Portland is one of those cities where you sometimes need a little help to see what’s what rather than just taking it for what it is on the outside. I’ve been living here for 4 months now and, to be honest, it wasn’t the easiest nor most welcoming city to move to without an already established friend group.
A lot of the best things to go do and see are not immediately apparent when strolling through the city, you have to dig a little deeper to find out where that Portland charm lies.
I’ll be creating a few of these list-type posts for Portland to give you an insider’s look at the popular hipster craft beer capital. For now, I want to focus on how you can see Portland on the cheap, if not completely free, so you can worry more about what beautiful or quirky spot to see next and no so much on the thinning wallet syndrome that seems to come from travel
1. International Rose Test Garden
Besides being one of the best smelling places in Portland, the International Rose Test Garden is actually the oldest rose testing program in America, winning the first Gold Medal rose award in 1919.
It’s an expansive garden that’s multi-level and provides scenic views over the city skyline. You can find roses of just about every color here. In addition to stopping to smell the roses, it’s the perfect place to relax in a colorful setting.
2. Portland Saturday Market
I guess this is one of the more seasonal free activities to do because the Saturday Market is only from March to Christmas Eve. However, it’s open for most of the year and has become a Portland institution since its beginnings in 1973, so I couldn’t exactly leave it off the list.
The Saturday Market actually goes for BOTH Saturday and Sunday, so if you happen to be in Portland on a weekend and it’s not winter, this is a must-see in the city.
There are an abundance of vendors selling random nick-nacks, food, jewelry, and many more items that represent Portland’s weirdness. It’s also simply a great place to people watch and get a good feeling for the weekend activity that locals and tourists alike go to. It’s also right next to the waterfront, so on a beautiful sunny day in Portland, it’s unbeatable.
As a note, the Japanese American Historical Plaza is located at the north end of the waterfront park where the market is located, and you will be blown away by the colorful beauty when the cherry blossoms that line the park are in bloom.
3. The Columbia Gorge (and Multnomah Falls)
The Columbia Gorge is one of my favorite places in the Pacific Northwest, and just a mere 20 minute or so drive outside of Portland. What the gorge is so well known for, besides the fact that it was a stop on the Lewis & Clark expedition, is the many waterfalls you’ll find off the Old Columbia Gorge Highway. The granddaddy of those is the popular Multnomah Falls that people from all over the world come to see.
The Columbia Gorge itself is a huge area that encompasses 292,500 acres and its natural beauty has drawn people to it for over 13,000 years. The best way to explore this popular spot is by driving or biking down the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway, that winds through grand vistas and mini hikes leading to elegant waterfalls. Crown Point and the Vista House are both important stops for history and good views at the beginning of your journey.
Multnomah Falls is famous for its thrilling and sheer omnipotence. Standing at 611 feet tall (186 meters), it’s one of the highest waterfalls in America and worth going to see at least once. It’s considered the Disneyland of the Columbia Gorge because of how many tourists are constantly surrounding it, but if you can get past that, it’s well worth it to experience for yourself.
4. Timberline Lodge
The Timberline Lodge has historical roots that go back to President Franklin Roosevelt and the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. The picturesque lodge’s construction began in 1936 and has been featured in films, such as The Shining.
The lodge, nestled right next to Mt. Hood, is a great jumping off point for seeing more of the memorable mountain. It’s also just a great place to warm up with a warm beverage while looking out at the snowy wonderland during the winter.
I would recommend eating beforehand or bringing a packed lunch as the restaurant and cafe have astronomical prices for food, but walking around the grounds and lobby is absolutely free.
5. Powell’s City of Books
When I heard that Portland had a famous bookstore that covered a whole city block, I was ready to get my literary nerd on. In fact, it was one of the first places I stopped in at when I arrived in Portland.
Powell’s City of Books is an amazing place with every genre under the sun, and both used and new books mixed in depending on what you’re after and your price range. This is a great place to find unique and rare books as well as new bestsellers and high school classics.
They also have a lot of Portland paraphernalia for sale, so it’s not just all about the books – although it mostly is.
6. Pioneer Courthouse Square
The main square in the middle of downtown, Pioneer Courthouse Square is where you’ll find the Portland Visitor’s Center as well as some great opportunities for people watching. I always recommend going to check out the square at least once while you’re in town because it’s such a hot bed of activity. There are generally street performers, endless events, and even a few food carts that surround the outside of the square.
It’s an easy place to meet up with someone in the city, a jumping off point for the many malls and shops in downtown, the perfect place to catch the MAX light rail, or simply a beautiful city square surrounded by bountiful old buildings and architecture that you can gaze up at and appreciate.
7. Portland Aerial Tram
Providing great views over the city, the Portland Aerial Tram is one of those free hidden secrets if you know the catch. It costs money to go up, but it’s free to go down from the OHSU Hospital. It’s only a quick few minutes, but if you’re willing to walk up the big hill to get to the tram, it’s a free way to get some of the best angles of the city down below.
I would just recommend not going right around rush hour times – 8am & 5pm – because all of the medical staff/students/workers use the tram as daily transport and it gets filled to the brim real fast during peak times of the day.
Once you get to the bottom, if you walk right near the freeway towards the city there are a bunch of food carts to discover around the corner and even a beer garden!
8. Mt. Tabor Park
Located in the Southeast of Portland, Mt. Tabor is a wilderness getaway just a bike ride away from the city center. This is a great place to get lost in nature without straying too far from the city, and the top lookout is also considered one of the best places to watch the sunrise in Portland.
Mt. Tabor is actually atop an extinct volcano and it’s the perfect place to spend the afternoon with that new paperback you bought from Powell’s. There are multiple hiking trails, picnic benches, and plenty of grassy knolls to lay out on and enjoy the passing sunshine on a nice day in Portland.
Once a Month Freebies/Reduced Priced Tickets
These are the deals every visitor and local alike should know about in Portland, to see the city on the cheap when you can!
Portland Art Museum
This museum offers free admission to anyone under the age of 17 every day, but for those of us a bit older we can get free admission on the first Thursday of every month from 5:00pm to 8:00pm.
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI)
Admission is only $2 on the first Sunday of every month. Submarine tours and theater and planetarium shows are all reduced in price that day as well.
Portland Children’s Museum
The first Friday of every month offers free admission from 4:00pm to 8:00pm at the museum.
There is $4 admission to the zoo on the second Tuesday of every month. Just beware of the $4.00 – $6.40 fee they charge you for parking, and think about taking the TriMet MAX light rail train instead to save money if you’re only traveling by yourself or one other. Extra bonus – you get $1.50 off your zoo admission price when you show your TriMet ticket.
Once or Twice a Year Freebies
The Oregon Historical Society – If you’re a Multnomah County resident and can prove it with a driver’s license, you get free admission to The Oregon Historical Society year round. If you’re a plebeian like the rest of us, there’s generally a free day every year if you look on their website. For 2015, there’s a day of free admission for Holiday Cheer on December 6th.
Portland Japanese Garden
Free admission to the Japanese Garden is usually offered every Veteran’s Day and President’s day.
Lan Su Chinese Garden
If you have a Bank of America or Merrill Lynch credit, debit, or bank card, you can just show your card for free admission on the first full Saturday/Sunday weekend of the month. If you don’t have an account at those banks, you can still generally get free admission during the first week of the year by donating a non-perishable food item in support of the Oregon Food Bank for each admission.
As I said, I will be doing a few different list-type posts about what you can do in Portland, but I wanted to start with the affordable options in the city for all those backpacker dreamers like me. Portland is a more expensive city than I originally thought it would be, but you can definitely do it on the cheap if you know where to find the deals.