Things to do in Portland in Winter

categories: USA Travel

Porland Oregon downtown

It wasn’t like we said, where can we go in February, let’s go to Portland. But when we found ourselves in Tacoma for a wedding we decided it was time to get back to Portland. The last time I was in the city, was the summer the men walked on the moon. It had changed.

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Portland Winter Weather

Portland’s weather is fairly mild for a U.S. city with the average in winter month lows around 38ºF and the average highs around 49ºF. Portland gets 44 inches of rain, on average, per year but only about 3 inches of snow so always bring your rain gear but you won’t likely need your snow boots.

Portland Street Art

What Portland Is Known For

When we went on a street food tour in Portland our guide told us that a few weeks before there had been a big snowpocalypse predicted for Portland. People made a run to the grocery store to stock up and social media went crazy because the first thing that ran out was kale. It seemed like a very Portland story.

Vegan, Liberal, Green

Portland is known for being a bit more liberal, a bit more green and a bit more vegetarian than the rest of the country. PETA has named the city one of the top vegan-friendly cities in the country. There are vegan bakeries, a vegan tattoo parlor, and even a cruelty-free barber-shop.

Portland Food Cart Scene

For most U.S. cities, if you tried to convince me that their street food scene rivals that of Bangkok or Hong Kong, all I would do is laugh, but Portland has 848 street carts as of the last count and deserves to at least be in that discussion.

Breweries

Chicago has passed Portland for the total number of breweries these days (167  vs Portland’s 139), but Portland has 4 times as many breweries per capita as the Windy City and this is one of the places where the independent brewery movement took hold.

Roses

Portland is the Rose city, but of the things that Portland is known for, seeing Portland’s roses at the International Rose Test Garden is not going to be a wintertime activity. If you want to see Portland’s roses, it would be better to plan your trip later in the year.

Iconic Portland Sites

Here are some of the sites in Portland that make sense to add to a winter trip.

Portland Japanese Garden

Portland Japanese Garden

While the Rose Garden won’t be in bloom in the winter, the Portland Japanese Garden is lovely all year round. It is a 12-acre site in the hills west of the city. The garden dates back to 1963. It is a truly lovely and quiet spot with views of Mt Hood on a clear day (not during our visit).

Portland Japanese Garden

Portland Japanese Garden

The garden has running water in creeks and waterfalls. It even has a section of stone wall made by a traditional Japanese stonemason that looks just like a section of the wall from the imperial palace in Tokyo.

The garden is up the hill from the parking lot and you can either walk up or take the shuttle which is included in your admission.

Admission: Adult: $16.95, Youth (6-17): $11.50, Child (5 and under): Free

Lan Su Chinese Garden

Lan Su Chinese Garden

The Lan Su Chinese Garden in Chinatown is a much more compact and bustling place. The garden encloses one city block with a traditional Chinese garden, ponds, and buildings. Check the schedule on their website before you go to schedule around free tours of the garden. They also have free music, cooking classes, and other activities. We had to run off to another tour we had previously scheduled or we could have taken part in a class on cooking bao.

Lan Su Chinese Garden

Admission: $10.00 — Adults $7.00, Students (age 6-18 and college students with I.D.), $28 Family Pass (two adults, two students), Children (5 and under) free

Powell's Books

Powell’s Books – The World’s Largest Independent Bookstore

It can get chilly walking around in Portland in February, but that just gives you an excuse to visit Powell Books which is a must for bibliophiles. This is a bookstore that is so big that they color code it. I found myself texting my wife as I moved from the red section to the blue section. There seemed like a very real possibility that we would never find each other again.

Portland Food and Drink

Deschutes Brewery

Deschutes Brewery

One of my son-in-law’s favorite breweries is Deschutes so we stopped there for dinner and a flight of beer (for my wife who is the beer drinker). The wait on a Sunday night of a long weekend was about 45 minutes, as this place keeps busy. They are known for their IPAs but my wife liked their amber and stouts. They have an extensive beer menu: page 1, page 2.

Deschutes Brewery salad Deschutes Brewery

We ordered the Bacon and Blue Salad from the Small Plates, Salads and Soups menu, and the Black Butte Porter Mac and Cheese from their Sandwiches and Entrees menu. Both were quite good.

Deschutes Brewery was founded as a brewpub in 1981 but technically is from Bend, Oregon. We were told that McMenamins might be a more authentic Portland experience.

Portland Street Food Walking Tour

Food Cart Walking Tour

Because it is a city known for its food scene I wanted to do a food walking tour. I wanted to do the 2 -Hour Street Food walking tour because I thought it would be very interesting but Joan thought that the food cart tour would be quite cold in February so she was more interested in the Epicurean Excursion tour.

We did not act fast enough and the Epicurean Excursion tour was canceled so we did end up walking around Portland’s food cart pods for over 2 hours (see  Best Portland Trucks and Carts – Street Food Walking Tour). We were both right. It was a great and delicious tour and my wife got quite cold doing it in February. Take the tour, but dress appropriately.

Little Bird Bistro

Little Bird Bistro

We had a lovely lunch (see lunch menu) at the Little Bird Bistro with Marcus from Travel Portland, who helped sponsor this trip. My wife had the Ricotta Gnocchi à la Bourguignon and I had the French-Onion Soup Dip sandwich which was like a French Dip sandwich but oh so much better.

The award-winning chef and owner, Gabriel Rucker, also runs the restaurants Le Pigeon and Canard in town. He won the coveted James Beard Rising Star award in 2011 for the best new chef in the country.

Voodoo Donuts

Voodoo Doughnut

Yes, Portland residence told us that there may be as many as a dozen places where you could get better doughnuts than Voodoo Doughnut but when it is 9 pm at night and you want a doughnut, then get in line at this iconic cash-only 24-hour doughnut shop on SW 3rd Ave near W Burnside St.

