By Matt Villano, on June 23, 2015

Portland for kids

On most days, the sight of bugs sends my 6-year-old shrieking for cover. On a sunny Monday earlier this summer, however, it was as if another child had inhabited her body—not only was she petting a giant walking stick bug, but she was sending the creature some serious babytalk, calling it her “honey.”

We were in the Science Playground at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, and one of the facility’s animal handlers was kind enough to take the bug out of its habitat for my kid to touch.

When he reached for the critter, I cringed. Thankfully, her reaction surprised me. Pleasantly.

This wasn’t the only time I was surprised during our visit to Portland; with dozens of family-friendly attractions, lots of bridges, and a quirky food scene, the Northwest city is a perfect place for travelers who hit the road with young kids. We stayed for two nights in fabulous room at the Hotel Deluxe. Here’s a closer look at the experiences we liked best.


Without question, the figurative highpoint of our visit was our day at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, or OMSI. The kids enjoyed exhibits about Northwest geology, human reproduction, and the largest creatures on Earth. But their favorite part of the visit was the Science Playground.

I like to think of this attraction like a giant indoor park. Among the play areas: A sandbox, water tables, a block city, and an arts-and-crafts room.

There’s even an area where kids can dress up as local animals and “play” in giant make-believe habitats.

Sand pit at OMSI

Our girls spent a good bit of time in every spot. I got in on the action, too; while waiting for them to clear out of the water table area, a friend of mine and I crafted a game of HORSE out of tossing plastic ball-pit balls from various spots around the play area into a water funnel. (No, you really can’t take me anywhere.)

Toward the end of our visit, my older daughter wandered into the arts-and-crafts room and spotted the walking stick bug. That’s when she got brave. A handler took out the bug for her (and some others) to touch. She ended up petting it the most, even going so far as to ask if we could take it back to the hotel.

Her verdict: The bug was “hard and soft at the same time,” and looked “more like a dinosaur than a bug.” She added that It reminded her of a scorpion, “only friendly.” I’m not sure I’d disagree at all.

Portland Aerial Tram

Of course the literal highpoint of our trip was the Portland Aerial Tram. We boarded the tram along the South Waterfront; four minutes later we had traveled 3,300 linear feet to the top of Marquam Hill. Employees told me the car rose at a maximum speed of 22 mph. My kids didn’t care one bit.

Instead, they were transfixed by the view: Bridges upon bridges stretching across the Willamette River, as far as the eye could see.

(Seriously, my children *really* love bridges. I blame the Golden Gate; we’re from San Francisco)

The girls paid particular attention to the Tillikum Crossing, a pedestrian- and public transit-only bridge that’s scheduled open later this year. This span reminded all of us of Millennium Bridge in London, the pedestrian-only bridge that spans the Thames. Portland locals have complained about the fact that this bridge won’t carry cars (at a time when many car bridges are in need of repair). Whatever it carries, the thing looks good, and it looks best from above.

At the top, we could have walked around Marquam Hill and explored the Oregon Health Sciences University campus. Instead, we took the tram right back down. A quick ride for a unique perspective of the city; the girls wouldn’t have it any other way.

Viewfinder Tip: Arrive at Blue Star early for your pick of the donuts; many of the most popular flavors sell out by 10 a.m.

Blue Star Donuts

No write-up of family-friendly Portland would be complete without at least a mention of the city’s burgeoning food scene. While we ate at a handful of uber-popular, hipster-yet-casual restaurants during our visit, the place the kids still talk about serves a very specialized kind of food. Its name: Blue Star Donuts.

Technically speaking, the donuts are made from a classic brioche recipe that originated in the south of France. That said, they might as well be made from fairy dust, since they are COMPLETELY addicting.

I swung by one morning with my younger daughter on a mission to bring some donuts back to Mom and Big Sister in the hotel room. Our booty: One raspberry glazed, one lemon poppyseed, one chocolate ganache, and one maple frosted with bacon.

Did these donuts give me a headache like same way other fancy-pants baked goods do? Absolutely. Did I mind? Not at all. The maple/bacon donut in particular was like nothing I ever had eaten before. My younger child, a donut connoisseur in her own right, agreed; proclaiming that the only kind of bacon she’s eating from here on out is candied bacon that sits atop a hand-sized donut.

There were other stops on our whirlwind tour of Portland, including the Oaks Amusement Park, as well as the Portland Children’s Museum (of course). The kids enjoyed both, which is further proof Portland is a great city for families.

What are your favorite ways to spend a vacation with kids?