Portland, Oregon took us by surprise, not in a good nor bad way — just in a different way. We thought it would have a more Seattle like vibe, minus the ocean view, it did not.
But do not cross it off based on that, especially if you are in town to explore other parts of Oregon (which we think are absolutely beautiful and will have a separate post on shortly). Spend a day in Portland and let us tell you the must sees, dos and eats!
Our favorite part of exploring Portland involved the plethora of delicious food options from every cuisine of the world, in all price ranges. As a result, you may see more than a few food recommendations throughout the post.
Now that you have arrived in PDX, let’s get started!
Take the MAX Light Rail from Airport to Downtown
Hop on the MAX Light Rail (red line) at the airport, which will take you straight into downtown. Fare: $2.50 for 2.5 hours or $5 for 1 day. Takes about 40 minutes to get to city center and runs approximately every 15 minutes. Need to see a map, schedule or other information? Click here.
Pioneer Courthouse Square is the heart of downtown, your best bet is to get off there.
Portland is a foodie town so every chance we get, we’re going to suggest you eat. So let’s just start the day with that. If you’re hungry, grab a table at Cheryl’s on 12th. They give you complimentary beignets that are soft, hot and fluffy! Not as sugary as Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, but seriously the next best thing! Start with one of the three types of mimosas they offer, all of us tried the pomegranate mimosa, so refreshing! Everything on their menu is delicious. We tried the Portuguese Fried Rice, Croque Monsieur, and Huevos Racheros – 5 outta 5 for all!
Not that hungry? Fancy a quick bite…like a donut? Keep reading.
Judge for yourself at Bluestar Donut vs Voodoo Doughnuts
If you have heard anything about Portland, it’s a good chance that you probably know of at least one of the two famous donut places, Voodoo Doughnut and Bluestar Donuts. We’re not big donut connoisseurs but even we got caught up in the hype and wanted to try them both.
Ultimately, we could not come to a consensus about which was better. Some of us preferred the taste of Bluestar donuts, though the selections are limited. If you only try one at Bluestar, make it the orange olive oil cake donut, made from orange and fennel cake with Red Ridge Farms olive oil and citrus powdered sugar. It. Is. Delicious!
orange olive oil donut
While the selection at Voodoo is far greater (with a combination of cake donuts, yeast donuts and vegan donuts), 2/3 of our group were disappointed. It was not worth the hype.
Voodoo Doughnut is open 24 hours (downtown location), go as late into the night as you can, you’re less likely to stand in a 1+ hour line.
Bluestar donut has a location at the airport (main terminal before security), so if you like them or miss them during your downtown visit, you can grab some fresh ones to go at the airport!
Final verdict? Try both and judge for yourself!
Visit the Portland Saturday Market
If you happen to be in town on a Saturday or Sunday, visit the Portland Saturday Market. We love local markets and did not want to miss a chance to visit this one, even though we only had about 40 minutes to spare for it. So, although you can get lost in the market all day, you can also do it in super speed like we did.
If you visit it for nothing else, then stop by at least for the food trucks – yes, we know, we keep talking about food. We tried the Ethiopian truck and Angelina’s Greek Cuizina truck and both were so good and so filling!
If you’re on the mood for snacks, they have carts that sell fruit cups, elephant ears, popcorn and other savory and sweet snacks. Of course, when you’re done eating, you may want to check out the locally produced soap, woodwork, artwork, jewelry or even try to fit in a quick massage.
Check out the vendor map in advance to scope out where the vendors of your interest will be setting up. This will save you a lot of time on the day of.
Bike Around Town or Ride the Hop On/Hop Off Bus
Downtown Portland is very small, between the light rail and your two feet, you can cover much of it pretty quickly. However, wheels are obviously faster, so if you don’t have a fear of biking (a LOT easier to bike in this town than most others), then hop on a Biketown bike and make your way to all the sites mentioned throughout this post.
Rate: $2.50/ride (30 minutes) or $12/day.
Just be warned that if you’re trying to make it to Mt Tabor Park or Forest Park, be prepared to do some uphill pedaling.
Alternatively, you can hop on the Hop On Hop Off bus tour to see all the highlights of the city in the quickest amount of time. This is a better option if you’re interested in visiting some of the popular sights like the OMSI- Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Oregon Rail Heritage Center, Lan Su Chinese Garden, Japanese Garden, Hoyt Arbortem, and/or Washington Park. It is also an excellent option to consider if you are interested in seeing the Multnomah Falls (more on this later) and have a limited time in the city.