I love the Apple Fritter which is traditional or the maple and bacon bar which is not. Your kids will enjoy the voodoo doughnut or the doughnuts covered in sweet breakfast cereal. The official history of Voodoo Doughnut will tell you that Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson and Tres Shannon wanted to start a business together but locals will tell you that they wanted to make doughnuts for their friends who were hungover. They no longer offer the Pepto Bismol or Robitussin doughnuts that we were told were part of their original success.

Kids Activities in Portland

OMSI - Portland

OMSI – Oregon Museum of Science and Industry

What I remembered most vividly from my visit to Portland as a kid was a visit to OMSI. Since I visited during the space race there was a lot more about space travel during my first visit. These days there were more exhibits on the science of energy production and conservation, paleontology and the process of birth. The day we were there it was busy with school kids and a large homeschooling group.

There is a new Science Behind Pixar exhibit which opened days after our visit.

My favorite part of the museum is the hands-on science center where you can solve puzzles or conduct your own experiments. Will your water rocket fly higher if you add more water to it or less. Try it.

That area also has one of the large kinetic steel ball sculptures that I love.

OMSI

There is a planetarium, motion simulator, theatre, and submarine that you can visit for an additional cost. The submarine is the USS Blueback Submarine which is a WWII sub. In addition to day time tours, there are sleep-in programs in the sub for groups.

Admission: Adult $14.50, Youth (3-13) $9.75

Portland Day Trips

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Just to the east of Portland is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area which is a lovely stretch of the Columbia River. When we visited there was still snow on the ground as we worked our way up the gorge but most of the trails and parking lots were free of snow so it still made a great place to visit even in winter.

I recommend a stop at the Crown Point Vista House which has a great overview of the portion of the river near Portland. Climb to the second floor for a view but also check out the small museum in the basement to learn more about the history of this scenic route. The Vista House was built in 1917 and the photos of the scenic route talk about a country anxious to explore in their new model T cars.

There are a number of waterfalls not much further east from Crown Point along the Historic Columbia River Highway. The most well known of these is Multnomah Falls which is also the most popular so good luck trying to find parking there. There is a larger parking lot nearby between the two lanes of highway 84.

We spent time instead doing the short hike to Bridal Veil Falls. I recommend this stop which most people will just drive right past since you can’t see the waterfall from the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Just across the Columbia River from Portland in Vancouver, Washington and not all that far from the Portland airport is the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Here the National Park Service has re-built a fort that was originally built by the Hudson’s Bay Company when the Oregon territory was claimed by both the U.S. and England.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was in the Oregon territory originally to trade furs with the Native Americans and voyageurs (French Canadian fur traders). The park shows examples of the kind of hides that were being traded. A beaver pelt was the most valuable as it was used to create the most fashionable hats in Europe… until some trendsetter tried on a silk hat.

They also have a working blacksmith and woodworkers shop. The blacksmith could make or repair items like beaver traps needed for the business. They were a bit hampered by the fact that getting supplies like wrought iron from England could take about 2 years.

Admission to the fort: $7 per person (valid for 7 days)

Pearson Air Museum

Fort Vancouver was also a pivotal resource in America’s air power in WWI because of a large sawmill here that milled the spruce wood that was used for the wood and fabric WWI aircraft. The fort has a free museum (Pearson Air Museum) that shows aircraft from that era as well as a history of Pearson Field and local aviation.

Where to Stay in Portland

king bed room - The Porter Portland, Curio Collection by Hilton

The Porter Portland, Curio Collection by Hilton

We stayed at the Porter Portland which is one of a series of new hotels opening up in downtown Portland. It is a beautiful new hotel. We walked to everything we did in the downtown neighborhood. It is a bit further to the Pearl District from the Porter as it is closer to Portland State University.

The Porter Portland, Curio Collection by Hilton Lobby - The Porter Portland, Curio Collection by Hilton

 

It has a beautiful lobby area, lobby bar, and restaurant on the first floor. There is also a restaurant with a view on the top floor, but we did not sample the food at either restaurant so I don’t have an opinion about them. As a sometime mobile worker, the lovely library area of the lobby is where you would have found me had I been traveling alone.

Other Accommodations



There are numerous other hotels in the downtown area as well as wonderful Airbnbs in Portland.

Getting There – Portland Oregon Airport PDX

Portland is served by the airport Portland International Airport (PDX). PDX was named the “best domestic airport” by Travel+Leisure Magazine World’s Best Awards readers’ survey from 2013-2018. We liked it as well. One thing that everyone will appreciate is that the airport has a rule that restaurants in the airport are not allowed to mark up their prices to be more expensive in the airport than they would be downtown. Why don’t more airports do that?

Conclusion

While summer may still be my favorite time of year to visit Oregon, don’t discount this great destination when it gets a bit chillier. Maybe you should experience winter in Oregon as well.

Portions of the cost of this trip were paid for by Travel Portland for which we give them thanks, but all the opinions are mine.

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by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

2 Responses to “Things to do in Portland in Winter”

Lina Belly

Says:

Portland has Japanese garden? Never knew it. Anyways thanks for the blog post, Chris. Can you tell me average cost it would take for 5 days stay?

chris2x

Says:

It depends a lot on where you stay and when but it is pretty reasonable. Right now I am seeing reasonable hotels downtown for around $100 a night and Airbnbs down to $35 a night for a bed in a dorm. Food is affordable at a food cart, more expensive as you go high end. A rental car helped to get out to the Japanese Garden but we probably could have gotten there on public transportation so not sure you need one for downtown. You would to visit the Columbia River Gorge. Does that help?

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