When it comes to visiting the United States, most people think of New York and Los Angeles. They don’t give much thought to the multitude of smaller cities sprinkled around the myriad climates of North America. One of the more overlooked cities is Portland, Oregon. Nestled in the great forested region of the Pacific Northwest, it’s an amazing city where urban sophistication and the simplicity of nature come together to create one of the most memorable cities in the United States. While much of the U.S. has been fully transformed into a cookie-cutter suburbia, Oregon is one of those last remaining places that still has a little touch of the wild frontier. Granted, you won’t find yourself caught between dueling cowboys, but you will be able to appreciate wide swaths of untouched forest, crossed by clean meandering streams—if you so choose to journey outside the city limits.
The Overlooked Gem in the Forest In fact, Portland is an urban gem that sits in the middle of this wild, verdant Eden “discovered” by the explorers Lewis and Clark. They were seeking a water route to the Pacific Ocean in order to facilitate the “manifest destiny” of the American people to spread out from sea to shining sea. At one point, Portland was a notorious industrial city of crime and racketeering, but over the last few decades its strayed from that colorful past into the realm of walkability, farm-to-table dining, and progressive values. Most tourists think that visiting the Statue of Liberty or the Hollywood Sign are part of parcel to a trip to America, but here 5 attractions in Portland, Oregon that will provide you with a truly memorable taste of the American Pacific Northwest.
#1: Multnomah Falls Take the scenic Historic Columbia River Highway along its namesake river for just about one hour outside of the city, and you’ll arrive at Multnomah Falls. With over 2 million visitors each year, it’s the most popular natural attraction in the Pacific Northwest—and you’ll see why when you get there. Stand on Benson Bridge for an up-close interaction with the tallest waterfall in the state; in fact, at 620 feet in height, it’s taller than any of the skyscrapers in downtown Portland. There’s a nice lodge and footpath at the base of the falls, left over from an era of visitors who came by steamboat and rail. For the more daring visitor, a trail can take you to the top of the falls, and offer dizzying views of the falls that stem from underground springs at the top of Larch Mountain.
#2: Lan Su Chinese Garden When Chinese immigrants came to America to help carve railroads into the mountainous landscape of the West Coast, they left behind a handful of cultural enclaves called Chinatowns. The most famous one, of course, is in San Francisco, but Portland has its own Chinatown as well. Marked by an iconic lion gate, Chinatown is home to roughly two dozen Chinese-owned businesses, many of them restaurants. But the star attraction is the Lan Su Chinese Garden, which takes up an entire city block. Walk around and admire the more than 400 species of Chinese plants, including orchids, bamboo, water plants, and distinctive shrubs that are arranged between traditional-looking pagodas and pavilions. Cross over the charismatic moon-shaped bridges to sip on hot beverages in the tea house, while contemplating the serenity of the Lotus Pond that defies the hustle and bustle of its surrounding urban environs.
#3: Portland Saturday Market Every place has its own street fair or farmer’s market, but few places can boast that their open-air market is a central attraction bound up in the urban culture of the city. By contrast, no trip to Portland is complete without walking between the food carts and stalls of the Saturday Market. Portland is famous for its food cart culture—you won’t just find the usual hot dogs and snack foods, but any kind of cuisine you could think of (and then some). The market has over 400 participating vendors and is the largest of its kind in the United States. If you visit Portland from March to December, you’ll be able to catch this incredible fair that stretches along the waterfront, against the backdrop of Portland’s many bridges, including the Burnside Bridge—the space underneath of which has become the market’s epicenter.
#4: Columbia Valley Gorge If Multnomah Falls made it onto your Portland itinerary, you most likely feel like you already got a sufficient glance at the Columbia Valley Gorge along the way. But don’t check this amazing natural wonder off the list just yet…there’s plenty to do here as well. Stop at the famed Vista House, an octagon-shaped observation station that will give you some unparalleled views of the valley. There are a number of intriguing things to do along the river, all within a few hours of Portland, such wineries, fish hatcheries, and even lavender farms. The Mount Hood Railroad will give you some scenic views of the snow-capped mountain top. You could also boat your way down the Columbia River and relive the excitement that Lewis and Clark must have felt as they canoed down this incredible valley; depending on your level of adventurousness, you could kayak, raft, or even enjoy brunch on a steam-powered paddle-wheeler.
#5: Walk around the Town Portland is a great walking city with a lot of unique parks and fountains. Enjoy a coffee in Pioneer Square, a brick-paved plaza right nestled between historic buildings like the courthouse, and trendy shopping zones like Nordstrom and Banana Republic. Dance through the waters of Keller Fountain, a cubist masterpiece of stepped fountains and waterfalls. Stroll along the South Park Blocks, a tree-lined, flower-filled nature wonderland that runs for twelve blocks along the beautiful brick campus of Portland State University. There are a number of museums and cultural attractions dotting the city, like the Portland Art Museum and the famous Powell’s City of Books. If you’re searching for a leafy respite from the urban condition, you can find it in many forested squares and groves like Chapman Square and Jamison Square (this last one has an awesome wading pool).