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10 Best Cities in Oregon

Written by Brad Lane
Oct 22, 2020

For a full taste of Oregon culture, the state's biggest cities offer endless things to do. The best of these big cities capitalize on the beautiful weather of Oregon. These fun places to visit also help define the Pacific Northwest's easygoing and open-minded essence.

Between Oregon's two most prominent mountain ranges, the 150-mile Willamette Valley is home to many of the state's best cities. On the north end of the valley, the biggest city in Oregon, Portland, is a cultural capital of the Cascadia region. Other cities south of Portland in the Willamette Valley have a similar creative culture and access to stunning outdoor spaces.

Access to the outdoors is a common feature of all the best cities in Oregon. Other cities outside of the Willamette Valley are gateways to the Pacific coast and Oregon's high-desert region. This varied geography lends to adventures like rock climbing, white-water boating, and enjoying beautiful sunsets over the ocean.

Find your next reason to move to the state with our list of the best cities in Oregon.

1. Portland

Portland and Mount Hood in the distance

Portland is the largest city in Oregon and a cultural capital of the Pacific Northwest. This esteemed city is brimming with art and culture in the northern part of the state. Ample outdoor space includes international gardens and massive public parks.

Several nicknames have come to define Portland, including Stumptown and The City of Roses. But what really defines the city is the passion and creativity of the community. Among all the top attractions of Portland, visitors are sure to see hordes of unique individuals bolstering the city's unofficial motto: "Keep Portland Weird."

Keeping Portland weird isn't about standing out in the crowd, though. It's about supporting the local businesses that line the downtown streets. Portland-based enterprises like Powell's Books and Voodoo Donuts exemplify these efforts. These local institutions receive national recognition while staying true to their Stumptown roots.

Excellent access to outdoor spaces also defines Portland. Within the city, places like Washington Park offer a cornucopia of natural attractions. A few of the many spots to check out in this acclaimed public space include the International Test Rose Garden and the Portland Japanese Garden.

Another point of outdoor interest includes the expansive Forest Park near the heart of the city. With over 5,000 acres to explore, Forest Park is one of the country's most extensive urban forests.

Things to do in Portland are nearly endless. Things to do within a short drive of Portland are also almost infinite. Some of the best weekend trips from Portland include waterfall watching in the Columbia River Gorge and admiring sea stacks on the Oregon Coast. The mighty Mount Hood, the tallest mountain in Oregon, is also within a two-hour drive.

Accommodation: Top Places to Stay in Portland

2. Eugene

Eugene at dusk

Home to the University of Oregon, Eugene is an academic city on the southern end of the Willamette Valley. Eugene is one of Oregon's next biggest cities outside of Portland and has a healthy mix of cultural attractions and outdoor appeal.

Healthy living and outdoor exercise are part of the Eugene mindset. The city is also known as TrackTown USA thanks to its collegiate track-and-field legacy, as well as being the birthplace of Nike. This endurance enthusiasm is put to good use on the miles of hiking and biking trails that surround the city.

The academic appeal of Eugene extends beyond the University of Oregon and other college campuses in the city. Places like the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and the Eugene Science Center engage visitors to stop and think for a moment. Other cultural resources include Mount Pisgah Arboretum and the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Eugene

3. Bend

The Deschutes River in Bend

On the east side of the Cascade Mountains and bordering Oregon's high-desert region, Bend is a quickly growing city in Central Oregon. The rapid development of Bend over the last decade is no surprise. With sunny weather and easy access to the outdoors, and a community that prides itself on artistic expression, Bend is a cultural oasis in Oregon.

The Deschutes River runs right through Bend, offering several ways to enjoy the water. The Bend Whitewater Park, near the Old Mill District, is one such avenue of enjoyment where tubes, boats, and surfers can access the water. For those who like to stay dry, hiking and biking trails line the city's waterway.

Natural attraction extends beyond the city limits of Bend. The adventure-filled Deschutes National Forest abuts the city to the south and west. This dense acreage of mountains and forest is home to hot spots like Newberry National Volcanic Area and Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort. One of Oregon's best waterfalls, Tumalo Falls, is also in the forest at the city's backdoor.

The high-desert region of Oregon is also accessible from Bend. One of the most notable spots to visit is Smith Rock State Park. This mecca for rock climbing and hiking is less than 30 miles north of the city.

It's not only outdoor adventure that makes Bend one of the fastest-growing cities in the state. The community that enjoys all the natural attractions also fuels an artistic and cultural tone on the streets. Several boutique stores mix with various art galleries to provide ample places to peruse between other Bend attractions and adventures.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bend

4. Medford

Medford

Southern Oregon is a real hot spot for fun and adventure. The principal city of Southern Oregon, Medford, is a gateway to everything the Rogue Valley region offers. From outdoor adventures to the area's bountiful agricultural contributions, Medford's appeal spans every day and all four seasons.

The Rogue River defines much of the outdoor adventure and lifestyle of Medford. The waterway interlaces with the history of the city, as well as the legacy of the native cultures who still call it home. Fun ways to experience the Rogue River from Medford is on a Rogue Jet Boat Tour or picnicking on the shores of TouVelle State Park.

Another rewarding way to experience the Rogue River is by hiking to the top of either Lower or Upper Table Rock. These plateaued monoliths rise high above the river's western banks and give a spectacular view of the Rogue River valley. Both hikes stand tall as some of the best things to do while visiting Medford.

Medford is also a gateway to Crater Lake National Park. The shimmering blue waters of this inspiring caldera are a 90-mile drive from the city. With local places to stay and eat between exploring the crater's rim, Medford is an excellent base camp for exploring the national park.

