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best attractions in portland

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Best Attractions in PortlandIn a city with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”

By Greg Weekes

Portland must be on Mother Nature's gold star list; it's both a remarkably green city and one that can boast of having Mt. Hood and the Columbia and Willamette rivers as scenic backdrops. And when you take into account that many Portlanders share an environmental fervor as well as a strong sense of civic pride, it's no wonder that a number of Rose City attractions incorporate the outdoors.

Natural Beauty to Behold

At the top of this list is Washington Park , a AAA GEM attraction ideal for those planning a trip to the area and one of the most beloved of Portland's urban green spaces. In 1871, when the original 40 of the park's 130 acres were purchased by the city, thick stands of timber covered the area and cougars lived in the hills. Logging and the installation of a cable car opened up the wilderness, and by the turn of the 20th century it was transformed into a civilized place of drives, walkways, lawns and flower beds. The formal plantings coexist with the natural beauty of trees, native shrubs and ground covers, making Washington Park a perfect place for a walk or bike ride.

Several monuments are located in the circle near the main park entrance (from Burnside Street, take Vista Avenue south to Park Place). The Lewis and Clark Memorial is a 34-foot rectangular granite shaft with bronze replicas of the state seals of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington on each side. Theodore Roosevelt laid the foundation stone in 1903. Water drips down the Renaissance-style Chiming Fountain's series of bronze pans and also spouts from gargoyles around the base. The nearby statue of Shoshone Indian woman Sacajawea, who helped guide explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark through the then-trackless mountains of the American West, was sculpted by another woman, Denver resident Alice Cooper, out of 14 tons of copper.

You could easily spend a full day of your vacation just wandering around Washington Park, so plan accordingly. Its two standout attractions, however, are must-see things to do in Portland. The International Rose Test Garden , a AAA GEM, is not just for rose growers or even gardeners in general; this garden is for anyone who can appreciate the beauty of flowers. And who doesn't?

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You can be utterly entranced by a single lovely rosebud, or revel in the sensory overload of thousands of blooms at once. Floribundas, hybrid teas, ramblers, climbers, miniatures—they're all here, in a kaleidoscope of colors from pure white to ravishing red and a range of scents from barely there to overpowering. Framed by groves of conifers, the gardens look out over the city in a series of spectacular views. Summer is the peak blooming season, but there are lavish displays of flowers well into September if you plan to travel to the city in the fall.

A Japanese Garden Provides Tranquility

A stunning contrast is provided by the Portland Japanese Garden , located above the rose gardens and reached by hiking an uphill pathway through stands of Douglas fir or—the less strenuous option—taking an open-air shuttle. This garden, also a AAA GEM attraction, could not be more different; aside from delicate Japanese irises and lovely water lilies floating in the koi ponds, there's nary a flower to be seen (except when yellow forsythia, pale pink cherry blossoms, azaleas and wisteria bloom in spring). Instead, it is a study in shades of green, courtesy of conifers, maples, weeping willows and immaculately pruned boxwoods—and also a testament to the understated genius of Japanese gardening, which combines water, stone and vegetation to create serenity with every twist and turn. The mood here is one of sun-dappled shade and utter peace. There is one note of grandeur, though: a vantage point that frames a breathtaking view of Mt. Hood. This is something you must put on your list of things to do.

Spacious Nature at its Best

If you prefer wide open spaces, explore the park's Hoyt Arboretum , north of the Oregon Zoo. Grouping plants by scientific classification was all the rage when the arboretum was laid out, so you'll find oaks, redwoods and other trees arranged in family groups. Conifers are on the west side of Fairview Boulevard; deciduous trees are on the east side. All told there are some 6,000 individual trees and shrubs representing nearly 1,000 different species. Take time to stroll Magnolia Walk, accessible from the visitor center off Fairview Boulevard. You'll see several varieties of magnolias, including the Southern magnolia, with large, creamy white, fragrant flowers that bloom in the summer months.

An Additional Glimpse of Asian Garden Beauty

We also recommend that you visit the Lan Su Chinese Garden after you've seen the Japanese garden. Although both gardens accurately represent historical East Asian styles and share the principles of harmony with nature, their stylistic differences are striking. As opposed to a meandering wooded garden, this is a compact, walled urban garden covering just one square block. Portland's downtown hubbub is very evident—until after you pass through the entrance, when the sounds of traffic and people seem to magically melt away, making this a relaxing destination. This is a garden of winding walkways, little paved courtyards, open pavilions, a bridged pond and meticulous plantings of trees, shrubs and flowers; it provides tranquility within the confines of a small urban space.

