23 Cool Things Portland is Known For

Oregon’s largest city takes pride in being weird. Portland is known for its beautiful parks, for being dead serious about politics and the environment, as well as for landmarks like the White Stag Sign and the 12 bridges spanning the Willamette River. 

Portland skyline

In case you’ve already been there, you probably know how the city has a fascinating je ne sais quoi. If not, let’s get you pumped to find that out by yourself!

Portland is famous for its unique cityscape

Let’s start off easy. Among many other things, Portland is known for its picturesque landmarks and European-style public transport. 

1. The Bridges

The bridges on the Willamette of Portland

The bridges on the Willamette are some of the defining features of Portland. The river is wide and imposing, and so are the majority of these monuments. 

And although we might take them for granted nowadays, going from one side of the city to the other wasn’t always easy. Before the Morrison Bridge was completed in 1887, the river was crossed by ferry.

Stroll around the western bank promenade and marvel at the contrast between black Steel Bridge, red Broadway Bridge, and white Fremont Bridge.

2. White Stag Sign

White stag sign in portland

While it makes sense this iconic sign reads “Portland Oregon / Old Town”, this is actually a recent development. Between 1957 and 1997, it read “White Stag Sportswear” instead. 

Though it was no more than an advertisement, the sign grew increasingly popular throughout that time especially because the stag’s nose glowed red during the holiday season, just like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s.

3. Portland Building

facade of portland building
Image credit: Steve Morgan

Despite looking overly ornamented today, this bulky office tower is a relic from an era (the 1980s) when modern architecture was going out of fashion, allegedly for being cold and dull. Post-modern buildings, in turn, were meant to be unpretentious, fun, and engaging.

True, the way most folks engage with the Portland Building these days is by cringing at its dated design. But it’s still on the National Register of Historic Places, whether you approve of it or not!

4. Light rail and streetcars

street car along the streets of portland

Portland is kind of small to have a subway. Yet such a progressive-minded city just had to have a comprehensive public transport network.

With about 96km (60mi) of light rail tracks and 12km (7mi) of streetcar tracks, the city does seem to be taken over by these cute little trains.

5. Pittock Mansion

Pittock Mansion

Exploring a 46-room château built in 1914 is reason enough to set aside a couple of hours and tour Pittock Mansion.

The superb view of downtown Portland, though, framed by Mount Hood in the background, crowns it as an unmissable landmark within the city.

6. Powell’s City of Books

Powell’s city of books
Image credit: Cacophony

Letting loose isn’t typically what you do at a bookstore, but this place is capable of releasing anyone’s inner child.

Sitting at the edge of centrally located and trendy Pearl District, Powell’s is quite possibly the biggest independent bookstore on the planet. 

It takes up an entire block and has an inventory of 4 million+ new, used, and out-of-print books. A must-visit indeed!

That’s not all: Portland is also known for the major attractions around the South Park Blocks, including the Oregon Historical Society, the Portland Art Museum, and Portland State University.

Portland is known for its peculiar culture and politics

We can’t leave out the city’s more striking cultural aspects, which do have a lot in common with the rest of the West Coast and particularly the Pacific Northwest (except quirkier).

7. Weirdness

a sign saying keep portland weird
Image credit: Tony Webster

While Austin may take the credit for wanting to stay weird first, I dare say standing out as eccentric in Texas doesn’t take much effort. Plus, Portland beat Austin in nine out of twelve categories at a weirdness contest. 

Cities like San Francisco and New York have lost most of their edge as they became playgrounds for the uber-rich, whereas Portland is still relatively affordable to oddballs of all sorts.

8. No sales tax

the 5 states in the US without a statewide sales tax
Image credit: the balance

This might have something to do with our next item. But then again, Montana and Alaska are not exactly left-leaning, so it could as well be just a wild guess.

The fact remains, though, that Oregon is one of five U.S. states that levies no sales tax altogether. Nada. (It does have, however, one of the highest top income tax rates in the country.)

That of course means Portland is a perfect place to flash your credit card without a twinge of guilt.

9. Liberal politics

Protestors in portland
Image credit: Brylie Oxley

Portland has been protesting police brutality virtually nonstop for almost a year now, as the New York Times has reported. A stronghold of progressivism, it’s constantly portrayed as “decadent” or “dangerous” by conservatives.

That’s ironic at the very least: Portland is one of the safest and most economically dynamic cities in the U.S. 

10. Environmental awareness

Portland, like Seattle and Boulder in Colorado, has implemented something called an urban growth boundary, which aims at limiting urban sprawl and protecting forest land at the same time. 

That, coupled with impressive statistics — it recycles about 70% of its waste, extracts 60% of its power from hydroelectric sources, and has the highest rate of bike commuting in the country —, turns Portland into a sustainability champion. 

11. Portlandia

Image credit: IFC

Not many TV shows are set in Portland, yet the city is one of the few to be the subject of a show.

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen dress up as (mostly) recurring characters across hilarious sketches focusing on Portlanders’ obsession with uniqueness and authenticity. 

It was a sad day when Portlandia ended in 2018, but we’ll always have its eight seasons’ worth of laughs. 

