When I moved to Oregon as a newlywed, I knew very little about the place. I had only ever visited there once—for three days to apartment hunt, interview for a job, and visit my fiance. And once I actually moved there, I found that most of what I thought I knew about it was false.
Coming from the sunny, conservative state of Georgia, Oregon was about as far away as you could get within the continental states. And it was equally far away in cultural and political climates, not to mention the weather itself.
Plenty of people from my home state had opinions (and warnings) about Portland that they were quick to share with me when they found out I was moving there. But, as is true with any new place, the bits and pieces you hear about it rarely tell the whole story. Your opinion drastically changes once you experience it for yourself, and even more so when you begin to live there.
After moving, I quickly discovered that Portland’s reputation of “keeping it weird” had nearly overshadowed the rest of the state. There is much more to a state than its most popular city.
Portland could easily be its own state for all its differences from middle and southern Oregon. Even within the metro areas, the culture, people, and scenes varied wildly—just like many other big, growing cities. You could visit a family in one peaceful, more family-oriented neighborhood, then leave and within 30 or so minutes, be smack dab in the middle of one of the crazy downtown protests the city is notoriously well-known for.
Much of the rest of the state is wide open spaces, historic sites, beautiful scenery, Christmas tree farms, and regular, hard-working people with more conservative views.
I explain all that to say this—some of the things I share in this article are pretty exclusive to Portland. You won’t find all of these experiences to be true in middle or southern Oregon. So if you’re planning a visit to this state anytime soon, I’d suggest making it a well-rounded trip. Visit Portland for sure – there’s plenty to see and do – but don’t miss the natural wonders and historic sites the rest of the state has to offer!
My husband and I lived in Oregon City, Oregon, (which contains the exact end of the Oregon trail) for almost two years. This is our story of some of the biggest culture shocks we experienced—and some of the things you may want know before visiting the Beaver State.
You don’t need an umbrella.
I hear you asking, “But isn’t Oregon known for its rain?” Yes, it is. But it’s not the torrential downpour, summer storm kind of rain I was used to in the South. For about 8-9 months, it’s more of a mist/drizzle that comes and goes and constant cloudy, grey skies. Sometimes there’s heavier rain, but those storms are typically only minutes long. The rest of the year is dry, sunny, mostly mild, and absolutely beautiful.
You’ll notice native Oregonians don’t carry umbrellas. Instead, they sport Oregon’s staple wardrobe accessory – the rain jacket. As long as you have have a hooded rain jacket and a cup of coffee to keep you awake during the 8 misty, grey months of the year, you’ll be set. More on that in the next point. . .
Breweries, food trucks, and roasteries – oh my!
Portland’s food scene is HUGE, diverse, and still growing. People will actually move to Portland to get ahead in their culinary careers. Groups of food trucks (or pods) are a big part of the food scene, with 500 food trucks available at any given time around the city.
One of our favorites was Happy Valley Station—a permanent location with interchangeable food trucks and indoor seating. We always felt completely safe eating the food from these trucks, whether they served pizza, ramen, crepes, or Mediterranean.
Coffee is a staple for staying alert and energized [see point above]. My personal favorite coffee place was Dutch Bros—a drive-through coffee chain (these are popular in the PNW, since many coffee drinkers just need to grab a cup to stay awake for their commutes). Dutch Bros is know for its efficient service, friendly employees who always ask what you’ve got planned for the day, and the energetic music pumping from inside their small building.
Perhaps Portland’s most famous coffee, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, began in Portland but now has other big-city locations and their drinks are in grocery stores across the USA. They were my hubby’s favorite (particularly their cold brew and mochas), and we loved using their beans in our french press.
While we weren’t big into the brewery scene, I can tell you that Oregonians love their craft beer. Over 60% of all the draft beer consumed in the state was brewed in Oregon. Their state is home to over 200 breweries and hosts one of the largest and longest running craft beer festivals in the US—the Oregon Brewers Festival.
For example, Oregon’s got two of the four US cities that houses a dormant volcano within its city limits. Mt. Tabor, a well-known attraction inside Portland, has plenty of room for biking, hiking, and sightseeing.
Portland also boasts the largest used and new bookstore in the world, Powell’s City of Books with over a million books inside. You can actually get a guided tour of this book-lover’s dream destination. Their color-coded rooms hold old and new books, including hard-to-find and out-of-print titles, as well as autographed first editions.
