We Portlanders love our city for many reasons, and the unique events that happen all year long are certainly a rich part of the cultural fabric of Portland.
All year long, the calendar is filled with a wide variety of events for all ages. From family friendly daytime offerings to excellent adult nightlife options, Portland has it all.
Events like Flicks on the Bricks and Music on Main are a chance to see free movies and music outside. Feast Portland and TBA explore food and the arts. There is a farmer’s market for every day of week and craft fairs abound, especially during the winter holiday season.
And then there are the events that give you pause, those moments where you say “This! This is what I love about Portland.” You know the ones: You show up and you think surely you must be in an episode of Portlandia.
There are many to choose from and it wasn’t easy to whittle it down, but there are are our top six favorite quintessential oh-so-Portland events.
1) CASCADE FESTIVAL OF AFRICAN FILMS
February and March
How does Portland celebrate Black History Month? With a month of free movies! Since 1990, Portland Community College has honored Black History Month by hosting a month of free films at the Cascade Festival of African Films.
The festival is an opportunity to see rare films from emerging directors alongside features, documentaries and short films by established African directors from more than 15 countries.
The Cascade Festival of African Films prides itself on showing viewers Africa through the eyes of Africans, rather than a vision of Africa packaged for non-African viewers. The films boldly celebrate Africa’s achievements, expose its failures and reveal a hopeful future.
2) THE BIG FLOAT
This wild and wacky event gets people out for a day of celebrating the incredible river that runs through the heart of the city.
The City of Portland and environmental allies have worked extremely hard to clean up the Willamette River, especially the stretch that snakes through the city. The Big Float is organized by the Human Access Project, an organization that creates opportunities for recreational access on the river in the city core. They are also hard at work raising awareness for the the river’s healthy status.
The Big Float kicks off with a parade along the waterfront, complete a marching band leading a sea of people in bathing suits to Poet’s Beach, the first official beach in City. Resting atop floaties and rafts, people float down river toward “The Bowl” at Tom McCall Waterfront Park for an on-the-water celebration.
Rocking live music emanates from a floating stage as floaters laze in the water, kids splash in the shallow area and people sprawl out all over the lawn. Trained volunteer guards patrol the swim zone and the Coast Guard patrols the corridor of boat traffic to maintain a safe event for all ages.
But if all of that (a floating live music stage!) isn’t enough to make this an oh-so-Portland event, the costume contest certainly is. Swimmers recline on a variety of ridiculously garish water floats (flamingos, unicorns, donuts, avocados), often wearing corresponding attire to create a floating theme. There seems to be only one guideline: the more over the top, the better.
It really is quite a scene to gaze out at the Willamette and see a mass of people in colorful costumes floating down the river. The only thing better is to be one of the people in the floatilla.
3) PORTLAND SUNDAY PARKWAYS
Once a month, May-September
What is the city’s largest public space? You might guess Forest Park, and you’d be close, but the answer is actually far less lush: it’s the City’s streets!
Years ago the City of Portland realized these broad open areas could provide much needed space to promote healthy activities. Modeled after a well established program in Bogotá, Colombia, Portland Sunday Parkways is now world renown and cities all over the world have started to model their programs after ours.
Once a month in the warm weather, The City of Portland promotes healthy active living through a series of free events to walk, bike, roll and discover active transportation. A network of streets in one quadrant is opened up for people to hang out in the middle of the road for a day. City parks become activity hubs along the route, hosting free activities like yoga, zumba, live music, face painting, a climbing wall, community booths and food trucks.
We love this event for so many reasons. Not only is it a fantastic way to get out for healthy family fun, it’s also a very cool way to explore a part of town you may not already know. And when the streets are cleared of traffic, you have the opportunity to see the city from an entirely different perspective.
4) ADULT SOAPBOX DERBY
This isn’t your kids’ cardboard box soapbox derby of eras past. The Portland Adult Soap Box Derby is a feat of gravity fueled creativity, made ultra exciting by the winding curves of Mt. Tabor.
Competitors spend months creating their rigs. They aim for a mix of aerodynamics, a unique theme and plenty of over-the-top antics to entertain the crowd, while simultaneously building a car that can withstand the perilous feat of going downhill fast. Not all cars survive - some fall apart before they even make it halfway down the steep route. The race course follows Reservoir Loop Drive down to the upper reservoir gates, twisting and turning along the way.
Spectators arrive early and picnic along the sidelines for a relaxing day at the park, framed by broad sweeping views of the city from high atop Mount Tabor. Head out early to snag a good spot. Regulars will tell you that the best place settle in is on the thrilling tight turns where you never know what’s going to happen.
5) OREGON ZOO SUMMER CONCERTS
June through September
Every summer, fans of folk, rock, world music and more stake out spots on the amphitheater lawn of the Oregon Zoo for the Oregon Zoo Summer Concerts with more than a dozen outdoor performances.
The venue is completely unique, with the sound of elephants and other animals in the background as you hang out on the grassy lawn, shaped perfectly as an amphitheater. Every year the lineup of acts changes to include a mix of mellow stay-in-your-seat artists and others that will have you dancing barefoot in the grass.
Sprawl out on colorful blankets as you partake in one of the most Portland activities possible: chatting with the strangers around you and making new friends. After all, getting to know your neighbors is oh-so-Portland.
It’s easy to take the MAX to the Zoo and enjoy a fun night outside with family and friends.
6) PORTLAND WINTER LIGHT FESTIVAL
People often wonder how we survive the dreary winters of Portland. Portland Winter Light Festival is one of the ways. This celebration of light and motion takes place at night in the dead of winter. Artists create bold, bright mesmerizing works of art that are displayed at hubs throughout the city, from St. Johns to the South Waterfront. Portland Winter Light Festival is only a few years old, but it is quickly becoming a must-do annual tradition.
It might be cold and raining, but Portlanders of all ages flock to the city to explore these colorful, often interactive displays. The event is an invigorating night of thrilling cutting edge technology, music and fun for the entire family.
For the best experience, go on opening day when the sculptures are in their best condition, before hoards of people have interacted with them. Bundle up for the weather, bring hand warmers and a mug of hot tea and sink into the magic of the night.