Portland oozes Pacific Northwest cool and a genuine pride for the city. But locals haven’t let their city’s popularity get to their heads. Maybe things are different when it’s the offseason, but March in Portland was giving off an “I’m glad you are here vibe.” Here is my guide of what to do in Portland, Oregon.
I flew up to Portland after attending a conference in San Jose. On a whim I decided to add three days to my west coast trip, and happened to find cheap flights to Portland. Portland immediately impressed me. The city boasts the country’s best airport, which embraces clam and quiet instead of people shrieking over loudspeakers. Finding the rail to the city was simple and inexpensive. Right away I could tell that Portland isn’t like other cities.
As a Mainer, I do need to chime in and say that it can be irksome when people simply say “Portland” and not “Portland, Oregon”. Mainers know that it is more likely that you are referring to Oregon, but we like it when people acknowledge the existence of Portland, Maine, which is a pretty cool (although significantly smaller) city.
My first task was to check in to my hotel, the Hi-Lo by Autograph Collection. It was barely noon and I was happily surprised when my room was ready for me. I am a big fan of Autograph Collection because they feel like boutique hotels even though they are a part of Starwood Hotels and Resorts. I don’t like it when hotels feel and look the same regardless of which city they are in. I want my hotel to have a unique personality and Autograph Collection always delivers.
What To Do in Portland, Oregon:
The Portland Saturday Market
When I took the tram from the airport to my hotel, and it passed the Saturday Market just a few blocks from my hotel. Since the weather was agreeable and I was hungry, I made that my first stop. The Saturday Market is open on weekends from March through Christmas Eve. I expect it might not tend tend to be so busy on weekends in March, but I was there on a sunny day and it was the first day that the Market was reopened for the season. I should emphasize that the market takes place on both Saturdays and Sundays despite its misleading name.
The market stretches across a few blocks and has a mix of food carts, crafts, clothing, and other locally produced handmade goods. The market was filled with families and more dogs than I had seen in a while. I walked around and determined that the line for Angelina’s Greek Gyros was the longest and when I asked the guy at the back of the line, he assured me that it was his favorite cart at the market. He did not lead me astray.
The garlic chicken gyro was served on a warm freshly made pita. I asked for extra tzatziki, which I recommend since it was incredible. It was the perfect lunch. The thing that impressed me the most about the Saturday Market was the diversity of the food carts. There were Greek, Thai, Chinese, Nepalese, Polish, Mexican, Guatemalan, Uruguayan, and Lebanese restaurants! For a city that isn’t that big, the culinary diversity is impressive.
Pine Street Market
After a quick lap around the market, I walked a couple blocks to the Pine Street Market, a food hall where I discovered Wizbangbar. Wizbangbar is an outpost of the hugely popular Salt & Staw, an artisanal ice cream shop. Salt & Straw pre-dates both Jeni’s and Milk Bar, which both create ice cream with modern twists.
I had the Frosty Flakes custard topped with pieces of salted cookie dough. The Frosty Flakes custard reminded me of the cereal milk ice cream at Milk Bar. Wizbangbar serves custard, while Salt & Straw is known for their hard serve ice cream. The brand has such a cult following that there was a line 30 people deep outside one location on a 45-degree night. So if you go, plan to wait in line.
Powell’s City of Books
Very full and happy, I decided to walk to Powell’s, an indie bookshop and Portland institution. It first opened in the Pearl District in 1971, and the neighborhood has jumped to life around it. I loved being in a place where people are so excited about books! It is definitely worth walking around Powell’s or maybe having a coffee in their café.
The store has its own color coding system to make navigating their 2 million volumes easy. Powell’s hosts over 500 author events each year, so you might want to plan your visit around an event.
The Pearl District feels newer than other parts of Portland and is home to many big box stores like West Elm and Anthropologie. It is definitely worth visiting the Pearl District because you can’t miss Powell’s books.
