24 Free Things to Do and See in Portland, Oregon

© Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Kevin Johnson
20 August 2020

Portlanders love all things free. While the city’s best known for hosting free spirits, residents can attest that the bigger attraction is often anything that’s free of charge. If you’re looking to leave the wallet behind and wander the town, these are the best free things to do and see in Oregon’s largest city.

Wander through the one of the country’s premier rose gardens

Botanical Garden
Map View
International Rose Test Garden, Portland, Oregon, USA
© Jon Lovette / Alamy Stock Photo

Ever since hosting its only world’s fair in 1905, Portland’s love affair with roses has turned into a citywide point of pride; just visit the International Rose Test Garden to see why. Placed among a number of attractions in Southwest Portland’s Washington Park, this scenic spot is a great destination to catch roses in full bloom and gaze at the cityscape below without spending a dime.

Hike through Forest Park

Forest, Park
Map View
Much more than just an average city park (and well over 150,000 times the median size of city parks in the US), Northwest Portland’s Forest Park is a veritable playground for outdoorsy types looking to escape into nature. Considering most Portlanders consider themselves hardcore hikers, a majority of them will tell you this is one of the city’s best free activities.

Participate in the Naked Bike Ride

Park
Map View

This free event in Portland might be for the more free-spirited, but participating in the annual Naked Bike Ride is a Portland tradition. Portlanders take unique pride in the city’s version of the Naked Bike Ride, despite its global roots. The event is thrown in the spring and summer months every year, so riders can strip down free of stress over a typical Portland rainy day.

Atmosphere:

Accessible (Wheelchair), Accessible (Blind), Accessible (Deaf), Dog Friendly, Family Friendly, Kid Friendly

Slow things down in Laurelhurst Park

Park
Map View
Usa, Oregon, Portland. Pond at Laurelhurst Park. Credit as: Steve Terrill / Jaynes Gallery / DanitaDelimont.com
© Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo

Portland comes alive after the rainy season (usually early summer to early fall), and in the warm months, many city dwellers head to the east side’s Laurelhurst Park to relax and enjoy the town’s slow pace of life. You’ll find more than just a sunny park if you work this free activity into your day; culture comes alive across its 32 acres (13ha), offering the unique blend of nature, community and quirk that makes Portlanders proud.

Atmosphere:

Accessible (Wheelchair), Accessible (Blind), Accessible (Deaf), Dog Friendly, Family Friendly, Kid Friendly

Walk the Rose City’s beloved bridges

Bridge
Map View
While some are certainly more scenic than others (and some are car-only), Portland’s bridges over the Willamette River are marvels from afar and up close. Almost every bridge caters to car traffic, but if you take it slow and cross a bridge on foot, it offers a fresh perspective on the city and its river. Highlights include the modern transit-and-pedestrian-only Tilikum Crossing Bridge in the southeast; the Broadway Bridge and its Golden Gate-red paint connecting the Moda Center to the Pearl District; and North Portland’s gothic-inspired St Johns Bridge.

Watch the annual Portland Adult Soapbox Derby on Mount Tabor

Park
Map View

Catch what makes the city the “capital of weird” at the Portland Adult Soapbox Derby, held annually in August on Mount Tabor. Pick up some beer and bring a blanket to watch racers soar down Mount Tabor Park’s winding roads in home-made oddities on wheels, typically adorned with outlandish decor and matching costumes for the drivers.

Atmosphere:

Accessible (Wheelchair), Accessible (Blind), Accessible (Deaf), Dog Friendly, Family Friendly, Kid Friendly

Check out the Portland Saturday Market

Market, Street Food
Map View
Wander the aisles stretched out from the Waterfront to Old Town in downtown Portland, and you might understand why Portlanders love shopping local. Wood carvings, screen-prints, silverware jewelry and more are on display both as a showcase of art and buyable goods (only if temptation gets the better of you). Musicians, street performers and food vendors round out the attractions, and all make for a Saturday morning well spent.

