The Perfect First Trip to Portland
Whether it’s your first-time trip to Portland or you want to experience Portland with fresh eyes, explore our guide to must-sees and must-eats.
Many things about the City of Roses are weird, exciting and downright amazing, but nothing compares to a first-time trip to Portland. You might have some preconceived notions of Portland: it’s enveloped in nature, the food carts are incomparable, and the city is often the stage of political and social debate. All those things are true, but Portland is more than the national headlines. Our neighborhoods encompass entire worlds, each with its own curiosities, flavors and unique experiences. There’s a vibrancy here that can only be credited to Portlanders themselves and their distinct stories that beckon visitors back to this culturally rich metropolis year after year.
Whether you’re outdoorsy, a bookworm, a foodie or you’re here to challenge your perception of this historically complex city – your first trip to Portland will be nothing short of memorable.
Rest and Wellness in Portland
Unless you’re coming to Portland from the West Coast, we guarantee you’ll need a little rest after a long journey to the Pacific Northwest. Unwind in Portland’s various soaking hot spots, like Knot Springs , a veritable nirvana of relaxation. Dip into their three pools that slowly release tension from the body through a series of therapeutic temperature changes. Clear out jet lag in their eucalyptus steam room and sauna, and take a break on their sweeping patio with a view of the Portland, Oregon sign and the South Waterfront Park area. Patrons get unlimited hot tea, sparkling water and free use of their expertly stocked showers.
For a holistic approach to wellness, head to Root Whole Body and replenish yourself from the inside out. Offering a full spa with services like massage and hydrotherapy, it’s the perfect place to recoup, particularly if you’re visiting Portland in the chilly winter months. Complete your visit by stopping at their on-site café for a hydrating smoothie or nourishing vegan lunch.
Can’t-Miss Coffee in Portland
Suppose you’ve centered your first trip to Portland in the Southeast or Downtown area. In that case, chances are you’ll cross paths with Stumptown Coffee Roasters , the ushers for a third-wave coffee movement focused on specialty beans. They have multiple café locations, but you’ll also encounter their brews at many independent Portland coffeehouses. Be sure to check their rotating menu of seasonal drinks with locally inspired flavor combinations like salted maple and mint matcha lattes.
Now, Portland’s fourth-wave coffee movement focuses on sustainable and ethical coffee production and more BIPOC-owned coffee businesses. Nossa Familia brings deeply flavorful coffee from direct-trade and family-trade coffee growers in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and Ethiopia. A visit to any of their locations across Portland includes a piece of the company’s history and relationships, not to mention a delicious cup of coffee.
Bookstores in Portland
Powell’s City of Books , the country’s largest independent bookstore, is undeniably a favorite among travelers and locals alike. With a maze-like variety of titles and a rare books room, Powell’s has welcomed new generations of readers since 1971. While it may be an essential appetizer, a literary feast lies beyond Powell’s in Portland’s rich independent bookshop scene. Read like a local and explore Portland’s neighborhoods for every genre of new and used books.
Third-Eye Books boasts Portland’s richest collection of exclusively BIPOC literature, from history and fiction to an entire dedicated kids’ section. “It’s disheartening sometimes to walk into a store and see you get a shelf or a box,” said co-owner Michelle Lewis. At Third Eye Books, you’ll find a healthy supply of classic authors like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, along with the owners’ favorite Black, Indigenous and POC authors.
If ambiance is needed for your book-searching journey during your first trip to Portland, find it at Rose City Book Pub. Channel your best Ursula K. Le Guin and cozy up with a book and brew in one of the pub’s comfy oversized couches. Rose City Book Pub also has a rich calendar of events, with poetry readings, trivia nights and live music.
Restaurants and Food Carts in Portland
While most food trucks are mobile, food carts in Portland tend to stay put in food cart pods, allowing patrons to sample a variety of cuisines in one spot. Food cart pods in Portland typically have outdoor seating, with many providing heated or covered seating options for rainy seasons. Most pods contain anywhere from two to 10 food carts, and you can find one to fit your tastes with Portland’s food cart finder.
Named after a 19th-century psychiatric hospital, Hawthorne Asylum sits just two blocks from another popular food cart pod, Cartopia, and entices diners in with its unmistakable wrought-iron signage and cartoonish barbed wire fence. There are so many options to eat from here it’s hard to choose just one – but it’s great for families or groups with diverse tastes. Locals love this pod for its mini brewery, Black Dagger, offering a great selection of draft brews and fireside seating.
