You have just two days in Portland. What to do? Come along as we discover the ultimate must-do list when you have two days in Portland, Oregon.
“How much can we see in just two days in Portland, Oregon?” my fiancé, Ryan, asked as I put the finishing touches on our Portland itinerary. “Plenty,” I replied. “You’ll see.”
I was on a mission: to experience as many of Portland’s sights, sounds, and snacks as possible in two days. Nothing would stop us from seeing as much as possible—not even the threat of rain in the forecast. Come with us as we discover the ultimate must-do list when you have two days in Portland, Oregon.
Home Base: The AC Hotel Portland Downtown
Upon landing at Portland International Airport around noon on a Tuesday, we rented a car and drove to our hotel. Little did we know that once we handed the keys over to the valet, we wouldn’t bother with our SUV again until our departure. It turns out Portland is an incredibly walkable city, and parking can be limited and expensive. Next time, we’d skip the rental entirely and rely solely on walking and car-share services to get around town.
The AC Hotel in downtown Portland is a block from the waterfront. From our room on the 14th floor, we had a fantastic panoramic view of the Willamette River, a major tributary of the Columbia River that runs through the city.
Our room was modern and well-appointed, with USB plugs, free Wi-Fi, and luxury linens on a “floating” platform bed. We were impressed by the environmentally friendly touches, including the hydration stations on each floor to refill water bottles.
Tuesday Afternoon: Trams, Donuts, and Whiskey
Having worked up an appetite on our flight, we dropped our bags in our room and asked a woman at the front desk where we could find a quick lunch. She suggested a trendy Vietnamese kitchen next door to the hotel called Luc Lac.
We ordered a big bowl of chicken pho and a grilled pork Bahn mi sandwich.
Typically, there’s a line out the door (which we witnessed the next day while walking past), but we were lucky enough to sneak in right as they were closing between lunch and dinner service. Even if we’d had to wait, the fresh ingredients paired with the owner’s family recipe would have been worth it.
Checking Out Portland by Tram
Next, we called an Uber and went to Portland Aerial Tram in the South Waterfront neighborhood. As we purchased our roundtrip tickets for a mere $4.90, we learned that the tram didn’t just provide tourists with four-minute-long, 360-degree views of Portland before stopping on Marquam Hill. Instead, it’s a way for locals to travel between parking lots and the Oregon Health & Science University (Portland’s largest employer).
It’s one of the only aerial commuter trams in the country. During our 22-mph ride, we enjoyed beautiful views of the entire city, a great way to orientate ourselves on day one.
We Need Donuts!
Now that we’d been in Portland for almost three hours, we decided it was high time to indulge in a local favorite: donuts. This city is like the motherland for donut lovers, thanks to now-famous hotspots like Voodoo Doughnut and their dozens of competitors. After descending to the original tram terminal, we strolled through Elizabeth Caruthers Park and over to one such offering—Blue Star Donuts.
Walking in was a heavenly experience, with sweet aromas wafting through the air. As we moved through the line, staring at the glass display of unusual varieties, we made our selections: one each of Blueberry Bourbon Basil, Chocolate Buttermilk Old-Fashioned, Valrhona Chocolate Crunch, and Real Maple Bacon.
They did not disappoint—each donut showcased a subtle mix of special flavors, and the cakes were a perfect consistency. No wonder donuts are treated as a separate food group in Portland! Most locations close when they run out of the day’s made-from-scratch donuts, so be sure to get there early for the widest selection. This is definitely on the must-do list for two days in Portland.
A Night on the Town
After a few hours of relaxation in our hotel room, we headed to one of the AC Hotel’s sister properties, the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront. We’d heard its restaurant, Proof•Reader, offered an impressive array of whiskeys and a menu of mouthwatering items. As we nestled into a cozy booth, we were stunned to find the names of about 200 whiskeys from the local Willamette Valley and all around the world (including Japan, Taiwan, and India) on the extensive libations list.
Lead bartender Jason Marshall helped us select a tasting menu of whiskeys aged for different lengths of time to understand how it affects the final product. “When it sits in the barrel to age, that’s when the stories happen,” he says, noting the various factors that can affect the outcome. “And when you take it out of the barrel, that’s when you tell the story.”
Marshall is a wealth of knowledge about the origin of each brand, the regional prohibition-era smuggling rings, the whiskey-making process, and, of course, drinking whiskey. He takes great pride in crafting whiskey cocktails to match any patron’s preferences.
In the meantime, sous chef Ian Hourihan was busy whipping up some of his special summer appetizers. He brought us two dishes to start: a crispy duck fat potato smash featuring potatoes that are fried crispy, tossed in rendered duck fat, and served over a black garlic aioli; and seared scallops with sweet corn gel, chive blossoms, and micro cilantro. They might be two of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten, with wonderfully complex flavor profiles, impossibly fresh ingredients, and culinary prowess.
Next came our entrees: a grilled, grass-fed ribeye steak and elk Bolognese with elk sausage and pappardelle pasta. In a word, incredible. Chef Hourihan served up a cast iron cookie topped with Oregon’s own Tillamook vanilla ice cream for dessert as if we had any room left.
Wednesday: Roses, Cocktails, and Books
Thanks to our food coma from the night before, we slept in a bit and opted to skip breakfast since we were still full. It was time to go to the agenda item I was most excited about: the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day in the low 70s—I couldn’t believe our luck! There’s no fee to enter the rose garden, so we walked in and began our self-guided tour. The roses bloom from April through October, and peak around June, which happened to be during our visit.
