My long weekend in Portland, Oregon, was a spur-of-the-moment trip. I had a credit on Spirit Airlines to use, and there was an incredible fare sale from Denver. So I turned that into a free flight for a two-day solo adventure in the City of Roses, aka Stumptown, aka PDX, aka Portlandia. And it was love at first sight.
There are so many great things to do in Portland! These fit into a long weekend:
Stop 1: The Portlandia Statue
This dramatic copper statue, representing Lady Commerce, isn’t a prominent or obvious attraction. She’s three stories up over the Portland Building on a quiet, leafy street. But as the second largest repoussé statue in the country and a picture of strength, she is massive — and strangely compelling. This is a great way to kick off a visit to the city.
Stop 2: Voodoo Doughnut
When I was planning things to do in Portland, top on the list was a trip to the doughnut mecca. The original Voodoo Doughnut is there, appropriately housed in a small brick building with pink-glitter-painted brick. I stood in line with a crowd sharing the buzzy enthusiasm of a queue waiting for a concert.
Even though I later was advised by a local that Blue Star Donuts is better, and even though it made my tummy hurt for hours because gluten and I don’t agree with each other, it felt like an appropriate first meal.
Stop 3: Powell’s City of Books
Powell’s bookstore is legendary — a must among things to do in Portland. The largest new and used bookstore in the world, it occupies a full city block in downtown Portland, with nine rooms filled to the brim with roughly 1 million books. If you need sustenance during your visit, there’s a coffee shop on the first floor where you can refuel for further browsing.
I should have planned better and left space in my luggage for the treasures I discovered there. But I was traveling carry-on only, so I had to ship some books home, and the rest went into the pockets of the big coat I was wearing on my return flight.
Stop 4: McMenamins Ringlers Pub and Crystal Ballroom
Even if it’s quiet when you stop in, as it was when I was there, you’ll have a hard time taking it all in at McMenamins Ringlers Pub. There’s so much … much to look at everywhere. The historic Ringlers Pub, revived by the McMenamins brothers when they opened the Crystal Ballroom (a venue for live music), is crammed full of artwork, oddities and eccentric design.
You can sit at the bar, as I did, and enjoy one of the beers brewed on site while chatting with the bartender. If you’re there with a friend, stake out one of the shuffleboard or pool tables or play a few rounds of pinball. I had an early dinner (the Voodoo Doughnut and the coffee at Powell’s had worn off) so that I could make one more stop before early fall darkness settled in.
Stop 5: Portland Aerial Tram
Day 1 ended with a ride on the Portland Aerial Tram, which is the primary transportation to the Oregon Health and Science University campus atop Marquam Hill. It offered a nice view of downtown Portland bisected by the Willamette River. If you go up on a clear day, you can see Mount Hood from the top.
Stop 1: Washington Park
Some of the best things to do in Portland are outside. I started Day 2 with a short hike on the Wildwood Trail in Washington Park, on the immediate west side of downtown and adjacent to Forest Park, one of the largest urban forests in the United States.
It wasn’t a true hike — more like a long grassy walk from the light rail station to my next stop at the Japanese Garden. But it was a beautiful day.
So many of my favorite things to do in Portland centered around Washington Park. And all are easily accessible with the Washington Park shuttle.
Stop 2: Portland Japanese Garden
The wonder begins even before you enter — water trickles down the hill under the stairs as you climb to the entrance. A part of Washington Park, the Portland Japanese Garden is a little gem. Sign up for a guided tour to truly understand the exquisite planning and detail that goes into a Japanese garden; when I visited, an enthusiastic volunteer turned a 40-minute tour into a 1.5-hour tour (even though it’s not really that big), and I was glad. It’s all lines, hues and textures; layers, levels and scale. Different areas bear different symbolism or are designed to evoke different feelings.
The cafe on site seems to require a wait for a larger party, but solo travelers can snag a seat more easily. It’s a peaceful spot for a pot of tea and a bit of nourishment before moving on.
Stop 3: International Rose Test Garden
In a wild contrast to the curated, more monochromatic nature of the Portland Japanese Garden, the International Rose Test Garden is a riot of color and fragrance. Designed as a testing ground for new rose varieties, it dates back to World War I, when hybridists from around the world sent samples to grow safely there. Today the grounds include an amphitheater and Shakespeare garden, a miniature rose garden and a stunning view of downtown Portland.
I hardly knew where to look first among the more than 10,000 rose bushes growing there. Even in September many of the silky petals were lush and fresh. I thought about how much my Grandma Shelburne would have enjoyed it — she had such a green thumb. I found an exquisite rose-infused cold drink in the gift shop.
Stop 4: Hoyt Arboretum
If you have more time in Portland than I did, spend more time in Washington Park. And allow plenty of time for Hoyt Arboretum.
This might have been tops among my favorite things to do in Portland. I love to be outside anyway, but the variety and beauty of the forests in the arboretum were breathtaking. There are Giant Sequoias, huge Douglas Fir and the most incredible Incense Cedar. I am quite sure I have never breathed better oxygen.
There are 12 miles of trails winding through the endangered trees and shrubs sourced from six continents. Alas, I was up against a setting sun once again.
One Final Thing to Do in Portland
I had a bit of time before I flew home the next morning, so I strolled the waterfront. It was a bright, fresh day, a lovely opportunity to enjoy the park chock full of memorials and indigenous history. This wasn’t on my original list of things to do in Portland, but I should have given it more time.
Things to Know Before You Visit Portland
I stayed at a cheap hotel by the airport. It was nothing to write home about, unless you write home about a broken coffee pot, broken hair dryer, lousy fitness “center” (closet) and a hair that was on your shower wall when you arrived and didn’t move before you left.
But the people who worked there were amazing — and I mean that, giving me all kinds of rides in the shuttle and helping me at the post office. The manager even made a return trip to the post office to ship those books I bought at Powell’s when I told her that the branch was randomly closed during my first visit.
In fact, everyone I spoke to in Portland was friendly. I’ve not often felt as safe or welcome when traveling solo. I also visited Seattle solo not long after, and of these two amazing cities in the Pacific Northwest, Portland was much more manageable as a solo female traveler.
One of the places I took the hotel shuttle to often was the nearest MAX light rail station. I took the light rail everywhere, and a day ticket includes the street car and buses in the TriMet system, which can get you all over the metro area, or close enough to walk. It’s clean, fast and truly useful, unlike public transportation in some other U.S. cities I’ve visited.
Portland is a leafy, pretty, green city. It feels built to human scale and harmonious with its stunning natural surroundings. There are so many incredible things to do in Portland that I hope to go back and wander further in this “weird” but warmhearted city. Or, as I think is more fitting, quirky. It’s my favorite adjective, and Portland is one of my favorite expressions of the word.
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