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Pacific Northwest Travel: Portland, Oregon – Family Friendly Activities, Money Saving Tips and more!

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We decided to head to Portland, OR for a fun little mini vacation with our family over Spring Break a few weeks ago and our goal was to just experience the Portland area with our kids & check out some of the family-friendly activities around the area. My husband and I lived about an hour south of Portland before we had kids while he was going to school (Go Beavs!) so we’d head up to Portland for the day occasionally on the weekends. However, we have only taken our kids down there a few times and typically only had a day or so to check things out. This time, we decided to spend 3 nights there so we could just relax and enjoy the sights.

Before we went, I asked the Thrifty NW Mom Facebook Fans for their recommendations of family friendly sights, dining & money-saving tips for Portland and wow, you all did not disappoint, providing over 115 suggestions of your favorite things to do in Portland. If you’re heading to Portland with your family anytime soon, definitely make sure to check out those tips first.

Family – Friendly Restaurants:

We tried out several delicious restaurants on our little trip and found some great options for family, so make sure to check out our post of Kid-Friendly restaurants around Portland – there were some great restaurants we tried so I decided to put that into it’s one post of our favorite locations.

Family Friendly Activities:

We had 2 main days for sightseeing, so we decided to hit up the most popular sights with the Oregon Zoo and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) as we knew both of those would be big hits with our girls (ages 4 & almost 7).

Oregon Zoo:

We stayed right downtown in the heart of the city at the Hotel Monaco  for our first night (make sure to check out my review of this kid and pet friendly hotel) so we decided to hit up the zoo first, as we were able to leave our car in the Hotel Monaco parking lot & take the Max light rail train to the zoo. Not only is this a great way to travel to the zoo – saves on sitting in traffic & having to find parking, you also will get discounted admission to the zoo if you show your Max ticket stub .  The Oregon Zoo offers $1.50 off each admission with a Max light rail ticket stub. (This also applies to the bus, too – just show your ticket stub at the ticket counter). You’ll save money (you also won’t have to pay the $4 parking fee at the zoo), have a stress-free ride & the kids will think it’s a thrill to ride the light rail train! So, if you are staying in downtown Portland or even in the suburbs but near the light rail, definitely consider taking the Max!

The Oregon Zoo is one of my favorites since it is such a beautiful zoo, located right in the middle of the popular Washington Park with 64 acres on a wooded hillside. I love going to zoos which don’t have that crowded feeling and instead you can enjoy the exhibits at a leisurely pace since there’s more space. You are going to be doing more walking, though, which could be tougher for your little ones, so you definitely might want to bring a stroller – if you forget, they do have ones you can rent on site (a single stroller is $7 for the day or a double stroller is $9 for the day) – but that will be an added expense. This was the first time we’ve gone stroller free all day to a place like the zoo & my 4 yr old was definitely exhausted by the end and was ready to be carried for the last 20 minutes or so.

If you go to the zoo, though, you absolutely have to make sure to see their new baby elephant, Lily! She was the highlight of our visit & we could have sat & watched her for an hour!

Ways to Save at the Oregon Zoo:

  • $4 Admission on the 2nd Tuesday of each month –  If you happen to time it just right, there is discounted $4 admission every 2nd Tuesday of the month (tickets are regularly $11.50 for adults & teens & $8.50 for kids ages 3-11 (2 & under are free). 
  • Ride the transit system to the zoo & get $1.50 off admission – As I mentioned, if you ride the bus or the Max Light Rail System, you can get $1.50 off each admission for each ticket stub you show at the ticket counter.  Not only will you save on your zoo ticket, but you’ll also save the $4 per car fee to park in the parking lot.
  • Use reciprocal zoo membership for half-price admission – If you have a membership to a reciprocal zoo or wildlife park, you can get half price admission. We had a family membership to the Point Defiance Zoo, so we were able to get half price admission to the zoo, which was a significant savings.  This meant that we saved $20 – paid only $20 for admission for all of us to the zoo versus $40 that we would have paid. 
  • Bring your own food & drink – this is definitely a big way to save by bringing in a picnic lunch for your family so you’re not paying the inflated prices for food & drink at the zoo. There are no places to eat around the zoo  (since it’s up in the park, so you’ll have to eat at the zoo if you forget your lunches)  We actually ate a big breakfast before we arrived and then packed a small lunch in our backpacks along with some waters, which saved on costs.

