By Meg Asby, Denise Castañon and Tiffany Hill
It’s an eternal question from visitors and recent transplants: What is there to do in Portland with kids? We’ve got the ultimate answers. And not just the sights visitors must cross off their lists, but the lesser-known bookstores, ice cream shops, food carts and more that locals favor. All these destinations capture the quirky/artsy/cool spirit of Portland. We love books, good food, video games, doughnuts, murals, the outdoors and more. Whether you are new to the city, are showing visitors around, or just want to explore old favorites with your family, this list is for you.
Visitor Must-do: International Rose Test Garden
Stepping into the International Rose Test Garden at Washington Park during peak bloom, you are greeted by an explosion of color and intoxicating fragrance as you tangibly come to understand how Portland earned its prettiest nickname — The Rose City. Portland’s mild winters make for an ideal growing season for roses. In fact, more than 10,000 individual rose bushes bloom in the International Rose Test Garden from late May through October, representing 650 different rose varieties. The buds are not just for your enjoyment though; judges evaluate the blooms for disease resistance, vigor, bloom abundance, fragrance and general impression. You can also Google a fanciful rose name (Dancing in the Dark or Raspberry Cream Twirl, anyone?) and find a nursery where you can purchase it!
When you go with kids, set your own rose scavenger hunt. Ask them to find the prettiest rose, the tiniest rose, their favorite color, the most fragrant or the silliest name. Pro tip: Washington Park is also home to other fabulous, must-see attractions, like the Portland Japanese Garden, Hoyt Arboretum and the Oregon Zoo.
Portlander Favorite: Peninsula Park
For gorgeous blooms and an easier time finding parking, head to the Peninsula Park Rose Garden. Charming, brick-lined paths lead to a lovely fountain in the center of the garden. Locals love North Portland’s Peninsula Park not only for its blooms, but for its vast lawns, music gazebo, shaded playground and supremely fun splash pad. Bring a picnic and prepare to spend a whole afternoon soaking up the surroundings.
Visitor Must-dos: Voodoo Doughnut and Blue Star Donuts
Fried, frosted, filled with jelly, made with vegan ingredients and so much more — we know how to make a damn good doughnut in this city. When families think of doughnuts in the Rose City, Voodoo Doughnut often comes to mind. You’ll no doubt see several people wandering downtown carrying Voodoo’s iconic pink boxes. From the namesake voodoo doughnut, oozing with jelly “blood” and pricked with a pretzel “needle” to long johns with bacon, a trip to this shop is sure to give everyone the ultimate sugar rush.
Another dough behemoth to make its mark in the city is Blue Star Donuts (pictured above). Unlike the fried treats at Voodoo, Blue Star is known for its cakey yet airy baked goods for more refined palates. You’ll find classic glazed varieties to interesting concoctions like matcha lime or a piña colada old fashioned at one of its six locations. Pro tip: Blue Star also sells vegan doughnuts.
Portlander Favorites: HeyDay Doughnuts and Doe Donuts
Creativity abounds at these local doughnut locales. At HeyDay Doughnuts, the circular treats are made with rice flour, making each bite chewy and springy, similar to the Japanese treat, mochi. HeyDay is the brainchild of Lisa Nguyen, who incorporates Southeast Asian ingredients like lychee, coconut, black sesame and ube.
Looking for all the taste without the animal byproducts? Look no further than Doe Donuts (pictured above). This Hollywood establishment is women-owned and makes delicious, vegan doughnuts. Visit the cozy shop and you’ll see them churn out fun, fresh flavors. There’s a year-round menu with classics like strawberry milk glaze with sprinkles — a favorite for kids — and their most popular doughnut, the Portland Fog, topped with organic earl grey glaze and a dollop of fresh whip cream in the doughnut hole. Pro tip: Even if you stop in for doughnuts, grab an ice cream sandwich for later.
Visitor Must-do: Alberta Arts District
There’s nothing more quintessentially Portland than strolling the Alberta Arts District, weaving in and out of independent shops, and enjoying free public art along the way. Pro tip: Download a map so you won’t miss any of the spectacular works by local artists. Stop by the “Community Cycling Mural” by Robin Corbo, complemented by a thick row of new and used bikes from local nonprofit Community Cycling Center. Or snap a photo in front of the brightly colored mural by longtime Portland artist Tom Cramer. View murals celebrating Black history by Eatcho, Jeremy Nichols and Lewis Harris. As you travel down Alberta Street, take a break in Green Bean Books (more on this great spot below!), get a chai dessert at Kulfi, and find enough great restaurants to make a day of it.
