Actually Cool Things to Do Right Now in Portland

All social distancing approved.

As Portland moves from the heat of summer into the cooler days of fall, one thing is for certain: These have been the most eventful, historic months in Portland in decades, and that doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon. Between a pandemic that has upended millions of lives and the continuing nightly protests against racism and police brutality, Portland has been in the center of it all. But the city has persevered, restaurants and bars have pivoted to new models, concerts and events have transitioned online, and these months have invigorated conversations about equity, racial justice, workplace cultures, and community health. 

For those looking for some fun activities to get their mind off things -- because dammit, you deserve it -- Portland still has you covered. However, it’s important to remember that no matter the activity, we’re living through a pandemic. Masks, hand washing, and social distancing are still essential. With that said, here are some actually cool things you can do in Portland right now.

Hit up a patio… while you can

$ to $$$
Multiple locations
Late summer and early fall are definitely patio season in Portland. And with every brewpub, bar, and restaurant in town extending their patios and sidewalk seating as much as possible, patios are bigger -- literally -- than ever. It’s possible a virus resurgence in the later months will shut down dining or that untimely weather will drive people away, so get in while you can. Just remember that it’s exceedingly important to treat your servers and fellow patrons with respect and safety. After all, nothing’s cooler than tipping well, being polite, and wearing a mask whenever possible.

Peacefully attend a protest

Multiple locations
Protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd are still going strong, sustained by impassioned people fighting for equity and social justice. It’s a historic time in this city and country, and those that feel safe to do so should recognize that it’s an opportunity to support a momentous cause and to be a part of something. While there are risks, going early and leaving before (and wearing a mask) dark tends to mitigate them.

Go visit wine country

$ to $$$
Willamette Valley
Now that the counties around Portland proper have been reopened, so have the wineries. Oregon is home to one of the most famed wine regions in the country, with the Willamette Valley competing on a national level thanks to its legendary pinot noir wines. Beyond just the wineries, boutique tasting rooms and grand estates, there are numerous smaller towns to explore (including Newberg and McMinnville) with all sorts of shops, cafes, and restaurants. While these towns have been less impacted by the virus than Multnomah County, it’s especially important for visitors from Portland to mask up and be aware of social distancing. 

Go hiking in the Gorge

$ to $$
Columbia River Gorge
Rather than heading west to wine country, you can also head east to the Columbia River Gorge whose looping, winding trails are open for hikers and campers to explore in a stunning display of the local ecology and environment. As with all things, though, there’s a responsibility placed on visitors to maintain this. Enjoy the country and all of its wonders, but clean up after yourself and don’t set any fires outside of designated fire pits and at designated times. 

Visit Portland’s brand new 24/7 pastry vending machines

Pix Pâtisserie has been a part of the Portland community for decades now, specializing in smaller pastries like macarons and petit four as well as a stunning sparkling wine list. While the shop remains closed for dining for the foreseeable future, owner Cheryl Wakerhauser has set up two fun new vending machines. Along with her own treats, the Pix-o-Matics feature an ever-changing assortment of snacks and dishes from local chefs and artisans alongside essential items like face masks, toilet paper, and buttons. And they’re open 24/7, which means visitors can grab a snack even after everything else officially closes down at 10pm in accordance with safety guidelines. Plus there’s a disco ball, selfie station, and music, as well as the occasional pop-up party or featured chef.

Order some local spirits or wine

For whatever reason, the state of Oregon still hasn’t legalized to-go cocktails. What they have done, however, is eased restrictions on delivery of wine and beer, as well as the delivery of local spirits. So while you can’t get a bottle of Jack Daniels sent to your door, you can score some of Portland’s legendary craft distilling products. Some, like the women-owned and -operated Freeland Spirits or the renowned Oregon single malt distillery Westward Whiskey, handle their own deliveries. Others get shipped by local delivery service At Your Door, which ships local spirits, home cocktail kits, and many other drink options including local beers, wines, juices, and coffee.

Order some books from the best bookstore in the United States 

Powell’s Books, aka the City of Books, is nothing short of a Portland landmark. At the start of the pandemic, it was touch and go whether the venerable shop would survive without its loyal patrons being able to peruse its shelves. Luckily, the bookstore quickly pivoted to a new model and was even able to hire back many of its furloughed employees. Today, shoppers can order a book to be shipped or can schedule a contactless pickup, then visit the store and notify workers via a website that they’re there. A worker then drops the book at a table outside. 

Stream the Northwest’s most sensational film festival 

A little thing like a global plague isn’t going to stop Hump!, the audacious and tawdry film festival from Seattle-based sex columnist Dan Savage. The inclusive, body-positive independent pornographic film festival is sometimes sexy, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes funny, and sometimes weird -- and now has moved to a livestream with dates in September and October. Tickets tend to go very quickly for this event, and there is a cap on the amount of viewers for the livestreams. 

Get cultural with art and film

Free to $$
Multiple locations
Local cultural institutions such as the Portland Art Museum and the Northwest Film Center have worked hard to adapt to the pandemic. The museum is open with new strict rules about visiting hours, social distancing, and masks, also teaming up with the NWFC on a series of drive-in film festivals called Cinema Unbound that will run through September. Meanwhile, the Disjecta Contemporary Art Center is hosting online exhibitions and installation video tours on its site.