  • If you’re looking for an option for your train-loving child – maybe ride the light rail instead of paying extra for the train ride at the zoo – We did buy tickets for the train, it was just too long for our girls (they got super wiggly) & the ride didn’t keep their attention. We thought the train ride would go through more of the zoo grounds and behind the scenes, but the majority of the ride went through the forest in Washington Park, so it just didn’t provide a lot of diversity in the view for kids. If you have a child that absolutely loves trains, though, they’d probably love the train.
We got a later start in the morning heading to the zoo, so we only did the zoo for the day, but if you got up early & your kids were up for it, you could also check out one or more of the other popular attractions up at Washington Park, too. From the Rose Gardens & other locations around Washington Park, you’ll find some phenomenal views of Portland and Mt Hood in the distance.  It was foggy & rainy when we were there, but I’ve been up there before on gorgeous days & the view is well worth seeing!
  • Portland Children’s Museum
  • World Forestry Museum
  • Portland Japanese Garden (free to visit)
  • International Rose Test Gardens (free to visit)
  • Hoyt Arboretum (free to visit)

Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (OMSI):

We have never had the opportunity to check out OMSI before, but so many of you raved about OMSI that we decided it was a must-see on this trip. Let me tell you – not only did our girls love it, but we adults loved it, too, especially my science-loving husband! I think he had more fun than the kids! We weren’t sure if OMSI would be a good fit for our girls as they are on the younger end, but they really had something for everyone. What we loved the most is that everything is interactive and hands on, to engage all of the visitors! So even the exhibits which our girls didn’t understand what was going on as much, the science behind it, they loved the interactive, hands on features. 

Water Area inside the Hands On Science Playground

There is just so much to say about OMSI, so many cool exhibits, but you’ll just need to head to the OMSI website & check out each of the different science areas. I think one of the favorites of our girls was the Turbine Hall, where you could go into this crazy Inventor’s Ball Room. My husband had a blast showing the girls how to put these tubes together to shoot balls out of them (and I was thankful for chairs outside the room where I could watch without all the noise & chaos of that room). They also had a cool Earthquake house where you could experience what a 6.8 earthquake feels like. They also have a Hands On Science Playground  just for kids ages 6 and under. My girls could have spent hours just in this area – there was everything from water areas (they have smocks, but you might want to consider extra clothes as my little gal got drenched), sandbox area, craft station, ball stations, nature area & much more. There’s even an infant contained area within that big room, too.

I would suggest that if possible, try to go during the week, at least for your first visit. We went on a Saturday and it was packed & crowded!  {It was a rainy Saturday & a spring break weekend for WA folks, which probably contributed to the crowds}. If you really want to see a show/IMAX movie, I’d also recommend you look up the schedule before you arrive, or at least check it out once you arrive. I didn’t find their schedule of shows easy to find so we didn’t look at it closely until it was too late & we’d missed the movies we were most interested in.

Ways to Save at OMSI:

  • Follow their Facebook & Twitter pages, check their website and subscribe to their emails – OMSI is frequently offering special promotions on discounted membership, discounted tickets & more.  Right now, they have a springtime special where you can get a $25 OMSI gift card when you buy a Family Plus or higher membership.
  • Use Reciprocal museum membership – We have a Museum of Flight membership to Seattle (family gift) so we were able to use that & get free admission to OMSI. If you have a Pacific Science Center membership, you can also get free reciprocal admission (I think several children’s museums are also included as well in this reciprocal membership – make sure to check out the full list). You will still need to pay for any IMAX or Planetarium shows or special exhibits like the Mythbusters exhibit that is happening right now, but you will get discounted prices for most of those.
Last summer, OMSI did offer $2 days on the first Sunday of the month during the summer, so that may be coming back again this summer, but I don’t see anything on their website about this promotion right now.  Let us know if you know of any other ways to save at OMSI!


