Things to Do in Portland
The Columbia River Gorge, one of the great natural treasures of the Pacific Northwest with its many dramatic waterfalls, channels the mighty Columbia River through the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, marking much of the border between Oregon and Washington. The gorge figures in early United States history, as it was here that the Lewis and Clark expedition completed its final stretch in 1805. Today the area is popular with hikers, windsurfers, and wine lovers.
Multnomah Falls is Oregon’s tallest waterfall at 620 feet (189 meters) and one of the state’s top natural landmarks. The falls are made up of two waterfalls fed from Larch Mountain and are recognizable for their setting tucked into sheer rock faces. The cascades are made more fairytale-like by the Benson Bridge, which spans the top of the lower falls and provides great photo ops.
Of the many waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge, Latourell Falls is closest to Portland – which means it attracts plenty of visitors.
Most of the waterfalls in the Gorge have at least two levels, but Latourell Falls drops straight from its highest point to the bottom in one fall. Height estimates vary, but it's somewhere between 224-249 feet tall depending on what you read. The creek that makes up the waterfall, Latourell Creek, isn't very large, so in the dry summer months the waterfall can sometimes decrease to a trickle. In the winter, however, it's quite impressive.
Latourell Falls are named for a former postmaster general of nearby Rooster Rock in the late 1880s, Joseph Latourell, and are within the Guy W. Talbot State Park. The bottom of the falls is easily accessible – there's a parking lot nearby – and there's a two-mile trail to reach the top of the falls.
Portland is a city of bridges, and each bridge has its own story. The Steel Bridge has the distinction of being the only double-decker bridge in the world with independent lifts and was opened in 1912, spanning the Willamette River connecting Northwest and Northeast Portland. It carries not only car traffic but also pedestrians, bicycles, light rail, and trains. It was originally built to replace an 1888 bridge which had the same name.
Both of the decks of the bridge can rise independently of one another, although at times both must rise to allow larger boats to pass underneath the bridge. With the railroad on the lower deck, however, it's possible to lift the lower deck for smaller boats without disturbing the car traffic on the upper deck.
A short jaunt southwest from downtown Portland, the Willamette Valley is known by wine lovers worldwide for its delectable pinot noirs, often produced in small batches. This picturesque region is also dotted with tasting rooms and is a popular spot for wine-tasting excursions from Portland.
Portland’s Pearl District lives up to its evocative title. The small neighborhood in the heart of downtown is packed with local finds, from avant-garde art galleries to craft breweries to fine dining, with many establishments housed in renovated warehouse spaces. Plus, a bike- and pedestrian-friendly trail along the Willamette River accents the Pearl’s waterfront location.
Just outside of Portland, Mt. Hood stands at a majestic 11,249 feet (3,429 meters), making it Oregon’s tallest mountain. The dormant volcano often has steam rising from its fumaroles, adding to the serenity of the surrounding vista. Adventure-seekers who opt to climb the mountain all the way to its summit are rewarded with 12 glaciers at the peak—plus stunning views of the Cascade mountain range, and the valleys and cities below.
Situated on the Oregon side of the scenic Columbia River Gorge, Wahkeena Falls cascades 242 feet (74 meters) in tiers through lush green forest. It’s one of the most popular waterfalls in the area, not only because of its beauty, but also because getting to it requires only a very short hike.
Free, outdoors, and centrally located, the International Rose Test Garden is an easy addition to your Portland vacation. Take time to smell some of the 10,000 roses representing 650 species when you stroll through the active test garden, located in Portland’s popular Washington Park.
Designed for science fans of all ages, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) features five separate halls, eight hands-on science labs, a real submarine, an OmniMax giant-screen theater, and a planetarium. The museum is a science playground, with 200-plus interactive exhibits covering subjects such as climate change, chemistry, the human body, and technology.
More Things to Do in Portland
Locally known as “Portland's Living Room,” Pioneer Courthouse Square sits at the heart of downtown and takes up an entire city block.
Pioneer Square was officially opened in 1984. Prior to that, it had been the site of a hotel (built in 1890) and later a two-story parking garage. When a new and much larger parking garage was proposed in 1969, the idea of creating a public square instead gained momentum, and was the beginning of Pioneer Square. The square takes its name from the nearby Pioneer Courthouse, built in 1875.
One side of the square is a sloped staircase, akin to theater seating and perfect for the many concerts held in the square each year. There is a local TV news station at the square, an information center for the city's public transportation system, outdoor chess tables, and a 33-foot-tall weathervane sculpture that changes at noon each day to show the following day's forecast.
Today, Pioneer Square is home to a multitude of special events throughout the year, including the annual Christmas tree lighting, plays, and concerts, as well as festivals for food, beer, and art. Particularly during the summer, the square is typically quite busy.
Inner Northwest Portland – specifically around NW 21st and NW 23rd – is one of the most popular in the city center for shopping, entertainment, and dining. It also has a memorable nickname: the Alphabet District.
You might not notice the reason for the name immediately, especially if you're taking your time meandering from one shop-lined block to another, but the streets in the quadrant that run east-west are in alphabetical order – from Burnside, Couch, Davis, Everett, and Flanders on up through Wilson. There's an A street further east (Alder), but it doesn't continue up far enough to be part of this district.