Roses Galore

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There are more roses at Peninsula Park, north of downtown and 3 blocks east of I-5. The park entrance at N. Ainsworth Street and N. Albina Avenue has magnificent plantings of roses bordering the steps that lead down to the Peninsula Park Rose Garden , the only sunken rose garden in Oregon. Among the many beauties you'll see is the official Portland rose, Mme. Caroline Testout. Once planted by the thousands along city streets, this is the variety that gave the city its nickname. Portland roses, one of thousands of rose hybrids and cultivars that have been bred for garden use, were named after the Duchess of Portland, an independently wealthy member of 18th-century British royalty and an avid collector of plants, shells and insects. The octagonal bandstand overlooking the rose garden, a popular location for summer weddings, was originally used for World War I patriotic demonstrations.

A Forest in the City

Portland's parks even include an urban forest. Forest Park spreads over the city's northwest hills west of the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. These more than 5,150 wooded acres are distinguished by a tree canopy of massive Douglas firs and lots of undergrowth. The park has more than 70 miles of hiking, bicycling and equestrian trails; it's a great place to go if you want a sense of being away from it all without really leaving town. Leif Ericson Drive, an 11-mile dirt trail, is popular with mountain bikers, and the 30-mile Wildwood Trail connects to other trail routes outside of the park. For information about maps, activities and parking areas, phone (503) 223-5449. Detailed hiking trail maps are available at the Hoyt Arboretum gift shop and Powell's City of Books in downtown Portland.

A Religious Experience

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Visitors can reflect on nature's beauty at The Grotto (National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother) . The shrine was dedicated in 1924 as “a place of solitude, peace and prayer.” Sculptures, shrines and other religious-themed artworks are nestled into the sanctuary's flower-lined pathways. The centerpiece is Our Lady's Grotto, carved from a cliff wall of solid basalt. Above this natural rock altar is a replica of Michelangelo's “Pieta,” and high above on the cliff stands a bronze statue of Mary, mother of Jesus; it commemorates the 700th anniversary of the Servite Order of friars, who established the sanctuary. Special services are held on Mother's Day, during Holy Week and on Christmas Day.

Explore the Wilds

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Adjoining Washington Park, the Oregon Zoo , a AAA GEM attraction, is the oldest zoo west of the Mississippi. The habitats feature animals and endangered species from around the world. Giraffes, zebras, hippos and rhinos roam the open areas of Africa Savanna. A much smaller resident, the naked mole rat, lives in underground colonies. These odd-looking rodents have practically hairless bodies, no external ears and large, chisel-like incisors. Lorikeets, among the world's most beautiful birds, flit through a walk-through, open-air aviary and will drink from small paper cups of fortified fruit juice you can purchase at the entrance.

The Washington Park and Zoo Railway operates three trains that travel around the lower end of the zoo and through the scenic forests of Washington Park. The Zooliner and the Oregon Express are diesel-powered streamliner trains; the Oregon steam locomotive, built in 1959 to celebrate the state's centennial, resembles 19th-century passenger trains with its polished brass trimmings. The streamliners run during the summer; all three trains operate on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends and during the Zoolights Festival in December. Zoo admission is required to board. For train schedule information phone (503) 226-1561.

Don't Miss What's Downtown

Three more GEMs await discovery downtown, with two standing on either side of the South Park Blocks. The Portland Art Museum is a good one. It is a nice choice when you are looking for things for couples to do. Among the many masters on display are Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Camille Corot. American art includes early portraits by Gilbert Stuart, 19th-century landscape paintings by George Inness and a panoramic Mt. Hood by renowned landscape artist Albert Bierstadt. Four galleries feature Chinese, Japanese and Korean art in the form of prints, screens, scroll paintings and ceramic tomb objects. The museum also has collections of Northwestern and Native American art and outstanding silver pieces, among them a 15th-century drinking bowl and a Victorian tea service.

Scholars take advantage of the extensive research library and huge collection of historical photographs at the Oregon Historical Society , but there also are top-notch permanent exhibits in the building's museum. Oregon My Oregon fills an entire floor with interactive and hands-on displays, re-creations of a Hudson's Bay Co. ship hull and a 19th-century explorer's tent, and a Newberry's lunch counter salvaged when the downtown store closed in the 1990s.

The eight-story mural of Lewis and Clark and other historical figures on the exterior west wall is an outstanding example of the trompe l'oeil style. The technique involves using realistic imagery to give the impression that the objects depicted actually exist; in French, the term means “trick the eye.” It was created by Richard Haas, whose architectural murals have decorated structures from the Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel in Miami Beach to the Bank One Ball Park in Phoenix.

