There’s no shortage of fun things to do with kids in Portland. But if you want to educate your kids while they think they’re just having fun, these are the perfect places to visit. Here are best things to do in Portland with kids to entertain and educate:
- The Oregon Zoo
- Portland’s Children’s Museum
- Oregon Rail Heritage Center
- Children’s Theater
All of these places focus on enlightening kids through play, discovery, or wonder. Whether you have little kids, big kids, or you’re a kid at heart, there is something for everyone on this list. I’ll give you all the details you need for a fun (and educational) day out.
4001 SW Canyon Road, Portland, OR 97221 map
Early September – End of May: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
End of May – Early September: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Adult (12–64): $17.95
Senior/ military (65 and up): $15.95
Youth (3–11): $12.95
2 and under: Free
Pay to park – $2 an hour, $8 daily maximum
- $5 admission on the 2nd Tuesday of the month. September – May
- Ride the Max or take the bus and save $1.50 on admission.
The Oregon Zoo is a delightful place for kids and adults. The animals are clearly cared for and the exhibits strive to recreate the animal’s natural habitat. There’s a diverse collection of animals, from Pacific Northwest animals to predators of the Serengeti.
This small zoo has six distinct areas: Great Northwest, Pacific Shores, Primate Forest, Elephant Lands, Africa, and the Discovery Zone. Thanks to a $125 million bond that was passed in 2008, the zoo continues to improve facilities and the animal’s habitats. The zoo now boasts one of the best elephant exhibits in the country.
Throughout the elephant habitat, feeding stations, mud wallows, and water features encourage elephants to be active as they would in their natural environment. Watching elephants swim in the 160,000-gallon pool is a sight to remember.
As you walk past the north end of the elephant enclosure, near the petting zoo, keep an eye out for the zoo train. It’s a small train that takes you on a short ride through the zoo and into the forest before looping back. Honestly, it’s pretty disappointing but Coen loves it.
If you ask Coen what his favorite thing is at the zoo, he’ll tell you “the Jeep”! The Jeep is built into the plexiglass wall of the cheetah habitat in the Predators of the Serengeti. The hood of the jeep is in the cheetah’s domain and the back of the jeep is in the visitor’s section. Kids can climb on the Jeep, drive, or be a passenger in the back. It’s the safest safari you’ll ever find.
The Oregon Zoo is relatively small, and you can see it all at a leisurely pace and be done in half a day. This is the perfect place to spend an afternoon with the kids. For a full day, head next door to the Portland Children’s Museum.
What’s to Eat?
As with other zoos and amusement parks, the food is mediocre and overpriced. Cascade Grill is an at the entrance of the zoo, there are two cafes in the zoo, and various food and drink stands throughout.
The Oregon Zoo specialty is the elephant ears sold at a couple stands in the zoo. They are a warm, fried creation dusted with cinnamon and sugar. People swear by them. I still haven’t tried one but when I do, I’ll let you know what I think.
I recommend packing a lunch and enjoying it at the picnic tables near the elephant land or on the grass in the amphitheater.
One of the coolest venues ever! The amphitheater in the middle of the zoo hosts a variety of concerts during the summer months. Coen’s first concert was Kaleo at the Oregon Zoo. We stood on a path that overlooks the elephant’s pond and watched the baby swim and play while the opening act played behind us. Does it get any better than that?
See the current lineup on the zoo concerts website.
Portland Children’s Museum
4015 SW Canyon Road, Portland, OR 97221 (map)
Monday – Sunday 9:00 – 5:00
Ages 1–64: $10.75
Under age 1: Free
Ages 65+ and military: $9.75
Free admission on the first Friday of every month from 4–8 pm
The Children’s Museum is a hands-on museum where kids can build, act, create, and use their imagination. Every exhibit is designed to encourage problem-solving, imagination, and the joy of learning through everyday objects.
For the artists in your life, there’s a Clay Studio and a Maker Studio that provide all the materials to create a mini-masterpiece. The Theater is complete with a stage, costumes, and props for the little performers.
Coen’s favorite space is Water Works. Water flows from colorful contraptions as kids crank, pour, and float their way their way around this exhibit. Coen spends most of his time here. And when other kids aren’t around, I like to play too.
Other exhibits include a pet hospital, complete with stuffed animals, lab coats, and medical tools. A market, where kids can push little carts while stocking up on food staples like eggplant and sushi. And there are many areas throughout the museum to climb and explore.
If climbing trees and boulders is more your speed, head outside to the Outdoor Adventure space. It’s 1.3 acres of land filled with boulders to scramble across, trees to climb, and a creek to get completely filthy in. It’s a wonderful place, just make sure you have an extra set of clothes ready.
For more outdoor exploring, you’ll find two wonderful gardens in Washington Park: the Portland Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden. Find out why you need to visit them in my complete guide to Portland gardens.
