The state of Oregon is changing fast (and with it the cost of living), but the beautiful Pacific Northwest scenery still comes for free. So does the long-standing tradition of free entry to sights and attractions across the state. From long scenic drives up the coast and hikes through Portland’s renowned botanical gardens to world-class art in the state's top museums, free things to do abound in Oregon.

Here are a dozen of Oregon’s best attractions, all free of charge–just part of what makes the Beaver State worth a visit any time of the year.

Willamette River, Portland
The Columbia and Willamette Rivers create multiple cityscapes in Portland © Josemaria Toscano / Shutterstock

See Portland from both sides

Portland’s bridges are a part of the city’s ineffable character (they call it 'Bridgetown' for a reason). As well as the landmark Steel Bridge, the only lift bridge of its kind in the state, there are six other bridges that bend, lift or split for passing water traffic. All make their own contribution to Portland’s architectural beauty, and also the city’s walkability, with safe, easily accessible paths for pedestrians and cyclists.

For an easy free day out, the Portland waterfront loop–covering 2 to 15 miles, depending on which route you take–is a fantastic choice for bikers, walkers, runners or rollerbladers, combining fresh air fun with cityscape views on both sides of the river. From the west bank of the Willamette River, the vista takes in East Portland and looming Mt Hood on clear days. From the east, you'll quickly see why Portland’s architects puzzled over how to build homes and businesses on the side of such a steep hill.

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach
The classic

Hunt for treasure at Haystack Rock

If the ending to The Goonies is anything to go by, there’s treasure to be found on the Oregon Coast, and where better to do a little free beach-combing than at Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, where the iconic movie was filmed. If you missed The Goonies, you may recognise the shorefront from Point Break, standing in for Australia's Bell's Beach (where Patrick Swayze paddles off to face his final wave). 

Treasure-hunting aside, the Oregon Coast is always free, always open, and always spectacular, with some glorious, wave-lashed beaches. With miles of sand to walk along, and moderate temperatures even during the hot summer months, Cannon Beach–and its close cousins Pacific City, Lincoln City and Seaside–offer unbeatable views and that ubiquitous 'rainy coastal town' vibe that has inspired many an artist, poet, and writer over the centuries.

Footpath in Forest Park, Portland
Into the primordial forest in Portland's Forest Park © Sankar Raman / Getty Images

Complete an ultramarathon in Forest Park

If you feel up to the challenge of scaling Portland’s notorious hills, Forest Park is a treasure trove of free activities, from trail-running and hiking to leisurely bird-watching. At just over 5,000 acres, Forest Park is the one of the country’s largest urban forests, and it contains a vibrant ecosystem of classic Pacific Northwest flora and fauna, providing a spectacular setting for some of Oregon's best hikes.

With more than 70 miles of trails on offer, Forest Park is a happy place for runners; regular long-distance races cover everything from 13 to 50 miles. Frequented by athletes from all over the country, the 30.25-mile Wildwood Trail has a growing reputation as one of the most challenging runs (or hikes) in the Pacific Northwest, largely due to nearly 6,000-ft of altitude gain as it crosses the forested hillsides.

Oregon State Capitol in Salem
Looking towards the Oregon State Capitol in Salem © Bob Pool / Shutterstock

See the Oregon legislature in action

As the capital of Oregon, Salem has a rich history that’s closely intertwined with the 33rd state’s birth and entry into the Union.  The State Capitol–actually the third capitol building constructed on this site, after the first two were destroyed by fires–invites history-buffs and political junkies in for daily free tours, exploring the state's fascinating frontier history. Choose from self-guided tours, covering each wing of the Capitol and the grounds outside, or guided tours starting at the Oregon state seal in the rotunda, with guides sharing information on the history of Oregon and the legislative process.

When the Oregon legislature is in session, public galleries allow visitors to sit in and watch the legislative process in action. It’s a fantastic opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with the day-to-day business of politics. Check the currently availability of guided tours and public sessions as rules are subject to change during the pandemic.

Portland's International Rose Test Garden
Portland's International Rose Test Garden in full bloom © Jakub Zajic / Shutterstock

Stop to smell the (world-class) roses

It’s said that Portland earned its moniker as 'The Rose City' when early residents noticed that the humid weather conditions were ideal for growing rosebushes. You'll spot roses on any stroll through Portland’s neighborhoods, but no garden offers more blooms than the International Rose Test Garden, just south of Forest Park.

Set up high on the west side of the river, the garden features more than 650 different bushes, producing more than 10,000 individual flowers. While the garden is free and open year-round, the best time to see the roses in bloom is between May and September, after the winter rains have waned. Initiated in 1917 by Portland city officials, the test garden is one of the longest-running of its kind in the country, and when you tire of smelling the flowers, you can look out over panoramic views of the city backed by Mt Hood.

Hoyt Arboretum in Portland
Pacific Midwest light in the Hoyt Arboretum in Portland © Shutterstock / Wasim Muklashy

Discover Oregon’s forested history

The Hoyt Arboretum is a massive network of parks and preserved wildlands dedicated to the conservation of Oregon’s native and non-native tree and shrub species. Described as the region’s only 'living museum', the Hoyt Arboretum serves up more than 190 acres of woodland and 12 miles of hiking trails that visitors can enjoy completely free of charge.

