Looking for the best things to do in Portland?
Are you wanting to explore the city you have you been curious about ever since you binge-watched the entire series of Portlandia?
Do you not know where to start? I feel you.
Are you also hoping to spend hundreds of dollars checking out the town for the day?
Yeah, I thought not. Me neither.
Recently, I went on a trip with my boyfriend from Oakland, CA up to Portland, Oregon. He then flew from Portland to Guadalajara, Mexico, where I planned to join him in a few weeks.
I was going to spend the day in Portland with my mom and brother after he left, but plans fell through, and I unexpectedly found myself with a day to explore Portland on my own.
Now, I don’t ever have too much extra money to spend on luxuries and touristy things and expensive meals. It’s already enough of a challenge for me to budget my money and make ends meet.
On top of that, I am serious about my million dollars by 30 goal, so I wanted to keep the day budget-friendly.
I know that between food, transportation, and entertainment, one could EASILY spend two to three hundred dollars playing tourist in any given city in a day.
I wanted to be able to have fun and enjoy the day, but also not break the bank. Here’s how I spent the day and my money, trying to keep playing tourist affordable.
1. First things first: coffee.
Coffee is how I need to start every day, with few exceptions.
J. and I walked to a breakfast spot down the street from our Air BNB for the evening, called Bushel and Peck Bakeshop. It’s on the east side of the river, between the King and Eliot neighborhoods.
They had great coffee, very friendly baristas, and very interesting breakfast sandwiches. The menu here was limited, which I actually didn’t mind at all because I can be extremely indecisive.
Sometimes with menu choices, less is more.
We each got a biscuit breakfast sandwich, which was a mix of savory and sweet. If my memory serves me, it had egg, bacon, cheese, avocado, and strawberry jam.
The biscuits were off the hook. Way better, in my humble opinion, than the ones at Pine State Biscuit Co., which we had had for breakfast the day before. They get all the hype and notoriety, but they were just a’ight.
We also indulged in a couple of their muffins. We couldn’t resist their siren call from behind the glass. One blueberry with lavender (delicious), and one that had orange, cranberry, and white chocolate.
I know that one sounds like a weird combo, but it was the best fucking muffin I’ve ever had.
Total spent here $10.50.
FYI: For the duration of this post, I will only count MY cost for the day, so for breakfast that comes out to a breakfast sandwich, a muffin, a coffee, and coffee refill.
This is where J. and I parted ways, and my solo adventure began. Let me warn you now that I spent a lot of time walking on this day (so I totally made up for all that heavy bread I just ate for breakfast, right?). I didn’t spend any money on uber rides or buses.
Personally, I feel that the best way to get to know a place and feel the vibe is on foot. Just walk it.
You will see so many interesting things and details that you pass by too quickly to notice in a car. And you can stop to appreciate things, change direction on a dime, and never stress about finding parking.
Not to mention that walking is such great exercise.
2. Broadway Bridge
From Bushel and Peck, I walked down Martin Luther King Jr. Street, as well as some neighborhood streets just off MLK Blvd. so I could admire all the cute houses.
I preferred that to looking at closed business after closed business (it was still pretty early in the morning). I headed toward the Broadway Bridge.
In the very large front yard of someone’s house, I found this:
(It reads “Feed the Duck 25₵” and is filled with mealworms)
From the Broadway Bridge, I had such a nice view of the city, with dramatic, heavy gray clouds hanging over the trees and the buildings.
Classic PNW conditions. I would share a photo here, but none of them did it justice at all.
Total spent here: $0.00
3. Chinatown – Lan Su Chinese Garden
I walked through Chinatown on the other side of the river, admiring the facades and comparing them in my mind to the Chinatowns of Oakland and San Francisco (Portland’s was a new one for me), in search of the Lan Su Chinese Garden.
I stopped in a leather shop on the way there and perused their goods, spoke with the gal who worked there, and ultimately did not make a purchase, but it was fun to browse.
There are quite a few leather shops around Portland and just the day before I had gone into one with my brother and boyfriend and found really nice, really fairly priced goods.
I arrived at Lan Su just as they opened, and paid $7.00 admission because I had my student ID from my college (regular adult admission is $10).
The gardens were small, but very beautiful, and the atmosphere inside was very peaceful because the garden is walled, so it is easy to completely forget that you are in a major city.
They also have a tea house there, as well as lots of events and tours (most tours are included in the price of your admission).
Total spent here: $7.00
4. Voodoo Doughnuts
From here I headed in the general direction of the Ace Hotel. I had heard that they had a photo booth there that actually develops your photo strip chemically, as opposed to just printing out a digital copy.
On the way there, I passed by the famous Voodoo Doughnut shop, thought about getting a doughnut, then thought better of it because I was still very full from my bready and sweet breakfast. Also, the line wrapped around the block.
