Thanks to its artsy charm, outdoorsy energy and most recently the satirical TV series Portlandia, Portland has enjoyed new—and much overdue—appreciation in the past several years. Laid back and friendly, the City of Roses is big enough to be a full-fledged city and yet small enough to feel like a town. I think that makes it just perfect for families, especially in summer when the sun shines through all the leafy-green goodness. Families will find as much to do outdoors as in, including parks, river tours, and hands-on museums, plus there are kid-friendly hotels and organic, farm-to-table restaurants on every corner.
Below are a few of my top picks for visiting families, as well as suggestions on where to stay and where to eat.
Portland Saturday Market: Located on Burnside at Waterfront and Ankeny Parks, the Portland Saturday Market (open both Saturday and Sunday, March through December) is the perfect introduction to all things Portland. Get a taste (literally!) of Portland's indie, free-spirited vibe while taking in the rows upon rows of colorful vendor stalls, street performers, musicians and artisan foods. From the market, walk along the Willamette River through Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
Powell's City of Books: Nothing short of a Portland institution, Powell's on Burnside is a book-lover's paradise of 68,000 square feet of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on every topic imaginable. Be sure to pick up a bookstore map at the front entrance; that's how big this place is! If you have young children with you, look for the children's section. As you can imagine, it's enormous!
Portland Spirit: Docked at Tom McCall Park, the Portland Spirit is a 150-foot yacht ready to take your family on a scenic sunset or dinner cruise down the Willamette. A great way to see the city by water (and a nice way to relax after a full day on the town), the Portland Spirit is truly for all ages: young kids will love taking their turn at the helm, and everyone will love the views. If fine dining isn't in your kids' wheelhouse (or your budget), you can purchase ride-only tickets and enjoy the top deck during the dinner serving (recommended). Mom and Dad: you can still order drinks at the bar.
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry: Known as OMSI, this first-rate science museum located downtown is all hands-on, and it features both permanent and visiting exhibits on everything from the cycle of life to the art of animation to an exhibit called Moneyville. Families will find rooms just for babies and toddlers, school-age kids and teens. Then everyone can meet back up for lunch at the café, a show at the planetarium or an IMAX movie.
Oregon Zoo: A top-rated zoo that's still small enough to explore in half a day, the Oregon Zoo is located minutes from downtown in Washington Park (easily accessible with Portland's stellar MAX public transportation). Our favorite exhibit is the Amazon Flooded Forest, but there's something for everyone, including educational animal shows and (surprisingly good) concession food. If you're not worn out, make a (very) full day of it by pairing the zoo with the adjacent Portland Children's Museum, perfect for the under age-10 set. (This is also an ideal option for a rainy day.) The museum features creative play spaces (my son loves the animal hospital) and fabulous art programs, including a clay studio and "recycled art" lab, where kids make creations from recyclables. This summer, families can be among the first to check out the brand-new outdoor Zany Maze.
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area: While it would be tempting to spend all your time in downtown Portland, families don't want to miss out on the lush forests and cascading waterfalls that Oregon is famous for. Just a few miles outside of town by car on I-84 (or as an optional Portland Spirit cruise by water), the Columbia River Gorge offers breathtaking overlooks, beautiful day hikes (in a full range of difficulty) and even Bonneville Lock and Dam, where kids can watch the salmon jump up a fish ladder. You can't miss gorgeous Multnomah Falls, but many families don't realize they can hike all the way to the top on a moderate-difficulty trail.
Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum: (and water park):, Families will want to reserve a full day for the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum and adjacent Wings and Waves indoor water park, located 45 minutes outside of Portland in the scenic wine-growing region of McMinnville . The museum is housed in three huge bays and is visually impressive. The on-hand docents are friendly and informative, and there's even a space-themed playground outside. Once the kids see Wings and Waves indoor water park, however, they won't look back; housed in its own bay, Wings and Waves features water slides, tube slides, a wave pool and leisure pool, water vortex and hands-on water museum.
Hotel Monaco Portland: Families might be tempted to think the Hotel Monaco too upscale for kids, but in fact, this eco-boutique Portland hotel caters to them with kids' packs upon arrival, stuffed animals to snuggle with at night, free bicycles to ride throughout the city and cheery goldfish to care for in the room. We've been welcomed at the Hotel Monaco several times (as a bonus, they'll cut the parking fee in half if you drive a hybrid car). Ideally located on Washington Street in downtown, the Hotel Monaco is steps away from dining, the waterfront and public transit stops. Parents will love the complimentary wine reception every evening (during which a Wii and painting easels are set up for kids).
Embassy Suites Portland: Also ideally located downtown, Portland's Embassy Suites offers spacious suites for families, but its main appeal is its full, cooked-to-order breakfast and extensive evening reception (both complimentary). Families can fill up on a late snack or even feed a hungry toddler dinner with the finger foods set out every evening. There's a full fitness facility, but trust me, with all the walking and biking a Portland vacation ensures, you'll be burning calories without trying.
Portland Food Carts: There are plenty of great restaurants in Portland, but most families gravitate toward the abundance of food carts lining the downtown blocks during the summer months. And with names such as EuroTrash and The Honey Pot, they're a taste of fun as well as dinner. Most Portland food carts strive to use local ingredients, and provide a great way for kids to try something new. Best of all, the carts tend to run in packs, so families have a rolling food court of options for every meal.
Mother's Bistro: Located on Stark Street downtown (just a block from Hotel Monaco Portland), Mother's serves up comfort food with a gourmet flair, in an elegant yet unpretentious atmosphere to boot. Kids are welcomed with open arms, and they love the traditional favorites like macaroni and cheese and meatloaf that somehow taste twice as good as they do at home. Mother's is popular, so reservations are recommended on weekends. And if you don't have time for dinner, stop in just for dessert!
Voodoo Doughnut: Voodoo Doughnut is famous among Portland residents and visitors alike for its creation (at least, this is what we like to think) of the maple-bacon bar as well as other creative doughnut concoctions like Captain My Captain (topped with Captain Crunch cereal) and the Mango Tango. Stop by Voodoo, located downtown on 3rd Avenue, in the morning, or pick up a dozen in the evening before and challenge yourself to wait to open their signature pink box until the next day.