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Rounding out the GEM trio downtown is the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) , one of those museums that make learning seem way more fun. The Life Science and Earth Science halls are chock-full of fascinating exhibits, while Turbine Hall is where many of the hands-on activities and the chemistry, physics and technology labs are located. Live science demonstrations include squid dissections and displays of static electricity. If you haven't already guessed, this is a really great place to take kids and a top choice for those putting together family vacation packages.

As is the Portland Children's Museum , where youngsters will be having too much fun to realize they're learning about life skills. Building Bridgetown is a two-story house where young construction workers can panel a wall, build with blocks or practice plumbing. Water Works is a contraption where H2O flows, squirts and pours with the aid of such things as kitchen objects and an old shoe. Storytellers, musicians and puppeteers hold court in the museum's theater.

The Pittock Mansion is the legacy of a hard-working couple who achieved their American dream in a city they grew to love. Both Henry Lewis Pittock and his wife Georgiana migrated west to Portland in the 1850s. He, “barefoot and penniless,” had joined a wagon train in Pennsylvania; as a child she had crossed the Oregon Territory from Iowa with her parents. Pittock went on to build a business empire, while his wife devoted her energies to improving the lives of the city's women and children. The large and beautiful home they built on 46 acres of land, high in the hills and overlooking the city, is notable not only for its lovely design and dazzling collection of furnishings and art but for the memorabilia—from an 1887 Steinway grand piano to family portraits to Pittock's ceremonial sword—that offers a glimpse into their lives.

Oaks Amusement Park , along the Willamette River southeast of downtown, is the real deal as far as amusement parks go: a looping roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, thrill rides, kids' rides, a roller skating rink, bumper cars, carnival games. It's pure old-fashioned fun. The park, surrounded by the trees for which it was named, first opened its gates in 1905, and many people in those early days arrived by trolley car.

Spend an afternoon exploring Portland's vibrant downtown waterfront. The stern-wheeler PORTLAND houses the Oregon Maritime Museum . This steam-powered, stern-wheel, ship-assist tug played an important role in the development of the city's harbor, and you can walk around the main deck, peek into the captain's and pilot's quarters, inspect the engine room and take in the view from the pilot house, 32 feet above the water.

Explore the Water

If you'd rather be on the water instead of viewing it from land, hop on the Portland Spirit River Cruises , a triple-decker yacht. It cruises the Willamette south (or upstream; the river is one of a relative few in the country that flows south to north) down to Lake Oswego and then back. Pacific Northwest-inspired food, live entertainment, the Portland skyline as a backdrop—all are part of brunch, lunch and dinner cruises aboard the Spirit. Be sure to look for great packages on travel sites and with AAA when booking your trip. You also can travel in the footsteps of explorers Lewis and Clark—minus the hardships their Corps of Discovery expedition party put up with—on an excursion along the Willamette and Columbia rivers, with historical narration provided.

If Books Are More Your Thing

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How many Portlanders have been to Powell's City of Books ? We'd bet there's quite a few, because aside from being a terrific bookstore, Powell's is a local institution and gathering place. It stocks more than a million (yes, you read that right) new, used and out-of-print volumes, organized by subject and spread over nine color-coded rooms; most customers take advantage of the store layout map that Powell's provides. After you've browsed the stacks to your heart's content, head for the coffee room and settle in by one of the big windows that look out on the bustling pedestrian traffic along Burnside Street and N.W. 11th Avenue. Powell's also has its own parking garage.

Continue on Nearby

Speaking of Powell's, it's located at the southern edge of the Pearl District, one of downtown's most delightful neighborhoods. And in Portland even the neighborhoods are attractions, given that you could spend all morning or afternoon wandering, window shopping and nibbling through a couple of them. Less than two decades ago this was an undesirable area, gritty and industrial. Today, however, it's the picture of chic urbanity, a leafy enclave of high-rise condos, luxury lofts, casually upscale restaurants, dozens of art galleries and shopping galore.

If it's a sunny afternoon, while away an hour at Jamison Square, a park between N.W. 10th and 11th avenues and Kearney and Johnson streets, which has as its focal point a fountain simulating a shallow tidal pool. Check out the totem poles (not authentic, but colorful). Two blocks due north is Tanner Springs Park, a little bit of wetlands habitat in downtown Portland (a century ago this part of the city was boggy marshland).

