One of the best things about Portland is that a visit to this fair city doesn’t have to be a budget-breaker. From a wealth of public parks to museums, gardens, outdoor markets, music festivals, and summer movie screenings, here are the best ways to explore PDX without even opening your wallet.
Hike Forest Park
Be surrounded by wilderness without leaving the city: Portland’s beloved Forest Park is just a few minutes drive from downtown. The free park is the largest urban park in the United States, with 5,200 acres of woodland and more than 70 miles of trails. Whether you go for a peaceful wooded hike, run, or leisurely stroll, be sure to stop at Pittock Mansion. There’s a charge for tours of the house, but the epic views of downtown Portland, the Willamette River, and the Cascade Range Mountains are free.
Get Your Culture Fix at Portland Art Museum
Visit the Portland Art Museum on the first Thursday of the month from 5 to 8 p.m., and the usual admission price is waived. Situated on the pretty South Park Blocks downtown, the museum is known for its collections of Native American and Northwest art. It’s one of the oldest art museums in the United States, as well as the oldest in the Pacific Northwest. Don’t miss the beautiful plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures: they were part of the museum’s very first exhibition back in 1892.
Smell the Roses at the International Rose Test Garden
See (and smell) for yourself why Portland is known as the “City of Roses” at this magnificent garden in Washington Park. In summertime, the delicious fragrance of 10,000 rose bushes from 650 varieties greets visitors. The garden also offers gorgeous views of downtown and Mount Hood.
Hit the P.S.U. Portland Farmer’s Market
There are farmer’s markets spread all over the city, but the biggest and best is undoubtedly this one, on Saturday mornings on the campus of Portland State University. And there’s so much more to it than just kale. Sure, there’s plenty of fresh produce that PNW is known for, but you’ll also find live music, vendors serving up amazing ready-made food like bagels, breakfast burritos, pizza, cookies, and pies. This is also a great spot to pick up some souvenirs to bring home: the market is packed with tempting offerings like locally made wine, chocolate, smoked salmon, hazelnuts, and dried lavender grown nearby.
Take in a Show with the Events in the Park Series
During the summer months, the city puts on a hundreds of free shows in its beautiful public parks. Check the calendar to find out what movies and concerts are happening while you’re in town. Go early to nab a prime spot for the show and for the Portlandia-esque people watching.
Tour a “Living Museum” at Hoyt Arboretum
Founded in 1928 to educate the community on environmental issues and to conserve endangered species, this “living museum” with 190 acres of flora and fauna is free to all. It’s also open every day of the year from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., so you can visit at practically any waking hour.
Peruse the Stacks at Powell’s City of Books
If you’re not sure where and how to start seeing Portland, just head straight to Powell’s. Not only is the local institution an essential destination for anyone visiting Stumptown, but it’s a great launchpad for exploring downtown and The Pearl. You can’t miss this behemoth landmark on West Burnside and 10th: it takes up an entire block. In fact, the beloved bookshop is the biggest in the world. Go for a great cup of coffee, and take in some local color while you wind your way through the stacks. And be sure to check their calendar. Powell’s hosts readings for top-notch writers from all around the globe.
Hit Some High Notes at the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival
If you’re in Portland in mid-July, you’re in for a musical treat. This festival — which is held over three days and is currently in its 39th year — holds the title of the longest running jazz and blues festival west of the Mississippi River. And amazingly enough, it’s totally free! Bring a picnic and a blanket to spread down by the stage, then take in the tunes and gorgeous views of the Willamette River and the elegant St. Johns Bridge soaring overhead.
Watch the World Go By at Tom McCall Waterfront Park
Hang out for long enough in this 1.5-mile stretch of grassy park along the Willamette River, and you’ll feel like you’ve seen all of Portland walking, biking, skating, or jogging by. It sits between the busy Morrison and Burnside bridges that join the east and west sides of the river, so it’s a constant hub of activity. Go to get some exercise, take a leisurely stroll, to people-watch, or to cool off in the Salmon Street Springs.
Gallery-Hop on First Thursdays
Once a month, gallerists in the trendy Pearl neighborhood open up their doors for gallery-hoppers to peruse the canvases on their walls. Pop in and out of these free receptions, some of which even offer complimentary wine and snacks. Hours vary by gallery, but the festivities usually start around 5 or 6 p.m. and end around 10 p.m. The streets have a party vibe and are often lined with vendors and bands playing live music.
People-Watch at Pioneer Courthouse Square
In the heart of the center lies Pioneer Courthouse Square, affectionately known as the city’s “living room.” The park is a major thoroughfare for everyone from people on their lunch breaks to political protesters. This lively park hosts 300-some events per year (many of them free), including the “Noon Tunes” free lunchtime concert series.
Experience “Beervana” on a Brewery Tour
Portland is a beer lover’s paradise, boasting 70-some breweries scattered all over the city. Stop by to get a tour and see how the magic is made. There are many breweries offering tours with no charge, including HUB, Ecliptic, Ground Breaker, and several McMenamins breweries.
Peddle the Springwater Corridor
For 14 miles starting from Ivon Street in Southeast Portland, this multi-use trail runs through several parks and open spaces, including Tideman Johnson Nature Park, Beggars-tick Wildlife Refuge, the I-205 Bike Path, Leach Botanical Garden, Powell Butte Nature Park, and Gresham's Main City Park. Jump on a bike to enjoy this scenic route away from public roads and take in bucolic fields and meadows, buttes and wetlands.
Since 1974, crafters and shoppers have been gathering at this market in Waterfront Park and Ankeny Plaza in historic Old Town. It’s grown steadily in popularity and numbers in the decades since, and today a whopping 250 small businesses sell their wares every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (as well as Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) from March through Christmas Eve. If you happen to be there during the winter holidays, stop by the “Festival of the Last Minute,” which is held every day for the week before Christmas to save procrastinating shoppers.
Conquer Mount Tabor
How many cities can say they have a volcano at their center? You’ll be sure to spot Mount Tabor (which is technically a volcanic cinder cone) as you explore Portland. If you’re downtown, it’s that green hump you see due east interrupting the city’s grid. And even though it’s smack dab in the middle of the city, get into the park and you’ll feel a million miles away. Rain or shine, locals treat Mount Tabor like their personal outdoor gym and playground. Any day of the week, you’ll see a parade of runners, bikers, hikers, and stroller-pushers enjoying this unique greenspace. If you’re in town on the third Saturday in August, join thousands of spectators to watch teams of “grownups” hurtle themselves down the volcano in homemade soapbox cars in the Adult Soapbox Derby.