How to Have the Best Summer in Portland

Chilling on a sunny summer afternoon at the Skidmore Bluffs. Photo by Janet Lackey/Flickr

By Jon Shadel

Little-known fact: Few people know how to take advantage of summer quite like Portlanders, and that’s because we’ve earned every second of it.

After months of pesky drizzle and gray clouds, the weather’s finally on our side. The dog days arrive with endlessly blue skies and balmier temperatures than Seattle or San Francisco. That’s why, from June through September, you’ll hardly see any of us indoors — instead, we’re spread out on a blanket in a park or along the Willamette River, soaking in rays and burning to a crisp.

But there’s more to summer here than overdosing on vitamin D.

The city pulls out all the stops with a calendar filled with festivals celebrating our music scene, craft beer, culinary talent and colorful neighborhoods. And with the coast, the Columbia River Gorge and wine country within a short drive of downtown, there are plenty of opportunities for impromptu day trips. 

All of these tempting options mean you need to make some hard choices: Chilling on a patio bar all afternoon or hitting the road to chase the coastal breeze? Dancing like no one’s looking at a music festival or picnicking in a park as the sunset lights up the sky? Tough life, right? To help you out, we’ve rounded up a few locals’ favorite experiences to add to your summer bucket list.

"Carpe aestatem," as the Romans said. In other words: Get out there! Take your pick and make the most of it while it’s here.

Choose Your Own Summer Adventure

Sample Farm-Fresh Fare

Farmers Market
Fresh produce from the Farmers Market at Portland State University. Photo by drburtoni/Flickr.

Produce fresh from the farm, sustainably sourced ingredients and a fearless sense of creativity — these are all hallmarks of Portland’s approachable culinary scene. There’s no better time to celebrate our natural bounty and homegrown talent than with the countless markets and festivals happening all summer long.

Marquee food festivals include The Bite of Oregon (Aug. 12-14, 2016) and Feast Portland (Sept. 15-18, 2016), when celebrity chefs from all over the world mingle with local all-stars for tastings, hands-on classes, collaborative dinners and panels — each showcasing what makes this city and state such a foodie trendsetter.

Throughout the summer, head to one of eight bustling farmers markets to shop for freshly picked produce or pig out on the tasty fare served at the food stalls. The Farmers Market at Portland State University, held on Saturday mornings through the summer, features more than 140 artisan vendors as well as live music and other live entertainment. 

Berry lovers, on the other hand, won’t want to miss the small but growing Oregon Berry Festival (July 15-16, 2016), which features a handful of farmers selling quarts of strawberries, raspberries and marrionberries, the state’s almost-official berry, as well as other berry-inspired goods.   

Dance to the music

The band Lady, hailing from Philadelphia, performs at Pickathon. Photo by Redfishingboat/Flickr.

The Decemberists, The Shins, The Dandy Warhols and STRFKR are just a few of the bands that call Portland home. With one of the most happening indie rock scenes in America and dozens of celebrated music venues, it should be no surprise that summer brings a slate of events catering to a variety of tastes — but especially geared to fans of indie, alternative and electronic.  

Here are a few highlights from the festival calendar, but consult our guide to the hottest summer music festival for further details: This year two of the city’s biggest events merged, resulting in MusicfestNW Presents Project Pabst (Aug. 27-28, 2016), blending the best elements of both and bringing headliners like Tame Impala and Duran Duran to the city’s waterfront. No festival captures Oregon’s anti-corporate ethos and independent spirit better than Pickathon (Aug. 5-7, 2016), which welcomes roots and American bands as well as top indie rock talent. Soon-to-be-big bands take to a stage under the Hawthorne Bridge for PDX Pop Now! (July 22-24, 2016), a free, all-ages festival exclusively dedicated to the local music scene.

There is, of course, more here than just indie rock. Other top events span genres, including: the Waterfront Blues Fest (July 1-4, 2016), the largest of its kind on the west of the Mississippi; the classy Cathedral Park Jazz Festival (July 15-17, 2016), held each year beneath the iconic St. Johns Bridge; and Chamber Music Northwest’s summer concert series, held weekly in June and July.

Take a road trip

Hood River
A day trip spent exploring the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Zach Dischner/Flickr.

