The 9 Biggest Mistakes Tourists Make When Visiting Portland (and What To Do Instead)
WHEN I MOVED to Portland seven years ago, I was excited to live in a small city — one that was digestible, a place I could easily get to know. But it took me years of exploring and plenty of cultural faux-pas to really find out who and what Portland is.
Packed with museums, galleries, parks and gardens, restaurants, bars, and shopping that give any global metropolis a run for its money, I would be remiss if I stood by and let visitors make the same mistakes I did in my first few years here. Here’s how to avoid the biggest mistakes tourists make when visiting Portland, and really get the most out of this amazing city.
1. For the doughnut lovers: only hitting Voodoo.
While phallic pastries and doughnuts covered in Froot Loops are tailor-made for Instagramming, the truth of the matter is that two-hour long lines are not worth the ‘Gram. Especially not when Portland is full of better purveyors of fine fried dough.
If you’re craving unexpected flavor combinations and tongue-in-cheek attitude, check out Blue Star, whose brioche donuts are actually worth the wait (and are occasionally boozy). Or try Pip’s Original Doughnuts if you’d like made-to-order mini-doughnuts that come out piping hot and covered in sugar. Are you more of a run-of-the-mill Dunkin Donuts fan? Try Coco Donuts, which serves up standards like chocolate frosted and sugar glazed at bargain basement prices.
2. Renting a car to get around the city.
Portland is many things, but intuitive for drivers is not one of them. On top of record-breaking traffic jams, downtown is full of one-way streets and wonky alleys. Several of our main downtown roads have bus — and MAX — only lanes and arcane rules; and cyclists weave in and out of cars faster than you can yell, “Take the lane!”
To boot, if you beat the traffic and figure out the byzantine grid, parking is another challenge. For your blood pressure’s sake, I suggest you skip the car. Thankfully, while other cities require wheels to get from hood to hood, that’s just not the case with Portland.
We have a killer public transportation system that will take you to isolated neighborhoods like Multnomah Village, and out to exurbs like Troutdale. You can even get to Mt. Hood by taking the MAX light rail to Gresham and hopping on the Mt. Hood Express.
If you’re not a big fan of buses and trains, we have a robust biking infrastructure that makes it easy (and inexpensive) to get around on two wheels.
3. Biking sans proper preparation.
Portland is one of the best cities in the US when it comes to biking, and I strongly suggest taking advantage of all of our greenways, bike lanes, shared paths, cheap rentals, and our Nike-sponsored bike share, Biketown.
That said, it is very easy to slip into dangerous territory when it comes to cycling. While technically you can bike on any road so long as you obey traffic laws, some roads are incredibly dangerous to bike down, whether due to traffic volume, high-speed limits, or visibility issues. And don’t even get me started on oblivious cyclists who ride three abreast down the middle of the street.
If you’re going to ride, do it right. Get a free city bike map at any bike shop or the Parks and Rec office downtown, plan your route ahead of time and bring it with you. The map is color-coded, so it’s easy to determine whether a street is highly bikeable or a serious gamble — and where the bike- and pedestrian-only paths are.
If Biketwon is not for you, I suggest renting from a place like Waterfront Bikes, which offers everything from road bikes to cruisers — and includes helmets with all rentals.
4. Not leaving the west side
Portland’s west side is undeniably full of some wonderful sights like the newly-renovated Japanese Garden, Powell's City of Books, the International Test Rose Garden, and Forest Park. to name a few.
But I’ve overheard my fair share of frustrated tourists downtown, wondering where all the quirk and the charm they’ve heard about is located. Our downtown is just like any other urban core in the US: it is limited in what it can offer, and it’s not where the cool kids hang out. And while our lovely gardens are nice to visit for an afternoon, the real action is on the other side of the river.
The east side of Portland is home to neighborhoods like Mississippi, Sellwood, and Belmont, all of which are lined with bars, restaurants, and shopping. You can bike or walk to the top of an extinct volcano smack in the middle of the east side. Many of the city’s best restaurants and bars are east of the Willamette. Heck, you can even bike and run down a converted rail corridor if that’s your thing.
