Christmas ships on the rivers, animal-themed lights at the zoo, mansions dressed in holiday splendor, and a holiday train with Santa. Join me to see the most magical Christmas experiences in my backyard: Portland, Oregon. Adding to the excitement are the annual Holiday Tree, city neighborhoods celebrating together, carolers strolling the streets, tuba sounds echoing in the crisp air, wine and wreath-making classes for adults, Christmas craft classes for children, and the traditional Nutcracker presented by Oregon Ballet Theatre.
Here are 11 magical experiences you can enjoy in the Rose City of Portland.
1. Christmas Festival Of Lights — The Grotto
Over two million lights decorate the 62-acre Grotto in northeast Portland, a place of reflection for all faiths. The Christmas Festival Of Lights is a walk-through event of about one-quarter mile. Enjoy the voices of the choirs as they lift you to the delightful sounds of the season. Nightly concerts present local schools, churches, and civic choirs. Check this link for the choir schedule. A grotto at the base of a 10-story cliff is the outdoor cathedral. Wander the Upper Gardens for lovely manicured gardens and jaw-dropping views of Mt. St. Helens and the Cascades. An elevator is available.
2. Portland’s Annual Holiday Tree
Celebrating the start of the holiday season in Portland, the Annual Tree Lighting once again is held virtually when 20,000 lights on a beautiful 75-foot tree are turned on. You and your family can enjoy the event anytime through this link. Also available are on-screen lyrics and a downloadable songbook. Local high school bands and choirs add to the charm. You can personally visit the annual tree at Pioneer Courthouse Square, lovingly referred to as “Portland’s Living Room.”
Pioneer Courthouse Square holds more than 300 yearly events. In December, look for the Annual Tuba Festival, when over 150 tuba players will echo throughout the afternoon. Although the event is free, registration is required. Afterward, explore the bricks, shop downtown, enjoy downtown all dressed in its Christmas splendor, and order delicious dishes from the many food trucks.
3. Christmas Ships
An annual tradition over the last 67 years, Portland’s Christmas Ships Parade travels both the Columbia River and Willamette River. Thousands gather along the river banks to watch this spectacle. The vessels are privately owned and come from Portland, Vancouver, McMinnville, Salem, and Hood River areas. Many owners have taken part for over 30 years.
There are 15 nights of sailing from December 3–21. Each night, the ships sail for 2 to 3 hours. Check the schedule on this link. You might join one of the Meet & Greet Nights, where you can meet some of the skippers and enjoy a close encounter with the decorated ships.
The ships can be viewed not only from Portland but also from Scappoose, St. Helens, Lake Oswego, and Milwaukie in Oregon and Vancouver, Camas, and Washougal in southwest Washington.
The event is free and there are multiple outside viewing spots. You could also consider dining at a restaurant along the route.
Pro Tip: Bring a collapsible chair, your binoculars, and a thermos of hot chocolate, or stay in your car for the viewing.
4. Winter Wonderland Of Lights
Acclaimed to be the “Largest Holiday Light Show West of the Mississippi,” the Winter Wonderland Of Lights is a spectacle that you can enjoy from the comfort and safety of your own vehicle. There are animated scenes and over 250 lighting sets. The Winter Wonderland of Lights takes place at the Portland Race Track through January 2. Tickets are available through this link.
Pro Tip: It is best to visit early in December and during the week, if possible, as weekends are often very busy.
5. ZooLights At Oregon Zoo
Over 1.5 million animal-themed lights will dazzle you at Oregon ZooLights.
There are both walk-though and drive-though opportunities, with the walk-through path extending just over 1 mile in length. Wheelchairs and electric scooters are available for rent. Here are links for walk maps and drive-through maps. You will find them available during the walk-through food carts and souvenir shops. You may also rent wheelchairs and electric scooters. You can also pre-order snacks for the drive-through, which lasts between 25 and 35 minutes. Please note that no stopping is permitted, nor is getting out of your vehicle on the drive-through.
ZooLights runs daily through January 9, except for December 25. Timed entry tickets must be reserved in advance. You purchase one ticket per vehicle for the drive through. Note: No zoo animals are viewable during ZooLights.
6. Portland Holiday Train
Join Santa on the Holiday Express: Portland’s Holiday Train. Through December 19, trains depart from Oak Park for a 40-minute trip on the Oregon Pacific Railroad Line along the Willamette River. Trains are decked out in holiday decor and are heated, but do dress in outdoor clothing and wear closed shoes. Tickets are available through this link, with departure times ranging from mid-morning through early dusk. Restrooms and refreshments are available at the station. Check out the station gift shop for unique gifts for train lovers of all ages.
7. Pittock Mansion Christmas
The Pittock Mansion’s Christmas theme this year is Critters Make Merry. The 16,000 square foot mansion located high in Portland’s West Hills is decked out in holiday splendor, and the rooms have been recreated into animal havens. Stop by to enjoy viewing all the make-believe Christmas activities of the beautiful animal world. Afterward, take time to stroll the grounds and enjoy amazing views of the Willamette River, Portland, and the Cascade Mountains. The woods behind the mansion are part of the Forest Park Conservancy and are popular with hikers.
8. Peacock Lane
Peacock Lane, a four-block area in the southeast, is known as “Portland’s Christmas Street.” Since 1929, residents have elaborately decorated both their homes and yards. The area homes were built during the 1920s and 1930s, all in either English Cottage or Tudor Revival style. This year, lights will glimmer from December 15 through December 31. Due to the pandemic, a few minor changes are in order: no pedestrian-only nights nor free cocoa. Still enthralling you in the tradition will be the thousands of lights and yard decorations.
9. Oregon Ballet Theatre: The Nutcracker
For 32 years, Oregon’s largest professional ballet company, the Oregon Ballet Theatre has enchanted audiences with the performance of The Nutcracker. Follow the dancing snowflakes as they lead Marie and her Nutcracker Prince to a magic land — all to the endearing music of Tchaikovsky. Check this link for information on the 15 performances, including some with the live orchestra. All tickets must be reserved online.
Check out the online Nutcracker Holiday Gift Shop for themed gifts.
10. Holidays At The Belle: A Christmas Wonderland
Join the festive holiday events at the Victorian Belle Mansion in North Portland. All four floors of the 1885 Victorian mansion are decked in holiday splendor, as is the home’s exterior and 25-acre estate. The event was formerly called The Miracle Of A Million Lights.
For a delightfully fun event for adults, join the Ho-Ho-Holiday Wine and Wreath Making Class. Another adult event is Krampus! with live musical performances and a visit from Krampus. Kids Crafts and Santa even has visits from special reindeer guests. Check this link Jingle Bells and Beaus Carolers for the schedule of entertainment. Enjoy the tradition of Holiday High Tea, enhanced with a Christmas flavor.
11. Christmas Tree Farms
Two popular Christmas Tree Farms are Quail Creek Ranch and Hemphill Farms. Quail Creek Ranch is a 20-acre family-run ranch in northwest Portland. You can also enjoy a hike along Quail Creek, complimentary hot beverages, and an inviting fire in the warming hut. Also available are fresh wreaths, garlands, and mistletoe. Just south of Portland is Clackamas County, home to numerous Christmas Tree Farms. Hemphill Farms is one of the local favorites with a great selection and helpful staff. Visit the gift shop for complimentary hot cider and cocoa.
Holiday traditions abound in Portland, Oregon, and there is an event for everyone. Come and join us in the celebration!