Portlander Favorite: Robot Alley
Just a short drive away is hidden gem Robot Alley (on N Kerby Avenue, off of Skidmore Street). If you’re lucky, the “artificial intelligence robot” (by artist Robert B. Forney) will be available to interact through the fence with pre-recorded responses, questions, and jokes. Be prepared for fog, lights, and potentially a water gun attack from the various droids and Star Wars characters decorating the fenceline. Dog lovers will be delighted to meet the family pets through the fence porthole and pay their respects to the memory of beloved Sprocket. [Editor’s note: Robot Alley is temporarily closed, but reopens the first week of June.]
Visitor Must-do: Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade
This Old Town arcade has cool date-night vibes (there’s a bar in the back), but it’s still totally kid-friendly until 5 pm. The dimly lit and intimate two-story arcade is divided by an artful blue-lighted staircase, with over 120 arcade and pinball games tucked into each cozy nook. The vintage games are fun and affordable to play; it’s hard to spend even $10 in an hour. They offer a full menu with vegan and gluten-free options in a futuristic concession area. Pro tip: Visit on their free play days for an even better deal.
Portlander Favorite: Next Level Pinball Museum
Lesser known Next Level Pinball Museum in Hillsboro is always free play. Pop culture exhibits line every wall, floor to ceiling. Guests pay $20 for a wristband to play 475+ arcade and pinball games, all day long if they like. You can even leave for a bite to eat — there’s a food cart in the parking lot — without paying for reentry. But note that guardians must pay $20 to enter even if they aren’t playing. While this can feel frustrating, it makes for a unique and special experience: Parents actually play with their kids at Next Level! If that’s not your jam, you can drop off older kids.
Visitor Must-do: Powell’s City of Books
When it comes to independent bookstores in the Pacific Northwest, Powell’s City of Books on Burnside is both renowned and beloved. It’s a must-visit for anyone coming through Portland (locals love it, too). Spanning one city block, the store also has a stellar children’s book section, from board books for babies, to picture books, to YA graphic novels and chapter books. Powell’s regularly has book sales, so you’re bound to get a good deal, and they also accept used books for discounted resale. It’s also a great place to hear your favorite author speak, and discover new ones! Pro tip: Powell’s also has a weekly children’s Saturday storytime at 10:30 am.
Portlander Favorite: Green Bean Books
Visit most Portland neighborhoods and you’ll find a well-stocked bookstore, locally run by welcoming and passionate booksellers. One of our favorite children’s bookstores is Green Bean Books. Located in the vibrant Alberta Arts District in Northeast Portland, this cozy bookstore has everything to inspire and engage young readers from babies to tweens and teens. This independent, community-based bookstore has an outstanding selection, including colorful board and picture books for littles, chapter books for elementary- and middle-school aged readers and graphic novels for tweens and teens. The store also relies on its 13-member youth advisory board of young readers which meets monthly to discuss advanced reading copies of upcoming books. And if you’re not sure what page-turner to get next, the folks at Green Bean Books are happy to help shoppers.
Visitor Must-do: Tender Loving Empire
In 2007, Brianne and Jared Mees founded Tender Loving Empire in Northwest Portland with the idea of community inspired and made goods. Fast forward more than 15 years, and the brand is most certainly an empire. Today, there are five locations, including the original location in Northwest, as well as stores in Southwest, Southeast, Bridgeport Village in Tigard and even in the Portland airport. Tender Loving Empire is a one-shop destination for apparel for the whole family — including adorable onesies — homegoods, jewelry, stationary, art and more. The store also has its own record label and has produced more than 90 albums featuring emerging artists. It’s easy to find curated goods made right here in Portland as well as from artisans around the globe.
Portlander Favorite: Paxton Gate
Strongly in line with the city’s unofficial motto to “Keep Portland Weird” is Paxton Gate on Mississippi Avenue (there’s a second location in Northwest, too). This quirky boutique is filled with oddities and curiosities like skeletons and bones, to carnivorous plants, crystals and gems and more. A favorite for kids is getting an up-close look at the large spiders, iridescent insects and colorful butterflies. Taxidermied animals — all for sale! — also reside here. There are rodents, “jackalopes,” heads of horned ungulates like gazelle, deer and zebra, a wooly cape buffalo, and even a two-headed brown and white calf (pictured above). If bringing home a hairy tarantula or preserved animal doesn’t work with your home ascetics, Paxton Gate also sells kid-approved books, puzzles, models and kits on crystals, bones, plants, bugs and more.
Visitor Must-do: Salt & Straw
Sure, it’s cold and rainy here more than half of the year, but that doesn’t stop Portlanders from indulging in ice cream year-round. Visit any Salt & Straw — there are four locations around the Portland area — and you’ll likely see a crowd enjoying heaping cones or cups of the frozen treat. What minted Salt & Straw as a Portland institution are its inventive flavors. Pro tip: This is a great place to expand your kid’s culinary palate. Sure, there’s classics like vanilla, mint chocolate chip, but why not try something more adventurous like the strawberry honey balsamic with black pepper or ice cream made with Arbequina olive oil? You won’t be sorry you did.
