Once a year, I book a cheap-ish hotel room and let my kids 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 almost anywhere, but we hone in on Hillsboro, Oregon, because there you can book a nice hotel with a pool for less than $200 a night, and it’s just a 20-minute drive to Portland.
Portland is known for many things: bridges, beer, beautiful parks, laid-back hipsters. At three hours from Seattle, it provides a welcome change of scenery for families, and it's just far enough for us to leverage reciprocal benefits from our Seattle-based memberships.
What’s the main difference between Seattle and Portland? Portland has a science museum that’s fully open.
Seattle’s Pacific Science Center has been mostly closed for more than two years now. They’re planning to reopen in July, and I’ll believe it when I see it. The good news is, if you had a valid Pacific Science Center membership in March 2020, they froze your membership and the remaining months will be applied when the Pacific Science Center reopens its doors.
While you’re waiting, you can use your Pacific Science Center membership at other members of the Association of Science and Technology Centers, including Portland’s Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Since the expiration date printed on your card was two years ago, e-mail email@example.com, and they’ll respond with proof of your valid membership.
OMSI has five halls full of interactive exhibits for scientists of all ages, plus a 219-foot submarine moored in the Willamette River which you can tour. OMSI is free when you show your Pacific Science Center membership. Regular OMSI admission is $15 for adults and $10.50 for kids — still worth it. On the first Sunday of each month, you can see the permanent exhibits for $2 a person.
Heads up, you may want to book your tickets ahead of time or arrive right when the museum opens. When we visited, general admission tickets for the day were sold out by noon.
Other Seattle memberships with reciprocal benefits
Kids 17 and under are always free at the Portland Art Museum, adults are $25. But if you have a patron-level or higher membership with the Seattle Art Museum, adults can get free reciprocal tickets. The Portland Art Museum is also a member of the Blue Star Museums, which offers free admission to all active-duty military personnel and their families between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
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. The Oregon Zoo also has a beloved black rhino.
More places to play
In the City of Roses, there’s nothing more iconic than the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park near the Oregon Zoo. The park is stunning, admission is free, and parking is $2 an hour.
Thanks to a cool May, the roses are just coming into bloom now. We walked around looking at the different varieties, then took off for the adjacent children’s playground. There’s a cute play structure under the trees with long ramps that are great for younger kids, as well as a mean game of tag.
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 Voodoo Doll.
Where to eat
Beer isn’t really my jam, but sushi is.
The best thing to come out of this pandemic is online ordering from Saburo's, a tiny, family-owned sushi joint with a cult following. The cost of Saburo’s sushi is comparable to other sushi places, but the portions are two or three times bigger. Hence the cult following.
In the past, we’d have to get in line 30 to 45 minutes before the restaurant opened for any hope of snagging a table before the hangry kicked in. Instead of waiting in line, now we enter our take-out order online and the restaurant emails us when it’s ready. Easy peasy delicious.
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 tram just reopened to the public in May, and masks are required on board.
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 $5.65, and kids ages 6 and younger are free. There’s an automated kiosk to buy tickets at either end. 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.
Before you head home
You won’t find it listed in any tourism guides, but the ultimate stop before you leave Oregon is… Costco. The savviest Seattle parents drive home with the minivan stuffed full of tax-free diapers.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2020 and updated for 2022.