Summer brings an undeniable urge to hit the road and drive. And since Oregon has more scenic byways and tour routes than any other state, it’s easy to plan impromptu day-trip adventures. It doesn’t matter if you want to escape to snowcapped mountains, cool off with 363 miles of coast or hike past dozens of surging waterfalls in the Gorge, you’ll find some of the most unadulterated natural beauty in North America within just a few hours of Portland.

Consider this: If you wake up early enough, you can hike to the summit of Mt. Hood, then cruise to the coast to be surfing by lunchtime and then back in the city for dinner. Not bad, right? Or for something totally different, head into the high desert of Central Oregon and explore the culture of our Native American neighbors. You could even take a mid-week trip to the Willamette Valley for low-traffic wine touring and stop by a few of the scenic towns for a wine country dining. For more details about these experiences and other essential day trip destinations, check out our guide to two-hour road trips.

Booze it up at beer festivals

Rouge Sampler
Enjoying a sampler tray of local beer from Rouge Distillery and Public House. Photo by David Wright/Flickr.

Beer lovers, welcome to Beervana, a city that has more breweries in its city limits than any place on earth — more than 80 in the greater Portland metro area. But this obsession for local beer extends beyond the brewpubs themselves. The city has a calendar full of thirst-quenching events, and summer is the best time to indulge in what the craft breweries have to offer.

June kicks everything off with one big week of festivities dedicated to the greatest beer city on earth. Portland Beer Week (June 9-19, 2016) features 11 days of tastings, special events and festivals hosted throughout the city. Highlights include the Fruit Beer Festival, the Rye Beer Festival and Snackdown!, which is dedicated to pairing local beer with snacks from some of the city’s top chefs — does it get better than this?

With July being designated Oregon Craft Beer Month, 60 cities across the state will host more than 500 events that include tastings, tappings and new releases. But Portland hosts the big daddy of beer festivals, the Oregon Brewers Fest (July 27-31, 2016), on the Waterfront Park. The five-day beer festival, one of the longest-running in the nation, shows off the state’s best suds with more than 80 craft brews on tap. For something different than the traditional beer festival format, try Puckerfest (July 19-25, 2016), a festival dedicated exclusively to sour beers — the tangiest trend happening now in craft brewing.  

After the mind-numbing variety of beer events in June and July, you’d think the city would settle in to nurse its hangover. But August keeps the party going with a variety of boozy celebrations. The Nano Beer Festival (Aug. 9-10, 2016) takes the concept of microbreweries and shrinks it. The two-day festival celebrates so-called “nano” breweries that brew three or fewer barrels of beer at a time. Aiming to raise awareness about organic and sustainable beers, the 12th annual North American Organic Brewers Festival (Aug. 25-28, 2016) serves up more than 50 organic beers, from chocolatey stout to summery saison.

Hike endless trails in an urban forest

Forest Park
More than 80 miles of trails wind through Forest Park. Photo by Szapucki/Flickr.

Count on your hands the number of American cities that have an untamed forest within the city limits, and we bet you’ll raise just one finger for Portland, considered by many a republic of tree huggers. That’s why it should come as no surprise that the city’s celebrated green spaces rank among the top attractions.

At more than 5,100 acres, Forest Park is one of the largest urban forest preserves in the United States — a refuge to more than 160 species of birds and mammals, as well as adventure-seekers of all kinds. The 80-plus miles of soft-surface trails, fire lanes and forest roads wind through the park make it the ideal place for antsy outdoorsman to escape the city without actually leaving.

Consult The Forest Park Conservancy’s website for detailed maps of easily accessible trails and to learn more about guided hikes and scheduled events.

Watch a movie in a park — or on a roof

Flicks on the Bricks
Thousands of cinema lovers bring lawn chairs to Pioneer Courthouse Square for Flicks on the Bricks. Photo by Sam Grover/Flickr.

When the weather warms, Portlanders takes their obsession for cinema outdoors. With screenings featuring everything from old school classics to recent box office hits, we’ve got a calendar full of one-of-a-kind movie nights for the whole family.     

Hosted in the heart of downtown Portland, Flicks on the Bricks shows a variety of films — ranging from action/adventure to musicals to family favorites — on a huge screen in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Bring some lawn chairs and join hundreds of eager moviegoers on select Friday nights in July and August.