If you’re not from Oregon, you definitely may want to take advantage of the tax-free shopping while you’re down around the Portland area. If you brought your own car, you could travel out to one of the popular Outlet Malls, which are 45 minutes or less away from downtown Portland. For the closest location, you could check out the Columbia Gorge Outlets in Troutdale, which are just about a half hour away by car. There are also the Woodburn Company Stores in Woodburn, which is about 35 – 45 minutes away (depends on traffic). We decided to head to Woodburn as these are my favorite outlet stores and found some awesome sales that were happening. Adding no sales tax on top of the outlet sales was definitely the way to buy some items ahead of season for our girls.  We only had a few hours our last day, so I was bummed I didn’t get to check out all the stores, so definitely going to have to hit them up again next time we head down that way. {It’s also a great idea to stop at one of these outlets if you’re traveling through Oregon – either on I-84 heading out east or if you’re heading down I-5 to California – it’s a great pit-stop location to get the kids out & stretch your legs & take advantage of the tax-free shopping! :) }

Travel Options for Portland:

Portland is a great city to head to for a local Northwest vacation as it’s only several hours from most Northwest cities (we’re in the south Sound and it was only 3 hours away). You can also take an Amtrak train down & then use the public transportation options (Max light rail system, streetcar, buses) to get around. {Amtrak occasionally offers fare sales between Seattle & Portland, too, as we saw a few weeks ago}. Another frugal option is the Bolt Bus, which offers one-way fares for anywhere from $8 & up, but they do offer limited seats for as low as $1/ea on select dates. If you’re taking your car, just keep in mind parking costs if you’re staying in the city as parking can be an added expense you may not factor into your budget. We stayed in the city for one night & took advantage of the public transportation since we were already paying for the overnight parking. However, we then opted to stay in Vancouver for the 2nd and 3rd nights to save on hotel costs as well as overnight parking costs .  We found a great deal on TravelocityWe didn’t mind the 15-20 minute drive into Portland each day, so that’s an option to consider as well.

Plus, check out this post here on the Portland Ariel Tram. Its really more an idea of another thing to see in Portland, but technically its a transportation option too for those using the hospital.

We did decide to travel by car for this trip since we had a number of places we wanted to go . On our trip, we had the opportunity to drive around in the 2013 Ford Flex, to see how it performed and fit an active family like ours as compared to our current minivan. To see all the pictures and experiences we had driving the Ford Flex, make sure to check out the Twitter hashtag: #nwtravelford where you can see all the features that came in handy while driving it around Portland.

Driving a vehicle around on vacation is definitely the way to put it to the test as you get to try it out in a variety of situations (pouring down rain, crowded city streets, up & down hills  – we definitely had lots of experiences to see how it performed), so our goal was to give you our opinions on whether this is a reasonable option for families. The Ford Flex is considered a Crossover vehicle, yet I would say that it definitely has the space (passenger space & cargo space) that many of the full-size SUV’s offer, with quite a bit of leg room even in the 2nd and 3rd seating. It could fit up to 7 people, but we didn’t use the back row (just folded it down into the trunk with the touch of a button – it went into a hidden compartment so you could still use all of the trunk space) so we had a ton of cargo space for all our luggage and odds and ends.

Here are a few of our favorite tech features while driving in the city & interstate driving:

  • My Touch System – having everything right on the dashboard, accessible by the touch of a button, made it so much easier to get around in the car. You could switch between the GPS system, stereo system, car temperature, rear-view camera and more! 
  • Rear-view camera – this was great especially for the city driving, with parallel parking, backing out of crowded parking spots & more! My husband really got to rely on this and this is probably his favorite feature! 
  • Seat Warmers  – I’m not sure if this comes on all versions, but this was my personal favorite as it was cold and wet the whole weekend & it felt so good to get in the car & get warmed up! 
Overall, we were definitely impressed as the Ford Flex seemed like a very versatile vehicle for families. At first, it seemed like a larger vehicle to drive around & park, but then we measured it next to our minivan and they were the same size.  We realized the difference was just that it had a longer hood than we were used to, so we just had to take that into account when parking in the parking garages & tighter spots.
Hopefully this gave you some good ideas of places to check out with your family if you’re heading to Portland for a day trip or if you’re planning on making a little vacation out of trip to the city! There are so many  locations to check out around Portland, these were just a few of the main things we did on our visit this month. We’ll be sharing more favorites this summer, though!

What are your favorite family-friendly places to check out with your family in and around Portland? 


Disclosure: I was provided the Ford Flex to review on our trip to Portland; however, I was not compensated at all and 100% of the opinions expressed are my own. See our disclosure statement for more details.


  1. Also I don’t believe the Japanese Gardens is free. We’ve been there before and we had to pay. The Children’s Museum also has free first Fridays of every month after 4pm or 5pm.

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