Medford isn't the only city to visit in Southern Oregon. Fifteen miles south of Medford on Interstate 5, the smaller city of Ashland is also an inviting place to stay. This charming city is home to the world-renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Other top attractions in Ashland include the linear Lithia Park and a historic downtown district.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Medford

5. Corvallis

Corvallis

In the mid-Willamette Valley of Central Oregon, Corvallis is a bustling city surrounded by a fertile landscape. The sprawling campus of Oregon State University is the heartbeat of Corvallis culture.

Oregon State University has more than a 150-year history in the city. Today, this acclaimed institution caters to the community and students alike. Fun things to check out on campus include historic tours and energetic Beaver athletic events. The university also adds a youthful appeal to the city. The downtown streets on the weekend often attest to this spry spirit.

The city is also known for its lush agricultural surroundings. These fertile acres lend a fresh bite to the Corvallis food scene. Menus from local restaurants across the city often include fresh ingredients from nearby farms. The landscape surrounding Corvallis also lends to big adventures. Classic hikes like Marys Peak ensure a healthy appetite come evening.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Corvallis

6. Coos Bay

Cape Arago State Park near Coos Bay

Unlike the coast of California to the south, the Oregon Coast has very few big cities. The largest city on the Oregon Coast, Coos Bay, is home to under 20,000 residents. Despite and due to this relatively smaller population, the city provides a plethora of tourist activities while still retaining a sense of community.

The ocean is the top attraction of Coos Bay, and the city is a base camp for its rugged southern coast. Coos Bay provides several ways to enjoy the dramatic scene. Immediately to the north, the stunning Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area stretches up to Florence. This shifting playground features sand dunes over 500 feet tall.

Other oceanic attractions in Coos Bay include vistas of the historic Cape Arago Lighthouse. While this postcard lighthouse is no longer accessible to the public, the Cape Arago Highway offers excellent viewpoints. Along this route, state parks like Sunset Bay and Shore Acres provide pleasant places to stop and have a picnic.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Coos Bay

7. Salem

Oregon State Capitol in Salem | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Salem, the state capital of Oregon, is an easygoing university town on the Willamette River. The city is within the middle of the Willamette Valley, approximately halfway between Eugene and Portland. Boasting its own array of cultural and natural attractions, Salem stands out in the region as a unique place to visit.

The Oregon State Capitol is an eye-catching attraction in Salem, including the iconic gilded Oregon Pioneer, perched atop the stately building. On the capitol's grounds and interior, a beautiful collection of landscaping and murals paint a picture of the state's history.

Other public spaces like Minto-Brown Island Park add a natural color to the palette of the city. This expansive public space has over 30 miles of trails that meander through wetlands, woodlands, and open prairie. At the north end of Minto-Brown, a beautiful pedestrian bridge connects to Riverfront City Park - another one of Salem's top attractions.

Art and culture are also on full display in Salem. From the campus of Willamette University to a bustling downtown corridor, Salem offers many ways to enjoy the city's nice weather. For evening entertainment in Salem, the Elsinore Theatre puts on quite the show.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Salem

8. Springfield

Springfield's McKenzie River

Springfield is in the south Willamette Valley. The city comprises half of the Eugene-Springfield Metropolitan Area. With over 60,000 residents, Springfield has several unique attractions that make it a great place to visit.

Downtown Main Street should be the first stop on any trip to Springfield. Bookended by Second and Eighth Streets, this pedestrian-friendly corridor rings with history and art. Local bookstores and coffee shops in this part of town punctuate larger-than-life murals that add extra color to the neighborhood.

One such downtown mural depicts Springfield's most famous residents: the Simpsons family from American TV. Springfield claims to be the unofficial home of this iconic cartoon family. Another way to appreciate this homage includes life-size Simpson's sculptures at the Emerald Art Center.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Springfield

9. McMinnville

McMinnville | Doug Kerr / photo modified

For those looking for a small-town vibe in an Oregon big city, McMinnville in the Willamette Valley is worth visiting. This city of approximately 33,000 residents delivers with cultural attractions and community appeal.

Anchoring the city is a historic downtown area dubbed "Oregon's Favorite Main Street." Maple trees line the sidewalks of this downtown area, lending a shady entrance to several eateries and art galleries. Strolling around this downtown area highlights the city's history.

The verdant valley surrounding McMinnville also lends a lot of charm to the city. These scenic landscapes host several activities like road biking, hiking, and picnicking under a shade tree. The agricultural splendor of the region also lends to several tasteful experiences in the McMinnville countryside.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in McMinnville

10. Hillsboro, Beaverton & Gresham

Commonwealth Lake Park in Beaverton

The Portland metropolitan area includes several other surrounding cities. Three of the biggest cities in proximity are Hillsboro, Beaverton, and Gresham. To the north in Washington, the city of Vancouver also adds a significant population. These bustling cities don't receive the same name recognition as Portland. Still, each provides an attractive place to visit and stay awhile.

West of Portland, Hillsboro is home to big business headquarters like Intel and Nike. Outside of working hours, tourists and residents enjoy evening events like baseball games at Ron Tonkin Field. Other reasons to visit Hillsboro include the Hillsboro Farmers Market and the annual Washington County Fair.

Between Portland and Hillsboro, the city of Beaverton also attracts a lot of tourists and residents to the Portland metro. The location of Beaverton aids in enjoying the cultural splendors of Portland while avoiding some of the congestion. Hiking trails meander throughout these more open spaces at destinations like Cooper Mountain Nature Park.

And to the east of Portland, Gresham is home to over 110,000 residents. This bustling area of the Portland metro has an excellent selection of local shops and restaurants. The city also caters to bicycle traffic. Alongside abundant bike lanes, the 40-mile Springwater Corridor Trail connects Gresham to Portland.

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