10 Non-Touristy Things to Do in Portland
You've posed for a picture in front of the "Keep Portland Weird" sign. You've eaten an entire box of VooDoo Donuts. And you've spent hours getting lost in the nooks and crannies of Powell's City of Books. But now you're ready to move on to all the non-touristy things to do in Portland. But which activities do locals really love and which ones are just weird for the sake of being weird? To help, we put together this list of our top things to do in Portland and included some off-the-beaten track spots, as well as some tourist "traps" that Portlanders actually do frequent.
1. Explore the Portland Japanese Garden
Touristy? Sure, but Portland locals never shy away from showing visitors around this stunning green space with its waterfalls, sparkling koi ponds, and floating tea house. The trees are beautiful any time of year, but especially in Spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
Also nearby: the Japanese Garden happens to be located near the Portland Zoo and the International Rose Test Garden, so you can check off three touristy sites in one afternoon, without even moving the car.
Ticketing tip: admission to the garden isn't free, but many local libraries do have free passes that card holders can borrow for the day. If you have a friend in Portland, it's worthwhile to ask if they can borrow one for you.
2. Eat at a Food Cart
Food cart culture is huge in Portland and all those carts can't be sustained by tourist dollars alone. But how do you know which carts the locals love best? Personally, we're fans of the more unique fusion food spots, such as the Hawaiian-Mexican dishes at Mahi Taco or the rare Mauritian shyamosas at Chez Dodo, but we think the best plan of action is to go with a group and sample as many different cuisines as possible.
First-timers tip: Portland offers a ton of food truck tours that will let you sample your way past many of the hottest food carts in town. Consider booking one if you're interested in the city's food cart culture.
3. Catch a Portland Timbers Game
Contrary to popular belief, football is big in Portland... just not that kind of football. Since they first joined the MLS in 2011, the Portland Timbers soccer team has repeatedly sold out of seats to its home games, and rewarded fans by winning multiple championship titles in its short life span.
Ticketing tip: Discounted Timbers tickets are incredibly hard to find, so be sure not to trust scalpers at the park. Instead, check our website for deals on Portland Timbers games, or consider catching a game with the reserve team the Portland Timbers 2.
4. Relax in the World's Smallest Park
A landmark attraction that often goes unnoticed by locals, Mill Ends Park is one of the most distinctive parks in Portland, and perhaps the whole world? Why? At approximately 452 sq. in., it is the smallest official city park anywhere. The hole that contains the park was originally meant to hold a light pole, but when the pole never came, a local journalist filled it with plants and flowers, and maintained it until his death in 1969. Other locals carried on the tradition afterward, and the area was officially designated as a city park in 1976. If you're looking for weird things to do in Portland, consider planning a picnic here.
Fun fact: the park scenery regularly changes, and typically just includes plants. But in its lifetime, Mill Ends has also been home to a pool (with a diving board), and a ferris wheel, which was installed using a full-size crane.
Safety tip: the park is located in the middle of a busy intersection, so use care when crossing streets and/or taking selfies.
5. Take a Terrarium Class
If your visit to Mill Ends Park has you feeling inspired to create your own green space, you're in luck: in a plant-happy town like Portland, there are countless opportunities to put on some gardening gloves and create some beautiful, living art. A terrarium is a great way to get started if you don't have your own outdoor space, or if you just want something simple that won't croak if you accidentally forget to water for a week (or five).
Class tip: Many terrarium classes are BYOB, so be sure to call ahead and ask what types of beverages are allowed.
6. Drink Beer in an Elementary School Pool
Top on any list of non tourist things to do in Portland is a trip to any of the McMenamins movie theaters, which are famously housed in lovingly-restored vintage locations, including retro music venues, schools, and even a converted farm boiler room. But the most unique of the McMenamins locations might be the Kennedy school, which, in addition to a movie theater, houses a bar, restaurant, brewery, and hotel. And, what used to be the teachers lounge is now a lush garden complete with a ceramic-bottom soaking pool where hotel guests and members of the general public can come to cool off with a cocktail in hand.
Pool rules: Admission to the soaking pool is $5 per hour, and while bar beverages are allowed, glass is not, so be sure to ask for plastic cup or can.
7. Tour the Columbia River Gorge
Taking photos by a waterfall may seem kind of touristy, but the truth is that locals love taking a day trip to the Columbia River Gorge too, and it's usually one of the first places they take out-of-town guests. The views of Multnomah Falls and Horsetail Falls are stunning and easily taken in by the road, but die-hard nature lovers will want to explore the trail to Oneonta Gorge, which requires you to walk in the riverbed the entire way.
Traveler's tip: Many of the popular trails in the Columbia River valley are still closed following the massive forest fires in 2017. Before planning a trip, consider checking with the national park service or book a bus tour with guides who are more familiar with the area.
8. Rumble with the Rose City Rollers
With no major MLB, NFL, or NBA team to call its own, Portland is forced to get a little... creative when it comes to its competitive sports scene. But even the most hulking of offensive tackles would quake in the presence of the tough-as-nails ladies of Portland's premiere roller derby team: the Rose City Rollers. But while the sport isn't for the faint of heart, the good news is that the league partners with various non-profits every quarter, supporting programs that help empower young girls and women and bolster the community, so every elbow to the ribs and clothesline is for a good cause.
Newbie tip: Roller derby has a long history, and not just in Portland. Read our First Timer's Guide to Roller Derby to be come better acquainted with the game before your first bout.
9. Sample Some Local Beers
The craft beer scene is large and thriving in Portland, and no list of the top things to do in Portland would be complete without some brewery recommendations. Deschutes is the perennial favorite, but with more than 60 craft breweries calling the city home, you can pretty much throw a stone and fine some quality suds, so why not branch out and try something newer or more niche?
Tasting tip: if you're a casual craft beer drinker, consider brushing up with our Guide to Craft Beer before scheduling your tasting session or brewery tour. It may give you some baseline knowledge and tasting note queues to ensure you get the most out of your experience.
10. Sip a Soda Where John F. Kennedy Sat
No one would blame you if you walked past the Main Street Collectors Mall in nearby Milwaukie and failed to notice the tiny soda fountain occupying the back third of the shop. But walk past the aisles of vintage super hero lunch boxes and collector Barbies and you'll find a tiny piece of history that's remained virtually unchanged through the decades. But before you order a classic egg cream or hot fudge sundae, choose your seat carefully: a sign designates the aqua blue stool where John F. Kennedy once sat while on a campaign tour.
Also nearby: A close suburb of Portland easily reachable by public transit, Milwaukie boasts a quaint and small downtown that's home to mom-and-pop shops, as well as the headquarters for Dark Horse comics.
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