Southeast Portland’s “super pod” is sure to fit the bill for an even bigger selection of good eats. Meet Cartlandia, home to a full-service bar with 18 beers and ciders on tap, a family- and dog-friendly outdoor beer garden and more than 30 carts representing 15 different countries.
In case outdoor dining isn’t your scene, Portland chefs continue to bring home food accolades yearly with award-winning restaurant concepts. Complete your trip with a visit to well-loved local favorite Eem . This Thai BBQ spot is true to its “deep fried funk” mantra, offering patrons a twist of flavors between Thai street foods and curries and southern classics like hot chicken and smoked pork. Kann is another local gem, where chef Gregory Gourdet explores his childhood in Haiti through a health-centered food lens. Kann prioritizes gluten- and dairy-free eating and gives equal attention to its creative zero-proof cocktail menu, making it a great place for sensitive eaters. Be warned: This is one of the hottest tickets in town, so you should definitely make reservations in advance!
Getting Outdoors in Portland
Rose gardens and bushes pepper Portland’s public parks and sidewalks, imbuing the air with a rich floral scent from May through September. Still, none compare to the Portland International Rose Test Garden (locally known as the Portland Rose Garden), which features over 10,000 roses with a spectacular view of Mt. Hood. If you’re a real rose nerd or enjoy a seasonal festival, try to line up your springtime trip with the annual Portland Rose Festival, a community celebration with parades, concerts, carnival rides, and plenty of roses.
Have you ever visited a live museum? In Portland, you can. Like a scene out of Narnia’s Wood Between the Worlds, Hoyt Arboretum features a diverse preservation site of 190 acres home to 2,300 species of trees and shrubs from six continents. While you won’t find pools that lead to other worlds here, you might be surprised to find that the Oregon Zoo, boasting a variety of Pacific Northwest-inspired animal exhibits, is just across the street.
If you’ve spent more than a few hours walking around on your first trip to Portland, you’ll notice that ferns, moss, and conifer trees dominate the landscape here. Oregon’s Pacific temperate rainforest environment is best observed at Forest Park, where 70+ miles of trails give way to a lush green escape that’s verdant all year round. First-time visitors to Portland should head to the Lower Mcleay trailhead that takes hikers past the tallest fir within a city, a 242-foot heritage pine tree, and the Witch’s Castle or Stone House, a two-story, charming moss-laden structure that makes an excellent hide-and-seek fort.
End your day with a sunset walk at Mt. Tabor, the local (dormant) volcano. Depending on where you stand, you can see Mount Hood peek through the trees or the sun dip behind the downtown skyline. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear piano players serenade hikers on a pop-up restored piano.
Iconic Sights in Portland
Take advantage of clear and sunny days with a ride on Portland’s Aerial Tram, which connects the South Waterfront Park area to the main Oregon Health & Science University campus. This is a great morning adventure; start your day off at Blue Star Donuts , then head to the lower tram terminal, where tickets to the tram cost less than $6. The tram ride will give you access to some of the best bridge and skyline views the city offers, not to mention bragging rights for riding one of two commuter aerial tramways in the United States. (The other’s in some place called “New York.”)
Forgetting to actually relax on vacation is common, and there’s no better city respite than Lan Su Chinese Garden . Despite the busy thoroughfare outside its stone garden walls, it’s serene and surprisingly quiet. Born out of a collaboration between China’s Suzhou city and Portland, Lan Su brings authentic Ming dynasty garden designs to Old Town China Town. Fall and winter is the perfect time to catch their annual cultural events like the Lunar New Year Lantern and the Celebration of the Chrysanthemum.
Take the Max 15 minutes south of Old Town China Town and explore the Portland Art Museum, framed among the picturesque South Park Blocks. The museum features a wide collection of prints and drawings from art legends like Dürer and Rembrandt, but its curation focuses on Native American and Northwest art as the primary attraction. Saturday mornings are the busiest; throngs of locals bustle into the park out front for the Portland Saturday Market, where patrons can find a variety of food stands and farm fresh produce all year long. When you’ve had your fill at the market and enjoyed the many exhibits at the art museum, exit right out of the museum and head around back, where you’ll find the Behind the Museum Café , a Japanese-inspired java spot with excellent snacks and delicious matcha.
Finally, If you don’t visit the Portland Oregon Sign, did you really come to Portland? It’s not mandatory, but the sign is one of the city’s designated historic landmarks, glowing brightly each night across the Willamette river facing westbound traffic. While there are many places to snap a good picture commemorating your visit, we recommend posting up on the Burnside Bridge for the best view.
Source: Travel Portland | Published January 12, 2023