Portlander Favorites: Cloud City and Fifty Licks
The staff of PDX Parent couldn’t unanimously agree on our favorite scoop shop. But we say that’s a good thing — Portland has an abundance of places to eat delicious, imaginative ice cream. In Woodstock in Southeast Portland, Cloud City Ice Cream (pictured above) is a nostalgia lover’s dream. Here you’ll find iconic flavors updated with locally sourced and natural twists. Every kid will love Circus Friends, loaded with Mother’s brand pink and white frosted animal cookies and rainbow sprinkles. Cloud City also whips up tasty vegan varieties, too.
If you’re in the Clinton, Slabtown or Burnside neighborhoods, Fifty Licks is a must. Whether it’s vegan or made with all the dairy, this small-batch ice cream always hits the spot. Kids especially love the aptly named, Chocolate AF, made with chunks of homemade chocolate ganache.
Visitor Must-do: Cartopia
One of the original food cart pods, Cartopia has been serving the eastside since 2008. It’s such a uniquely Portland landmark that it has appeared in reality food shows and television commercials. In 2014, rumors of its closure rocked local foodies, but the pod survived the mixed-use development wave that shuttered other cart pods. Today, carts sling grilled chicken slathered in Peruvian aji sauce, crispy falafel, twice-fried potatoes doused in gravy and cheese curds, and much more.
Portlander Favorite: CORE Food Hall
The CORE Food Hall on Southeast 82nd Avenue is a bright and shiny next-gen cart pod. Just because Portlanders aren’t afraid of the rain doesn’t mean we want to eat in it, especially with kids in tow. So CORE’s vast indoor seating area that features plenty of natural light is a welcome upgrade from soggy tents. Plates range from massive gyros to banh mi sandwiches to piles of lomo saltado, a Peruvian steak stir-fry served over fried potatoes. It’s also home to HeyDay Doughnuts, mentioned above. Pro tip: The space also hosts maker fairs, comedy nights, craft nights and more.
Visitor Must-do: Portland Saturday Market
“I absolutely love meeting our customers and visitors to Portland,” says painter and mom Tonya Gray, who has been selling her work at Portland Saturday Market (PSM) for 15 years. “PSM is the second-most visited destination in Portland. Hearing people’s stories and knowing where my art is going is really fun.”Founded in 1974, PSM draws an estimated 1 million people to the Waterfront Park in Old Town.
Everything at the market is handcrafted by the vendors themselves. With almost 400 artists participating each season, you’ll find a different mix of dangly earrings, watercolor paintings, screen-printed tees, mouth-watering confections, herb-scented soaps and more each weekend of March through December. Vendors ring up $10 million in sales annually. But for Gray, the market is more than a vending opportunity. “I’m incredibly grateful for Portland Saturday Market,” she says. “Market members are like family, supportive and encouraging. It’s wonderful to be a part of this group of good folks.”
Portlander Favorite: Neighborhood Street Fairs
Late spring through early fall is street fair season in Portland. We Portlanders swarm outside at just the hint of sunshine. And what better place to do it than at nearby blocks cordoned off for handmade craft booths, food carts, kids’ activities and music stages. It’s essentially a giant party with your neighbors with the added benefit that purchasing a cool art print or some funky barrettes can make an artist’s afternoon. Often there’s a low-key parade of community groups, preschools, local businesses, classic car groups, maybe a middle-school marching band or two. These are not showy affairs, but kids absolutely adore them.
Visitor Must-do: OMSI
OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, has been enrapturing kids (and grown-ups) on Southeast Water Avenue since 1992. Kids can build, test and improve structures to withstand tsunamis and earthquakes in the Turbine Hall. Little dinosaur enthusiasts can touch fossils as well as watch staff prep specimens in the Paleontology Lab. And at the new Spanish-language-forward exhibit Creatividad Silvestre | Wild Creativity, the whole family can experience the brilliance of nature’s design and see how engineers can learn from it. OMSI also hosts a wide range of events such as the Studio Ghibli Film Festival, OMSI After Dark for those 21 and older, and much more. And we love that OMSI strives to make science fun accessible to all with their monthly $2 Days.
Portlander Favorite: Portland Insectarium
In keeping with that Portland quirky streak, the Portland Insectarium, a small zoo and museum, is dedicated to all things creepy crawly! Kids who love insects and arachnids will be fascinated by the live bug zoo, pinned bugs, touchable bugs, microscope and more. There are even jumping spiders available for purchase. (Moms who are scared of spiders may have to wait outside.)
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