Oregon holds dozens of major festivals a year, several in every month, and most are in Portland. Celebrate ChocolateFest in January, Wooden Show Tulip Fest in April, Feast Portland in September, and the Christmas Festival of Lights in December, resplendent with half a million twinkling lights.
And perhaps the grandest of all—the Portland Rose Festival. This festival is a 100-year long tradition with events lasting from May to August, including several foot races, an art show, fireworks, and a dragon boat race.
One of Oregon’s key historical sites is the end of the Oregon Trail in Oregon City. You can soak in the history of this incredible journey at the End of the Oregon Trail Center, housed under enormous wagon frames. Their “Bound for Oregon” video gives you a more intimate look at the journey these settlers faced.
Then take the super short drive to Willamette Falls, the horseshoe-shaped waterfall in downtown Oregon City that marked the exact end of the Oregon Trail. Settlers knew they had arrived to their new home once they spotted these falls. This waterfall also happens to be the largest falls in the PNW by volume.
(While you’re in downtown, stop by Yvonne’s for breakfast or lunch and make sure to order some rosemary hashbrowns and chicken fried steak – you can thank me later!)
Last but certainly not least is Mt. Hood, a well-known peak of the Cascades. Constantly snow-capped with 11 glaciers, Mt. Hood has the only North American year-round ski resort and is the second most climbed mountain in the world. On a clear day, it seems to pop out of nowhere against the blue sky. Surrounded by gorgeous Alpine lakes, fruit orchards, and lavender farms, Mt. Hood is a year-round attraction.
Take it from someone who didn’t plan well—make sure to wear warm clothing if you plan to walk around the mountain, even if you go in the summer!
Get used to the smell of weed.
Marijuana dispensaries fill the streets as much as hair and nail salons do in certain areas. Currently, there’s about 420 registered dispensaries across the state, and that number may triple in the next year.
In Oregon, anyone over the age of 21 is allowed to buy marijuana and use it for medical or recreational purposes. Residents are also allowed to grow it on their property. While consuming it in public places is illegal, you’ll still get a whiff every now and then. We quickly learned that “that skunk smell” is rarely a skunk.
Expect homeless camps.
Homelessness is a major issue for Portland. The city has become a kind of haven for the homeless. While efforts are being made to address the issue, the numbers of homeless people are increasing steadily.
As a result, don’t be surprised if you see tents on sidewalks are near the bushes in metro Portland areas. And as you go further into the city, you may even notice that several of them have set up camp together, because they found a more permanent base where no one is asking them to leave.
Portland = Progressive
It’s an epicenter of all things progressive. In the heart of the city, you’ll see protest signs, tie-dye hair, transgenders, homeless people, man buns, and business suits all on the same street. It’s a place where you’re free to be who you want to be, and no one (well, at least very few people) will look twice at you.
In the restaurants, you can expect lots of local fare, farm to table style, and plenty of gluten-free, cage-free, and everything else-free options. (Let’s hear it – who’s seen that one episode of Portlandia?)
It’s a walking city. Pedestrians, dog-walkers, and bikers are everywhere. (Keep that in mind when you’re navigating the city’s streets in your car.)
Portlandians take recycling seriously. My husband will never forget the evil look he got when caught throwing cardboard into the trash and not the recycle bin.
And in a place that claims “keep it weird” as their motto, you can expect to see some pretty odd stuff. (Goat cheese marionberry habenoro ice cream, anyone? Yes, that’s a real thing.)
Tax, tips, and transportation
Another key difference between Oregon and Georgia is that you’re not allowed to pump your own gas. And I don’t mean that they have people there who will pump it for you in exchange for a tip—it’s literally against the law for you to pump gas yourself. The service attendants make decent money to pump your gas, so just relax in the dry warmth (or AC) of your car, ask for a snack to purchase, and wait for their signal that your tank is full.
They’ve recently passed legislation to allow residents in specific areas to have the option to pump their own gas outside of normal business hours, but this is only a small change that doesn’t even affect the whole state.
For those who don’t want the upkeep of a car or don’t want to pay for gas, public transportation is plentiful in metro Portland. And $5 will get you an all-day pass to ride the trains all over the place.
Another difference—no sales tax! In other words, Oregon is the place to shop. Just imagine taco runs and grocery trips without sales tax.