If you do the Hop On/Hop Off bus tour, consider skipping Mt. Tabor Park and Forest Park (see below), instead explore the two parks (Hoyt Arbortem and Washington Park) that are included in the tour. This will save time and allow the opportunity to explore Multnomah Falls without feeling rushed.
Rate: $34 (1 day pass) | 14 stops
Sales Booth Location: 751 SW 6th Ave, on the lower portion of Pioneer Courthouse Square Boarding Departure Location: SW Broadway and & SW Yamhill (one block from the Sales Booth)
Cross Hawthorne Bridge
Now that you have your bike, or if you’ve chosen to stay on foot, cross the oldest vertical-lift bridge in operation in the United States. And since you’re already on the other side of the Willamette River, head to Division Street for some ice cream at Salt & Straw.
But if you happen to miss a chance of going over it, don’t fret. We were in and out of Portland for 3 days earlier this month, and other than watching the fireworks over the bridge on 4th of July, we did not manage to cross this particular bridge, even once.
Instead, head to the waterfront for a great view and some photo ops.
If you do happen to cross over, head to Division street, where you will be greeted with even more places to eat, including some food trucks. However, if you are in the mood for some locally sourced, very unique flavored ice cream, head to Salt & Straw. The line here can get incredibly long at at times and because they are really kind about letting you taste out EVERY flavor (if you so choose to), you may need some patience to get through it. But the result will be worth the wait, we promise. Check their menu ahead of time online so you know exactly which flavors you want to try.
The Ancient Heritage’s Fresh Cheese and Strawberry flavor is out of this world. So if you’re undecided, take our advise and try this. You will not be disappointed.
Oh and since you are already here, we just want to point out Bollywood Theater, an Indian restaurant that serves street foods from different parts of India and has one of the most unique atmosphere of any Indian restaurants we have ever been to. Owner Troy MacLarty wants his customers to feel like they are eating in the street corners of Mumbai. “I want people to come in the door, and I’m saving them the plane ticket. You’re drinking out of a steel cup and eating off a steel plate just like you would if you were in Mumbai. I want people to have that experience, as if they have gone some place.”
We loved this place so much, we came back a second time the very next day!
Take a Nature Break at Mt. Tabor Park or Forest Park
One of Portland’s claim to fame are the picturesque parks in and around the city. Its what gives the city the nature vibes. In fact, we met a local, a self proclaimed adrenaline junkie, who told us that his favorite part about living in Portland was the access to the city parks, especially Mt. Tabor Park. He loves being able to escape to the park which, thanks to its combination of nature and paved paths, offer a great platform for his aggressive training routines.
The park is a volcanic cinder cone, located relatively close to Division street, making it a great spot to hit up next. It houses two beautiful reservoirs that were once used to store the city’s drinking water and has a lovely view of downtown, especially at sunset. But you do not have to be a fierce athlete to enjoy the park. Locals come here to picnic, sunbath, read and even nap.
Forest Park is our personal favorite. No need to the city limits to enjoy this sanctuary. It has more than 80 miles of soft-surface trails, fire lanes and forest roads. With hiking trails of all difficulty levels, it is a great place to retreat when you need a break from the city life. We even witnessed a small but elegant wedding in place during one of our mini hikes through the forest.
Carry a lightweight beach blanket anytime you are exploring one of the parks because you never know when you will come across the perfect serenity spot and will want to sit down to take in the moment.
Have Lunch at the Food Trucks
If you have worked up an appetite by now, perhaps it’s time to grab some lunch. Let’s head back to the city center and try out one (or more) of the 500 food trucks spread out through the city, one of Portland’s highlights. We explored three pods (parking lots with filled with food trucks/carts) and the one with the most variety is right in the heart of downtown (between SW 9th/SW 10th and Adler).
There are several trucks serving the same cuisine (no shortage of Thai, Middle Eastern or Greek food options), and the real challenge becomes trying to decide which truck to go to! One of our favorite meals was at an Egyptian truck. Even at near midnight, the kabobs were freshly made and packed with a ton of flavor. Our mouths are watering just thinking about it.
Although many of the trucks take credit/debit cards, most are cash only. But fear not, there is an ATM at the corners of each food truck pod.
Let Your Inner Bookworm Free at Powell’s City of Books
We saved the best of Portland for (almost) last, Powell’s City of Book! If you are a book lover in any capacity, you will get lost in the flagship bookstore. With nine-color coded rooms that take up an entire city block, the largest independent bookstore in the world is fs filled with more than one million books! On our first (of three) visit, we spent 5 hours exploring.
