How to spend a weekend in Portland, Oregon
By Helen Wright
Portland, Oregon is one of the USA’s hipster hangouts. Famed for its food and celebrated for its craft beer (and coffee), this colourful city has its own brand of unpretentious cool. We had planned an epic two-week RV adventure around Oregon but before hitting the road, we had the whole weekend in Portland and I was determined to fit in as much as possible. Being in town with our two-year-old, Finn, I didn’t want to limit our experience solely to the ‘Portland with kids’ zone but it turned out that when it came to kids activities, Portland is parent-friendly, accessible and a top spot to visit with or without your family. Even if you only have one day in Portland, with a bit of energy you could probably fit in most of these unique things to do in Portland – just make sure you pack your walking shoes!
Header image: 305Seahill (Flickr)
Top things to do if you only have a weekend in Portland
BEST BRUNCH IN PORTLAND
Like any slightly-jetlagged foodie spending the weekend in Portland, we started with breakfast and luckily one of the city’s most celebrated joints was walking distance from our hotel, The Jupiter. We were staying in southeast Portland, and this ended up being one of our favourite areas to explore. Before we arrived, I’d tweeted asking for suggestions on where to get a good breakfast or brunch in Portland and Screendoor was mentioned by so many people, I had to try it. It’s popular and you can’t book a table, but our hotel called in advance to see if there was a wait and luckily we were told we could be seated in five minutes. Another guest waiting at reception at the time overheard and commented that we had ‘won the lottery’, so yeah, this was clearly the place to go and it didn’t disappoint.
Simon went for the ‘house specialty’, the famous Chicken and Waffles ($12.50). and I couldn’t resist the Banana Foster French Toast ($9.50) We were curious about what the Glazed Breakfast Hushpuppies ($5.75) were and the waiter brought us a complimentary portion to try. This is what Portland is like, (although make sure you have a healthy appetite…). I 100% recommended Screendoor and if we had stayed in Portland longer, we’d have certainly gone back for a second helping.
Using public transport in Portland
From Screendoor, we caught the route 20 bus from right outside to Portland’s epicentre, downtown Portland. One of the things I immediately loved about Portland is how easy and affordable it is to get around by public transport. There is a choice of the bus, a light rail, a street car and easy-to-rent bikes. It is also easily walkable. Like many US cities, there is a noticeable homeless problem but we were never approached by anyone and always felt safe. We took a few cabs during our visit but we mostly got around using the bus, which we found simple and easy to use.
International Rose Test Garden and Washington Park
It was the most beautiful weekend in Portland, so our first stop was Washington Park and the International Rose Test Garden. Put simply, wow! Washington Park is probably the most incredible city park I have ever been to. Just minutes from Portland’s hub of activity is this enormous, peaceful, almost-forest landscape, complete with towering trees, hiking paths, picnic areas and gardens. The bus stops on the road just outside and we were making our way up to the Rose Garden, but were awed by the scenery and park itself. We spent ages playing and exploring the trails and the canopy of trees provided a perfect shade from the sun. The walk up is around half a mile and a steepish incline (you can also take a bus to the top). Stopping along the way for fun and photos with a toddler, this took us around 45 mins. At the top, you are rewarded with killer views over Portland.
The International Rose Test Garden is stunning. The best time to visit is in June, but we spent the weekend in Portland in May and there were already so many of the 700 varieties of rose in bloom. It looked beautiful and smelled even better. If you had more time you could bring a picnic and spend the whole day up here, exploring the grounds and just relaxing while surrounded by a rainbow of flowers. In terms of kids activities Portland, there is a really big playground, so much green space to run around and plenty of shade. At the top of the Washington Park, you will also find the Oregon Zoo – which has its own train to take you to the gate. Washington Park is also home to the Japanese Garden, which is set across five acres and said to be equally as stunning. Unlike the rose garden, which is one of the best free things to do in Portland, the Japanese Garden does require an entry fee of $17 ($11.50 for kids aged 6-17 and free for fives and under).
