That’s it, I’m totally moving here. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself thinking along these lines after your first visit to Portland. It’s not a hard sell: Oregon’s largest city seduces easily, with its walkable neighborhoods, pretty green parks, famously great beer and coffee, laidback locals and of course its endearingly oddball vibe. It’s a fun, cheap, unconventional city that’s hard not to like. The only real risk of visiting for the first time is that you might never want to leave.
These are our top picks for anyone new to this perfectly weird city.
- Population: 609,456 (2013)
- Visitors per year: about 8.4 million
- Language: English
- Daily budget: $200 for mid-range hotel and restaurant meals
- Distance to/from Seattle: 173 miles
- Driving time to/from Seattle: about three hours
- Best time of year to go: June–August
- Number of breweries in Portland: 56
Neighborhoods and Sights
Likely to be where you’ll stay, if not where you’ll spend the most time, downtown is the business end of Portland: lots of banks and office buildings. But it’s also home to some of the city’s top sights.
If you’re visiting outside July or August, chances are good that it’ll be raining. And there’s no better place to spend a rainy day than Powell’s City of Books. The downtown location is a full city block of new and used books, plus a coffee shop and nightly readings.
At the opposite end of downtown, along the Willamette River underneath the Burnside Bridge, is Saturday Market (open Sundays too), one of the biggest outdoor markets in the US. Browse locally made arts and crafts (some better than others), munch on an elephant ear and critique some buskers.
Scattered across downtown (and elsewhere) you’ll find clusters of Portland’s famous food carts. A good one to try is Nong's Khao Man Gai, but prepare for epic lines during weekday lunch-hour.
Downtown is also where you’ll find the ultracool Ace Hotel, which is home to the exceptional Clyde Common restaurant and cocktail bar, as well as a Stumptown Coffee. For quieter digs, try the boutique Hotel DeLuxe (hoteldeluxeportland.com), whose tiny cocktail bar is unbeatable.
Hop on the westbound MAX light-rail from downtown to visit the Washington Park Rose Test Garden (so named because it functions as a lab for developing new rose breeds), with panoramic views and thousands of roses to stop and smell, and the nearby Japanese Garden – a beautiful oasis to relax in.
NW & the Pearl District
Just across arterial Burnside Street you’ll find the vaunted Pearl District, described in hushed tones by urban developers for its early adoption of eco-friendly warehouse refurbishment. It’s packed with condos, restaurants, high-end design shops and galleries. Further west are twin old-school dining and shopping streets, NW 21st and 23rd Avenues. A highlight here is the longstanding art-house theater, Cinema 21, where in true Portland fashion you can enjoy a local microbrewed beer with your movie.
Outer Northwest is where you’ll find the easiest access to the hiking trails of Forest Park, a dense, 5,000-acre wilderness inside the city limits. For a convenient entry point, head to Lower Macleay Park, at NW 29th Ave and Upshur St.
Once a grubby, utilitarian district, the inner eastside has become a fertile crescent of brewpubs, distilleries and coffee laboratories, with an appealingly unpolished feel. It’s a great place for a walking pub tour, as there are several breweries within a few blocks. Base Camp Brewing (basecampbrewingco.com) has a nice outdoor patio and a ‘s’mores’ beer – a chocolaty stout that comes with a toasted marshmallow in it. Four blocks south is Cascade Brewing, specializing in uniquely delicious sour ales and lambics, which it sells in sample sizes so you can try a few. From there it’s only about 10 blocks to the Hair of the Dog tasting room.
To walk it off, head toward the Eastbank Esplanade, a riverside walkway that’s prettiest at nightfall. It connects the Steel and Hawthorne Bridges and offers great views of the city’s glittering waterfront. (You can reach it via the Morrison Bridge right by Hair of the Dog.)
The Alberta Arts District is known for funky shops, galleries and bars and its monthly Last Thursday Art Walk (lastthursdayonalberta.com) – not to be missed if you’re in town. Running perpendicular to Alberta Street, Mississippi Ave has some great bars and restaurants, and the intimate live-music venue Mississippi Studios. Nearby on N Williams Street is Hopworks Urban Brewery’s bike bar – pretty much the most Portland thing ever.
What to Pack
Don’t forget the rain gear and good walking shoes. But save room in your luggage for carrying home books and bottles.
Getting There & Around
Airport MAX light-rail trains run directly from Portland International Airport to downtown (and beyond), every 15-30 minutes between 5am and midnight. 40 minutes, $2.50 one-way. Buy tickets from automated machines (cash or card) before boarding.
In town, TriMet runs buses and light-rail, and service is excellent. Find schedules at trimet.org. A single trip is $2.50, but an all-day pass is $5. The Portland streetcar (portlandstreetcar.org) runs a north-south line and a line from the Pearl District to the Central Eastside. Two-hour tickets are $1, and TriMet tickets are also valid.
The best and most authentically Portlandian way to get around is by bicycle. The city is reasonably flat and compact, with nice wide bike lanes. For bicycle rentals, including helmet, lock and map, try:
Portland is a service-industry town, so tips are expected. Twenty percent (or a dollar a drink) is standard. (Keep in mind there’s no sales tax.) If you’re driving, pay strict attention to bicycle traffic, as well as pedestrians (and if you’re bicycling, obey traffic rules). Note that in Oregon you’re not allowed to pump your own gas.
Book hotels a couple of weeks ahead in summer and most weekends. For top-end restaurants, a few days ahead is usually plenty. If you’re leaving on an early-morning flight, it’s best to book a taxi to the airport the night before (the two main companies are Radio Cab, 503-227-1212, and Broadway, 503-333-3333). But are you sure you’re leaving?
Becky Ohlsen is a Lonely Planet author and freelance writer who's lived in Portland for nearly 20 years and still loves a gray, rainy day. Find her on Twitter @beckyohlsen.