5. Not leaving the city at all
While Portland always has my heart, it doesn’t always have my attention, and it doesn’t necessarily have to hold yours either. There’s so much to do within driving distance of the city that it would be a crime to stay within city limits.
You can hike and swim at Sauvie Island, the largest island in the Columbia River — just a 40-minute drive from the city. Sauvie has a nude beach (one of the largest in the US), a large nature preservation with hiking trails, and tons of fresh produce stands.
Make a day trip to Hood River and watch thekiteboarders on the Columbia (or take kiteboarding lessons). You can even drive just an hour outside of the city and put your toes in the Pacific Ocean.
6. Not taking hiking seriously.
The Columbia River Gorge is home to well-known, highly trafficked spots like Multnomah Falls and Eagle Creek, and while doing yoga poses on the edge of a cliff seems like fun, the fact of the matter is that tourists die or are seriously injured in the Gorge almost every year. Even on hikes that are billed as moderate or family-friendly, injuries and death can happen. So please, pay attention to your surroundings.
On narrow trails next to drop-offs, walk single-file and watch your step. Don’t ever get too close to a cliff edge, even if it’ll make a cool photo or it’s a great view. There are plenty of safe ways to take in the wonderful views Oregon hiking has to offer. Additionally, don’t forget to bring water and food. Make sure to look at the trail map beforehand so you know where you’re going (and bring a map), and always bring a buddy or tell someone where you’ll be going.
7. Ignoring hiking etiquette
Once you’ve got the whole basic survival thing down, it’s time for you to work on your trail etiquette.
We know that our state is beautiful. We work very hard to keep it that way, which is why the sharply-increasing crowds, proliferation of trash, and increasing examples of vandalism are concerning to Oregonians. One example? The off-trail hike, Oneonta Gorge, once a lovely, quiet half-mile walk through waist-deep water to a gorgeous waterfall, is now so packed with visitors that it’s having a severely negative impact on the ecosystem.
As tourism increases, visitors have a responsibility to minimize their impact on the land. That means remembering a few tips. Yield to uphill hikers. If you’re walking in a huge group (or even if you’re just two), make room for people passing you. Do not leave any trash, and, in fact, pick up any trash you see on the trail.
When it comes to bathroom etiquette: try your hardest to go before you start your hike, and avoid going while on the trail. But if you must relieve yourself, do it at least 200 feet from the trail and any water source — and pack out your TP.
One of the most important is to be quiet. There’s nothing wrong with chatting and laughing with friends, but our public lands are shared space, and you should always be cognizant of your noise level and how it affects others.
8. Visiting breweries based on name recognition only
There are over 100 breweries in the Portland metro area, both internationally recognized and hyperlocal. And while some of our bigger breweries, like Widmer, are still creating beer worthy of your time, the fact of the matter is that I see too many visitors waste their time at big breweries that are churning out run-of-the-mill — and even poorly made — pours, all because they’ve got name recognition.
I suggest you skip the big names like Bridgeport, Henry’s and Rogue, the latter of which produces beers that are more shtick than substance, and go for something like Great Notion Brewing. Offering only Northeastern-style hazy IPAs, Great Notion is considered by many local beer writers to be a game changer and the best new brewery in town.
Or check out the award-winning German and Belgian beers at Commons Brewery’s industrial inner east side taproom. If you’re looking for something really unique, then you could go to BTU Brasserie — a Chinese restaurant that brews its own beer.
9. Wasting your time at chain restaurants and malls
Our city is home to a robust maker movement and some of the best restaurants in the country. So why spend your time and money at stores and restaurants that are all over the country? Too many tourists come to Portland and spend their time in our subterranean downtown mall, Pioneer Place, when they could check out places like local goods curator Made Here PDX.
Want Mexican food? Skip Denver-based Sandoval’s and go to Los Gorditos or Güero or Mi Mero Mole or, hell, any number of killer Mexican spots around the city. Don’t go to Ruth’s Chris or the Melting Pot. Try Laurelhurst Market or Urban Fondue instead.
We’re home to not one but two Oregon-based Will Leather Goods locations, feminist clothing store Wildfang, and locally-made clothes and accessories outlet Bridge and Burn.
The possibilities are endless, so don’t just eat and shop like you’re any old place.