I did take a look at their menu though, which was posted on a huge board on the side of the building, and I could see why they are so popular (aside from their awesome sign): they have very unique flavors of doughnuts.
Just to name a few, there’s the Old Dirty Bastard (crushed oreos, chocolate frosting, and PB), countless doughnuts topped with sugary breakfast cereals from your childhood (the one with Coco Puffs atop a chocolate doughnut with chocolate frosting is called Triple Chocolate Penetration), the Marshall Mathers (covered with M&Ms), the Homer (a perfect replica of the classic Simpsons doughnut), and, of course, one shaped and frosted like a voodoo doll.
I can’t say how they taste, but I did get quite a lot of enjoyment just reading the menu.
Total spent here: $0.00
I just happened to pass by the side of a building with “Keep Portland Weird” painted on it, which is a huge tourist attraction and photo op spot. It was kind of fun to stumble upon it on my way.
5. The Ace Hotel
The Ace Hotel was very beautiful. I walked into the lobby and quickly spotted the photo booth.
With a little embarrassment to be taking photos in a photo booth alone, I climbed inside and did the deed.
It took several minutes for the photos to come out, which I saw as a sign of encouragement, and as I waited I took a seat in the lobby and admired the high ceilings, large windows, and old, stately yet modern-feeling furniture and décor.
The main area of the lobby felt more like a living room, and there were lots of people sharing the space, reading the paper, sipping coffee, working on laptops and staring out the windows at the beautiful, gray day outside.
My photos were spat out, and to my pleasure, they were wet. The Ace Hotel photo booth did not disappoint – it is a unique booth where you can get real photo strips.
Total spent here: $5.00.
6. Cameron’s Bookstore
After the Ace Hotel, I stopped into a little gift shop of handmade, local stuff and browsed around.
Then I stumbled upon Cameron’s bookstore, proclaiming its status as the oldest bookstore in Portland, founded in 1938. I love books, and I love old things, so of course, I couldn’t resist.
It was pretty different from Powell’s, Portland’s other famous bookstore, which I had gone to the day before with my family and will describe further down the list.
Cameron’s, on the other hand, is much more cozy and musty. I liked its personality. I browsed around here for a while, but be forewarned – this place has stacks on stacks on stacks and it’s a little overwhelming in its own way. Their collection of old magazines is quite impressive – if that’s what you’re looking for, Cameron’s is the place to go.
Total spent here: $0.00.
7. Tom McCall Waterfront Park
From there I walked to the waterfront. There’s a little park called Tom McCall Waterfront Park that stretches along the water and I believe is where they host the famous Portland Farmer’s Market.
It wasn’t a market day (sigh), but that would’ve been lovely and may work for you if you happen to be there on the right day. This riverfront walk is a great way to be able to see Portland’s many bridges.
Total spent here: $0.00
8. The World’s Smallest Park
I had heard that Portland is home to the World’s Smallest Park, called Mill Ends Park, and I was on a mission to find it.
Find it I did – in the middle of the crosswalk on a busy street. Not exactly what I expected, but hey, I can roll with it!
I must say, it felt very awkward to be posing for a touristy photo with cars rushing by on either side of me. Definitely felt self-conscious!
Total spent here: $0.00
9. Poet’s Beach
From there I continued on down the waterfront, and my heart filled with joy and the sense of being led by fate when I saw this sign:
I had no idea that this place existed, and it was exactly what I needed at that moment. A secluded little area where I could take off my shoes and give my tiring feet a refreshing dip in the Willamette.
Along the path down to the beach were many large stones with little poems from local kids engraved on them.
I spent a while sitting on the beach and resting, watching the geese, standing with my feet bare in the water, and looking for little stones or interesting pieces of glass. It was just the refreshment I needed.
Total spent here: $0.00.
10. Aerial Tram Ride
After I felt rested enough, I went searching for the infamous Aerial Tram. You can take it up to a huge hilltop where there’s a hospital complex (what an interesting commute for the people working and studying there!), and it’s truly one of the best ways to get a complete view of the city of Portland.
I got lucky and took a ride on the last day the tram was running before they closed it for maintenance for a few months. The ticket only set me back $4.90 round trip, which is considerably less than I expected considering what a tourist attraction it is.
The tram itself is attractive too, and reminded me of Tomorrowland at Disneyland. I spent several minutes at the top of the hill just taking in the spectacular view before coming back down and deciding it was time for an afternoon pick-me-up.
I bought a coffee and cookie in the lobby of the building next to the tram, and picked a table to eat and read my book for a while.
Total spent here: $8.00.
The lobby was nice, and I enjoyed watching the tram come and go, but for the first time that day, the sun broke out from the clouds and I decided I needed to take my reading to a sunny spot outside.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Portlandia skit where everyone drops what they’re doing the moment the sun comes out to have a pop-up beach party in a tiny patch of light.
