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Portland, Oregon ? Our Family?s Favourite Places in ?The City of Roses?

Posted on | May 30, 2010 | Comments Off on Portland, Oregon ? Our Family?s Favourite Places in ?The City of Roses?

When you think about the cities of the west coast of the United States, the places that spring to mind are Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. It is far too easy to overlook Portland, Oregon, “The City of Roses”, a city with its own unique character and charm.

I am a British Mum of two children and I was lucky enough to be a resident of Portland from June 2004 to August 2006 when our family decided to spend some time living and working in the United States of America. I had always wanted to try living overseas and I looked forward to the fact that my children (then aged 4 and 7), husband and I would have the opportunity to experience a new country and culture. 

I knew very little about Oregon before we arrived. I was aware of the state’s location, had researched its climate and landscape online, and had some prior knowledge about the history of the region but was a little nervous about how we would settle in as a family in America, especially how I would keep the children occupied when they weren’t at school.  I have never embraced the idea of being totally reliant on a car, preferring to walk or use public transport, nor do I like the idea of placing children in highly organised activities during the school holidays. Oregon schools’ summer vacation lasts almost three months – so I hoped we’d be able to find enough things to occupy us. Luckily Portland and the surrounding area has no shortage of places to visit and things to do that are family-friendly and easily accessible and I hope the following list will help you if you are planning a visit or thinking about living there. Do take the time to refer to the websites for the places below and check prices, facilities and opening times etc because my choices are based on my own memories and my own family’s interests. 

Consider Using Portland’s Public Transport System!

A strange first choice maybe, but I’ve put it at the top of the list because it is possible to travel around a great deal of Portland (and to many of the locations that I describe below) without a car, and …… the kids loved it! The Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) is a light rail system crossing the Portland Metro Area from Hillsboro in the west to Gresham in the east and with lines heading northwards to the airport and Expo Centre. Trains are fairly frequent and seemed to be reliable so I hardly ever needed to refer to timetables. The MAX is also relatively inexpensive, air-conditioned and reasonably well integrated with the buses and Portland Streetcar – so you can hop off one and onto another with little delay. Both the bus and train services appeared to be very popular, especially among commuters, tourists and the residents of the many modern apartment blocks located close to the line.

Washington Park

Washington Park is a large area (more than 400 acres) of open space, museums and gardens just to the west of Portland’s downtown. I recall it took only 10-15 minutes to reach the park from the city by bus or MAX and then you found yourself high in the hills away from the noise and bustle. The park has many attractions, some of which have their own write-up below. From the MAX station we chose to walk to the various locations or we used the bus. There is also plenty of parking for those who prefer to drive.

Oregon Zoo 

At Oregon Zoo, the oldest zoo in America west of the Mississippi, your family can visit around 200 species of animal from all over the globe as well as wildlife native to the Pacific Northwest. The site is reasonably compact so even younger children should be able to walk between all the animal enclosures – and there are plenty of areas to rest and play. You can spend a very enjoyable day at the Zoo with children of all ages. The wide variety of creatures from insects, exotic birds, bats, and penguins through to polar bears, apes and elephants ensures there is something to interest just about everyone. There are a number of cafes and restaurants serving meals and snacks, plenty of restrooms and the site seemed pretty stroller-friendly. We took a ride on a wonderful little steam train which followed a route through the Zoo and into Washington Park. There was also a small farm. This was probably our favourite place to visit.

Portland Children’s Museum

I think this museum is particularly suitable for children under ten years, though no doubt older siblings could find something fun to do here. The museum is full of hands-on exhibits where children can play safely with other children and allow their imaginations to run wild. When we visited there were areas where the kids could play at being the dentist, run their own grocery store, serve customers in their own restaurant, explore music, dig and build, and play water games. There was also a puppet theatre, clay studio, and a room for story-telling. I found the museum a brilliant place to hang out on very hot days (excellent air-con!) and I was even able to sit and read a book occasionally while the children just amused themselves and made friends.

World Forestry Center Discovery Museum

A wonderful resource, just what you would expect to find in a green city like Portland, and it operates on a not-for-profit basis. Its aim is to educate people about the forests of the world and how relevant and valuable they are to each and every one of us. They do promote the ecological message of a sustainable future but are never too “preachy” and successfully engaged my kids with a large number of informative and interactive displays.

