Portland, Oregon is a jewel of the Pacific Northwest. Wrap a thriving local foodie scene in misty, mossy woods with a view of majestic Mount Hood and waterfalls galore. Add hipsters, bike culture, and a vital music and art scene…and voila! Welcome to Nirvana. Best of all: You don’t need to empty your wallet to savor this city. There are so many cheap things to do in Portland. In fact, many of them are free things!
Here’s a list of 17 easy and soul-satisfying ways to steep yourself in the very essence of this magical city:
- Things to Do in Portland
- 1. Visit the Saturday Market.
- 2. Browse Powell’s City of Books.
- 3. Feast at the Food Carts.
- 4. Walk Off Lunch in Forest Park.
- 5. Expose Yourself to Art.
- 6. Have a Beer at Iconic Goose Hollow Inn.
- 7. Ogle the Victorians.
- 8. See Multnomah Falls
- 9. Indulge in a Whiskey Tasting.
- 10. Hop on a Bicycle.
- 11. Stop and smell the roses.
- 12. Window Shop the Pearl District.
- 13. Hike in Hoyt Arboretum.
- 14. Visit Portland’s Living Room.
- 15. See the View from Pittock Mansion
- 16. Taste Test at CoCo’s Donuts
- 17. Drink and Dine in Trendy North Portland
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Things to Do in Portland
1. Visit the Saturday Market.
Portland celebrates all things local. And there’s no better place to sample the scene for yourself than Portland’s famous and free Saturday market. (Plus, it’s also open Sundays.)
You’ll find more than 350 artisans gathered along the banks of the Willamette river at this fabulous open-air downtown market. Beware though: you’re going to be sorely tempted to pick up a bar of vanilla-scented handcrafted soap or a beautiful beaded bracelet.
You’re also going to want to taste an Uruguayan empanada or nibble on an exotic ice cream cone from the impressive food court while listening to bands on the main stage. Still…not a budget buster.
2. Browse Powell’s City of Books.
In an age where indy bookstores are disappearing at an alarming rate, Powell’s is thriving. As the world’s largest independent bookstore, it occupies a full city block with more than 4 million books.
There are multiple floors of rooms filled ceiling to floor with books and it’s right downtown at the edge of the Pearl District. You’ll find everything from brand new bestsellers to rare used books and hand-scrawled notes on fabulous staff picks.
Powell’s is perhaps the epicenter of Portland gatherings…which explains why there have been any number of emotional wedding proposals, engagements, and weddings themselves here.
So just remember you don’t have to buy anything to browse through a stack of books in the comfy cafe. It’s one of the best activities in Portland, for sure!
3. Feast at the Food Carts.
If you’re looking for activities to do in Portland, look no further than the food carts! Portland boasts a vibrant and eclectic food scene with an abundance of chefs renowned worldwide. In fact, the food cart scene reminds me of Maui’s. They’re drawn to the city because of its proximity to local vineyards and farm-to-table freshness.
It’s a locavore scene with an emphasis on fresh, organic Northwest ingredients. So by all means, Yelp away!
Here’s the thing though: Many of those up and coming restaurants got their start as part of the city’s huge and fabulous food cart scene.
There’s more than 500(!) food carts sprawled across the city. Here is a guide to the “pods” of food carts around town.
They are conveniently organized in “pods” of five to 60 food carts. Making it that much harder to choose. Chicken adobo? Clam chowder? Or gluten-free? So many decisions. So many food carts. So cheap.
4. Walk Off Lunch in Forest Park.
If you’re in search of free things to do in Portland, head into the woods! Forest Park, which bills itself as “America’s premier urban forest”, overlooks tony Northwest Portland. It offers seven miles of woodsy trails over 5200 acres.
So don’t let a misty day stop you from joining the beanie-wearing, Nike-clad, plaid-loving locals hiking, running or mountain biking this incredible urban oasis.
Check the Forest Park Conservancy calendar to see what’s on tap for the next free discovery hike. Only in Portland will you find a hike led by a beer brewer explaining how to make beer ethically by harvesting local plants!
