7 unforgettable family-friendly experiences in Portland

Weeks prior to our first trip to Portland, Oregon, the City of Roses, we asked some friends who live there for recommendations on the best things to do in the city when visiting with kids. We were delighted when they quickly responded with an extensive list of activities and places to visit, including skiing at Mount Hood located less than 100 miles from the city. No way! Skiing in July? That was my first thought. I double-checked it, and to my surprise, it is true! In fact, American ski and snowboard teams spend their summers on the slopes of Mount Hood because they have year-round access to snow.

We didn’t visit Mount Hood, but looking at our friends’ list, we immediately realized that Portland is family-friendly with tons of things to do. Despite not achieving the whole list, we had three busy and fun-filled days in the city. We visited parks, ate good food, explored the Museum of Science and Industry, visited an extraordinary bookstore, saw gorgeous waterfalls along The Columbia River Gorge, and more.

We stayed at the Hyatt House Downtown.

Without further ado, here is the final itinerary of our three-day stay in Portland.

1. Ride the Pink Trolley in Portland

On our first day in Portland, we took the Pink Trolley Sightseeing Tour to get an overview of the area. We began at Pioneer Square where we bought our tickets and boarded. The trolley took us all over Portland. However, rather than hopping on and off at the major attractions, we mostly sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the 1 hour, 30-minute loop. It worked great.

Pink Trolley in Portland

We traveled through Washington Park, the shopping district, Pearl District, River Waterfront, and several other stops. Meanwhile, the knowledgeable tour operator pointed out the sights and interesting facts about each one. We learned interesting, yet quirky bits of Portland’s history.

2. Visit Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) 

The visit to the Museum of Science and Industry lasted approximately four hours, and we could have easily spent another four. Offering plenty of exhibits for families with children of all ages and different interests, most of the displays had an interactive component. We checked the Under Arctic exhibit, physics lab, science playground, planetarium, plus technology exhibits. The Robots gallery was one of my daughter’s favorites, and I practically had to drag her and my husband out.

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry


We also toured the USS Blueback Naval submarine. During the 45-minute excursion, we enjoyed a detailed presentation of the ship by a veteran. He showed us the tiny dining area with tables where the submariners ate their meals and spent free time when not on duty. We looked at the tiny triple bunks with just enough space for them to crawl in and crash out. We visited the torpedo room and peeked through the old periscope. It was the first submarine we had ever been on. Despite knowing that new submarines look a lot different these days, we were still intrigued by this older veteran who served our country so honorably. I couldn’t stop thinking about a crew of 85 men sharing such a cramped space.

3. Get lost at Powell’s City of Books

Our friends took us to Powell’s City of Books, claiming that it was like nothing else we had seen before. Once we got there, we understood what they were talking about. Powell’s City of Books claims to be the largest independently owned bookstore in the world. True or not, it takes up an entire block in Pearl District! Divided into three floors and nine rooms, it holds approximately one million new and used books. Not surprisingly, the children’s book area is the biggest I have ever seen. Customers must follow color-coded signs to find the desired section.

Powell’s City of Books

Being surrounded by so many books was such a fascinating experience, especially considering that so many bookstores have been closing in the past years. Despite amazed by the vast selection, we limited ourselves to buying only the Spirit Animals collection for our daughter.

4. Taste Portland’s appetizing food

Whether we dined at one of the many renowned restaurants, had lunch from phenomenal food carts, tried the indulgent Thai cuisine, or tasted outstanding ice cream, we realized that Portland can satisfy any type of food craving. Spending the three days in town, we tried superb flavors. If you are visiting Portland and want to get a sample of local flavor, here’s our list of the best food we had in the city.

Explore the food trucks on the streets of Portland

There are more than 500 food trucks in Portland. Most of them flock in distinct areas of the city such as Third and Fifth Avenues, and Mississippi Marketplace. As they cover an array of cuisines, such as Korean, Mexican, and Indian, just to list a few, it was hard to choose what to order. We visited Third Avenue. Once we got our Thai dishes, we strolled to Waterfront Park, chose a spot on the grass, and enjoyed the flavors. The Thai fried rice was one of the best I have ever had.

Dine at Jake’s Grill Restaurant

Portland Jake’s Grill Restaurant

Jake’s Grill is a renowned seafood restaurant located at the historic Sentinel Hotel downtown. Open since 1892 this old-fashioned restaurant features wood beams, high ceilings, chandeliers, and white tablecloths which make the place glamorous, yet casual. Browsing through the menu, we thought it was spectacular, and it was difficult to choose between excellent options. The oven roasted salmon served with fresh basil sauce was nicely cooked. It was to die for.

Savor steamed buns at Boke Bowl

Boke Bowl Restaurant in Portland

Boke Bowl is an Asian restaurant located on Water Avenue, a 10-minute walk from the Museum of Science and Industry. Featuring counter service and communal tables the place is casual and friendly. Despite their reputation for the ramen, we ordered steamed buns with fried chicken, pork belly, and PB&J; we were glad we did. The chicken bun was my favorite. The bun was light, and the chicken was crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, almost like southern fried chicken. They were delectable!

