Solo travel is something everyone should try at least once. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate backpacking trip up the Pacific Crest Trail a la Cheryl Strayed, or a whirlwind monthlong European extravaganza.
Even taking a weekend trip by yourself can be enriching and refreshing, and that’s precisely what I did this spring on a spontaneous trip to Portland.
I’d wanted to visit Portland since moving to Seattle last fall, but the timing to go with friends had never quite worked, thanks to the strange hours and abnormal weekends of a newsroom schedule. But after spending a relaxing Memorial Day in Seattle, the inundation of vacation photos on social media gave me a travel itch. I checked my calendar for the following weekend and in an uncharacteristically spontaneous decision, I booked an Airbnb for one.
A few days later, I woke up, tossed a duffel bag in my car and drove down Interstate 5 with a few recommendations from friends but no set agenda. I had no shame about doing “touristy” things because I’d never been to Portland, but I hoped to make the most of a short time without waiting in long lines.
I moved to Seattle from Missouri alone for my first job out of college. I live by myself and I’ve traveled alone before while interning or studying abroad. Through all that, I’ve found that the main thing you have to conquer is the self-consciousness that comes with doing things alone.
Get past this imaginary stigma and you’ll find that while traveling with friends and family is always fun, there’s something about being able to experience a city at your own pace and on your own terms that can be particularly invigorating.
After arriving in Portland in late morning, I grabbed a quick breakfast before heading to the top of my list: Powell’s Books.
I look for local bookstores in any city I visit, and Powell’s had been on my radar for years. But while I knew it was renowned for its size and catalog, I wasn’t expecting to be as overwhelmed as I was. Exploring a beautiful bookstore feels reverent: the ache in your neck from turning to read titles sideways, the polite shuffle around other readers looking at the same shelf, the peaceful quiet and flipping of pages. For a few hours, Powell’s felt like a peaceful haven, just a bit insulated from the outside world.
Being alone meant I could leisurely venture through the connected rooms without worrying about frustrating travel companions. I got a little lost, I got distracted by new and familiar titles, and I eventually got three books, with a lot of self-restraint. I was especially impressed by the selection of used and discounted books, which made the decision to support a local establishment even easier.
Bookstores are ideal for solo travel, but restaurants and bars can be less so — there’s a certain self-consciousness about asking a hostess for a table for one. But it’s only awkward if you make it awkward, and at every food stop, eating without companions to talk with left more room for getting to know the new ones around you.
At my lunch stop, Pok Pok, the waitress and I chatted and I learned that she’d moved to Portland from Denver, where I grew up. The restaurant had come recommended by multiple friends, and for good reason. The Vietnamese fish sauce wings were crispy and full of flavor, and a light beer complemented the wings.
The early summer heat was perfect for sitting outside to sample Portland’s abundant breweries, and I enjoyed an afternoon at Ecliptic Brewing and an evening at Deschutes Brewery while diving into one of the books from Powell’s. (I even liked some of Deschutes’ IPAs; does that mean I’m assimilating to the Northwest?)
After a night at my quiet Airbnb, I was ready to spend the day exploring the Columbia River Gorge, fueled by an incredible buttermilk old-fashioned donut from Blue Star. The Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty has captivated me since moving here, and I’d chosen the gorge over another day in the city because, being from Colorado, the outdoors is where I feel most myself — fitting for a solo trip. It’s my favorite way to contemplate what’s going on in my life in peaceful quiet, without even conversation as a distraction.
I drove up the Historic Columbia River Highway with detours to Latourell Falls and Horsetail Falls, both surrounded by luscious greenery. Multnomah Falls was a true highlight — I couldn’t help but gasp when I reached the stunning double-waterfall view. Seeing the falls alone didn’t take away from their beauty; if anything, I had more mental space to reflect and soak it all in.
Further up the highway I stopped at the Bridge of the Gods, thinking of “Wild” — one of the first portrayals I’d seen of the Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty. I was no Cheryl Strayed, and a two-day trip was no hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. But the theme of our trips was similar: I knew spending time with myself helped me learn, reflect and become comfortable in my own skin.
As I drove from Hood River back to Seattle, I realized how much I’d fit into a quick 36-hour trip, largely because traveling alone means you’re able to be shamelessly selfish. You can spend hours in a bookstore without worrying about frustrating your friends. You can go to sleep early without feeling obligated to stay out. You can choose whatever restaurant catches your attention without the polite, nonconfrontational “anything sounds good to me!” conversations.
At the same time, there are safety considerations to traveling solo, especially as a young woman. I would’ve stayed out on trails later and or ventured out into more remote areas if I’d been with friends or family. I explored during daylight, was careful about how much I drank while sampling breweries and booked a quiet residential Airbnb with a “superhost” and great reviews.
What I got in return was time and space for flexibility and self-reflection. The next time I’m back in Portland with friends or family, I’ll be content knowing I got to first explore the city on my own terms.
If you go
Powell’s Books: 1005 W. Burnside St. (flagship store); open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Pok Pok: multiple locations; hours vary by location
Ecliptic Brewing: 825 N. Cook St.; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House: 210 N.W. 11th Ave.; open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
Blue Star Donuts: multiple locations; hours vary by location