The main floor is also connected to World Cup Coffee cafe, where you can grab a drink while you read a book borrowed from the bookstore! How awesome is that?! But the real gem is the rare book room, “home to several thousand of our most valuable — and beautiful — books, including an extensive library of reference works about antiquarian books” (Powell’s City of Books). To say there is something for everyone may sound cliche but it is a fact.
The bookstore is open late on most days and sells more than just (new and used) books. They sell tons of merchandises, memorabilia and souvenirs! It might end up being your one stop shop for all things gifts. One of our favorite features about the bookstore is the staff pick notes throughout all the rooms, it encourages you to pick up a book you would not have otherwise considered. We were also obsessed over the travel section (almost an entire room)!
The used books are in great condition and priced at amazing values. You will be surprised at how many books you end up buying at a fraction of the cost. This means, you are guaranteed to walk out with more books than you anticipated going in. This is why we suggest going to the bookstore at the tail end of your visit to Portland. This way you can make your purchases freely without the burden of carrying them around all day.
Wind Down with a Sauna Visit at Loyly
This might be a bit of a stretch, especially if are running out of time and/or do not have access to a car (although Uber is an easy option). However, this was one of our favorite experiences in Portland and we wanted to share it with you.
So, if you feel like strolling through Portland without a checklist and want to just eat, relax and be merry then you may want to bump something else off the list for a visit to Loyly, a simple, clean, and beautiful Scandinavian inspired sauna.
The sauna has two locations (northeast and southeast) and are open daily from 10:00am-9:00pm (9:00am on Saturdays). They are communal BUT on certain days they are have men only and women only time slots.
We went to the northeast location during the day on a weekday, and during our entire stay (2 hours), we only saw 4 other people come and go. So if you plan wisely or luck out, you can definitely get the sauna (almost) all to yourself and your group.
Rate: $26 for a visit up to two hours (includes an optional $3 robe rental), locker towels, shower soap, shampoo and conditioner.
They offer add ons like foot soaks, face masks and body scrubs. In addition, each month they run a few specials. During July (while we were visiting), the special included up to 2 hours in the sauna facility, a lemon aromatherapy foot soak, single-use soothing face mask, sparkling lemon + cucumber Voss water, and a lemon + spruce body salt. The package was incredibly refreshing and just what we needed at the end of our trip!
If you are looking for something more substantial like a massage or facial, those are also offered at the facility. Two of us were able to get massage appointments even at the last minute.
If this is your first time at a sauna, you will really appreciate the detailed guidelines and illustration explaining the sauna etiquette.
Visiting a sauna can be a little intimating if it is your first time as saunas are traditionally experienced in the nude (this is only allowed on same sex days at Loyly). But do not be alarmed, you do not have to be nude. You can use the towel provided to wrap around your body.
Two of our group members had never been to a sauna facility before, but it took them no time at all to get comfortable and fully relax. After all, that’s what you are here for! Let your mind and body relax as you swap between the hot steam and cold rinse.
Visit Multnomah Falls
Located 45 minutes from downtown Portland, the Multnomah Falls should not miss, if you can somehow squeeze it in (having a car would be the quickest way). Both Grayline and Viator offers half day tours from downtown Portland for $56 and $60, respectively. This is a great option for anyone without a car. The two tours depart at different times (Grayline departs at 8:30am, 4.5 hour duration, while Viator departs at 2:00pm, 3.5 hours duration) allowing you schedule flexibility.
The falls drops in two major steps, split into an upper falls of 542 feet and a lower falls of 69 feet, with a 9 foot drop in elevation between the two, making the total height of the waterfall 620 feet. It is the tallest waterfall in the state of Oregon. The water source comes from the underground springs of Larch Mountain, an extinct volcano.
A paved trail leads to the 45-foot long, Benson Footbridge, where visitors have a impressive view of the upper falls in front of them and the cascading drop of the lower falls behind. The trail continues up many switchbacks to a platform at the top of the upper falls where you are treated with a bird’s-eye view of the Columbia Gorge and of “Little Multnomah”, a small cascade slightly upstream from the upper falls, not visible from ground level.
Wear comfortable shoes on the trail as it can be wet and slippery in places. Some of us can tell you from experience that slipping and falling is not that far fetched a concept.
With that final and magnificent stop, it is time to bid adieu to the City of Roses.
Wonder why it’s called that? There are many reasons attributed to why Portland is known as the City of Roses, but our favorite has to do with Lewis and Clark. In 1889, the Portland Rose Society was founded and promoted the planting of 20 miles of Portland’s streets with roses in advance of the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial exposition (wikipedia).
We hope you found the information above to be helpful and useful in planning a fun and enjoyable day in Portland. If you have tips of your own to share, please let us know in the comment section below.
As always, Happy and Safe Travels!