5. Expose Yourself to Art.
Portland’s public art scene is hot, hot, hot! It’s one of the best free things to do in Portland. Gorgeous murals and creative sculptures are everywhere…
Portland’s fascination with public art went mainstream back in 1978 when a photographer captured a local bar owner who posed pretending to be flashing a bronze statue of a nude woman.
The resulting poster title: Expose Yourself to Art. With a sale price of $1 per poster, the photographer intended to use the proceeds to support the Venereal Disease Action Council.
But then poster sales went viral, with more than 250,000 sold over the next six years. Poster subject Bud Clark was launched to worldwide fame and became a shoo-in for mayor of Portland in 1985.
You can still see the original statue standing on the sidewalk at the corner of Southwest Alder and Southwest 6th streets, just one block off Portland’s Living Room (see #13).
6. Have a Beer at Iconic Goose Hollow Inn.
Bud Clark served two terms as a popular “people’s mayor” of the city, fighting for the homeless, funding mass transit, and hiring independent musicians for the annual Mayor’s Ball.
Where better to raise a glass to Clark than at his famous tavern?
This cozy mostly locals-only hangout is still owned by the Clark family. Its family-friendly vibe oozes Portland personality and is just an eight-minute walk from Portland State University.
Spend a few minutes to peruse the many historic black and white photos and framed newspaper clippings celebrating its heyday.
Take time to answer the question of the day on the chalkboard in the restroom.
But most of all…order the Ruben sandwich!
7. Ogle the Victorians.
More free stuff to do in Portland: Check out the fabulous architecture in the NW 23rd street area on the edge of the city’s West Hills.
You won’t find lots of sleek gated homes for the super-rich in this city.
From Queen Anne to Arts and Crafts, Portland’s walkable architectural stroll is a feast for the eyes.
It’s all super accessible. Walk along on any of the “NW 20’s” avenues—starting with NW 21st Avenue—to take in these technicolor painted beauties with wide, welcoming porches and lush, colorful gardens.
End your walk on NW 23rd, with a handcrafted latte in one of the many cute cafes there.
8. See Multnomah Falls
Some of the best free things to do in Portland include getting out into the spectacular nature here.
Just a 40-minute drive from downtown Portland is the beginning of the beautiful eighty mile long Columbia River Gorge (so named because it winds along the Columbia River).
You can take your pick of plunges here, with more than a dozen impressive waterfalls and hiking trails galore. Eventually, you’ll arrive at Multnomah Falls, one of the crown jewels of falls here.
According to Native American folklore, the falls were a gift from the Gods to a young princess looking for a private bathing spot.
While you can view the top bit of these majestic falls from the parking lot, you’ll want to walk up the trail to Benson Bridge for the full experience.
9. Indulge in a Whiskey Tasting.
Looking for fun things to do in Portland for adults? It doesn’t get more local than a whiskey tasting at Bull Run Distillery. In fact, owner and head distiller Lee Medoff was a founder and the first president of the Oregon distillers guild.
The tasting room is open afternoons Wednesday to Sunday (12 to 6 pm).
While a tasting will set you back $10 or $15 for a flight depending on what you choose, you can be assured of a personalized whiskey, vodka, and bourbon experience.
10. Hop on a Bicycle.
Portland activities just have to include a bike ride. Portland is Mecca for cyclists. In fact, more than 7 percent of locals commute daily on their bikes!
That’s the highest percentage anywhere in the U.S. Thanks to Biketown, Portland’s bicycle sharing system, you can unlock a bike for a single ride at 100 different self-serve stations around the city at a cost of just $2.50.
Bicycling is a great way to get a quick sense of the city and see more of it efficiently.
Take advantage of 188 miles of bike lanes and 85 miles of bike paths, including those in Forest Park (see #12). Just be careful! Remember to signal and watch for cars to share the road safely with motorists.
11. Stop and smell the roses.
All 10,000 of them! One of Portland’s nicknames is the City of Roses and this is why.