PORTLAND FOOD TRUCKS
Portland was one of the first U.S cities to adopt the food truck revolution and, walking around the city, it is hard to imagine the landscape without the colourful carts and trucks dotted along the streets. The scene has moved on from a sporadic parking of fast food vans to designated gourmet food truck areas, known as ‘pods’. There are now over 600 independent vendors in Portland so there is no chance you won’t find something to feed your appetite. Super foodies might be well motivated on what pods they plan to descend on (Track Kitchen in the Montavilla pod and Bing MI at the Downtown pod are two of the most famous and popular), but virtually all of the pods, found in locations across the city will have delicious and affordable grub to fuel your trip – so just turn up and eat!
WHAT ARE THE BEST DOUGHNUTS IN PORTLAND?
Of course, the other huge cult food trend to come out of Portland is the humble doughnut. Although, these iced lovelies are no simple treat. Think giant, jam or cream-stuffed buns topped with Oreos, chocolate frosting and peanut butter – and that’s just the brilliantly-titled Old Dirty Bastard for sale at Voodoo Doughnuts. The psychedelic Voodoo Doughnuts is definitely the most famous of the dough-nutters (and on all the Portland must-do lists) but (shh), we prefered the delectable Blue Star Doughnuts, a calmer, less theatrical alternative to Voodoo Doughnuts, who make perfectly-crafted Brioche doughnuts in unique flavours from locally-sourced ingredients. Our pick: the Blueberry Basil Cake…
The original Voodoo Doughnuts, which was opened in 2003 can be found at 22 SW 3rd Avenue, just off of West Burnside, the main road that leads through downtown Portland. The story behind Voodoo Doughnuts is that two eccentric friends wanted to open a business in Portland. They knew nothing about making doughnuts but they soon learned how (and very well), added a few cheeky twists and so a phenomenon was born. Since the delicious doughnuts went viral, they have opened stores in Texas, Colorado, California and at Universal Studios in Florida. The Bacon Maple Bar is one of the favourites but I like the (slightly scary looking) Voodoo Doll, a chocolate, jam-filled delight.
OH, and did we mention Ice Cream…
It’s virtually the law here that you can’t spend a sunny weekend in Portland without cooling off with a cult-status cone. The independently owned Salt and Straw is thought to be the holy grail of Ice Cream in the USA. Starting life as a humble food cart in Portland (of course), the now stylish ice cream parlour is besieged with crowds eager for a taste of the unusual ‘farm-to-cone’ flavours (such as pear and blue cheese and avocado and chocolate fudge). There is often a wait around the block, with tourists and locals happy to wait in line for a lick (or a slurp, they do milkshakes too). Having a toddler (and jet lag) meant we were there earlier than most and skipped the queues, almost enjoying the place to ourselves. I’m not sure who liked it better, Finn or me!
WHAT TO DO IN PORTLAND BESIDES EATING
I found it funny when I asked people for Portland tips because almost 100% of the recommendations were food related. But, gratefully for the prevention of onset diabetes, there is plenty to do during a weekend in Portland, even with a toddler in tow. As well as the most popular tourist attractions in Portland, such as the aforementioned Washington Park, the International Rose Test Garden and the Oregon Zoo, plus the Portland Art Museum and the Lan Su Chinese Garden, just wandering the city streets is a gallery of curiosities. It’s the kind of city where you don’t have to do much to see a lot.
One place I definitely wanted to visit was the infamous Powell’s City of Books – the world’s largest independent book store. For a book lover like me it did not disappoint. Rows and rows of neatly stacked shelves containing everything from the classics, to kids books, cookbooks and self-published titles. I probably would have stayed in there all afternoon if it were not for Finn and Simon. Finn using the wide aisles as an amazing playground to run up and down and play hide & seek was probably not preferable for the other customers.
WANDERING AROUND PORTLAND
With the weather so nice, we had fun just walking around Portland for the weekend and soaking up the atmosphere. As well as interesting people, buildings and independent shops and businesses, Portland has a huge amount of street art, murals and sculptures. You can do a walking tour of the best street art locations with the Portland Street Art Alliance or just enjoy exploring on your own. It’s definitely a colourful Instagrammable city – that’s for sure!
This fab bike sculpture can be found on Portland’s main thoroughfare, Burnside Avenue (and close to Blue Star Doughnuts). It’s known as the People’s Bike Library of Portland, or sometimes simply as ‘the pile’. Designed by local artists Brian Borrello and Vanessa Renwick, the sculpture is part of the City of Portland and Multnomah County Public Art Collection and also acts as a bike rack.
