“The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland.”
That musical number from the cult-hit TV show “Portlandia” makes fun of the unique, hipster/nerd persona of Portland, Oregon. And indeed, as this writer can attest as a native son, some segment of PDX really is possessed by the spirit of that era.
That said, the 1990s are not reflected in its cost-of-living. For a mid-sized city, Stumptown can actually be big-league expensive. According to recent estimates from sites like SmartAsset and Numbeo.com, the average cost of rent, utilities, gas, even the price of a pint of beer, are all higher than the national average. As a visitor, however, there are ways you can still have an awesome trip without splurging on a $15 cocktail.
First and foremost, you can save cash on the way you get to Portland by booking your travel on Wanderu. With the ability to compare buses, trains and flights all in the same search results, you can consistently snag the very best tickets for your budget and schedule.
But Rip City also has heaps of free attractions you can pass the time with once you arrive — from oodles of outdoor activities to a
feminist famous bookstore. If a particular category appeals, skip ahead by clicking one of the links below. Otherwise, simply scroll down to see the unabridged list.
MUSEUMS & ART
1. Well's Fargo History Museum
1300 SW 5th Ave 2nd Floor
Portland, OR 97201
10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (Mon – Fri)
Closed Saturday & Sunday
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The Wells Fargo Center was the tallest building in Oregon when it was completed in 1972, and today holds some artifacts from the bank’s storied history. The gem is a real stagecoach from 1854, once used to transport valuables across the American frontier. Other highlights include an antique safe, a handgun once carried by express messengers, and an interactive display that teaches you how to drive a stagecoach like the Pony Express.
2. Stark’s Vacuum Museum
107 NE Grand Ave
Portland, OR 97232
8 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Mon – Fri)
9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Sat)
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Sun)
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Rarely can you say something sucks and mean it as a positive thing, but that’s exactly the case at Stark’s Vacuum Museum. An old-fashioned vacuum shop that’s been open since 1932, the museum is located inside Stark’s downtown showroom. More than 300 models are on display, from old cardboard devices to pneumatic tubes that hang from the ceiling. The display is fun and quirky — in short, quintessentially Portland.
3. Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Also known as the Blue Sky Gallery, the OCPA features exhibitions from photogs both local to Portland and further afield. With a mission to showcase new artists on the scene, you’ll find some truly cutting-edge image collections in this 37,000 square foot display space.
4. Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
1855 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97201
10 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (Tues, Wed, Fri, Sat)
10 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. (Thurs)
Closed Sunday & Monday
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Located on the Portland State University campus in downtown Portland, the JPMA is brand-spanking new, freshly opened in 2019. The two-story, 7,500 square foot space is primarily focused on Northwest exhibits, but includes national and international works as well. The type of art on display is intended to be “experimental, collaborative, innovative and a catalyst for social change with students at its core.”
CULTURE & LANDMARKS
5. White Stag Sign
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: A Portland historical landmark, you can’t miss this giant neon-illuminated sign on the PDX skyline if you’re headed downtown at night. The deer image is derived from the apparel company White Stag, which formerly occupied the building the sign sits upon. (For the best Instagram angle, head to the west end of the Burnside Bridge.) Bonus: The stag’s nose glows red during the holidays, Rudolph-style.
6. Portland Saturday Market
2 SW Naito Pkwy
Portland, OR 97204
10 a.m. – 5 a.m. (Saturday)
11 a.m. – 4:30 a.m. (Sunday)
Only Open on Weekends, March through Christmas Eve
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: From tie-dye T-shirts and body paint to craft kombucha and sea-glass jewelry, this long-standing arts and crafts market in Portland’s Old Town sports 252 booths of handmade novelties. Set along the riverfront, it’s the perfect place to wander on a sunny summer day. And when hunger strikes, the food court offers an eclectic selection, including Northeast African cuisine, Chinese crepes and Nepalese food.
