Portland, Oregon keeps it low key – this is a place that's all about paperback books and beer, pinball machines and pretty urban hikes, street art and soapbox derby races down the side of a dormant volcano. So it's no surprise that it's easy to find plenty of free things to do in Portland, from trails accessible by public transit to community art projects, street fairs, and unusual museums.
Here are twenty of the best free things to do in Portland, aka Rose City, Stumptown, Bridgetown, and PDX.
Editor's note: during COVID-19, there are restrictions on travel, and some of these free attractions may be temporarily closed or require pre-booking. Always check before departure, and be sure to follow local health guidance.
1. Forest Park
Stretching more than 5100 acres along the eastern slope of the Tualatin Mountains is Forest Park, the largest wooded urban park in the US. Flanking Portland's West Hills, its 70-mile network of verdant trails are a great way to witness the grandeur of the Pacific Northwest's forestlands without having to leave the city limits, and is accessible by public transit.
2. Powell's City of Books
Occupying five floors and spanning an entire city block, the iconic retailer is the largest independent bookstore in the country. Its nine color-coded rooms house millions of books on every subject imaginable, and with throngs of individuals wandering the stacks each day, it's one of the best places in Portland for people-watching. Each month, dozens of authors, artists and thought-leaders visit Powell's for free readings, panels and other events in the Pearl Room's Basil Hallward Gallery. The store also hosts children's story hours (some led by drag queens), poetry slams, book clubs, writing workshops and game demonstrations.
3. Mill's End Park
Having the largest park (Forest Park) within city limits perhaps isn't an oddity, but having the smallest one might be. Mill Ends Park – located on the median strip at SW Naito Pkwy and Taylor St – is a circle of green 24in in diameter. It's the reputed home of leprechauns, and locals enjoy dressing the tiny park up for different holidays.
4. Saturday Market
The largest and longest-running open-air craft market in the US, Portland's Saturday Market is home to hundreds of vendors, which are all chosen by a jury. Despite the name, it's open on Sundays, too. You can easily while away hours as you wander through craft stalls selling everything from clothing, jewelry and handmade accessories to local art, knick-knacks and homewares. Grab a bite from the many food carts and take in the antics of street performers while you chow down – this is one of the best places in Portland for people-watching.
5. Last Thursday on Alberta
Artists, musicians and buskers compete for attention among partying crowds on NE Alberta St during this iconic street art event, which takes place on the last Thursday evening of each month. But the festivities aren't limited to the street – during this time, galleries will launch new exhibitions, and bars and restaurants hang new local artwork for sale. It's free to browse, but purchasing wares such as paintings, sculptures, handmade jewelry, and more is also a great way to support the local creative community.
6. Tom McCall Waterfront Park
On the west bank of the Willamette River, Tom McCall Waterfront Park spans a great stretch of downtown Portland and is home to many of the city's notable monuments and sights such as the Japanese American Historical Plaza and Salmon Street Springs. Its waterfront path is wonderful for strolling, jogging and cycling, and in springtime, you'll see an explosion of cherry blossoms from the trees lining the path. Named after the governor who established Oregon's urban growth boundary system to protect green spaces from development, the park hosts numerous festivals and events like the Waterfront Blues Festival and LGBTQ Pride.
7. Portland Street Art
In a city whose mantra is "Keep Portland Weird," you can expect plenty of creative street art. From towering murals of beautiful women with living foliage for their hair on Division Street to graffiti on the concrete walls of Portland's Central Eastside Industrial District, there's no shortage of color wherever you wander. "Produce Row" on the east side is an especially fun place to stroll, with a skate park tucked under one of the bridges and colorful bunting waving in the air. The Alberta Arts District is another neighborhood with a flush crop of spray paint masterpieces.
8. Walking with Ramona Quimby
Ramona Quimby may be Portland's most famous fictional resident – the beloved children's character created by Oregonian Beverley Cleary has been charming readers of all ages since 1950. Cleary's realistic portrayal of childhood made Ramona a perennial favorite, but she was equally faithful to her books setting in Stumptown. You can visit numerous locations in the series that really exist, from Klickitat Street where Ramona's family lived to a statue of Ramona in Grant Park. The Multnomah County Library has a printable PDF map you can use for your own free walking tour.
9. Washington Park
Tame and well-tended Washington Park contains several key attractions within its 410 acres of greenery. The International Rose Test Garden is the centerpiece of Portland's famous rose blooms; there are more than 700 varieties on show here, plus great city views. Hoyt Arboretum features twelve miles of trails wind through this 189-acre ridge-top garden above the city zoo. It's home to over 6000 native and exotic plants and trees representing 1100 different species, and it offers easy walks any time of year. You'll have easy access to the Japanese Garden from here, too. Take the MAX light-rail to Washington Park station.