Whether you’re an avid gardener or just appreciate beauty and the intoxicating scent of blooming roses, Portland’s spectacular free International Rose Test Garden is the place to be.
You’ll find more than 650 varieties of these lovely beauties in bloom between April and October, with peak bloom in June (depending on weather). Swing by the gift shop for a packet of rose seeds or tin of rose tea on your way out.
12. Window Shop the Pearl District.
While most of America has succumbed to mega malls and the same franchises in any city, Portland’s Pearl District is a one-of-a-kind collection and shopper’s paradise. That’s why window shopping the Pearl needs to be on your list for downtown Portland activities.
Here you will find renovated brick warehouses now home to five-star restaurants and specialty shop natives like Keen’s Shoes.
You don’t need to buy to appreciate the vintage typewriters, run your fingers over sensuous luxe linens, peak into a “wool-only” clothing boutique or browse quaint antiques and jewelry here.
But you may want to swing by one of the cute cafes, bakeries, or gastropubs that call the Pearl home for sustenance.
Another free thing to do here: Join a First Thursday Art Walk in the Pearl. Download a map and then hit the scene between 6 and 9 pm. Dozens of art galleries host free receptions.
(Or check out the nearby Happy Hour menus offered by several world-class area eateries.)
13. Hike in Hoyt Arboretum.
Hoyt Arboretum, just two miles west of downtown Portland, is close to Portland’s famous zoo and International Rose Test Garden. With 6,000 trees and scenic hilly trails, Hoyt is stunning in every season. And it’s free and open to the public all day every day, making it one of the more fun activities in Portland.
Meet at the visitor center Saturdays, April to October, for a 90 minute guided tour through the plant collections ($3 donation requested) or just wander these beautiful trails on your own.
Whether you’re in search of a short stroll or a vigorous hike, Hoyt Arboretum delivers.
14. Visit Portland’s Living Room.
Free activities in Portland include visiting famous local landmarks. You’ll find award-winning Pioneer Courthouse Square, a public space that dominates a city block, conveniently located right downtown in the city. It’s a local landmark on the 700 block of 6th Avenue.
Known as Portland’s Living Room, the famous square hosts everything from tree-lighting ceremonies at Christmas to a winter beer fest.
On other days, you’ll find lots of locals kibbitzing on their lunch hour or meeting co-workers after work to take in a free local band concert.
Definitely snap a photo of yourself with the famous bronze statue “Umbrella Man” (also known as “Allow Me”) before you go!
15. See the View from Pittock Mansion
Built in 1914, Pittock Mansion is a sumptuous French Renaissance-style château high in the hills of West Portland. Its original owner, Henry Pittock, started out as a typesetter for Portland’s newspaper The Oregonian and eventual won ownership due to back wages he was owed.
If you can spare the $11, do tour this beautiful 46-room estate. Otherwise, enjoy the free parking and feast your eyes on this view!
And remember….all of these adventures can be easily reached by riding the MAX, Portland’s trendsetting light rail, or by hopping on a city bus, with or without a bike!
There are so many things to do in Portland…
16. Taste Test at CoCo’s Donuts
Sure, you can visit famous Voodoo Donuts in Portland…if you want to stand in line. But you know where locals head instead? They go to CoCo’s for tastier donuts without the crazy lines.
These are mostly classic donuts without all the fanfare of chain donut shops, but think quality. A generous dollop of raspberry jam in your jelly donut…glazed buttermilk with chocolate dripping from it…Or try the lavender latte or lavender glazed donut if you’re craving a unique flavor.
17. Drink and Dine in Trendy North Portland
Portland is practically bursting with creative cuisine as well as a unique and lively bar scene. And one hub in this city is Mississippi Avenue in North Portland. Stop into Mississippi Records—specializing in blues and soul music—while you’re here.
Check out the Box Social, a favored “date night” bar of locals with candlelight and an impressive menu of original cocktails as well as drinking vinegars, beer, and wine.
Or try the local brews at The Brewpub Bender. From diner food to a ramen bar, you’ll find dozens of wonderful ethnic and locavore restaurants in this area of town as well.