-acre grounds, enjoying the native plants such as hydrangeas, rhododendron, lilacs, magnolias, and roses.
Visit the Gate Lodge where the employees were housed. Imagine living in this location as a perk of your job!
7. Powell’s Book Store
A candy store for book lovers: get lost among the shelves and find reading treasures in the largest independent bookstore in the nation.
Featuring used and new books, the site occupies an entire city block and boasts of an inventory of over a million books. With nine color-coded rooms, there is something for everyone’s interests and tastes. The Rare Book Room draws booklovers from many areas of the nation. Look for special occasions such as author events and book club discussions.
Enjoy a cup of java and pastry in the small cafe.
8. Portland Japanese Garden
Escape the hectic pace of today’s world and enter the world of tranquility and serenity in the Japanese Garden. Explore Japanese culture in eight garden spaces over 5.5 acres. Each space demonstrates a particular aspect of Japanese garden history and design.
Originally conceived in the 1950s, the Japanese Garden was intended to mend the wounds of WW2 and foster peace and friendship with Japan. The original site had five garden spaces, a waterfall, a teahouse, a gallery featuring Japanese artists, and a gift store. More recent is the Cultural Village with extensive displays of the art of bonsai.
Ponder a while and enjoy the picturesque views of Mt. Hood.
9. Forest Park Conservancy
Enjoy the beauty of a northwest forest right in the heart of the city. One of the largest urban forests in the United States, Forest Park has over 80 miles of trails and paths. Some are pedestrian-only, some allow pedestrians and bicycles, and some bicycles only. Some are also approved for equestrian use.
Check out the Trail Map Visitor’s Guide, available online or at Powell’s, New Seasons, and other stores. Also available is a digital guide for iPhone users.
10. World Forestry Center
A tiny gem nestled in the hills of Washington Park, the World Forestry Center is the place to learn about sustainable forestry in Oregon and the world.
The first floor houses the Discovery Museum with Pacific Northwest exhibits containing many hands-on displays, including a climb aboard Timberjack Harvester.
The second floor examines forestry around the world. Through a virtual tour, you experience four types of forests: boreal, temperate, subtropical, and tropical in Siberia, China, South Africa, and the Amazon respectively.
Spend time exploring the tools of the trade in the exhibit featuring logging equipment throughout the years including the 42-ton locomotive, Peggy the Train.
11. Oregon Zoo
Spend at least half a day at the Oregon Zoo, 64 acres of education, conservation, and animal care. It is acclaimed as one of the top conservation organizations in all of the Pacific Northwest.
Arranged into five areas, you can learn about the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest in the Pacific Shores, the Great Northwest, and Fragile Forests exhibits.
Venture through the other two areas and learn about Asia and Africa.
There are also webpages for each species, so you can continue learning before and after your visit.
Other fun activities at the zoo include a zoo railroad, summer concerts, zoo camps, food outlets, and a great gift shop.
Stop and smell the roses in Portland, Oregon. Whether your passion is history, culture, or nature, these 11 best things to do will satisfy all your senses and whet your appetite for more Pacific Northwest charm!
One more tip: no trip to Portland is complete without sampling the acclaimed Oregon wines and craft beers!
Last Updated on May 5, 2020