Portland is famous for its parks and gardens

I guess that’s not too surprising: we’re talking about the Beaver State’s City of Roses, after all. Portland is known for its abundant green, both within and around the city.

12. Washington Park

washington park in portland
Image credit: Thomas Hawk

Washington Park is the go-to leisure area to the majority of Portlanders. Not only does it boast more than 24km (15mi) of hillside trails, it also houses the Oregon Zoo, the Portland Japanese Garden, the Hoyt Arboretum, and even its own railroad.

And in case you’re feeling especially lazy, Washington Park offers a free shuttle between its main attractions. I wouldn’t blame you for using it: at over 185 hectares (458 acres), it’s simply huge!

13. Forest Park

Forest park in Portland

As one of the largest urban forests in the U.S., Forest Park in northwest Portland has a monumental 110km (70mi) of trails.

If your knees are down for the challenge, you can hike to Washington Park and pass through Pittock Mansion while you’re at it.

14. Mill Ends Park

The small Mill Ends Park in Portland

Portland’s not just about big parks, though. It’s where the smallest one in the world is located too. Mill Ends Park features a single tree and is the creation of Dick Fagan, a columnist at the Oregon Journal who planted flowers at the site of a light pole that never was.

Mill Ends opened on Patrick’s Day, 1976, apparently because a leprechaun Fagan had caught granted it to him as a wish. 

15. Roses

Roses in a garden
Image credit: Cacophony

Portland’s been honoring roses with a festival since 1907. It has been nicknamed City of Roses for a reason: its climate is ideal for growing these flowers. 

The International Rose Test Garden within Washington Park showcases more than 650 varieties of roses and is one of the most famous attractions in Portland.

16. Lan Su Chinese Garden

Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland

I must admit I did walk into Portland’s Chinese Garden convinced it was at least 100 years old. Turns out it was actually built in the 1980s in a bid to revitalize the Old Town Chinatown.

Regardless, it’s a lovely and calming place inspired in the Classical Gardens of Suzhou.

17. Willamette Valley

Green fields of the Willamette Valley

Home to 70% of Oregon’s population, the Valley is also the heart of the state’s Wine Country, which contains over 500 wineries.

If the poshness of Napa isn’t your thing, this is where you should head for the greatest West Coast wines. Yet the Willamette Valley does have a few of the costliest Pinot noir bottles on Earth!

As a matter of fact, you don’t even have to leave Portland to try some Oregonian wine: the Southeast Wine Collective is the urban winery you didn’t know you had to visit.

18. Columbia River Gorge

Landscape of Columbia River Gorge
Image credit: Bala

Portland is known for the river that divides it in two. But the Willamette is really a tributary of the majestic Columbia River, which it joins at the northernmost end of town. This huge waterway marks most of the border between Oregon and Washington. 

The Columbia forms a gorgeous canyon as it crosses the Cascade Range. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, located 114km (71mi) east of Portland, is where you’ll find fantastic, unobstructed views like the one above. On your way there, make sure you stop by the dazzling Multnomah Falls.

Portland is known for its creativity and offbeat identity

Think of Seattle, minus the obsession with the next big thing technology-wise, plus a penchant for fun and slow living. 

19. Strip clubs

Woman dancing in a strip club
Image credit: Willamette Week

Oregon takes freedom of speech so seriously that the state’s Supreme Court once ruled that whatever’s done at a strip club is protected by law. Coincidence or not, no other American metropolis has as many strip clubs per capita as Portland. 

Its colorful history as a port city is partly to blame for the taste for the forbidden and the underground that you can easily sense around here.

20. Alberta Arts District

Murals on a building at Alberta Arts District
Image credit: Trevor Leyenhorst

Portland is known for its thriving art scene, and the area around Alberta Street is the center of it all. It went from working-class district, to skid row, to gentrified neighborhood in little more than a century. 

While rising rent prices have forced out some of the quintessential galleries and theaters, the Last Thursday Art Walk is still worth it.

21. Kennedy School

The facade of Kennedy School
Image credit: Ian Poellet

This former elementary school in northeast Portland sat abandoned for a couple decades till McMenamins, a local chain specializing in repurposing historic buildings, got hold of it.

Now, it’s home to a hotel, an outdoor restaurant, a bar, a movie theater, and a brewery. No kids allowed, though! 

22. Portland Saturday Market

Portland Saturday Market

Nothing screams Portland any louder than the oldest open-air handicrafts market in America. Founded in 1974, it has up to 400 stalls and is the best spot to get a one-of-a-kind, artsy souvenir from the city.

The market takes place in the city’s Old Town Chinatown and has been one the main sources of revenue for the struggling neighborhood since it first opened.

23. Food carts

Food carts along the street in Portland
Image credit: John Dalton

A food truck or cart is a rare sight in almost every American city, but of course the opposite is true in Portland.

Cars normally don’t have the upper hand over pedestrians there, which is likely why city hall doesn’t impose strict regulations on carts. As a result, an astonishing 600+ of them are spread across Portland.

St Johns Bridge in Portland
St Johns Bridge

Portland’s definitely among the raddest cities in the United States, maybe even the world! What’s more, it’s pretty close to Seattle and not too far from Vancouver. So don’t think twice and set out for an awesome road trip already!

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