pH, while we were walking through a very packed International Rose Test Garden this summer, asked me why people come to Portland to visit. I opened my mouth and…nothing came out for a long time. I don’t know. I think they’re expecting…an experience. Or maybe because this is a Lickitung nest? She laughed. She’s learned to mutter “tourist” under her breath in a Portland-passive-aggressive-just-audible tone whenever one of them violates a sacred bike-pedestrian rule.

When we traveled to Kentucky last year, with connecting flights in what some people call flyover states, we were asked where we were from. Often. (Apparently I don’t sound like middle America like I thought I did.)

Portland. Pause. Oregon.

The response would be a stream of consciousness thing about food carts and Voodoo Donuts and the Decemberists and Portlandia and…

…and I found I missed the days when “Where are you from?” elicited comments about rain and webbed toes.

By the time we were on our way home from Kentucky, I’d found a response: “The donuts and beer are great..but the new thing?” Dramatic pause. “Bicycle pot tours.” Mic drop. In a Southwest flight in Colorado–we were sitting in front–I listened to that information pass all the way to the back.

Just doing my part for tourism.

What to do in Portland, though, with kids?

Portland activities are usually–not always, but usually–either adult or kid oriented. I’ll leave it to the NYT’s 36 hour series to talk about all the wonderful places adults can stay and eat (especially as it’s rare that we’ve been to any of them–and if we have, it was usually because of our fairy godmother, RGP).

Portland for the kids: 

Pro tip: always check the Portland Public Schools calendar to make sure you’re not going anywhere on a school holiday.

This is a caracal.

This is a caracal.

The zoo. We have a baby elephant, baby ringtails, frequent baby river otters, a super sweet, youthful sea otter who is being mothered by an older female, a new baby polar bear, a really amazing elephant habitat, Humboldt penguins (my favorite) and a lot of things I’m forgetting, even though I was there yesterday. Yes, yesterday. We’re at the zoo a lot. You can get there via MAX (you will take an elevator from a tunnel right out into the bright light of day dark of rain clouds by the front gate). Best day to go: Mondays or when the weather is bad (or both).

OMSI. This is the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. I have a love-hate relationship with OMSI, although we’re there almost as often as the zoo (sometimes more). The restaurant is not allergy-friendly. I grew up going to the Exploratorium, which is a high bar. It’s loud and I am easily overwhelmed. I am so familiar with the exhibits that we don’t go there for the exhibits: we go for the relationships we’ve built up over time with the volunteers. Best time to go: early in the week, either first thing in the morning or around 1 PM (when all the parents with babies have taken them home for naps).

Powell’s Books. I have discovered though trial and error, the best thing you can do is to go to the kids’ section first, let your kids pick out their books, and then you will be able to browse at will. My daughter grew up in Powell’s and thought it was a library for years.

Portland Audubon Society: Just up from trendy NW 23rd Avenue, take Lovejoy until it curves around and becomes Cornell. You’ll go through a couple of tunnels (don’t worry; the bikes and pedestrians have a path to the side) before reaching Audubon. There are some short hikes that pass old growth trees, the pond contains rough skinned newts, and the educational birds include a raven named Aristophanes, Hazel the Spotted Owl, Ruby the turkey vulture, and Julio the Great Horned Owl. Also, there’s an awesome gift shop with the coolest selection of stuffed animals ever.

Sometimes the bridges have protesters hanging from them!

Sometimes the bridges have protesters hanging from them!

The bridges. pH informs me they are actually boring, but because we catch a lot of Magikarp, it’s okay. Frankly, I think they’re really cool. I never get tired of watching a bridge raise, especially when we’re only one or two cars back from the barrier.

Fish hatcheries. If you drive out I-84, you’ll get to the Bonneville Dam and salmon and trout fish hatcheries. The kids can feed some rainbow trout, and during spawning season it’s amazing to see the huge salmon working their way up the fish ladders. There’s a visitor center on either side of the Columbia; the Washington side has a great dam tour and a better viewing area, but you’ll have to drive over the Bridge of the Gods to get there, and paying the toll is not the scariest part of that bridge. (It should not be legal to see through the bottom of the road to the river below. Just saying.)

Volcanoes. It’s quite a drive to go to north side of Mt. St. Helens (where all the neat visitor centers are), but it’s worth it, and it is humbling to see how massive the devastation was–and how life is returning to the summit. Closer to Portland, you can hike in a lava tube where the temperature is always in the 40s, there’s no lighting other than what you bring, and watch your step: no hand rails, either.

Any of our gazillion of parks. I’ll say this: we have great parks in Portland. If you’re staying downtown, though, you might want to do what I did when we lived there–a needle check before the kids get on any equipment. And you’ll probably have to answer awkward questions about the homeless from your kids, because Portland has a huge homeless problem.

The Rose Garden is pretty darned beautiful in the summer. It’s across from the Japanese Garden, which is also beautiful (and they cleverly put together a “scavenger hunt” brochure of various po

A picture by pH hanging at Oblation.

A picture by pH hanging at Oblation a while back.

ints of interest for kids). The Chinese Garden downtown is great for gardeners…but not as interesting for kids.


pH wants me to write Downtown, because she grew up boutiquing and antiquing. I would recommend going out of town for the antiques (any small town will do) but the Pearl District is our favorite place to wander around, because we used to live there. Our favorite shop is Oblation and the best coffee in town is at Barista. The Mio Sushi on NW Hoyt is great, too. If you’re lucky enough to get an appointment, go for a massage at Urban Renewal. A few blocks up on NW 23rd, you can float at the Float Shoppe (highly recommended recharging after spending several days doing kid things with kids)!