Olympic Peninsula

15 Things to Do with Kids in Port Townsend

Many Northwest adults remember Port Townsend, Wash., as a romantic getaway, full of proper architecture and fine dining. But you’ll be cheered to discover that Port Townsend loves traveling families, too. You won’t even need a stroller, because Port Townsend’s downtown core is an eminently walkable seven-block spread. How’s that for kid-friendly?

One of only three Victorian Seaports in the United States and located 40 miles northwest of Seattle, Port Townsend’s a weekend escape. If you have a few extra days, it makes an excellent base for daytrips to Port Angeles and the Olympic Peninsula.

Port Townsend is divided into two sections. “Uptown” is stocked with Victorian Houses and Euro-style bakeries; the neighborhood sits high on bluffs overlooking Admiralty Bay. The lower town, or downtown core, is where you’ll want to stay. This area extends from Upper Town like a butler’s platter, providing families with shops, restaurants and a museum or two.

A few moments in the county jail

1. Go to jail in the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum. Let the kids put you in time-out (don’t forget to throw a fit) and give you their best lecture inside the old county slammer. Standing on the wrong side of the bars is an unnerving experience for any age; the rusty metal manacles increases the creep-out factor. A glass case displays olden-days teasets and dolls, although most kids will be more drawn toward the toddler-sized, non-functioning cannon. Count fingers afterward, just in case.

2. Browse the series at the indie, cozy Imprint Bookstore (820 Water Street). Along Port Townsend’s main drag, boutiques and shops beckon customers in. This indie bookstore is a winner. Sit at the low, circular children’s table and enjoy a picture book or the newest tome in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid saga. Point, laugh, repeat. No one will shush you.

Outside the Maritime Center

3. Play pirate at the Northwest Maritime Center. A dragon-head ship waits in the breezeway and a wide concrete slab sets the stage for swashbuckling antics. Kids can look through windows at boat enthusiasts nailing and sanding wooden craft, or go inside for a closer view.

Vintage kids decorate the city's brick exteriors.

4. Enjoy music at Port Townsend’s Uptown Market. A farmers’ market featuring the best of local growers, families can nibble at cheeses and fruits and enjoy a song or two. Read my guide to enjoying farmers’ markets with kids and check out GypsyGuide’s beautiful write-up of her market experience.

5. Buy a fairy skirt at Seams to Last (940 Water Street). Well, your kid might be interested in fairy skirts – my son wasn’t. But I found a sweet selection of well-priced socks, consignment (yay!) and designer duds. The dressing room doubles as a kid-distracting toy room, and you’ll be cheered to know that the owner hand-sews all those fairy skirts.

6. Paint a picture at The Boiler Room. Tweens and teens enjoy this volunteer-run coffee shop, where local artist-kids hang out, make cutesy eyes at each other, jam with friends and play board games. Even younger kids can create quick paintings with the coffeeshop’s free art materials (but please make a donation and support this cool endeavor).

7. Ollie at the skatepark. The City of Port Townsend’s Skatepark (Monroe Street between Washington & Jefferson Streets) has a respectable number of  bowls and ramps for a smaller town – teens can drop in and make instant local friends.

8. Sip a phosphate at Don’s Soda Fountain (1151 Water Street). An authentic 1950s diner spot housed in Don’s Pharmacy. The seats still swivel, just as they did decades ago. You’ll find burgers, dogs, malts, sundaes and other 50s foods, but with nod to the granola Northwest – Gardenburgers grace the menu too.

Alakazam! Pull out a puppet at Abracadabra

9. Port Townsend kids don’t suffer boredom gladly, judging from the number of well-stocked and expertly-curated toystores. Pick up the pieces at Completely Puzzled (1013 Water Street), increase your IQ with board and card games from Abracadabra (936 Water Street), and choose from science, stickers and stuffies at Sand Castle (840 Water Street).

The Rose Theatre offers first-run movies and first-rate entertainment.

10. Watch a movie at the Rose Theatre. This gem runs movies inside velvet-drape lined screening rooms.  The concession stand features locally made gingersnap cookies and brownies. The real-butter popcorn is served with a variety of shake toppings. (In my experience, it’s wise to forbid the kid-concocted combo of BBQ, brewer’s yeast and parmesan). An endearing touch: a human being announces the movie and provides a quip or two about the film’s creation.

11. Pick up insider info at the Fort Worden State Park Visitors Center. Fort Worden, a retired military base, now welcomes visitors to its 434 acres of museums, tidepools and barracks. Stop at the center to pick up a map, get directions to the lighthouse and visit the old military brig. Skip the artillery museum and the tour of the commanding officer’s quarters, unless your kids are huge military-history buffs.

12. Tickle a spiny sea urchin at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.  The Marine Exhibit’s limited hours don’t offer much to off-season visitors, so try to arrange your stay accordingly. The exhibit is a blast though — touch anemones, sea stars and sea cucumbers in tanks built for easy access and short arms. All of tanks’ creatures were sourced directly beneath the exhibit’s long-legged pier. Look beneath and around those docks when you’re here, as seal pups and river otters swim and splash in the area.

At the Natural History Exhibit
At the Natural History Exhibit

13. See a sea-bear. Across the street from PTMSC’s marine exhibit, the year-round Natural History Exhibit explains Washington State’s history in a hands-on fashion. Compare Washington State’s sand to red, yellow, pink and black sands from around the world. Touch whale bones, learn about the river otters found nearby, and transform Washington State landmasses. Patient volunteers explain everything to curious kids — including any questions about the sea-bear, an ancient creature that once swam in the Salish Sea. The gift shop’s selection of books educates on local marine life, birds and mammals, such as the book, “Do Whales Have Belly Buttons?”

14. Play flashlight tag in Fort Worden’s abandoned concrete batteries. Walk through three-foot-wide pitch-black corridor mazes, feel the dank, dark dread building up – and tag! You’re it! Wear sturdy shoes and keep your tetanus shot up to date – broken glass and seeping water litter the irregular floors. With older children, make your way to the main cluster of bunkers(about a two-mile walk round-trip from a parking lot).  For younger kids, the smaller bunkers (Battery Kinzie) near the lighthouse only require a one-minute walk from the lot. The lighthouse bunkers provide great views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Hold the kids’ hands and walk up the no-railing stairs; watch out for the thorny bushes that once prevented spies from sneaking in under the fog cover.

A flashlight illuminates a narrow hallway at the Fort Worden batteries.

15. Chase seagulls at Chetzmoka Park. Younger kids not quite ready for bed (and if there’s still light in the sky)?  Chetzemoka Park (Jackson Street and Blaine Street), 5 minutes by car from downtown. Over five acres of sandy beach, tidepools, playgrounds, a secret waterfall and steep-sloped grassy hills – perfect for rolling down. By the time you’re done here, the kids will be asleep before you get back to the hotel.

Getting There: Find turn-by-turn directions on the Port Townsend website. However, the site neglects to mention the easy access to and from Victoria, BC — you’ll want to take the M.V. Coho, then use the site’s directions from the West Olympic Peninsula.

In spring and summer, families can also ride the Puget Sound Express between Friday Harbor and Port Townsend.

Port Townsend Family Vacation

Lora Shinn writes about family travel, Pacific NW travel, grown-up travel...and travel in general. Her travel-related articles and essays have appeared in Family Fun, Parenting, AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, AAA magazines and Redbook, among others.