The Aerial Tram
Next I left the Pearl District and made my way to the aerial tram. The skies were clear so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to take in the view. The tram is a quick 3-minute ridge that goes up to a hospital. While some people were coming and going from the hospital, many people were riding the tram just to admire in the view.
The aerial tram is a nice thing to do if the skies are clear, but since the tram is to the side of downtown the main thing to see is the mountains surrounding the city. If the skies are not clear, I would recommend skipping the tram.
After the tram I made my way back to my hotel and went to dinner – I am writing a separate post all about the restaurants I tried so stay tuned.
I devoted my next day in Portland to exploring the outdoors. It was the beginning of March and it was chilly, but just past the threshold where it was enjoyable to spend a few hours outside. My first stop was Washington Park, a massive park that is second in size only to Central Park when it comes to city parks in America. The park has many different parts. It contains a zoo, a forestry discovery center, a children’s museum, an arboretum, a massive rose garden, and a Japanese Garden.
World Forestry Center
I started by visiting World Forestry Center, a small educational center that teaches the public about sustainable forestry. It is easy to see all of the exhibits in about an hour, although kids might want to stay longer since many of the exhibits are geared towards children.
Then I walked to the Hoyt Arboretum, a 190-acre section of Washington Park containing 23 miles of hiking trails. The arboretum has trails dedicated to specific species of trees. The redwood section was my favorite. All in all I spent about an hour walking through the park, I didn’t pack hiking boots, and I regretted that decision since some of the trails were quite muddy and waterproof hiking boots would have been the proper footwear.
The Pittock Mansion
When I walked through the Hoyt Arboretum I ended up at the Pittock Mansion, a historic house museum on a hill which boasts some of the best views of Portland. I have toured many historic homes (I did major in Art History) but the Pittock Mansion was particularly lovely.
The 16,000 square foot French Renaissance style home has some beautiful architectural and decorative details. A marble staircase with wood and iron railings and plaster decoration is a centerpiece of the home.
And the domed ceiling in a small room off of the living room is incredibly detailed. The kitchen and the bathrooms are in incredible shape, and are historically accurate, and seeing them gives visitors a unique look into life in the past. Often the bathrooms and kitchens in historic homes are modernized and it was nice that the ones of the Pittock Mansion are relatively untouched.
Portland Japanese Garden
From the Pittock Mansion I took a quick cab ride over to Portland Japanese Garden, which is back inside Washington Park. I felt like I was there just a few weeks early, it seemed like things were just about to start blooming. I am sure that the park is far more colorful in the Spring and Summer. On a nicer day you could easily spend half a day at the park.
The Portland Japanese Garden is more than just a garden. There is a cultural village with an art gallery, learning center, café, and five different traditional Japanese Gardens. Outside of the cultural village, the garden has a strolling pond and garden, a natural garden, a sand and stone garden, and a tea garden. Each garden represents unique aspects of Japanese garden history and design. If you are lucky you might just see the cherry blossoms in bloom. The garden’s website says that they usually bloom in late February (which seems very early and they definitely were not in bloom when I was there the first week of March).
Lan Su Chinese Garden
I went straight from the Portland Japanese garden to the Lan Su Chinese Garden, a small walled garden in Chinatown. Even though it is in the middle of the city, the tranquil space makes you feel as though you have been transported outside of the city.
There is a tea house within the garden and it is definitely worth stopping in for some tea and maybe some dumplings. This garden is easy to walk to from downtown Portland, and can be seen in just an hour.
Portland, Oregon is a small city and I felt like three full days was the perfect amount of time to spend there. I had two days to devote to seeing Portland, and I spent a full day on a waterfalls and wine tour. Many of the city’s attractions involve spending time outdoors, so I would suggest visiting during the Spring, Summer, or Fall. March was pushing it just a little bit.
Don’t worry, I have more Portland posts coming your way. Next I will be talking about the restaurants in Portland, and then I will tell you all about the waterfalls and wine tour.
Oh, and just in case you want to read about the other Portland (the original Portland), here you go!
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If I missed anything on my list of what to do in Portland, Oregon – let me know in the comments!