Best ways for kids to spend a day in this quirky & cool Pacific Northwest city
Portlanders may slap “Keep Portland Weird” bumper stickers on their hybrids, but at its core, the city is a perfect place for families. After 19 years of living here, I’m still making new discoveries. It’s nearly impossible to choose just 10 Plays, so I cheated and slipped in a few extra!
Photo courtesy: Travel Portland
1945 SE Water Ave., Southeast Portland
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, located along the east bank of the Willamette River, has something for kids of all ages: rotating special exhibits, hands-on science labs, a four-story movie theater, a high-tech planetarium, and a real naval submarine, the U.S.S. Blueback. And on a rainy day, the Science Playground is the best place in town to bring kids, ages 6 and younger. And be sure to check out the fresh, tasty food at OMSI’s restaurant, Theory. Cost: Youth (3-13) $9.75; Adult $13.50.
After your OMSI visit, head to the dock for a spin on Willamette Jet Boats. This thrill ride is best done on a sunny, summer day, as you will get wet! Cost: 1-Hour Downtown Bridge & Harbor Tour: Youth (4-11) $20; Adult $29.
2/Bike or ride
Portland is consistently voted one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. It even boasts its own bike boulevards. Bring your own or rent wheels. Join a tour, download an app or simply grab a bike map. The city also has a bike share program in partnership with Oregon-based Nike, called Biketown. Bright orange bikes are parked strategically at 100 stations around the downtown area. Just download the app and go. Cost: Trip $2.50; Day $12; unfortunately, there aren't any kid-sized bikes.
My family likes to loop the riverfront area. Start at bike/pedestrian-only bridge Tilkicum Crossing, ride along the Eastbank Esplanade all the way to the Steel Bridge. Here you can cross on the lower level and then find yourself on the west side of the Willamette River in Waterfront Park, where you can bike back to your starting point. The ride is relatively flat and doable for kids. For an added challenge, you can crisscross the river over one of the city's many bridges in between the Tilikum and the Steel. When you need a rest, stop to splash in one of the fountains in Waterfront Park.
If you have teens (at least 14 years old & 100 lbs.), hop on a Segway with Segway Nation Tours. Cost: 1-hour tour: $49; 2-hour tour: $69.
Like other major cities, Portland also is piloting a program allowing people to rent electric scooters to get around town. You’ll see them along city sidewalks.
Photo courtesy: Tri-Met
Washington Park, Northwest Portland
My kids and I have visited a lot of zoos, but the Oregon Zoo remains one of our favorites, mainly because of the open-air exhibits. Located just west of downtown Portland, the zoo is easily accessed by MAX light rail or bus. While it’s home to nearly 1,955 individual animals, it’s the pachyderms that pack ‘em in. The zoo runs an elephant breeding program and recently opened the Elephant Lands habitat. Cost: Youth (3-11) $8.50; Adult $11.50.
KidTripster Tip: Admission is $4 on the second Tuesday of each month.
4/Portland Children’s Museum
Washington Park, Northwest Portland
The Portland Children’s Museum is a huge hit with the younger set. Our favorite area is the outdoor play space with a flowing creek, dig pit, and wooden buckets. There’s a water attraction inside, too, called Water Works. Conveniently, smocks and dryers are provided. Or check out the interactive Grasshopper Grocery and Butterfly Bistro. The hardest part? Getting your kids to leave! Cost: Youth (under 1) free; Other $10.75.
KidTripster Tip: There’s free admission on the first Friday of each month from 4 to 8 p.m.
In addition to the Oregon Zoo and the Portland Children’s Museum, Washington Park is home to more top family-friendly attractions. You could easily spend a full day or even a couple of days taking it all in. Visit the World Forestry Center, where kids can learn the importance of forests and sustainability. You can ride a vertical chairlift up to a simulated tree canopy or ride a raft down simulated rapids. Or experience the forest firsthand at the Hoyt Arboretum, home to 2,000+ species and 12 miles of hiking. On the other side of Washington Park, you’ll find the International Rose Test Garden, free to the public and best visited in late spring and summer. Up the hill, you can visit the equally beautiful Portland Japanese Garden. To keep the kids engaged, grab a scavenger hunt worksheet at the entrance. Finally, if you’re exhausted but the kids aren’t, stop at the Children’s Playground, one of the best in Portland.
KidTripster Tip: During the summer, a free shuttle runs throughout the park.
Looking to explore other worthy arboretums with your family? Check out our friends at Sproutabl to find one near you or your next destination.
Photo courtesy: Travel Portland
6/Splash Inside & Out
Several of the city’s water fountains are designed to allow kids to cool off on hot summer days. The best one is located at Jamison Square Park (NW Kearney/10th Ave., Northwest Portland). The chlorinated water cascades down large climbing stones, forming a splash pool at the base.
KidTripster Tip: The park is conveniently located across the street from Cool Moon Ice Cream, where I always order a scoop of Chai Tea.
