Portland gets a lot of winter rain and even more cloud cover. Between October and May (and often well into June), the sun seldom makes an appearance. The moisture certainly makes for beautifully lush landscapes, dreamscape waterfalls, and mystic moss-draped forests, but it can get a bit dreary after so long.
However, our summers are simply to die for. And suffering the rain only makes them that much more special.
The beauty about living in a temperate climate is we have wonderfully mild summers. And this is when visitors and locals alike come out in droves to enjoy the many outdoor festivals in our riverside Waterfront Park – a prolific display of our affection for this beloved season.
Early weekend in May, typically including the 5th
We know winter has finally closed its doors when we see the carnival rides being trucked in in preparation for the Cinco de Mayo celebration. Tilt-a-Whirls, Gravitrons, Skycoasters, a Ferris wheel, and all other manner of things that spin, lurch, twist, thrill, terrify, and otherwise defy gravity make an appearance.
Traditional Mexican foods can also be found within the dozen fenced-off blocks in the park, along with libations aplenty. Folks wear sombreros and celebrate all things beautiful about the Latin-American culture.
Throughout the entire weekend visitors can enjoy traditional shows, dances, and displays on a number of stages. It truly is a fiesta!
Two-and-a-half week celebration at the end of May/beginning of June
The Rose Festival is Portland’s crowned jewel. With barely any time to clean up from the fiesta, the carnival rides, deep-fried concoctions, and unchecked revelry return to the Waterfront for Portland’s largest annual celebration.
While fairly similar on the Waterfront to the Cinco de Mayo event, the Rose Festival also spans beyond the borders of the park. The festival kicks off with a stunning fireworks display that rivals those seen at 4th of July (in fact, many locals – including us – argue they’re better), and the carnival rides are open late each of the festival’s three weekends.
This was always Aaron’s favorite part of the festival – and a bane to all the local drivers in the area who have to suffer the constant bridge-lifts.
Giant ships from the naval fleet come inland for the second week of the event, permitting children and adults alike to marvel at the vessels up close. What little girl or boy doesn’t love witnessing ships otherwise seldom seen?
The celebrations additionally include two parades.
The Starlight Parade is preceded by the Starlight Run. 5000 runners follow the parade route bedecked in an array of silly costumes, all competing for the distinct honor of being the craziest. This also serves the purpose of entertaining the 325k spectators who flock to downtown to witness the featured attraction.
Once the sun sets, the route is filled with a dazzling display of everything that lights up, glows, and illuminates the night, slowly floating past the packed streets. Locals will camp out along the streets all day to secure their spot, some claiming their vantage points as early as the day prior.
This is our favorite event, though we don’t usually brave the crowds to see it in person. Word to the wise: you can still usually find a decent spot to watch without camping out – especially if your hotel happens to sit along the route.
Grand Floral Parade
As the name suggests, this is the feature of the festival. Held the weekend following the Starlight, this is a more traditional parade – held in the daylight hours. This offers the typical floats and marching bands one might expect, but everything is adorned with flowers (plenty of roses, of course). Entire floats appear to be constructed of nothing but blossoms, and the colors are unmatched. The local rose princesses – scholarship awardees chosen from each local high school – also get their chance to shine.
Dragon Boat Races
Finally, the Rose Festival is home to the annual dragon boat races. Teams furiously pump the Willamette in an effort to inch the nose of their dragon-shaped boats ahead of the competition in this two-day tournament.
As the festival usually spans Aaron’s birthday, growing up he postulated the festival was purely for his sake (reasonable childhood assumption, right?).
4th of July Weekend
If you enjoy good ‘ole blues music, this one might be for you! Paired with classic 4th of July celebrations, this draws thousands of music fans and raises thousands of dollars for the Oregon Food Bank.
Last weekend of July
Portland wouldn’t be Portland without a festival dedicated solely to beer. With our pure-tasting water (no fluoride), countless craft brewers are drawn to the area (our downtown even has a “brewery district,” and Portland is home to over 100 breweries). They celebrate their creations during this long weekend, treating 80k beer lovers to over 80 brews. Instead of a nightcap, Portland closes out its summer with some good old reliable hops.
Bonus! Winter Light Festival
This isn’t a summer festival, but it’s so neat, I couldn’t just leave it out. The Portland Winter Light Festival (PDXWLF) breaks up a bit of the winter monotony by lighting up the East Esplanade for a weekend in early February. Local artists showcase their work, and every year is different and bigger than the last. The best part: the festival is entirely free and completely dazzling.
I love this festival for the photographic opportunities, we’ve been going every year, and you can read about our full experience with this year’s visit here.
What sort of festivals do you have in your home town? Tell us about them below, and be sure to follow our blog to help us grow!
All photos by LotsaSmiles Photography and used with permission unless otherwise stated.
My name is Brianna, and I have been in love with photography for as long as I can remember. I am almost never without a camera, eliciting some strange looks toward my shooting garbage (never question a photographer’s inspiration!), trepidation from my loving husband when I put myself in some precarious positions to get *just* the right shot, and annoyance from our two cats – frequent subjects of my artistic antics. I welcome you to enjoy my passion with me – all around the world!
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