ON A TRIP to Thailand last winter, I made friends with a woman from Toronto. Largely unfamiliar with each other's cities, she inquired about Portland's main tourist draws. Wanting to sell it, all I could think of were restaurants and outdoor excursions.
Portland's traditional tourist attractions aren't that monumental, especially on an international scale. Most of its visitor allure is as a "What if I lived here?" roleplay fantasy. I could partly agree with the sentiment that it's a better place to live than it is to tour.
When I moved here, I was far more interested in local life than being a tourist-dupe anyway. That said, I've found ways of entertaining visiting family with a few standbys: the Rose Garden (somewhat overrated unless it's a perfect-weather day or you're nerdy about floral cultivation), the zoo (awesome, thanks to rain-shielding architecture and a particularly badass bat exhibit), a Shanghai Tunnel tour (silly), OMSI (meh, but kids love it and the submarine's pretty cool), the Japanese Garden (fantastic), plus all the stuff that's just part of the fabric of living here, like Pioneer Courthouse Square, Powell's, and Waterfront Park. Oh, and restaurants. Lots and lots of restaurants.
At this point I have enough tenure that it's strange that I haven't been to some of these things. So I finally went, by myself, which was actually kind of melancholy. I'd suggest getting these destinations out of the way sooner rather than later, while your head's at peak curiosity. Then dive into the locals' scene and never look back. There's plenty of melancholy there to go around, too.
World Forestry Center
I've always been under the impression that this place is kinda boring. It's right by the zoo, which I've visited many times, but it never tempted me. Turns out it is indeed kind of boring. The central attraction is a multi-story recreated forest scene. It needs more taxidermy, though, and while I initially got excited by a set of stairs leading under the ground level with a teaser about "who lives beneath the forest floor," the discovery of stuffed toy animals in place of actual animals was really weak sauce. There's a cool feature comparing the weight and look of different types of wood (I admit I was mainly interested in the context of flooring) and lots of videos to watch while sitting in safari jeeps and such. It's okay. There's a really pretty outdoor patio and a nice "Geezer's" gallery of expensive art by seniors, and if you have kids on your hands you could entertain them here for at least an hour. Definitely 45 minutes.
I love touring mansions and real estate in general, and was thrilled to have an excuse to properly check this place out. It's delightful. Even though the signage readily admits that the way it's decorated isn't necessarily representative of how it was specifically at the time the Pittocks lived there (did you know poor Georgiana Pittock—a founder of the Rose Festival—only got to live in it for a few years before she died?), its interiors characterize houses of similar taste and vintage (it was completed in 1914) and taste. It has a slightly dizzying chateau arrangement built for views and curvy walls, and a quirky insistence on modernities of the time, particularly in regard to bathing, draining, and sleeping, plus a Turkish smoking room. If any of those things interest you, go to the Pittock Mansion posthaste.
If Palm Springs can get away with a tram being their main thing, then I guess you could call the Portland Aerial Tram an attraction. Except instead of desert snow, trails, and a bar, the top of ours has people recovering from surgery. Nonetheless, the TriMet representatives who take your ticket for this thing are beaming like it's Disneyland, and it's totally neat to see everything from above. I looked down and wondered whether the people with houses right underneath the tram felt like they had to step up their game with roof maintenance and yard tidiness, as I judged their roof maintenance and yard tidiness. I scrutinized the South Waterfront, which is like a scoby you keep forgetting is in the cupboard. It seemed like everyone else aboard had real reasons for being there, though, and when we got funneled into the hospital at the top, the only thing to do other than muscle in on the patients' patio was try to locate the room I stayed in after my last accident. It turned morbid. Hard to recommend unless you have to go to OHSU for something anyway, in which case this is the only way to go.
Most of the things I'd heard about Portland culture before arrival were authored by Courtney Love, so if you asked me then to guess which popular local hobby starts with "H" I probably would not have said "hiking." The Wildwood Trail is about 30 miles long and feels like it's in the middle of nowhere despite being within city limits, and you can go from hiking it to paying $50 for a Northwest Portland lunch in like 20 minutes flat. Living here has gradually made me a more outdoorsy person than I used to be, but I always seem to leave the city for a fix. A recent hike on the Wildwood made me realize that I really only ever take advantage of the outskirts of our huge urban forest. I've been fucking this up the whole time. Don't make the same mistake.
Lan Su Chinese Garden
Having been to many Chinese gardens not located in China, I'd say this one is well done, modestly sized, and completely walled off from the sometimes-desperate Old Town/Chinatown scene that surrounds it. It's designed in a tradition that shamelessly celebrates wealth and status, which feels like a timely thing to meditate upon while learning about tea in the garden's teahouse, where they also serve vegetarian dumplings, tea eggs, and noodle bowls. (They even have a few tea-based cocktails.) Basic annual membership to the garden is 60 bucks, justifiable as a mental health investment if you live or work nearby.
Technically I went to Voodoo once before (I'm not big on sweets, but my friend wanted a cup of coffee). It was in its very early days when it was tiny and still serving doughnuts coated in pharmaceutical liquids, and well before it became a tourist destination. Never since, though our lives remain intertwined: I was living in the building behind it when it first opened, its current offices are in the same building as the Mercury's, its products regularly show up in the breakroom, and the flagship location is just a block away. I've also been once to the Eastside location—any local will recommend you go here instead of downtown to skip the line, but I get that you have to go to the original to cross it off your bucket list—with a friend who wanted to take some on the plane back to New York (eye roll). So I finally went, albeit at a civilized morning hour and with a very short line. The loud pink décor and punk music are hard to register when you've been numbed to it, but I can see how cool it would seem to a sheltered young person, and how intimidating the pretty girl with a lip ring who rang me up might be. I felt like a dweeb carrying that box the short walk back to the office. But you know what? The first Voodoo Doughnut I ever actually paid money for tasted good. Better than I remembered.
More Newcomers' Guide Articles:
Welcome to Portland!
Rain! Rain! Rain! Rain!
A Portlander's Pronunciation Guide
A Newcomers' Guide to Making Friends
Portland Free Stuff
Getting Around Town
Finding a Place to Live
How to Apologize for Moving to Portland
Bicycle Death Traps
Portland History 101
Portland Myth Bustin'!
Portland Tourist Traps