The Alphabet District is historically one of Portland's most desirable neighborhoods – there are beautiful Victorian-style houses in the residential blocks and sought-after condo buildings. One of the city's oldest independent movie theaters, Cinema 21, is on NW 21st Avenue. Nature lovers may enjoy staying in this part of the city because of its ready access to Portland's huge city park, Forest Park, which stretches into the hills west of the neighborhood.
Dedicated in 1963, the Portland Japanese Garden has long been the spot to join others—both visitors and locals—in a quest for tranquility. Meditate by a waterfall and walk the paths that lead to nine themed garden areas. Don't miss the cultural village, designed by contemporary Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.
Washington Park is a sprawling woodland in Southwest Portland, home to the Oregon Zoo, Portland Children’s Museum, and a series of gardens including the International Rose Test Garden, Hoyt Arboretum, and the Portland Japanese Garden. Cycling paths and walking trails wind throughout the park, providing a convenient nature escape.
Once home to Henry and Georgiana Pittock, Portland’s original power couple, the Pittock Mansion sits on 46 acres (18.6 hectares) of land and contains exhibits featuring artwork and artifacts from the early 1900s. The house is perched on a hill 1,000 feet (305 meters) above downtown and offers sweeping views of Portland and the Cascade Range.
Encompassing an entire city block in downtown Portland, Powell’s City of Books is the world’s largest independent new and used bookstore and a top attraction for book lovers visiting the city. Here you’ll find upwards of a million books, including rare finds, first editions, and autographed copies of bestsellers and little-known titles alike, all under one roof.
Narrow Oneonta Canyon, located within the Pacific Northwest’s mighty Columbia River Gorge, contains four massive waterfalls. Due to the wet climate, the Oneonta Gorge walls are covered in ferns, mosses, and lichens—many of which grow only in this specific area. There are few trails, but you can walk along the river at the bottom of the gorge.
Situated in the tree-lined Park Blocks neighborhood of downtown Portland, Oregon, the Portland Art Museum is known for its large archives of Native American and First Nations artifacts as well as its exemplary collections of art from around the world. Here you’ll find everything from Van Gogh and Monet paintings to calligraphy from pre–Han Dynasty China.
Park Avenue in downtown Portland has long parks at each end – the largest is at the south end, appropriately called the South Park Blocks.The area runs 12 blocks from SW Jackson St. north to SW Salmon St., and are one block wide along Park Avenue. The street is split into two one-way lanes, with the park filling the block in between. The South Park Blocks make up a central part of Portland State University's campus, and the park is the setting for a popular farmer's market from March through December.
There is a variety of public art on display throughout the park, with a different piece of art on every block. Among the artwork is a 1922 equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, a 1926 statue of Abraham Lincoln, and a 1926 fountain that includes a drinking fountain for dogs.
The South Park Blocks have been a public park since the city was originally drafted in the 1840s-1850s, and the park was the first official greenspace in the new city.
Find your zen at downtown Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden, an oasis of Chinese art, design, and architecture. Modeled after the ancient gardens of the Ming Dynasty, the garden has carefully landscaped elements that invite you to relax, reflect, and engage with Chinese culture through tea ceremonies, workshops, and performances.
Portland’s Hoyt Arboretum is home to one of the most varied collections of tree species in the United States. This sprawling nature preserve serves as a research center, but with miles of trails easily accessible to downtown Portland, the arboretum is open to anyone who wants to spend time in nature.
Portland is often lauded as one of the best cities in America for green spaces, due in no small part to 5,100-acre Forest Park, the largest urban forested area in America. Based on the landscaping advice of the legendary Olmstead Brothers (the design firm behind New York's Central Park), Forest Park was originally proposed as an expansive city park in the late 1800s; however, potential preservation costs and oil speculation kept it from becoming public land until the late 1940s.
Situated in Northwest Portland on the eastern slope of the Tualatin Mountains, the park's towering conifer canopy, basalt rock formations, rushing streams and plentiful wildlife make it a magnet for birdwatchers and nature photographers. 62 species of Coast Range-native mammals can be found here, as well as over 100 different species of birds, including the rare pygmy owl.
With 80 miles of fire roads, trails and paths, Forest Park is also enormously popular with hikers, runners, bikers and equestrians. The longest loop in the park, the 30-mile Wildwood Trail, is linked to various routes along the Columbia River, the Willamette Greenway and both Southeast and Southwest Portland.
Formerly the Washington Park Zoo, Portland’s Oregon Zoo is the oldest zoo in the western United States. In total there are more than 2,200 animals with 260 species represented, though the stars of the zoo are more often than not the herd of Asian elephants. The youngest elephant was born at the park in 2012, so she’s still toddler size, while the rest impress with their spotted ears and unique personalities. There’s also a very unique California Condors exhibit which showcases the local and endangered birds.
The animal exhibits are easily explored and grouped geographically, ranging from the Great Northwest and Pacific Shoes to the wildlife of Asia and Africa. With specialized gardens and an extensive plant collection, there is a variety of plant life as well. The zoo’s narrow gauge railway connects to the International Rose Test Garden inside Washington Park. The park often holds special events, including the seasonal zoo summer concert series and holiday Zoolights show.
For a scenic ride through Northern Oregon with a dash of centuries-old charm, the Mt. Hood Railroad is truly in a league of its own. Situated just outside of Portland, travelers can enjoy a round-trip train adventure to Parkdale, complete with views of vineyards, lush forests, and the unbeatable backdrop of snowy Mt. Hood in the distance.
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