35 Things to Do for Free in Portland, OR
In real-life Portlandia, you can ride the free-spirited freebie wave as long as you want. We’ve got the scoop on the city’s best comp offerings throughout the year, from a butt-naked bike ride to a hike in America's largest urban wilderness. Evans
Those “Keep Portland Weird” bumper stickers you see all over town didn’t come from nowhere. Proof: In June, the World Naked Bike Ride winds through the city to protest transport pollution (and, yes, all riders are in their birthday suits). On Sunday evenings you can join the locals riding tiny bikes at record speeds through the West Hills and downtown with Zoobombing. If you’d rather explore Portland’s wacky side on foot, sign up for Secrets of Portlandia (tied into the IFC show Portlandia), which starts daily at 11 a.m. and includes stops at Voodoo Doughnuts and the World’s Smallest Park. Looking is part of the fun at the Portland Saturday Market, an open-air arts and crafts fair held every weekend until Christmas Eve. Expect to see homegrown street musicians, performers and local artisans selling everything from antler jewelry to gourd aliens.
With nearly 60 breweries, Portland is the place to sip and be seen — and many offer free behind-the-scenes tours, with intoxicating samples to boot. At Hopworks Urban Brewery, on trendy SE Powell Boulevard, you can take a free tour every Saturday at 3 p.m. and try Hopworks brews like organic lager, IPA and the carmely ale. At McMenamins-Edgefield in nearby Troutdale (a former farm turned brewery and hotel), the walls are covered in murals about the history of beer in a space that churns out nearly 10,000 kegs a year; call ahead to arrange a complimentary walk-through. If beer isn’t your thing, stop by House Spirits Distillery to sample the Aviation American Gin, Westward Oregon Straight Malt Whiskey, Volstead Vodka and Stumptown Coffee–flavored liqueur, among others.
Writers adore Portland, partly because it’s a city filled with characters, partly because all that rain is good for staying indoors, fingers on keyboard. Start your literary tour at the iconic Powell’s City of Books; there’s a signed first edition of legendary Oregon writer Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (you can take it home for the not-so-free price of $6,000). The Title Wave Used Bookstore is housed in a 1912 Spanish Renaissance–style building and is a true mecca for bookworms. The tomes aren’t free, but you can pick one up for as little as a quarter. For more, head to one of Portland’s many Little Free Libraries, throughout the city’s leafy neighborhoods. And don’t miss the Central Library downtown, which opened in 1913 and was beautifully renovated in the late 1990s (note the 14-foot-tall cast bronze tree in the children’s room).
Find a Bird's-Eye View
Portland is full of places with killer views, no visitor pass required. In the West Hills, the International Rose Test Garden is among the oldest of its kind in the country, founded in 1917 with some 10,000 rose bushes. But you’re not here to just smell the flowers — there’s a knockout vista that spans the city all the way to 11,250-foot Mount Hood. At Powell Butte Nature Park you’ll get a sweeping overlook of both Mount Hood and Mount Saint Helens. On the East Side, near trendy Hawthorne Street, you can climb to the top of Mount Tabor Park (designed by a protégé of the Olmsted Brothers) for a new perspective on the skyline. If you’d rather have your view with a cocktail or two, take the elevator to the 30th floor of downtown’s second-tallest skyscraper, the US Bancorp Tower, for Portland City Grill. Go before happy hour starts at 4 p.m. to nab a table by the window; the views of the Willamette River are free, and the food affordable.
America’s largest urban wilderness, Forest Park, is in Portland proper. It’s a 5,000-acre expanse of towering evergreen trees and leafy ferns, just a 10-minute drive from downtown. Sign up for one of the free themed hikes on ancient trees, wild herbs or whatever piques your interest. Another city trek worth checking out is the five-mile round-trip along Balch Creek to the Pittock Mansion, a chateau built in 1914 by the owners of the Oregonian newspaper that is now a manicured estate open to the public. Two miles west of downtown, the 189-acre Hoyt Arboretum has more than 6,000 species of tree and other plants, from fragrant magnolia to monkey puzzle trees. And on the East Side, the Eastbank Esplanade is a 1,200-foot floating walkway that hugs the burgeoning Central Eastside District. If you’d rather get out of town, 611-foot-tall Multnomah Falls is just a 30-minute drive away. Climb switchbacks glazed with mist while taking in the views of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Creatives have long flocked to Portland for its free-spirited arts scene. Established galleries from Old Town to the Pearl District host a First Thursday Gallery Walk that often lasts until the wee hours, with free appetizers and wine. Counterculture kids gather at Last Thursday on Northeast Alberta, where the street fair’s vibe is Woodstock-meets-medieval (don’t be surprised if you meet a multipierced unicyclist selling poems about veganism he scrawled on rocks). Swing by Alberta’s Screaming Sky Gallery, Antler and Ampersand to check out the latest works from local talent. And if you happen to be in the city on the first Friday of the month, many art studios in the lofts of the Central Eastside district fling open their doors.
Dive Into History
There’s a lot for amateur historians to love about the city, from the public fountains built for 19th-century horse traffic to the architecture in Old Town, a former shanghaiing capital. Duck your head into the Oregon Historical Society for a look at the legendary Portland penny, used in the 1845 coin toss that decided the city’s name. At the Oregon Rail Heritage Center you can study restored steam locomotives from the glory days of rail travel up close. Don’t miss a visit to the 1846 McLoughlin House, in nearby Oregon City, which was built by a muckety-muck of the Hudson’s Bay Company and is now open to the public.