Portland Japanese Garden

The Japanese Garden is a tranquil, relaxing space (5.5 acres arranged in five distinctive styles) in which to enjoy a walk, and to appreciate the attractive plant collection and the design of the garden. It’s probably a good choice for families who have older children or whose kids are interested in nature. It’s possibly not a great option if your offspring need noise and full-on action to have a good time! Very young children who enjoy walking will probably love the garden. There are steep hills, steps and gravel paths so you may want to consider leaving the stroller at home or take one that is lightweight enough to be folded up and carried occasionally.

Hoyt Arboretum

The Hoyt Arboretum consists of 185 acres of trails and green space where you can wander through a collection of one thousand species of tree from all corners of the world. It really is a great place to let off steam and run about.

International Rose Test Garden

As the name suggests the garden contains rose bushes, thousands of them, with more than 500 different varieties. My kids enjoyed sniffing all the different flowers and giving them “smell” ratings. Make sure your kids don’t pull the petals off the bushes though! You won’t be popular. On a clear day there are wonderful views of the city and the mountains from the Rose Garden. You should also find a children’s adventure playground a short walk away.

You could easily spend a week or more exploring Washington Park alone but Portland has many other family favourites, both in the Metro area and further afield.

OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry)

You probably won’t be able to see everything in one day! OMSI houses many rooms dedicated to a variety of science and technology subjects, filled with interactive and educational exhibits which should appeal to curious minds and budding scientists. In addition there is an OMNIMAX Dome Theater, Planetarium, Laser Show and Submarine. Some parts of OMSI do cost extra and/or happen at specific times so check out prices and timetables before travelling. We travelled to OMSI by bus from the city though many families take advantage of the large parking lot close to the building.

Audubon Society of Portland Wildlife Sanctuary

Why not take the family hiking along miles of trails through forest just five minutes west of downtown Portland? The kids will have to stay quiet occasionally if they want to catch sight of the native birds and other wildlife in the sanctuary. The Audubon Society also has an Interpretive Center and Nature Store. You’ll probably want to visit the Wildlife Care Center where you can see how volunteers help to rehabilitate injured birds and baby birds who have lost their parents.

Portland Waterfront and Downtown

Portland itself is fairly family-friendly with excellent shopping and a very attractive waterfront. Try riding the streetcar from Portland State University to the Pearl District, shop at Powell’s Books or visit the Portland Art Museum (they organise programmes for children). Often there are events held at the Waterfront as well as regular street-markets close by. I have not visited many US cities but I get the impression that Portland has a more European feel than most, is very easy to discover on foot, and is especially attractive from the water (why not take a Portland Spirit River Cruise?).

Tualatin Hills Nature Park

This park consists of more than 220 acres of wetlands and forest in the heart of Beaverton, a suburb to the west of Portland. It is easily accessed via the MAX as there is a station located close to the end of one of the park’s trails. There are around five miles of trails with some sections paved, others on softer ground. Quieter children will probably see the most wildlife as will the more eagle-eyed, as many of the creatures are small and well-camouflaged.

Outside the Metro Area

You do need a car to explore further afield – public transport options are pretty limited once you enter the countryside – but there are some wonderful sights not too far from Portland. 

For us the highlights were the coast (especially Ecola State Park), Mount Hood, Multnomah Falls (Columbia River Gorge) and the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretative Center at Oregon City. Many Portland residents head to the mountains or coast when temperatures hit the high nineties or beyond. We found it very enjoyable to trek an hour or two up Mount Hood (we would start at Timberline Lodge) in sunshine and cooling breezes knowing that it’s 100 degrees F (38 C) at ground level. The coast offers relief from the heat as well, but be aware that even on the sunniest days inland the sea mist can engulf the beaches and you may wish you had brought a jacket!

I hope you find this guide useful. Unless you love the rain I think the best months to visit Portland are July, August and September. Why not consider Oregon for a vacation or even as a place to live? It is a very beautiful and interesting part of the world and relatively undiscovered. Have fun with your family!

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed are the author’s own and based on the author’s own experiences and/or information available in the public domain. Any facts stated or advice given regarding pricing, accessibility, and suitability etc of these attractions for you and your family should be independently verified before you visit. The author makes no representations that the information is accurate, up-to-date or complete and accepts no liability for any loss or damage caused by inaccurate information or unsuitable recommendations.

Copyright: CambridgeLady, 2009