Cheap things to do in Portland for history buffs

Experience Portland’s history without breaking your budget.

libraryThe historic Multnomah County Central Library enchants readers and story-lovers of all ages.
Ashley Anderson

To truly get to know Portland, it’s good to start with its historical roots. These beloved, longstanding local institutions and attractions allow you to explore the Rose City’s history without busting your budget.

Getting around on a budget

For each of our budget itineraries, we recommend getting an all-day TriMet pass ($5) good for the city’s public light rail, streetcar and bus.

A history buff’s cheap guide to Portland

Breakfast in Old Town

Estimated cost: $7–10

Start your morning with diner classics like cheesy Denver omelets and decadent chicken-fried steak and eggs at John’s Café ($7–10, cash only). This retro, family-run breakfast joint in Portland’s oldest neighborhood is perfect for early birds. John and Kristina Kapsopoulos have served customers in their cozy establishment since 1973 and eagerly share stories of yesteryear.

Step back in time downtown

Estimated cost: $5

Next, head to the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center ($5) for an exploration of Oregon’s history of Nikkei, or people of Japanese descent living in the United States. Located in the heart of where Nihonmachi (Japantown) once stood, the center features a permanent exhibit that retraces the history of Japanese immigration and internment, while rotating exhibits have explore topics such as multi-generational storytelling, printmaking and photography. Walk around historic Old Town Chinatown with the aid of the free “Japantown PDX” app.

Take a quick stroll through the South Park Blocks (free), a Dutch elm-lined corridor developed in the late 19th century. Two blocks south of the Oregon Historical Society (free to Multnomah County residents, with ID), you’ll find Director Park (free), a modern spin on the park blocks. This former parking lot turned European-style plaza features a seasonal wading fountain, family games and cultural events in the summer.

A couple of blocks west, you’ll arrive at the Multnomah County Central Library (free). Built in 1913, it’s the oldest library on the West Coast! Peruse the library’s expansive collection, gorgeous Georgian architecture and works by local zinesters. Between April and October, you may even be able to snag a spot on the library’s free eco-roof tour. General library tours are offered a couple of times a month, all year.

Lunch in Northeast Portland

Estimated cost: $5–10

After all the knowledge-building works up your appetite, take TriMet bus line #6 to Northeast Portland’s Alberta Street for lunch. Budget-friendly choices include hefty, vegan burritos from family-owned El Nutri Taco ($610) or La Bonita ($59). Or opt for a gooey sandwich from Grilled Cheese Grill ($58) or wings and jojos from popular corner store Alberta Street Market ($6).

Alberta Street Black Heritage walk

Estimated cost: Free

After lunch, head to Northeast Alberta Street for an educational self-guided walking tour of the area’s rich Black history. Debuted in 2019, the Alberta Street Black Heritage Markers are a series of five markers commemorating the accomplishments and experiences of African American residents from the Alberta neighborhood. The markers stretch along Northeast Alberta Street from 11th to 24th avenues.

Drink (and dine) at school

Estimated cost: $10–12

End with dinner, drinks and educational entertainment at McMenamins Kennedy School. This quirky hotel and entertainment complex inhabits the refurbished site of a once-abandoned elementary school, originally constructed in 1915.

Happy hour offerings at the former school’s five bars and restaurants include $5 pints of brewed-on-site beer and pub fare like Cajun tater tots and cheeseburger sliders ($4.257). The Kennedy School hosts trivia twice a month and regular free history-themed events in the on-site movie theater, and offers a ceramic saltwater soaking pool ($5 per person, per hour) that’s open to non-hotel guests daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (don’t forget your swimsuit and towel!).

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