Portland, Oregon is unlike any other city in the United States.

Its reputation as progressive, hipster and “weird” draws visitors from across the globe.

But as well as vegan eats, craft beer and liberal politics, Portland has many beautiful attractions.

In winter, none is more impressive than The Portland Light Festival

This unique travel experience encourages visitors to turn their back on winter and see their city dazzling for three special nights. 


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What is The Portland Light Festival?

In February this annual event brightens the city with glowing art and sculptures.

Portland Light Festival is hosted by Willamette Light Brigade, a not for profit art organisation.

As a “stepping stone to spring”, The Portland Winter Light Festival aims to bring people together and out of the darkness. 

Over three evenings from 6-11pm, it takes place at a time of year where it is very tempting to stay indoors.

This winter extravaganza is a great incentive for locals to venture outside and spend time in the community. 

Shunning the dullness of winter, visitors can enjoy illuminated sculptures, live events and even a silent disco.

Located outside Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and centred along the banks of the Willamette River, visitors will experience colourful lights stretching across the city. 

If you’re planning a trip to Portland it is a truly unmissable experience.


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An artist drawing at the Portland Winter Light festival

After seeing European celebrations like the Festival of Lights in Lyon, France and Amsterdam‘s Winter Lights Festival, the creator Chris Herring was inspired to create a community-wide celebration – especially for Portland. 

Strolling through the festival, I was greeted with various forms of light, from fire and LEDs to clever uses of mirrors and shadows. 

Cutting edge art and technology combine to breathe life into Portland in winter. During the event, artists are on hand to explain their creations to festival-goers. 

You would think all the organisation would come at a hefty price tag… But, no. The festival is free and runs off sponsorship and donations – and the WLB are committed to keeping it that way. 


What to expect at Portland’s Winter Light Festival

Visually, the effect is magical and it is no surprise that over 150,000 people attended in 2019.

The festival has grown since its beginnings in 2016 and I was lucky enough to attend the 5 year anniversary this year.

In 2020 the artists and collaborators responded to the theme “into the dreamscape”. 

From prophetic fantasies and visions of alternative energy use to immersive experiences and technologies, Portland Light Festival is a delight for the senses.


A man in an aluminium box that makes music
Many of the art installations at Portland’s Winter Light Festival are interactive.

The crowd is very mixed as there is artwork that is suitable for all ages. 

There are even educational programmes and interactive games to keep children amused. 

Adults can enjoy a calmer experience admiring the lights, or find the Glow bar pop up and party at the silent disco. 

If you’re looking for a budget but romantic date idea, this is it!

Also, as an outdoor event, your dog is welcome too! I saw many pups enjoying the atmosphere. 


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During my travels, I saw flame dancers, an illuminated bike ride, a spaceship and a luminous car that you could spin – The Love Bug. Yes, really! 

I would advise not to stick to the programme and just wander around, stopping at any artwork that catches your eye.


A woman wearing a hate with fairy lights wrapped around it
Add some fairy lights to your outfit, and you can BE part of the festival!

What you need for the Portland Light Festival

Let’s make no mistake, winter is Portland is cold and it would be a shame if you were distracted from all the beautiful sites by shivering. 

Wrap up warm, as the whole festival is outside and you want to make sure to truly enjoy the experience. 
 

That means scarfs, hats and gloves! 

Once you’re suitably dressed, I would encourage you to embrace the festivities. People take this very seriously.

Don yourself with light accessories, LED lights and glow sticks! In line with the festival’s ethos and sustainability concerns, use reusable, solar and battery charged accessories over single-use products. 

I even saw people carrying lightsabers!

If you’re bringing your kid or pup, make sure to light them up for style and safety to ensure you can see them through the crowds. 

There’s no need to bring food or refreshments as you can find all this onsite – locally sourced of course!


Food truck at Portland Winter Light Festival
There’s plenty of food at the festival, catering for all diets.

Travelling to and from Portland Winter Light Festival

Drive 

I would not recommend driving to the Portland Light Festival as the majority of the art installations are in an area with limited road connections. East Side, Water Ave is the only road in and out of the festival.
 

You will be able to park in Oregon Museum of Science parking lots for a price but spaces will be first come, first serve so make sure to get there early. On the West Side, the roads will be less busy by Salmon Street Springs but parking may still be hard to come by. 

Taxi

Take a taxi to avoid any parking issues but make sure to set off early to avoid any traffic. These will be difficult to hail by at the end of the night so I would advise you look at one of the other options to get home. 


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Travelling around the festival 

As the festival is spread across a large site, you may want to take advantage of public transport to reduce your walking time.

This is not necessary, I happily explored the whole site on foot but just in case, here are the best options. 

Bike 

Cycling across The Hawthorne Bridge makes it only 10 minutes between OMSI  and the Salmon Springs Fountain. 
 

Free ferry shuttle

Catch the Crystal Dolphin ferry at Tilikum Crossing near OMSI or at Salmon Springs Dock for a 15-minute journey between the East and West side of the festival. This is a fun experience as they play music during your journey. 

Portland streetcar 

The A and B loop will take you across Tilikum Crossing, stopping at both SW Harrison and OMSI.

MAX

You can also use MAX as a connection between the two festival sites. The Orange Line runs through to the designated OMSI hub, and there are stops just west of the Salmon Springs installations. Get off at City Hall/SW 5th & Jefferson or SW 6th & Madison stations.


Portland Oregon USA Winter Light Festival


How to get tickets

Tickets for Portland Winter Light Festival 2021 are not available yet. Keep an eye on their social media for the latest updates. 


Where to stay in Portland

Budget option: KEX, Portland is boutique hostel with a bar. Guests love the comfortable bedding and the proximity to local attractions. 

Luxury option: Located in the heart of downtown Portland The Duniway Portland, is a Hilton hotel with gorgeous rooms and attentive concierge. 

Something different: If you’re looking something a little more quirky, try a stay in The Tiny House Hotel. It may be small but it has everything you could ever need including a bonfire and a draw with s’mores! Click here to read my full review.


Portland Oregon USA Winter Light Festival


What to do in Portland in February

If you’re stopping in Portland for the light festival, there a plenty of other ways to enjoy your weekend.

As well as cool bars, cosy pubs and independent restaurants there are art and music events to discover.

From Black History Month, PDX Jazz Festival and the world’s largest tango festival – Portland’s February calendar is as colourful as the season is grey.