10. The Pittock Mansion
This grand and beautiful 1914 mansion was built by pioneer-entrepreneur Henry Pittock, who revitalized the Oregonian newspaper; his wife, Georgiana, also a pioneer, started the earliest of Portland's annual Rose Festivals. Guided tours are available, but it's also worth visiting the grounds (free) simply to have a picnic while taking in the spectacular views. If you're up for a wander, the mansion lies along the Wildwood Trail in Forest Park, with dozens of miles of connecting trails branching off it.
11. Laurelhurst Park
A picturesque spring-fed pond is a favorite setting for locals to picnic. The gorgeous old trees and sprawling lawns of Laurelhurst Park were once part of a private farm, until the city of Portland bought the land and built a park in 1912 inspired by the landscape architecture Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City. It's a fantastic spot for people-watching, saying hello to cute dogs, and soaking up the summer sunshine – and the surrounding neighborhood is full of Portland's famously fine residential architecture.
12. Pioneer Courthouse Square
For a breather between bouts of sightseeing and shopping, head to Pioneer Courthouse Square. Grab a bite from one of the food carts here and settle onto the brick steps for grade-A people-watching, or bring a chess set and play at one of the square's painted or bronze chess boards.
13. Council Crest Park
At a peak perched in the Tualatin Mountains that form Portland's western edge, Council Crest Park offers stunning views of volcanoes on the distance, including Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and Mount Jefferson. An observation plaza indicates which peaks you're looking at in the distance as you turn to take in the 180 degree panorama.
14. Stark's Vacuum Cleaner Museum
A small sample of historical models collected by this large local retailer hangs on one wall of the Southeast Portland location. Since moving from its original space in 2017 to occupy a smaller portion of the store, with a new timeline of vacuum cleaners throughout history, you could say the museum sucks a little less than it used to.
15. Chinatown and Old Town
The sights of Portland's oldest neighborhood include tranquil cultural gardens, reverent waterfront monuments and underground passages storied with local lore. The core of rambunctious 1890s Portland, once-seedy Old Town had a well-earned reputation as the lurking ground of unsavory characters. Now it's home to some lovely historic buildings, plus Waterfront Park, the Saturday Market and a few good pockets of nightlife. Old Town is generally lumped together with the city's historic Chinatown – no longer the heart of the Chinese community (that's moved to outer Southeast) but still home to the ornate Chinatown Gateway and the Lan Su Chinese Garden.
16. The Simpsons Streets
The Simpsons creator Matt Groening grew up in Portland, and included many of the city's street names in the long-running cartoon. Portland has embraced Groening's quirky creativity right back and the city is full of avid Simpsons fans. You can treat yourself to a free walking tour of spots in the city that inspired Groening and use it as an opportunity to get oriented and experience some of the neighborhood's funky long-time neighborhoods. It's a perfectly cromulent way to spend an afternoon.
17. Mt. Tabor Park
Not many cities can say they have an extinct volcano in their midst, but that's exactly what Mt. Tabor is, despite the rows of pretty Craftsman Houses on its flanks and a popular park at its summit. There you'll find tennis courts, a rec center, trails for mountain biking trails, and plenty of places to stroll. Be sure to check out the large open water reservoirs surrounded by castle-like turrets, another 19th century example of the City Beautiful Movement, and Frederick Law Olmsted's influence.
18. The Eastbank Esplanade
The west bank of the Willamette River that runs through Portland has the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, but the east bank has the esplanade. This paved 1.5-mile path gives you a lovely panoramic view of downtown Portland's distinctive skyline, from the Burnside and Hawthorne Bridges to the Big Pink – what the locals affectionally call The U.S. Bancorp Tower. Dotted with sculptures and other artworks, the Eastbank Esplanade is a great spot to wander with a cup of coffee to-go or to experience by bicycle.
19. Lone Fir Cemetery
Dating back to the mid-19th century, Lone Fir Cemetery is a splendid garden-style resting place for some of the most influential figures in the last hundred and seventy years of Portland's history. With splendid mausoleums like that built by the MacLeay family, Lone Fir is a lovely place to walk, admire the ornate stonework monuments, and find a little peace and quiet in bustling Stumptown.
20. Hunting for horse rings
Like many cities that date back to the horse and buggy era, Portland had a number of rings embedded in its sidewalks that once were used to hitch your ride. While many cities removed their horse rings once the age of the automobile made them obsolete, Portland residents not only insisted the city maintain them, but continue to use them for a kind of community-wide art project or happening. Keep your eyes on the pavement – particularly downtown – and you might just find tiny toy horses and other figurines hitched up to the horse rings. It's all part of what makes Portland weird and wonderful.