The secret rooftop bar Portland
We were blessed with incredible weather all weekend in Portland when we visited during May. Therefore, like the proper tourists we are, we started hunting for the best rooftop bar Portland and our search pulled up this beauty. Revolution Hall is a former high school in south east Portland that has been converted into a mega trendy music and performing arts venue. It has not been open that long, so the cool rooftop bar is almost a local secret and has excellent views across Portland. This laid back space has a pub garden attitude with a resident DJ, BBQ food and a well-stocked bar. It definitely seemed like a local hangout, not overrun with tourists. Under 21s are allowed in until 6.30pm, so Finn came too!
Rooftop restaurants in Portland
For a spot to eat that also serves up a solid view over Portland, our hotel recommended Noble Rot. (I should say, the food recommendations we received from the Jupiter Hotel were flawless – these guys really know their stuff!) This restaurant is almost 100% hidden in an apartment block on a strip mall along Burnside Avenue and we would never have found it without being pointed in the right direction. Slightly niche requirement, but Finn was asleep in the pram and so we needed somewhere accessible and luckily, this had a lift straight to the restaurant on the fourth floor. A lot of rooftop restaurants in Portland tend to be on the pretentious side or based in hotels (so, therefore expensive) but this charming place had a relaxed bar/diner and a breezy terrace, perfectly placed to watch the sunset over Portland. Simon went for the classic New York Strip ($36) and I had a delicious Lamb T-bone with garlic farrow, grilled asparagus, fried artichokes and gremolata ($32). However, if you are looking for rooftop restaurants in Portland on a budget, Noble Rot also serve a more conservatively-priced Mac & Cheese ($13) and Hamburgers ($14). If you can indulge – the delicious cocktails are $12 and superb.
DAY TRIPS FROM PORTLAND OREGON
We were getting ready to embark on our two-week Oregon road trip but if you don’t have a fortnight to kill, there are still some easy day trips from Portland Oregon that will give you a glimpse of the state’s beautiful landscape.
Planning on driving? Check out our top tips for renting a car and driving in the USA
How far? 29 miles (35 min drive).
There are over 200 waterfalls in Oregon but this one is the tallest and, with its proximity to Portland, the most popular. The drive to Multnomah Falls is also a beautiful one, along the historic Columbia River Highway, and you will likely see a collections of streams, cascades and smaller waterfalls along the way. Go early as it gets very busy at Multnomah Falls by midday. If you don’t have a car, you can take the Columbia Gorge Express from the Gateway Transit Centre in Portland for $7.50 return. Bargain!
Columbia River Gorge (Crown Point, Vista House)
How far? 23 miles (30 min drive)
The 80-mile Columbia River Gorge is over 4000ft deep in parts and makes for a stunning place to stop for a picnic on a day trip from Portland. It also doubles as a state line between Oregon in the south and Washington State in the north. One of the best views of the gorge is from Vista House, which is also an architectural gem built in 1918. There is a large car park and many people come here to hike and camp along the water’s edge.
How far? 62 miles (1hr 5min drive)
The road to Hood River is really gorgeous, with the forest on one side and the Hood River itself on the other. It’s an easy route and there are ample places to stop and admire the view as you drive. Hood River is a cute mountain town with craft breweries (try the Double Mountain Brewery and Taproom and go for a slice of their delicious pizza too), independent shops and restaurants. There is also a recently regenerated waterfront park to enjoy the beach and river, with activities from paddle boarding and kayaking to horse riding, or just soaking up the sun.
How far? 50 miles (1hr drive)
Do you have a designated driver? (If not, you may want to stay overnight). The Willamette Valley is home to most of Oregon’s thriving wine tourism and Pinot Noir is the top tipple. There are 500 wineries here, stretching over 100 miles, so you have plenty to choose from. Close to Portland, and one of the main players, is The Eyrie Vineyards. This longstanding and beautiful winery offers tours and has award-winning premium wines alongside excellent affordable options, such as the $23 Pinot Blanc, Dundee Hills.
To read our review of Portland hotel, the Jupiter, click here
For more about Oregon, click here!
Curious about the realities of an RV Road trip across the USA? Read about our experience with Cruise America RV
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