In addition to physical activities, the Hoyt Arboretum offers a regular schedule of public events, including the family-friendly 'Tree Time!', which encourages preschool children to engage in ecological activities. For those interested in a leisurely experience of the Arboretum, weekly Tai Chi classes are hosted on Tuesday mornings, while holistic 'Forest Bathing' guided walks take place once a month, led by a certified Nature and Forest Therapist.

View of the Columbia River from North Portland
View the Columbia River from North Portland, with Mt Hood rising behind, before you head to Astoria © Patrick Campbell / 500px

Cross the Columbia River

There are a handful of places north of Portland where you can cross the mighty Columbia River, but the longest and most impressive of these bridges is in Astoria, Oregon, close to where this massive river feeds into the Pacific Ocean. Known as the Astoria-Megler Bridge, this 4.1-mile long, steel-framed behemoth is the longest 'continuous truss' bridge in the country, and it links the coastal town of Astoria with neighboring Washington state.

The bridge is free to cross, and it's a unique way to appreciate the sheer size of the Columbia River, and the volume of water that flows out into the ocean every day. While you’re in Astoria, stop by the Lewis & Clark National Historic Park, marking the end of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Visitors can explore a replica of the famous Fort Clatsop (where the expedition members wintered before completing their journey) for a small fee.

Powell's City of Books, Portland
Powell's City of Books, one of the worlds largest used and new bookstores © TFoxFoto / Shutterstock

Catch your favorite author at Powell’s

While buying a book (or a library's worth) at Powell’s bookstore in Portland is not free, seeing your favorite author in person might be. As one of the largest independent bookstores in the world, Powell’s regularly welcomes touring writers throughout the year, with most events held at their City of Books location at 12th & Burnside, which takes up a city block. Book signings are usually part of the package, and there's rarely a charge to attend.

While meeting your literary heroes may be free, we can’t guarantee you won’t be sucked into the labyrinthian maze of shelves, eventually emerging with a stack of must-buy titles. Check out the events calendar on the Powell’s website for information on upcoming events. 

The Deschutes River in Bend
Looking out over the water in Bend, Oregon © Jordan SIemens / Getty Images

Float down the Deschutes River

Like Portland, Central Oregon has a burgeoning population of outdoor enthusiasts and climate-minded Pacific Northwesterners who don't mind sitting through a colder, snowier winter as a trade-off for a drier summer. One of the most popular hubs for outdoor activities is the town of Bend, ringed by skiing country and split by the Deschutes River, a smaller and much more floatable river than the Willamette in Portland.

Launch into the mild waters with a kayak, stand-up-paddle board (SUP), or inflatable innertube in summer, and you can drift for miles in the sunny Central Oregon weather. Bonus points if you take a locally-brewed Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA along for the ride! 

There are many options for launching your watercraft on this pretty waterway, including the two-hour float from Riverbend (the most popular launching point on the river) to Drake Park, and the one-hour float path from Riverbend to McKay Park.

Portland Art Museum
The Portland Art Museum, the oldest art museum on the West Coast © Shutterstock / EQRoy

Visit the Portland Art Museum

As part of an ongoing tradition of making art accessible, Portland’s well-curated art museum offers free admission to the public on a rolling basis. On the first Thursday of each month, there's no charge for admission, with no strings attached. Visitors are clear to roam the museum’s exhibits for as long as they’d like between normal operating hours.

The museum prides itself on featuring a blend of finger-on-the-pulse new artists and rotating exhibits from high-profile names, so you can visit over and over again without repeating the same experience.

As an extra incentive, local visitors with a Multnomah County library card can claim two free adult tickets for general admission, as part of the Discovery Pass program, which connects Portland-based folks with curated artistic experiences around the city.

Sauvie Island, Oregon
A calm sunrise at Sauvie Island © Larry Gloth / Getty Images

Swim at Sauvie Island

Known for its 4th of July marathon and its premier pumpkin patches during the fall, Sauvie Island is often overlooked by out-of-state visitors during the summer months, but its open beaches and warm summer temperatures beckon swimmers from across Oregon. There are two main beaches on Sauvie Island, both with excellent sandy shores for sunbathing, swimming, SUPing and boating. 

Walton Beach is family-friendly and relatively protected from the wind and elements, but it still offers easy access to the Willamette River's cool waters. Partly clothing-optional, Collins Beach is located just north of Walton Beach, and provides shelter for a free-thinking bunch of folks looking for a safe and inclusive day out by the water.

Chapel at The Grotto, Portland
Trees dwarf a tiny chapel at The Grotto in Portland © Shutterstock / Taylor Hague

Take a meditative stroll at The Grotto

Set high above the northeast part of Portland on Rocky Butte, the 62-acre Catholic sanctuary surrounding this rocky cavern remains one of Portland’s top attractions, drawing over 300,000 visitors of all faiths each year. Originally constructed in 1924, the shrine provides a serene, forested space for meditative walks, with plenty of quiet spaces off-trail for reflection and solitude.

The lower level of The Grotto–or by its full name, the National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother–is open and free to the public, and includes an expansive botanical garden, as well as the iconic cave carved out of the basalt cliff nearly a century ago. The cave itself serves as an outdoor cathedral, with public masses and other services from May to October. Additional offerings on the lower level of The Grotto include an art gallery and a gift shop, open year-round.


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