What’s to Eat?
The cafe at the front of the museum has good options for breakfast and lunch. They offer soups, sandwiches, and bowls, with gluten free, dairy free, and vegan options. The kid’s menu has healthy options, which is a nice break from chicken nuggets and pizza on most kids menus. They also have a full espresso bar.
1945 SE Water Ave, Portland, OR 97214 (map)
9:30 – 5:30, every day
Price – general admission
There are additional costs for special exhibits and the planetarium. See the admissions page.
- The first Sunday of each month, the museum and all permanent exhibits are $2 per person. Submarine Tours, Theater and Planetarium shows are reduced to $5 per person or less.
- Take the Max Orange Line or Portland Streetcar to avoid parking fees.
This is my favorite destination with Coen. There are so many fascinating exhibits that you can spend a whole day at OMSI, if the kids can last that long. It’s not just for kids, adults will enjoy many of the exhibits too.
The options include:
- Special exhibits that rotate throughout the year
- Permanent exhibits with hands-on learning and labs
- A submarine in the Willamette River
There is always a rotating special exhibit that never fails to impress. We’ve seen artifacts from Pompeii, a simulated space station that spun around us, robots, and so much more. This is just the special exhibits, there’s much to explore in the permanent exhibits.
In the permanent exhibits, you will find 200 interactive exhibits and activities for all ages. You’ll shoot 2-liter bottles in the air, make topographic maps by piling sand, and operate robot arms, just to name a few.
If you want to explore space, head to the recently renovated planetarium. For little kids, they have shows like One World, One Sky, with Big Bird, and Perfect Little Planet, which explores our solar system through the eyes of vacationing aliens.
For older kids and adults they have more traditional planetarium shows narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson and late night events like Laser Pink Floyd – The Wall and Laser Nirvana (yep, this is the Northwest!).
Go from the outer reaches of the universe to deep under the water by touring the USS Blueback Submarine. It’s the US Navy’s last non-nuclear, fast attack submarine, which was featured in the movie The Hunt for Red October.
What’s to Eat?
At Theory restaurant the menu rotates frequently to feature farm-fresh ingredients from local farms located within a 50-mile radius of Portland. You’ll find wood-fired pizza, sandwiches, salads, and street style foods.
There is also a grab-and-go cafe with prepared sandwiches and other simple foods. Pick up food here and head outside toward the river to have lunch with a beautiful view of downtown Portland and the river.
Oregon Rail Heritage Center
2250 SE Water Ave, Portland, OR 97214 (map)
Thursday and Friday 1:00 – 5:00
Saturday and Sunday 12:00 – 5:00
The Rail Center is just down the street from OMSI and holds three historic engines and antique railroad equipment. The trains are huge and kids love to get close to these metal beasts. The volunteers here enthusiastically talk about how the trains run and their history.
Each Saturday in the summer they offer train rides along the Willamette River to Oaks Park and back. There are lovely views of the river and city beyond. It’s an inexpensive and fun summer activity.
Winter brings the Holiday Express. The train is decorated with garland, ornaments, and lights, and Santa is on-board to greet the children. The 45-minute trip is a holiday favorite.
Theater can take you around the world and back in the span of a couple hours. It allows you to step into someone else’s shoes and see life from their point of view. As Albert Einstein said in 1929, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world”.
Oregon Children’s Theater
1939 NE Sandy Blvd, Portland, OR 97232 (map)
Performance Prices $14 – 28
Northwest Children’s Theater
1819 NW Everett St, Portland, OR 97209 (map)
Performance Prices $16 – 25
Children’s theater is a great way to introduce theater to kids. The performances are shorter in length and the topics are often more relatable than traditional theater shows. Both theaters offer fun shows that capture the imagination of children.
When we saw Pete the Cat, Coen leaned over and said: “Pete is supposed to be a cat, not a person”. I told him that in the theater we use our imagination. It didn’t take long for Coen to completely immerse himself in the story and enjoy the ride.
Oregon Children’s Theater and Northwest Children’s Theater both offer acting classes for kids ages 3 to 18. I’ve talked to parents who have had their kids in classes at each theater and they all were impressed by the quality of instruction and enthusiasm from the instructors.
To Sum It Up
Portland has fantastic things to do to entertain and educate kids.
Whether you want to watch majestic elephants at the Oregon Zoo, get your hands dirty at the Children’s Museum, explore the wonders of science at OMSI, marvel at gigantic steam engines at the Rail Center, or let your imagination run wild at the Children’s Theater, you’re sure to find things to do in Portland with kids that everyone will love.
Looking for more to do with kids in Oregon? Check out 10 things to do in Bend with kids.
What kinds of things do you like to do with kids in Portland? Let me know in the comments.
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