Not far from the tram station was a grassy little park that had a hillside for me to sprawl on and nice wooden walkways meandering through. I read there for a while longer.
I’m of the mind that a day exploring a new place needs to have enough relaxation time in it interspersed with DOING things. I need time to BE, as well. And I was tired from all the walking!
11. Blue Star Donuts
Yes, my Portland list has doughnuts on it twice. Don’t you judge me.
Remember I didn’t buy any doughnuts at the first shop. I just went to ogle the people, the pastries, and the wildly named menu items.
Earlier in the day, near Voodoo Doughnuts, I had overheard someone saying that they thought Voodoo was a little overrated, and that Blue Star Donuts was really where it was at. I imagine their rivalry has not only to do with their doughnut flavors, but also a dispute about the proper spelling of the word “doughnut”.
A quick look at the map revealed that my sunny reading spot was just a short walk away from one such establishment, and I couldn’t resist.
I knew I had JUST eaten a cookie, but I would save the doughnuts for later to share with my family, I told myself reassuringly. These doughnuts looked truly gourmet.
I HAD to get no less than 4: Pear Lavender, Horchata Glazed, Raspberry Rosemary Buttermilk, and Lemon Poppyseed Buttermilk.
To be honest, they definitely looked to be of better quality than the doughnuts at Voodoo, just based on appearance. I can’t comment on the flavor of them because I didn’t buy one (next trip!), but the ones from Blue Star were excellent.
I could’ve spent less if I only got ONE for myself instead of 4 to share for later, but the flavors were too tempting! My favorites ended up being the Raspberry Rosemary Buttermilk and the Lemon Poppyseed.
Total spent here: $12.00.
12. International Rose Test Garden
At this point in my day, the afternoon was getting on, and I was contemplating going to the International Rose Test Garden. I hesitated only because it would’ve been a bit of a walk, and I had already done a lot of walking that day.
Luckily, my mom was ready to meet up with me at that point, and she picked me up and we were able to drive to the garden. The garden is free to enter and is absolutely BEAUTIFUL. They have over 10,000 rose bushes and 650 different kinds of roses. A must-see if you like roses (you should still go even if they’re not your favorite).
Total spent here: $0.00.
For dinner, we went over to Cartopia, a charming collection of food carts on the corner of SE Hawthorne and SE 12th. They had about 7 different options, and great outdoor seating with heaters and string lights.
My mom and I split a pizza and some fries smothered in palak paneer, and each enjoyed a beer. The total came out to $24, but again, for the purposes of calculating my own expenses, I’m going to halve that since we shared the cost.
Total spent here: $12.00.
14.The Lovecraft Bar
Josh and I visited The Lovecraft Bar the night before my solo day. We both love H.P. Lovecraft and couldn’t resist the temptation of going to a bar named and themed after him.
There aren’t too many bars in general that are themed after literary works or figures, so we doubly couldn’t resist as English Majors/word nerds.
Technically it wasn’t part of my solo day, but I would be remiss not to mention it in case anyone else would want to visit it while in Portland. To be honest, it was not as amazing as I thought it would be, but it was worth stopping in for a beer.
Total Spent Here: $6.00.
15. Powell’s Books
Technically I went to Powell’s Books the day before all of these other activities, but you could easily fit it into the same day if you wanted to.
It would be irresponsible of me not to put Powell’s on a Portland to-do list.
It’s an icon. I love books. And it’s fun to be able to go to the world’s largest new and used book store in the world on the same day that you visit the world’s smallest park.
Powell’s is awesome. I would describe it as the IKEA of bookstores.
It is MASSIVE (they hand out MAPS of the place, for god’s sake), and we had to set a time and specific location to reunite after browsing for an hour because it was obvious we would never find each other just looking around the store.
I bought a copy of All the Pretty Horses here to take with me to Mexico.
Total Spent Here: $10.00.
My grand total for the whole day: $75.00.
Now, I know everyone’s costs will be different (unless you follow my day to the letter), but I just wanted to show people that it’s very possible to play tourist for a day without breaking the bank.
It can be easy to spend $75 for a meal and a tourist attraction, but here I’ve managed to pay that much for two meals, some snacks in between, a souvenir, a book, and a few tourist attractions.
Also, you may notice that there’s still $24 dollars worth of wiggle room, in case you decide to get doughnuts twice, buy more than one book, take an uber somewhere, etc.
You can customize your own experience, but if you use this post as your guide, you’ll have an awesome day in Portland. It will be just the right amount of doing and being. And you won’t cringe at your bank statements later!
Looking for more money saving tips? Check out my post 10 Ways to Save Money Right Now.
Want even MORE tips and tricks? My, you’re ravenous for knowledge! Enter your email below!
That’s all, folks! Please share in the comments below any of your favorite money saving tips for traveling, your must-see Portland spots, or any thoughts!
Until next time,