Taking things upstairs, Top Down: Rooftop Cinema screens films on the top of a parking garage beside the Hotel deLuxe. Hosted on select Thursday nights in July and August, the program focuses on classic and campy movies that appeal to the media critic in each one of us, often including classics from Alfred Hitchcock and other famed filmmakers.

Get artsy at colorful street fairs

Alberta Street Fair
Street performers show off the quirky character of the Alberta Arts District. Photo by Scott Mills/Flickr.

Portland’s eclectic neighborhoods define the character of the city, and each summer they show their colors with street fairs featuring live music, local food and all kinds of fun.

Two Northeast neighborhoods put on a couple of the largest festivals: Drawing crowds in excess of 30,000, the Mississippi Street Fair (July 9, 2016) features more than 200 arts and crafts vendors as well as entertainment from 40 bands on six different stages. Further north, the free-spirited residents of Alberta invite you to play in the street at the Alberta Street Fair (Aug. 13, 2016), a celebration which includes two beer gardens, three stages and more than 300 vendors.  

In Southeast, you’ll find trendsetting neighborhoods throwing their own parties. Affectionately called “eat street” due to the number of award-winning restaurants that have cropped up in recent years, Division’s annual street fair and parade (July 23, 2016) presents the perfect opportunity to nosh along this hot culinary strip. The Hawthorne Street Fair (Aug. 28, 2016) shows off quirky boutiques and local business that have long defined the artsy stronghold.

On the other side of the Willamette River, Portland’s handsome downtown and western neighborhoods also know how to have a good time. The Pearl District, which has more than a dozen galleries, throws Art in the Pearl (Sept. 3-5, 2016) and the monthly gallery walk First Thursdays. In the heart of downtown, Pioneer Courthouse Square welcomes a variety of different events scheduled throughout the summer. 

Cool off in city fountains

Keller Fountain
Portlanders cool off in the Keller Fountain on hot summer days. Photo by Ken Hawkins/Flickr.

When the weather gets unbearably warm, many of us take to the Willamette River or head out to Sauvie Island to wade into the cool waters of the Columbia River. But with many of our city’s fountains intended for recreation, you can cool off with the kids and never leave downtown.

Our most famous fountain, Keller Fountain, has been described by architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable as  “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance." We have to agree. Swimmers are allowed to climb on top of the 25-foot walls and wade in the pools below — perfect for a warm summer day. 

In the heart of the Pearl District, Jamison Square features a fountain installation that simulates a shallow tidal pool. Popular with young families, the park fills up with sunbathing parents and squealing children on sunny weekends. Bring some sunscreen and let the kids wade into the water as it cascades from stone joints into low pools.

At the Waterfront Park, you’ll discover Salmon Street Springs, one of the city’s most beloved outdoor spaces. Controlled by an underground computer, the fountain automatically changes the pattern of its 185 water jets. At full capacity, the fountain recycles 4,924 gallons of water per minute.

Witness stunning sunsets

Skidmore Bluffs
Friends hang out at the Skidmore Bluffs on a late afternoon, shortly before sunsets. Photo by Janet Lackey/Flickr.

After a long day of exploring, head to a scenic location for a cinematic view of the setting sun. Whether you’re planning a romantic evening or just want to kick it with friends, Portland’s topography provides some stellar vantage points to witness the firework colors of the evening sky.  

What sounds more romantic than watching the sunset while lounging on an extinct volcano? Bring a date to Mt. Tabor Park — a park located on a dormant volcanic cinder cone — for views of the city with the still waters of a reservoir pool perfectly positioned to reflect the citrus streaks in the sky.

A neighborhood favorite, the Skidmore Bluffs might be the best spot for a casual evening picnic with a few close friends. Hidden away in a quiet residential area near the Alberta and Killingsworth neighborhoods, the Bluffs seem like a poorly kept secret. If you want to blend in with the locals, bring a deck of cards, a (cleverly disguised) flask of wine and a few tasty snacks. 

End your perfect Portland summer day in a truly legendary way by driving just 25 miles out of the city to see the sunset at Vista House at Crown Point in the Columbia River Gorge. There’s something transcendent about seeing the last rays of the sun reflected on the surface of the majestic Columbia River.

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