Have soup dumplings at XLB

XLB Restaurant in Portland

Our family loves soup dumplings. After figuring out that XLB stands for xiao long bao (aka soup dumplings), we had to check it out. This casual Chinese diner located on Williams Avenue in the historic Mississippi District is in Northwest Portland. The xiao long bao filled with pork and combined with ginger, soy, sesame oil, rice wine, and garlic were out of this world. So were the chili shrimp wontons tossed in a black bean chili sauce.

Don’t skip Salt & Straw, a one-of-a-kind ice cream treat.

We discovered Salt & Straw in San Francisco. If you have never heard about it, I have only one word to describe it: Heaven! Salt and Straw is a local, family-owned ice cream shop that offers a rotation of unmatched flavors. Although I L-O-V-E-D the Salted Malted Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough – which is a combination of caramelized brown sugar with a touch of saltiness, plus pure enjoyment – there are distinct flavors you must try. I sampled quite a few such as honey lavender, olive oil, and blackberries, each one was creamy, fresh, and delicious.

5. Relax at the Portland Japanese Garden

Leaving behind the fun hustle and bustle of Portland’s urban life, we found profound peace, harmony, tranquility, and beauty at the Japanese Garden. As we strolled through the gardens, each path led us from one lovely scene to the next. We walked by koi ponds, waterfalls, sculptures, and stunning landscapes. We also checked out an arts and craft exhibition at the Pavilion Gallery.

Portland Japanese Garden

Portland Japanese Garden

Located within Washington Park, the 12-acre Portland Japanese Garden features eight distinct garden styles – Entry Garden, Flat Garden, Strolling Pond Garden, Bonsai Terrace, Natural Garden, Tea Garden, Sand and Stone Garden, and the Garden Gift Shop. Carefully manicured, it is proclaimed to be the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan.

For more information about hours and fees, check here.

6. Stroll through the International Rose Test Garden

Hello, City of Roses! Doing justice to its nickname, Portland is the home of the International Rose Test Garden, the oldest continuously operated public rose test garden in the United States. Created in 1917 it was intended to save and cultivate rose varieties from Europe during World War I. Pretty cool, eh?

Although the numbers vary, the garden features approximately 10,000 rose bushes that bloom from more than 650 rose varieties. It is gorgeous! Strolling through three distinct areas – Royal Rosarian Garden, the Shakespeare Garden, and the Miniature Rose Garden – we found ourselves surrounded by rows and rows of fragrant roses of all colors and sizes. A must see!

International Rose Test Garden

Note: The International Rose Test Garden and Japanese Garden are within walking distance of each other in Washington Park. Free admission. Roses are typically in bloom from late May through September. Click here for more information.

7. Take a day trip to Columbia River Gorge

East of Portland, the Columbia River Gorge carves a dramatic canyon that separates the states of Oregon and Washington. Combining rainforest, canyon, rivers, waterfalls, and alpine meadows, the scenery is spectacular. In fact, I’m convinced that there are not many places in this country quite as beautiful as the Columbia River Gorge.

From Portland, we headed out I-84, on the Oregon side of the river. Near Troutdale, we turned onto the narrow and winding historic State Route 30. After a 45-minute drive, we arrived at the first waterfall. The truth is, Columbia River Gorge features more waterfalls than we could possibly see in one day. Taking into consideration their magnitude and accessibility, we visited three of them: Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Multnomah Falls.

Latourell Falls

Latourell Falls
Latourell Falls is a long, thin waterfall, 249 feet high. It creates a misty appearance that spills over a dark lava bedrock. A short walk led us to a picnic area that has a viewpoint of the Lower Falls. Alternatively, the 0.8-mile trail leads to and behind the water of the Upper Falls.

Bridal Veil Falls

Bridal Veil Falls

A 2/3-mile round-trip paved trail from the parking lot took us on a scenic walk deep in the woods to the base of Bridal Veil Falls. Divided into two tiers and dropping about 120 feet altogether, this powerful body of water tumbles over rocks, and eventually flows into the Columbia River.

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls is 620-foot high and cascades into two separate pools. While the Upper Falls is longer, thinner and drops more than 500 feet into a pool, the Lower Falls is broader, shorter, and more powerful. The second tier comes out of the first pool and flows under a stone footbridge. Multnomah Falls is one of Oregon’s most popular attractions, and no visit to Portland should be considered complete without seeing it.

Multnomah Falls is easily accessible from the parking lot. Although the view from the base is stunning, we walked up a short-paved trail to the bridge. From there we had the perfect view of the top tier’s full height.

Wrapping up

This itinerary is just a sample of the endless, family-friendly activities available in Portland. Endorsing our friends’ list, we agree the city is indeed packed with things to do, neighborhoods to explore, flavors to taste, and over 150 miles of trails around the city. Portland rocks! And I highly recommend visiting it as the city offers attractions that will please residents and visitors of all kinds.

Do you have any recommendations for visiting Portland with family? Share your experiences with us.


Road trip from San Francisco to Portland – Part 1

Road trip from San Francisco to Portland – Part 2

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