The smell was positively intoxicating, as 100,000 rose bushes filled our nostrils. As we strolled through the 650 varieties of roses being tested before they are released onto the market, we marveled at the cute names (including Twilight Zone, Poet’s Wife, Wedding Bells, Pretty Lady Rose, and Love & Peace), while noticing how different each one was — the size, coloration, petal pattern and more. I would have happily stayed here all day, but we had worked up an appetite, and lunch was calling our names.
Time to Eat Again During Our 2 Days in Portland
We chose Craft PDX at the Hi-Lo Hotel downtown. Executive chef Bryant Kryck must have heard we were ravenous because the courses kept coming one after another—each perfectly paired with a cocktail.
His focus is on local ingredients and supporting growers and companies in the community, which is evident in each dish. He started us off with sliced heirloom tomatoes topped with Jacobsen salt, micro basil, and CBD olive oil, and a Mediterranean hummus platter adorned with tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, and microgreens. It was hands-down the creamiest hummus I’ve ever had. Chef Kryck’s secret? Blending it with cold water.
Next, came top sirloin steak tartare with pickled mushrooms, truffle oil powder, egg yolk, and radish for a crunch factor. Quickly following that: local sockeye salmon atop a bed of English pea risotto topped with a carrot fennel salad, and then a brisket sandwich (smoked 17 hours in-house) with two kinds of cheddar, crispy onions and slaw. Each bite was absolutely flavor-filled, with exciting textures to please any palate.
Meanwhile, the bartender was keeping our thirst quenched with fun cocktails, such as the Step in the Right Direction (mezcal, bourbon, banana syrup, and lime juice) and The Meeting (a simultaneously light and bold twist on an Old fashioned, with apple brandy, walnut bitter, apple spice finish, and lemon twist).
To top it all off, Chef Kryck brought out two desserts that stem from his own family recipes: a strawberry rhubarb cobbler with mixed berry cream and a lemon bar with marionberry jam. What a scrumptious finale to a meal of elevated comfort food.
Powell’s City of Books is a Portland Classic
As we rolled ourselves outside, we decided we needed to walk off our stuffed bellies—so we meandered over to another Portland highlight: Powell’s City of Books. The word “city” is an appropriate term, considering this massive bookstore (the largest in the world) occupies an entire city block and houses 1 million books.
The store is divided into nine color-coded rooms, covering every subject you could imagine. It’s an especially great place for bibliophiles to search for out-of-print and hard-to-find titles. After a few hours of exploration, we returned to our hotel just as a storm began whipping up.
Since we were still full from lunch, we scrapped our dinner plans and relaxed in our room for the evening—the Smart TV allowed us to sign in to our Netflix account. We had the perfect view for watching the sky light up with lightning while sideways rain relentlessly pelted the city for hours.
Thursday Morning: Food Trucks and Breweries
The rain was still falling when we awoke mid-morning, but that certainly wasn’t going to deter me from experiencing the final “must-do” activity on my list: food carts!
Portland’s food cart scene has been a large part of the city’s culture since the late 1990s, bringing a taste of many different cultures to the area. I had my heart (and taste buds) set on a few stalls in the well-known area of Southwest 10th Avenue and Alder Street.
Note: As of July 1, 2019, the food cart pod on Southwest 10th Avenue and Alder Street —known as the Alder Street Pod—is no longer operating. The previous area will be the location of a new hotel in downtown Portland. However, most food carts have found a new home in Ankeny Square. You can find about 30 of the carts along Southwest Park Avenue, 8th Avenue, and Ankeny Street.
Our first stop in this pod of street food carts was Bing Mi!, which specializes in authentic Chinese wraps called Jianbing—savory crepes filled with scrambled egg, black bean paste, chili sauce, pickled vegetables, green onions, cilantro, and a crispy fried cracker. It was piping hot, and we ate it under the protection of our umbrella—what a cozy way to start our cool, damp morning.
Next, we popped by Bao Bao for handmade steamed buns. We ordered the pork and curry chicken and let them melt in our mouths.
Finally, we hit The Grilled Cheese Grill, where we selected The Gabby—three types of Tillamook cheese on French white bread, served with potato chips and a pickle. We also enjoyed a cup of tomato soup, because, well, what else would you dip your grilled cheese into? Note: The Grilled Cheese Grill is now at the SW Washington St. Cart Pod at SW 3rd and Washington.
After so many savory delights, we were incredibly thirsty, so we made our way to our final stop in Portland: the Deschutes Portland Public House. The craft brewpub offers more than 20 taps of the brand’s mainstays and seasonal and experimental beers (the brewery is in Bend, Oregon). We split a Classic Beer Tray featuring six 4-oz. samples. The Fresh Squeezed IPA was my favorite, while Ryan was partial to the Black Butte Porter.
As the clock struck noon, we made our way back to the AC Hotel to collect our luggage and SUV.
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2 Days in Portland, Oregon
Somehow, we’d managed to conquer everything on our itinerary and eat and drink our way through two days in Portland—and my fiancé swore he’d never doubted me for a minute. Be sure to check out Wander for many more things you can do during your visit to Portland, Oregon. We also have more great Ultimate Guide to 2 Days in destinations across the USA.