Go on a neighborhood bike tour

Free to $
Multiple locations
With far fewer cars on the road, Portland is an even more amazing bike town than ever. Even as the sunny days give way to rainy ones, there’s still plenty of opportunities to take out the two-wheeler and explore your local neighborhood. In addition to getting out and about, it’s a fun way to check out the city’s architecture and the variety of homes that fill the streets from Victorians to craftsman houses to modernist homes. Or you can mock up some bingo cards for dog breeds and go dog-spotting, as Portland is rife with pups on walks right now while furloughed employees adopt some friends to keep them company while stuck at home.

Stand at the top of Mt Tabor and scream 

Mt Tabor
Let loose your aggrievement at the top of Portland’s volcano, Mt Tabor. Or just go for a walk along its many roads, which are currently closed to cars. Just remember that social distancing guidelines apply, even outside, and it’s highly recommended by health officials that people wear masks to protect themselves and others. And a mask won’t block the stellar view of the city in springtime that Mt. Tabor provides as it looks westernly, over the river and to the West Hills and Forest Park beyond.

Order takeout or delivery from a favorite restaurant 

$ to $$$$
Multiple locations
Portland’s restaurant scene has been radically, likely irrevocably, altered. An executive order from the governor shut down dining rooms for months and even after reopening, it’s unclear which will survive. Many have not. It’s a scary, uncertain time for one of Portland’s proudest industries, but luckily, many of the restaurants that define Portland are still serving -- both with limited in-house dining and through curbside takeout and delivery. One of the coolest and safest things anyone in Portland can do is order from their favorite restaurants for takeout or delivery.

Taste your way through Portland’s beer scene

$ to $$$
Multiple locations
Beer is one of Portland’s most well-known and well-regarded institutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Portland breweries sport large, open patios and beer gardens. And even those that are still closed for on-site imbibing are delivering or offering curbside pickup service so you can grab your favorite IPA from Breakside, sour beer from Cascade, or lager from Ruse.

Try out some food carts

$ to $$
Multiple locations
Even with dining rooms reopening, Portland’s restaurant scene has been inexorably transformed, with new social distancing rules in place throughout the state. But the unique food cart scene that helps define Portland’s restaurant identity remains relatively the same. (In fact, it’s looking like food carts will weather the storms of COVID-19 better than brick and mortars.) Fine dining institution Higgins has added a satellite outdoor bistro food cart kitchen, Piggins. And while the beloved Cajun restaurant Le Bistro Montage closed for good, it has reopened as Montage ala Carte. While there’s no hanging out in pods late at night, you can still grab a favorite dish from food cart standbys like Kim Jong Grillin, Matt’s BBQ, Gumba, Jojo, and Desi

Follow the Oregon Zoo on social media

The Oregon Zoo has reopened under strict visitor limitations, but zookeepers have kept on top of the social media game for those who aren’t yet ready to visit in person. Wouldn’t you like to watch Nacho the penguin wander around the zoo meeting other animals, or go for a hike outside with his friend Goat the penguin? Obviously… because it’s objectively adorable, and it’s on Instagram. There are also weekly Facebook Live videos of different animals living in the zoo for additional tedium-relieving cuteness.

Go hiking in Forest Park

Forest Park
Speaking of, Portland is home to Forest Park, often referred to as the largest park within city limits in the US. The lush woods provide an escape from the hustle of the city, subdued as it is these days. As with any public activity, the six-feet rule still applies, but the size of the park offers ample opportunity to stay at a safe distance, while the verdant canopy offers a cool shade on the hot days of Portland’s spring and early summer.

Attend a virtual wine class

Free to $$$
Portland is naturally proud of its wines, given that the Willamette Valley is one of the finest wine regions of the new world. While there aren’t any in-person wine tastings, dinners, or classes, a number of places around town are hosting virtual wine classes, talks, and just hangouts. Kelsey Glasser, owner and sommelier of the urban wine bar Arden, teaches courses on wines each Sunday, which customers can order for pick-up or delivery beforehand; the eccentric wine bar Pairings’ owner Jeffrey Weissler occasional livestreams about the unique flights of wines he creates, like Harry Potter flights; and John Grochau of Grochau Wines hosts other winemakers for weekly discussions on Zoom, with guests able to register and attend online. I Love Gamay, a yearly festival all about the gamay grape, has moved online for the time being, with a number of weekly events and wine deliveries. 

Catch some local shows

It’s hard to maintain social distancing guidelines in a mosh pit, or even in a modestly cramped theater so live concerts are (temporarily, hopefully) a thing of the past. Luckily, the Alberta Rose Theater is working to support local artists and give audiences a chance to catch their favorite acts through a virtual concert program. The Portland Music Stream includes dozens of local bands putting on live shows almost nightly for subscribers to listen in to. It’s not the same thing as being at a real show, but it’s a nice fix and a helpful fundraiser for musicians. 

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Alex Frane is a Portland native. He’s grateful for Zoom calls with his friends, the resilience of his city, and door-to-door wine deliveries. Follow him at @franiacdrinks
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