As the Thanksgiving break approaches and winter break inches ever closer, countless students will flock to the legendary Portland International Airport, otherwise known as PDX. This spacious, art-filled building at the northeastern tip of the city was ranked America’s Best Airport by Travel and Leisure magazine in 2021, and remained in the top five from 2015 to 2020.
Recently, due to construction that causes more crowding in main areas, its laudable rankings have slipped slightly. Regardless, PDX still has plenty to offer, and we should make the most of it instead of regarding it as an inconvenience.
I have spent arguably too much time in PDX due to national travel for speech and debate tournaments, as well as shuttling to and from California for home visits. When languishing amidst the harried parents, children glued to screens and flustered business folk for hours upon hours of lengthy delays, one acquires a few tips and tricks.
PDX has a variety of higher quality restaurant options such as Bambuza Vietnamese Kitchen, Evergreens and Oregon’s claim to fame, Tillamook, which sells ice cream as well as savory options like mac ‘n’ cheese. However, these are all on the pricier end. For slightly cheaper options, one can buy pre-packaged snacks at a generic travel market, grab a pastry at Stumptown Coffee Roasters or pick up a smoothie at Jamba Juice.
My personal preference is to grab a boxed salad or sandwich at The Country Cat, a cafe and market conveniently placed right next to the exit of the TSA checkpoint. This way I can be set when I reach my gate, and not have to wander around on an empty stomach. The Country Cat sometimes has inexpensive empanadas available as well, which are of surprisingly good quality for airport dining.
PDX is always sure to have fascinating art installations. A permanent mural is painted on a lower hanging part of the ceiling to see as you walk from your gate to baggage claim. It features a collage-like amalgamation of Portland symbols like roses, a compass and Mount Hood, with a plane flying through the center.
Another beauty to examine is the large, abstract display of green, blue and white circles hanging from the ceiling with turquoise threads, meant to represent the forests, rivers and clouds of Portland. When I was there last, they also featured textile art in a series of large portraits made with yarn. These faces are complex, colorful and shockingly realistic—a perfect opportunity to stop and admire the detail during a break or to kill time.
A delightful addition was completed this last year: a Tillamook-themed indoor playground. It features a giant yellow bus with a towering pile of many different Tillamook dairy products. Children can climb up a ladder into the bus and go down a slide on the other end of it. Seeing the joy this silly and cheerful structure brings to many is a lovely way to bring down some of that travel stress.
When you need a place to unwind and wait for your plane, I always recommend sitting at an empty gate to watch that episode of Grey’s Anatomy or chip away at that sociology essay. Keeping an eye on the time is important, but not having to deal with the mounting swarm of folks coming to your gate—and being able to have some distance from so many unmasked travelers—is well worth it to me.
A fun way to spice up your airport time is with an original game of bingo. Make a list of things you think you might spot: children on backpack leashes, an old man with a Trump 2024 hat, someone in four-inch stilettos, a weary traveler asleep on the floor. Then tally how many times you spot each one. Or, if you are up for more of an endeavor, map out a whole bingo grid of things and check them off throughout your journey. I also love looking at the group of people on my flight and guessing who is from Portland versus just visiting.
I have many fond memories of PDX: long phone conversations with family and friends as I wander the terminals, laughing off pre-tournament nerves with my teammates or playing cards with my roommate as we wait to visit her hometown together. After visiting Lewis & Clark, the Portland airport was actually where I made my decision to enroll here. Having to spend time in one place and simply wait can clear your head. Sure, sometimes you get your pocket knife confiscated at security, and sometimes your flight gets delayed by four hours, but that all is part of the obligatory ups and downs of traveling. No matter what, we can ride that Tillamook bus all the way back home.