Hike to the Witch’s Castle

Ruins
Map View

A few dilapidated stone walls and a staircase make up what’s left of the colloquially termed Witch’s Castle in Northwest Portland’s Macleay Park, but the history lives on throughout the city. Gear up for a hike into the hills from the Lower Macleay parking lot at NW 30th Avenue and NW Upshur Street to visit this city-owned structure from the 1930s, and if you’re brave, brush up on some of the ghost stories involving the house and its role in Portland history.

Explore Powell’s City of Books

Bookstore
Map View
Powell's City of Books, This landmark, multi-level source for new & used books also houses a cafe & selection of gifts. Portland, Oregon
© Jorge Garrido / Alamy Stock Photo

The Pacific Northwest’s largest bookstore is also one of Portland’s largest tourist destinations – and for good reason. Powell’s storefront downtown occupies an entire city block and 68,000sqft (6,317sqm) of retail space, laid out like a fortress and perfect for spending hours roaming up and down the aisles. Resist the urge to pick up any volumes while here, if you’d like to keep this activity free.

See the swifts

School
Map View

Every evening in September, Northwest Portland residents can expect a show like no other. Up to tens of thousands of tiny Vaux’s swifts fly in mobs into their stopover nest – the chimney of Chapman Elementary School – while migrating south. Bring a blanket and watch the sky overhead while listening to free talks from local volunteers of the Portland Audubon Society.

Visit the local Stark’s Vacuum Museum

Museum
Map View

Stark’s Vacuum Store has been a cornerstone of Portland’s east side since 1932, so it’s fitting that the long-time vacuum vendor has an in-store museum dedicated to the history of the household cleaning tool. Wander in after a day of roaming the east side to lean into the city’s quirky reputation.

Discover murals and street art around Portland

Building
Map View
Keep Portland Weird sign, Oregon, USA. Image shot 10/2012. Exact date unknown.
© Ian Patrick / Alamy Stock Photo
It’s no surprise a city known for a DIY aesthetic would sport an affinity for street art, but Portland’s pride in painting the town is more than just superficial. According to the Portland Street Art Alliance, marked locations of street art currently number in the hundreds in all ordinal directions of the city. Start with the alliance’s map of the city’s best public art spots, and hit the streets for a free activity that rivals the city’s top galleries.

Experience fine flora at the Grotto

Monastery, Shrine
Map View
Built into a serene slice of Northeast Portland, the Grotto is a blend of a botanical garden and a Catholic sanctuary. Some of the garden’s most popular areas, including the lower garden, chapel and the grotto itself, are free to visit, though there is an admission fee to access the upper-level garden of the park.

Pay a visit to ‘Portlandia’

Architectural Landmark
Map View

Constructed in 1985, the Portlandia statue rests over the entrance to the aptly named Portland Building on SW 5th Avenue downtown and holds a special place in the city’s collective heart. This copper depiction is the work of sculptor Raymond Kaskey, inspired by the city’s seal, and poses as the United States’ second-largest copper repoussé statue, behind only the Statue of Liberty. Check it out, and smile for a picture under the female figure’s outstretched arm.

Visit the Mill Ends Park

Park
Map View
Portland, Oregon - June 29, 2019 : Mill Ends Park, The world's smallest park
© YOORAN PARK / Alamy Stock Photo

Mill Ends Park is a one-of-a-kind park that only further represents Portland as a home of the unusual. Popularized in the 1940s as a setting for a community of fictitious leprechauns, this patch of flora in a former lamp-post well downtown measures just 2ft (0.6m) in diameter, leading the Guinness World Records to declare it the world’s smallest park in 1971. Since then, it has seen many miniature renovations and remains a quick stop on many must-see lists.

Pay your respects at Lone Fir Cemetery

Cemetery
Map View

Few other cities in the US will claim a cemetery as a popular attraction, but it would be remiss to pass up a stroll through Southeast Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery. The park’s 25,000 graves include former mayors, suffragists and even some of the city’s founders, proving to be as much an outdoor museum as it is a burial ground. It occasionally features events such as the Twilight Tombstone Tour.