If you’re looking for indoor water fun, head to Wings & Waves Waterpark, part of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum (500 Northeast Captain Michael King Smith Way) in McMinnville, located a one-hour drive from Portland. Water park cost: Youth (under 42” ) $20; Others (over 42”) $33; Dry pass $10. Museum cost: Youth (5-16) $19; Adult $27.
7/Oaks Amusement Park
7805 SE Oaks Park Way, Southeast Portland
Sitting on the bank of the Willamette River, Oaks Amusement Park harks back to a simpler time. In addition to rides, go carts, and miniature golf, you can skate at the roller rink which sometimes features live organ music. The thrills at this park are best suited for kids under 10. Cost: $14-17.
8/Underground Donut Tour
Portlanders love their donuts, and there’s much debate among locals as to the best donut shop in town. Decide for yourself! Take the Underground Donut Tour and sample at four of Portland’s top shops. Guide Beau is everything you’d expect in a Portlander - burly, bearded, and if it had been cooler, we’re pretty sure that he would have been blanketed in flannel.
On Fridays and Saturdays, the tour starts at Coco Donuts (814 SW 6th St.) on the campus of Portland State University, where the signature donut is a light and airy lavender glazed option. On Sundays, the tour starts at nearby Sesame Donuts (1503 SW Park Ave.), owned by a Lebanese family. At each shop, your guide will select two donuts (per person) for you to taste; however, know that you can pick your own flavors if you’d prefer.
KidTripster Tip: Need a coffee or milk to wash down your donuts? Just ask your guide. It’s on him!
KidTripster Tip: It should go without saying, but don’t eat breakfast before this 9 a.m. tour. Also, when you’re sampling, only try an 1/8 of the donut and then get the rest in a to-go box that you can add to throughout the tour - seriously. These donuts are decadent! And remember, you’re going to four shops, so if you do the math, that’s eight donuts.
The next stop is the very hip and lively Blue Star Donuts (1155 SW Morrison St.). This is Portland’s donut version of Salt & Straw Ice Cream with an emphasis on unusual, high quality ingredients. Making “donuts for grownups,” the choices here include a blueberry bourbon basil concoction.
KidTripster Tip: Kids may want to choose their own flavors at Blue Star, if the tour offerings seem too “out there.”
The third stop on the tour is the hidden gem and our favorite. Near the famed Powell’s City of Books, you’ll find a taste of the French Quarter at NOLA Doughnuts (110 NW 10th. St.). Seriously, the warm beignets here are better than the ones that I’ve tasted in New Orleans, and the accompanying dipping sauces - marionberry, spiced honey and raspberry mocha - put them over the top! But the La’ssant square with its crunchy exterior lightly dipped in silky ganache made from Belgian chocolate is the star. Truly, it belongs on the dessert menu of a five-star restaurant. Pair it with a chicory coffee and experience a blissful sugar rush.
The final stop is Portland’s original donut sensation: Voodoo Doughnut (22 SW 3rd. St.). As a Portlander, I will tell you that Voodoo is a bit overrated, however the appeal of those pink boxes is undeniable. The best part? Your tour guide can skip the long line here and grab your voodoo doll donuts boxed to go.
The walking tour is about 1-1/2 miles and takes 2 hours. Along the way, you’ll not only get the backstory on the donut shops but the city as well. Cost: Youth (10 & under) $15; Adult $30.
9/Portland Aerial Tram
SW Moody/Gibbs, Southwest Portland
You may hear a local say, “Hey, the mountain is out today.” That’s the Portland way of announcing that majestic, snow-capped Mt. Hood is clearly visible. For the best view in town, head to the South Waterfront and ride the Portland Aerial Tram to the top of Marquam Hill, home of Oregon Health & Science University. Kids absolutely love this ride! If you’re lucky, you may witness a five-mountain day, where the peaks of Hood, Rainier, St. Helens, Adams, and Jefferson are all visible. Huge photo op! Cost: Youth (under 6) free; Others $4.50.
In addition, you can enjoy one of the Portland farmers markets during the late spring, summer, and early fall. At Elizabeth Caruthers Park (one block from the tram’s river station), you'll find the South Waterfront Farmers Market on Thursdays, or if you're on the hill, try the OHSU Farmers Market on Tuesdays.
Photo courtesy: James Francis, Travel Portland
Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway, east of Portland
It’s well worth taking a day trip outside Portland along the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway. Along the way, stop at the Crowne Point scenic overlook for outstanding views of the Columbia River Gorge. Next, you’ll encounter four different waterfalls - all with hikes of varying length - before reaching the granddaddy of them all, two-tiered, 620-foot Multnomah Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in the country. The hike to the top is a moderately strenuous 2.2-miles (roundtrip) with a 700-foot elevation gain, best suited to older kids. After Multnomah Falls, catch Horsetail Falls before hopping on Interstate 84 to return to Portland.