7. Pioneer Courthouse Square
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: So-called because of the almost 150-year-old federal courthouse on the Square’s south end, PCS is the city’s busiest gathering space. Pioneer Square hosts more than 340 events per year — everything from the Festival of Flowers in May to weekly outdoor movie screenings in summer. Post-Thanksgiving, it’s also the site of Portland’s massive Christmas tree, decked in colorful lights.
8. Powell’s City of Books
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Yes, it’s a bookstore, but neither we nor the fine booksellers at Powell’s will begrudge you for just browsing. After all, the maze-like City of Books is the largest new and used bookstore in the world, occupying a full city block. It literally requires a map to navigate, as the shelves span multiple floors, with different genres organized by colored room.
9. Multnomah County Central Library
801 SW 10th Ave
Portland, OR 97205
10 a.m. – 8 p.m. (Mon)
12 a.m. – 8 p.m. (Tues, Wed)
10 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Thurs – Sat)
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Sun)
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Whereas Powell’s is impressive for its vast collection, Portland’s Central Library is more iconic for its architecture and design. Built in 1913, the building’s exterior is largely unchanged over the past century, though the interior was renovated in the mid 90s. Today the inside is striking, with a black granite grand staircase and a gorgeous light fixture on the second floor.
10. Cathedral Park
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Tucked under the St. John’s bridge in North Portland, native Portlanders know Cathedral Park as a popular spot for engagement photos thanks to its picturesque setting. The name comes from the soaring, pointed, “cathedral-like” concrete footings that support the bridge above. Walk through them. Gaze at them. Bring a friend to take your new profile pic.
11. Forest Park
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: With 5,200 acres of forest just north of downtown, you don’t need a rental car in PDX to seek out amazing hikes. Through 80 miles of trails along the Tualatin Mountains, you’ll be treated to vistas of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, as well as panoramic views of the city and mountains beyond. (Portland’s impressive Parkscore and density of urban hikes are the reasons why it’s fifth on our list of best fall outdoor activities.)
12. Hoyt Arboretum
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: For a more curated collection of timber, visit Hoyt Arboretum — just a 10-minute ride on the MAX light rail from Pioneer Courthouse Square. The 190-acre grounds are home to 2,300 species of shrubs and trees from six continents (we presume the odd-man out is Antarctica). Founded in 1928, Portlanders consider Hoyt a “living museum.”
13. International Rose Test Garden
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Nicknamed the City of Roses for a reason (that reason being the rose-perfect climate), Portland’s Rose Garden holds more than 10,000 of the fragrant flowers. Open year-round, the best season to see the buds in full bloom is May through September. At 1 p.m. daily, visitors are even treated to free guided tours (from Memorial Day through Labor Day).
14. Secrets of Portlandia Tour
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Portland likes to lean into its unusual, eccentric reputation (after all, the city’s unofficial motto is “Keep Portland weird). And the best way to truly absorb the Rose City’s idiosyncrasies is through Erik’s Free Tour. Described as “stand-up comedy about Portland’s weird history and alternative subcultures,” you’ll spend two hours traversing downtown and getting an insider’s look at what makes this Pacific Northwest metropolis tick. The tour ends in front of delightfully notorious Voodoo Doughnut, so you can refuel with a bacon maple bar, or a vanilla-frosted doughnut covered in Captain Crunch.
15. Hopworks Tour & Tasting
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Ranked #3 on our list of best craft beer cities, you simply can’t visit Beervana without some sort of brewery-inspired activity. Located southeast of downtown, Hopworks Urban Brewery serves up free tours of their brewing facilities (aka where the magic happens) every Saturday at 3 p.m. The best part: Tours include two free tastings.
Is that a dollar in your pocket or are you just happy to be in Portland? Because the 15 free museums, tours and outdoor activities on this list mean that money will never be leaving your wallet.
And the best way to not burn out your bank account en route to the City of Roses is by booking your travel on Wanderu.com or via the free Wanderu app, where you can find bus tickets for as cheap as $1.
Or maybe you’re in the market for a more unique vacation. In that case, consider a train loop around the entire United States, from sea to shining sea. With incredible, scenic views you’ll only get on railroad tracks, it’s a truly one-of-a-kind experience.