Another difference, although minor, is that restaurant servers get paid minimum wage ($12 and climbing in metro Portland) and are less dependent on tips. Might be useful to know if you plan on eating out a lot during your visit.
Natural beauty galore
I may have saved the best for last. One things that everyone back in Georgia got right about Oregon was this: “It’s so beautiful there!” I definitely miss driving between rows of towering evergreens, spotting Mt. Hood’s peak on clear days, and seeinging rolling hills, rivers, and waterfalls on an average day’s drive. And the hiking—let’s just say there’s a LOT and it’s all beautiful.
Because of Oregon’s ideal climate for evergreens, the state is one of the nation’s top producers of Christmas trees. We seemed to always pass a Christmas tree farm no matter where we went. But evergreens aren’t just in farms out there. They grow naturally too, and they grow TALL.
Southern Oregon holds one of the most breathtaking natural wonders in the state—Crater Lake. Fitted among the cascades, this massive lake was once a volcano peak. When the volcano erupted, the peak collapsed in on itself by a mile in height and filled with snow. Since then, the crater has been fed with years of pure rain and snow, making it the deepest lake in America.
Known for its clear blue, untainted water, Crater Lake is visited year-round for sightseeing, hiking, biking, snowshoeing around the rim, fishing, skiing down the slopes, or boating to Wizard Island inside the lake.
We happened to visit it in the winter, the season most responsible for the lake’s existence. Each year, roughly 524 inches of snow are deposited on the lake’s rim, where the snow eventually melts and finds it way into the basin. Even on a cloudy day that obscured the lake’s normal clarity, the view of the lake surrounded by a blinding white rim was stunning.
As you drive along the Columbia River Highway to the gorge, you’ll experience perfect vista views and plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking, wine tasting, and good eating.
The Columbia River, which winds through the Cascade Mountains and eventually meets the Pacific Ocean, divides Oregon and Washington. (You can actually drive to the specific area where the river meets the ocean.) Stand by the gorge and just try not to be impressed by the massiveness of the Columbia River—it’ll be tough.
Multnomah Falls is the most famous of the falls that dot the Columbia Gorge. This two-tiered, 620-foot waterfall is positioned directly by the gorge and is one of Oregon’s top tourist attractions. It was most recently featured in the movie The Shack.
An easy walk brings you to a bridge in front of the fall where you can see both the upper and lower falls. If you want a higher view, a moderate 2-mile hike will get you to the top.
Unfortunately, last year’s raging Eagle Creek Fire damaged both the gorge and falls, so certain walking/hiking areas may still be restricted.
California’s Highway 1 turns into Oregon’s Highway 101, which runs all the way up along the coast line to where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. It offers beautiful panoramic views and will take you through all the major coastal regions. If you take the trip during winter, you may even spot whales migrating in the northern coast regions.
Pacific beaches are known for their large rock formations and dramatic cliffs. What many people don’t know is that the Pacific ocean is very cold, much colder than the Atlantic. So you may want to rethink charging in headfirst, even on a summer day, unless you don’t mind the shock. It certainly doesn’t stop Oregonians. You’ll find them on the beach in all seasons.
Cannon beach, in northern Oregon, is famous for its impressive sand castle building competitions and for Haystack Rock, a 235-foot tidal rock that dramatically juts up out of nowhere on the beach. It’s one of the most commonly portrayed Oregonian landmarks and houses all kinds of bird life, sea stars, and other tidepool creatures.
Fun fact: The films Twilight and the The Goonies were filmed in many different parts of Oregon, including Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock.
Seaside, another popular Northern coastal destination, has a boardwalk with all the classic attractions, including an aquarium where you can feed sea lions, candy stores, and souvenir shops. Seaside Beach also marks the end of Lewis and Clark’s expedition, and a tall bronze statue commemorates the achievement.
These are just two of the well-known coastal areas in Oregon, and there are dozens more.
Our journey across the country was eye-opening, as any extended travel is. Our misconceptions were quickly corrected, our views on American culture were expanded, and our belief that all people, on a basic level, are inherently the same was reinforced.
Seeing life through the eyes of someone outside your normal circle makes you realize that there is often more than one lens to view life through. And there isn’t always a right or wrong lens — so in certain matters, we should be more accepting and respectful of how other people and cultures see things. It also shows you that the similarities that bind humanity together are more far important than the differences that set us apart.