Check out the city’s under-bridge skatepark

Skate Park
Map View

Spend some time watching gifted skaters (or drop in yourself) underneath the east side of the Burnside Bridge at this community-run skatepark. In true skater fashion, this park was founded without permission but eventually received protection from the city as skateboarding grew in popularity in the area. Keep connecting with Portland’s skate scene by heading to the nearby Shrunken Head Skateboards and look at some decks with local designs.

Pose for a photo under the White Stag sign

Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Map View
City Lights in Portland Oregon
© Melissa Jensen / Alamy Stock Photo

Likely the city’s most-photographed attraction, the White Stag sign stands tall above Old Town Portland across the Burnside Bridge. Formerly an advertising tool for a number of Portland companies throughout the second half of the 20th century, this sign now beams, flashes and sparkles into the night as a historic city landmark. To get the best shot of this sign, head to the Burnside Bridge from the west side, just past the building’s eastern facade, and look up.

Bring out your inner arborist at Hoyt Arboretum

Botanical Garden, Park
Map View

Honor Portland’s history as a timber town with a walk through the Hoyt Arboretum, situated in the Washington Park complex in the West Hills. Here, the common Douglas fir stands shoulder to shoulder with magnolia trees, birch trees and the incredibly rare dawn redwood – once thought to be entirely extinct. The park’s 12mi (19km) of trails should be more than enough for a day’s worth of hiking, but for those looking to see even more Pacific Northwest forest, continue on the Wildwood Trail heading north to reach the popular Forest Park, where you’ll have hundreds of miles of trails to hike and countless trees to hug.

Catch a cherry blossom bloom on the waterfront

Park
Map View
The Tom McCall Waterfront Park, known as downtown Portland’s “front yard,” is a popular public park that typically sees groups of cyclists, tourists and community events most of the year. However, visit it in late March or early April to see a tree-lined path explode into soft pink hues. These cherry blossom trees were a gift from Portland’s sister city of Sapporo, Japan, and populate the Japanese American Historical Plaza in the north end of the park. Judging by the sharp increase in visitors every year, checking out the bloom has fully become one of Portland’s best free events.

Attend the Portland Rose Festival

Park
Map View
PORTLAND - JUNE 12: Rose Festival annual parade through downtown June 12, 2010 in Portland, Oregon
© Gino Rigucci / Alamy Stock Photo
Just as the spring rain starts to dry out, the city’s roses are in full bloom, and the Portland Rose Festival kicks into gear. Spanning a couple of weeks, three separate parades and countless events, this festival is the crown jewel of Portland’s festivities. The best way to experience this free event is to keep it simple and head downtown to view some of the most popular displays, including dragon boat races on the river, a series of Navy ships docked for Fleet Week and the extravagance of the Grand Floral Parade.

Take a self-guided tour of Reed College

School
Map View

Head southeast from Portland’s urban center to reach the cozy bubble of Reed College. This private liberal arts university is home to some 1,500 students and features a historical and quaint campus worthy of a long day of exploration. Visit the natural spring at the Reed College Canyon, pass through historical buildings or just bring a blanket and relax in the quad.

Atmosphere:

Accessible (Wheelchair), Accessible (Blind), Accessible (Deaf), Dog Friendly, Family Friendly, Kid Friendly

Take the Secrets of Portlandia Walking Tour

Building
Map View
Hosted by local comedian Erik Kennon, this free walking tour takes the pressure off discovering Portland’s hidden history by yourself, as you’ll be shown all sides of the city’s past in humorous detail. The tours are only offered from the start of May through the end of September. However, due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, tours from this local funnyman are canceled for 2020 and are set to resume, fittingly, on April 1, 2021.

Ride on parts of Oregon history at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center

Museum
Map View

Opened in 2012, this museum dedicated to the history of the railway system in Oregon is a must-see on its own or paired with a visit to the nearby Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on the southeast waterfront. This free collection of exhibits focuses on the center’s three historic steam trains, two of which are fully operational. Conclude your trip with a ride on a real passenger train winding up and down the Willamette River.

These recommendations were updated on August 20, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.