One of the best ways to experience “the Pearl” is to attend one of Portland's evening “First Thursday” art walks, held on the first Thursday of the month. The galleries open their doors to the public, and there are wine tastings and live music. This also is a good excuse to have dinner at one of the many good restaurants, like Bluehour . And remember that most of the Pearl District (as far north as N.W. Irving Street) is accessible by way of the Portland Streetcar, which travels a loop route between the South Waterfront district and Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital on N.W. 23rd Avenue.

Don't Forget the Northwest District

Adjoining the Pearl District on the west is northwest Portland, variously referred to as the Northwest District, Nob Hill or “Trendyfirst and Trendythird,” a nod to the shopping and people-watching magnets that are N.W. 21st and N.W. 23rd avenues. The neighborhood's narrow streets are lined with refurbished turn-of-the-20th-century Victorians, many housing boutiques and bookstores, and lovely historic homes. It's the kind of place where 20-somethings scarf down microbrews at sidewalk cafés and well-heeled shoppers search out high-end purchases at stores like jewelry emporium Twist, on 23rd Place. Plus, you won't have to wonder where to eat because there are plenty of area options. For an afternoon pick-me-up, try one of the decadent confections at the Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe on 23rd Avenue; their specialties include hand-crafted chocolate truffles and unusual beverages like chocolate chai tea. A couple blocks away is Papa Haydn West , where you can pop in for a full meal or choose a sweet treat from their extensive menu.

Across the Bridge

From the lower end of downtown, head east across the Hawthorne Bridge to the Hawthorne District, east Portland's most diverse neighborhood. S.E. Hawthorne Boulevard between 17th and 43rd avenues is lined with cafés, restaurants, coffee shops, vegan bakeries, antique stores, offbeat clothing retailers and very cool gift shops. This is a neighborhood to stroll around, not drive through, with an atmosphere that's a mix of hippie '60s, retro '70s bohemian and '90s alternative. That blend is evident at such landmarks as the Bagdad Theater & Pub, an old relic of a building brought back to life by a local theater chain. The Bagdad's interior is pure golden age movie palace, and you can order a slice of pizza and a fresh pint of beer to enjoy while watching the show. Outdoor tables at the casual pub fronting the theater are jam-packed for dinner in the summertime.

A Hawthorne morning could start with breakfast at the Cup & Saucer Café on Hawthorne Boulevard, a popular local hangout. Order the tofu veggie scramble, whole-wheat pancakes or the house-made scones, knock back a couple of cups of good strong coffee and you're ready to explore. Venture onto some of the tree-lined residential side streets, which contain an interesting mix of older craftsman and bungalow-style houses set in small, garden-filled yards. Nearby at S.E. 39th Avenue and Stark Street is lush Laurelhurst Park , which has a lake, paved paths, green meadows and lots of trees.

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Make sure you include a stop at Powell's Books on Hawthorne. It's not as labyrinthine as Powell's City of Books—three rooms instead of nine, each named after a local landmark (the Madison and Hawthorne neighborhoods and Mt. Tabor, one of the few extinct volcanoes located within a city). But it's the same eclectic mix of new and used books, with a friendly, laid-back staff that can show you around or find a particular book. And The Fresh Pot, a little corner of the bookstore next to the reading space, is quintessential hip Portland: excellent java, funky décor and hip music—perhaps a homegrown indie rock band like The Shins or the Pink Snowflakes—playing over the speakers.

See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.

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Portland, OR

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Travel Information

City Population

583,776

Elevation

77 ft.

Sales Tax

Oregon levies no sales tax. The Portland area has a lodging tax of 11.5 percent and a rental car tax of 17 percent.

Emergency

911

Police (non-emergency)

(503) 823-3333

Hospitals

Adventist Medical Center, (503) 257-2500; Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, (503) 413-2200; Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center, (503) 413-7711; OHSU Hospital, (503) 494-8311.

Visitor Information

877 S.W. Taylor St. Portland, OR 97205. Phone:(503)275-8355 or (888)503-3291

Air Travel

Cheap airline flights can be found from cities all over the country.

Rental Cars

Several rental car agencies serve the Portland area. Hertz, (503) 528-7900 (airport), (503) 249-5727 (downtown) or (800) 654-3080, offers discounts to AAA members.

Rail Service

The Amtrak passenger train terminal is at 800 N.W. Sixth Ave.; phone (800) 872-7245.

Taxis

Cabs must be hired by phone or at taxi stations, although a few will answer a hail from the street in the downtown business district. Companies include Broadway Cab Co., (503) 333-3333; and Radio Cab, (503) 227-1212. Fares are metered. Most taxi services charge $3-$5 for one person for the first .1 mile then $2.60 for each additional mile and a $1 fee for each additional passenger.

Public Transportation

Transportation by bus, streetcar or light-rail is available in Portland.

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