Portland in a Day: 12 hours of fun

Where do you go in Portland with kids – if you’ve only got a day? My friend Sarah recently came down from Victoria, BC, with her daughter Rowan (age 4) and I wanted to introduce her to the city I grew up in. We only had one day to cover Portland’s Greatest Hits, so I was determined to pack as much as possible into 12 waking hours.

I snagged a four-star hotel room off of Priceline (RiverPlace Hotel, $100/night) using the Priceline bidding method. Once we arrived, we upgraded to a junior suite for $25, which offered a King and a Queen pull-out sofa bed. My kids and I shared the King, Sarah and her daughter shared the Queen.

8:00 a.m. Slappy Cakes. This Southeast Portland restaurant puts a griddle right in the middle of the table – so you can flip your own flapjacks. Choose from buttermilk, zucchini or multigrain, then select your fixins (we chose apples, blueberries and walnuts). The kids had a blast with the griddle. I wouldn’t bring a grabby baby here, but I saw plenty of parents doing so — with no ill effects.

Making breakfast at the kid-friendly Portland restaurant Slappy Cakes

Making breakfast at the kid-friendly Portland restaurant Slappy Cakes

9:30 a.m. Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. We hit OMSI at opening time, and got in as one of the first admissions. We played in the vacuum-powered ball room, let the kids run amok in the Science Playground (it’s best for kids ages 6 and under), took a ride on an earthquake-simulator house and made our hair stand on end in one of OMSI labs.

OMSI with kids

Looking down on OMSI (this is just one section of the two-story science museum)

12:00 noon Pok Pok. This Portland restaurant serves North Thai food – you won’t find Pad Thai here. We asked the server to accommodate and work with our kids’ sensitivity to hot-spice and found some fantastic dishes. The kids gobbled down the roasted peanuts, shrimp chips (like a fluffy cracker) and Phat Si Ew Muu (smoky, fried noodles). They even went for the vinegar drink — which didn’t taste too much like cleaning solution, thank goodness, more like a soury-sweet pop.

Nom nom noodles at Pok Pok, a kid-friendly Portland restaurant

Nom nom noodles at Pok Pok.

1:30 p.m. train ride. We dropped off our car at the waterfront hotel, then walked to downtown Portland. We hopped on the sleek MAX lightrail system at Pioneer Courthouse Square and rode into a tunnel to arrive at the Washington Park station (at 260 feet underground, the deepest station in North America), where we went to…

2:00 p.m. The Portland Children’s Museum. The kids buried my son in the construction zone’s rubber chips, splashed in the water area and built a fort in the child-designed treehouse area. On our way out the door, we spied the book Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) which my daughter begged me to buy. Dangerously, I agreed.

Better than sand in your pants! Burying a brother at the Children's Museum.

4:30 p.m. Finnegan’s Toys and Gifts. We rode the MAX back downtown and made a quick stop in Finnegan’s Toy Store, a toy shop packed with fabulous finds. My daughter picked out a lovely selection of exotic Japanese erasers (two bunnies, a sundae and a toothbrush that come apart in a variety of ways) and Rowan found the perfect doll.

5:00 p.m. Laughing Planet Cafe. We walked 15 blocks over to Laughing Planet, where the food is always fresh and fast. The children’s menu always has offerings under $5 and every menu item can be adjusted in a variety of ways – for example, the “protein” includes Draper Valley chicken, tempeh or tofu.

Kid-friendly restaurant Laughing Planet.

Entertaining ourselves with Japanese erasers at Laughing Planet.

5:45 p.m. Cool Moon Ice Cream. I had to introduce my foodie friend to this Pearl District classic,  which offers handmade ice cream in incredible flavors. The kids and I ordered some marionberry-tinged scoops, while my friend tried a lemon hefeweizen flavor.

6:00 p.m. Powell’s City of Books. We didn’t have much time left before we started reaching meltdown time, so we visited the children’s area for just an hour. At one point, my son had so many superhero books in each hand (and lodged under his chin) that he had trouble navigating the room.

Children's area at Powell's City of Books.

In the Rose Room at Powell's City of Books.

7:00 Waterfront walk. A full stomach, a full mind and tired feet meant that it was time to return to the hotel. We walked through downtown, then along the Tom McCall Waterfront Park – pausing, of course, for a good look at the Salmon Street Springs fountain, where water shoots from 185 jets. On a quiet summer evening, there are few things better than enjoying a good view from the Willamette River.

What did we miss out on? Plenty! For example, we didn’t have time to work in The Oregon Zoo, Sellwood Park, Portland Art Museum, Portland Saturday Market (or the Portland Farmers Market), the Portland Japanese Garden and the Lan Su Chinese Garden. Or the Portland Rose Gardens, for that matter — but my friend does have the lovely Butchart Gardens to console her. Jamison Square’s fountains were shut off (when we walked by), so we didn’t get to splash in the cascading waterfalls.

Free and Cheap Portland Museums, Zoos and Attractions

Make your trip to Portland even cheaper! Portland’s a good deal already, with all those kid-friendly, affordable restaurants. But the Rose City knows that traveling and local families can’t always spend $50 bucks on admission — even if it is a really cool museum. Here’s a whole month full of discounts, so you can visit Portland attractions for free, cheap and a little less.

Free museums and cheap museums in Portland, Oregon:

OMSI: Admission is $2 on the first Sunday of the month; kids 2 and under are always free.

World Forestry Center: Admission is $2 on the first Wednesday of the month; children 2 and under are always free.

3D Center of Art and Photography: Admission is free on the first Thursday of the month; kids age 14 and under are always free.

Portland Children’s Museum: Free admission on the first Friday of  the month from 6-8 p.m.; children under age 1 free daily.

Oregon Zoo: $2 admission on the second Tuesday of the month; 2 and under free daily. Save $1.50 off the price of admission by presenting your MAX ticket.

Washington County Museum: Free admission every Monday. Kids 5 and under always free.

Oregon History Society and Museum: Up to two kids (under age 18) enter free with each paid adult admission on the third Saturday of the month. Kids 5 and under are always free. Annual free day: April 17, 2010.

Portland Art Museum: Free admission on the fourth Friday of every month. Free general admission quarterly in conjunction with Museum Family Day. Kids 17 and younger are always free with paying adults.

Portland Japanese Garden: Free admission on November 11, 2010. Kids 5 and under are always free.

Lan Su Chinese Garden: Kids 5 and under enter free, daily.

Photo on right: World Forestry Center.

Save Money with Museum Reciprocal Memberships

Here’s one way to slice the travel-entertainment budget — join your local science center. Pacific Northwest and B.C. families have three stellar museums in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver to choose from, and even out-of-town visitors can get in on the fun.

If you’re a member of your local science museum — in the U.S. or Canada — check to see whether the museum is part of the ASTC Passport Program. Passport Program members receive free reciprocal admission to other ASTC museums.

So if your family’s members of OMSI, you get into the Pacific Science Center for free.

If you’re members of Science World, you get into OMSI for free.

See? You’ll save over $40 USD/CAD for a family of four. If you arrive in Vancouver to grey, dumpy skies, head for Science World’s engaging live shows and hands-on action, just a quick Aquabus ride away from Granville Island. If you get sunburned in Seattle (ha!), head into the Pacific Science Center and cool off among the roaring dinos and fluttering butterflies.

One important thing to remember: Bring your current card and identification. At the reciprocal museum, staff can’t look you up. Even if you beg them. Or bribe them.

Trust me. I know. Bring your card and I.D.

Do you have a favorite museum?