View of Portland from the city's aerial tram with Mount St. Helens in the distance. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel
Once a year, I book a cheap hotel room and my kids get to eat sugary cereal, watch cartoons and go swimming. This is the life! Add in a free continental breakfast — food I didn’t have to make, dishes I don’t have to wash — and everyone is happy.
This particular piece of paradise could be found anywhere, but we hone in on Hillsboro, Oregon, because there you can get a trendy suite for about $100 a night during the off-season, and it’s just a 20-minute drive to Portland.
About a three-hour drive from Seattle, Portland provides a change of scenery and it's just far enough for us to leverage reciprocal benefits from our Seattle family memberships.
The Pacific Science Center is a convenient 15 minutes from our house, but it’s got nothing on Portland’s OMSI. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is five halls full of interactive exhibits, plus a 219-foot submarine moored in the Willamette River — which you can tour. OMSI admission is free when you show your Pacific Science Center membership. (Regular OMSI admission is $15 for adults and $10.50 for kids.)
My kids love OMSI's Science Playground, a hands-on exploration lab dedicated to kids ages 6 and younger. On one of our visits, they were covered with glittery white sand when I finally extracted them.
Downstairs in the chemistry lab, we made purple “flubber” (a mixture of water, glue and borax) and tested metal solutions over a Bunsen burner. Not going to lie, it made my tiger-mom heart skip a beat to see my kids in a lab wearing safety goggles, even if that meant goggle imprints on our faces the rest of the day.
Pro tip: OMSI's swanky in-house restaurant, Theory, is yummy and affordable. Lunch for our family of four came in at $25.
Ride the aerial tram
Seattle doesn’t have any gondolas, so I had to take my transportation-loving kids to try out Portland’s aerial commuter tram. The waterfront terminal is located directly across the Willamette from OMSI. You can walk over Tilikum Crossing, a car-free, cable-stayed bridge built in 2015. If 1,720 feet is too long of a stroll for short legs, drive across the Ross Island Bridge.
A round-trip ride on the tram is an affordable $5.10, and kids ages 6 and younger are free. In four thrilling minutes, you zip from the South Waterfront up Marquam Hill. Look out from the landing on the ninth floor of the Oregon Health & Science University Hospital, you’ll see Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood all out on a clear day. What a city, what a view!
Cheapskate hack: The tram is free if you’re just going downhill. If, hypothetically, you’re the type of family that will go out of your way to save paying the fare for everyone, have one person drive you up to OHSU, then pick you up at the bottom of the tram.
Other Seattle memberships with reciprocal benefits
The Portland Art Museum is free only if you have a patron-level or higher membership with the Seattle Art Museum. And yes, I’m the mom who will drag her kids through art museums — art appreciation or else. My boys lacked the attention span for the Portland Art Museum's family tour (Sundays, 12:30 p.m.) but we did play “I Spy” through the galleries and my 8-year-old saw someone he knew (George Washington).
Try visiting the museum on a Friday evening, when admission is discounted to $5 from 5–8 p.m. It’s always free for kids 17 and under, and for veterans and active-duty military. Regular entry is $20 for adults.
Admission to the 64-acre Oregon Zoo is half price with a Woodland Park Zoo membership. The highlight of the zoo is the Elephant Lands exhibit, which includes a huge indoor facility for the zoo’s resident herd. Note that the orangutan, rhino and polar bear exhibits are scheduled to re-open this year.
During warmer months, we love the free International Rose Test Garden next to the zoo, but in winter it’s good to have a back-up plan. My kids worked out all their wiggles at Playdate PDX, an indoor play gym owned by the same folks who brought us Playdate SEA in South Lake Union. The Portland location has a castle theme, and weekday admission is cheaper than in Seattle: $4 for tots ages 3 and younger and $8 for kids ages 4 and older. Adults get in free.
Where to eat
Beer isn’t really my jam, but sushi is.
One bite of Saburo's sushi deliciousness in my mouth and all my Portland dreams came true. Sushi that good means there's an insane line but it's worth the wait. Pros know to get there early, 30-45 minutes before the restaurant opens for its daily dinner service. While one person holds your place in line, the other takes the kids to kill time at the Stars and Splendid Antiques Mall around the corner.
The cost of Saburo’s sushi is comparable to other sushi places, but the portions are two or three times bigger. We spent $50 on a giant platter of sushi, stuffed ourselves silly and still left with a full to-go box.
When in Portland
No trip to Stumptown is complete without a stop at the venerable Powell’s City of Books. Powell’s claims to be the world’s largest independent bookstore, and it covers an entire city block. Head to the Rose room for the most incredible children’s section. It’s free to browse the million-plus books on the shelves, but be warned that the store's layout is purposely labyrinthine so you may never escape. Street parking is $2 an hour, and free on Sundays before 1 p.m.
Another PDX requisite is Voodoo Doughnut. Don’t waste your time standing in line at Voodoo Old Town, when there’s no wait at the Davis location, just across the Burnside Bridge. My kids couldn't believe their good luck when I handed them each a big, gooey, staggeringly sweet, jelly-filled $3 Voodoo Doll.
You won’t find it listed in any tourism guides, but the ultimate stop in Oregon is… Costco. The savviest Seattle parents drive home with the minivan stuffed full of tax-free diapers.