Back-to-school can break the bank, but having fun with the kids doesn’t have to. There are tons of free and cheap activities and adventures to be found all around Portland. Hit the museum, explore a new park or play with trains and go bowling. Read on to find out where to go to get in on the free and cheap goods around town.
photo: Oregon Zoo via yelp
1) Head to a Park
Portland has no shortage of parks, and it’s always a treat to visit your neighborhood green space. But why not shake things up sometimes and visit a park in a different neighborhood? Climb over logs at Westmoreland Park’s nature play space, check out the fountain at Peninsula Park or enjoy the universally-accessible equipment at one of Portland’s all-inclusive playgrounds. Set a family challenge to visit a new Portland park each weekend this summer. You can find all of Portland’s parks at the Portland Parks and Recreation website. Then pack some snacks and head outdoors!
2) Get Lost in a Book or Try a New Class
Along with plenty of great reading options and a spot to chill and take a break in the A/C, Multnomah County Libraries offer story times and free activities. Build a creation at one of the Lego Club sessions, snuggle up for a story and play time during Book Babies, or catch a special event, or read to a therapy dog! Check the event page at your local library to see what fun events are happening this month!
3) Get Wild at the Zoo
Visit your favorite animal friends at the Oregon Zoo! Take advantage of the second Tuesday of each month, when admission to the zoo is only $5. You can visit the zoo’s new education center before scoping out your little one’s favorite animals. From porcupines to pythons and cheetahs to chimpanzees, there’s enough to keep your whole group occupied and exploring for hours.
4) Science and Submarines at OMSI
From the tiniest tots to the grandparents and every age in-between, there’s something fascinating for everyone at the hands-on interactive exhibits at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Visit the Physics Lab, explore the Science Playground or hop aboard the USS Blueback Submarine. On the first Sunday of every month, admission at OMSI is just $2, and Submarine tours, Planetarium shows and the theater are just $5 per person.
photo: Annette Benedetti
5) Horse Around
Ever noticed the tiny toy horses tethered to metal rings on Portland streets? Welcome to the Portland Horse Project! While these rings were once used to hold real horses and horse-drawn vehicles as far back as the 1900s, they now are adorned with toy equines of all shapes and sizes. Your little sidekicks will love exploring the city for a glimpse of a horse, or adding one of their own to an empty ring. (Plus, it’s a great way to recycle some of those old horse toys!) You can upload your own horse photos on Facebook and tag them on Instagram with #PortlandHorseProject.
6) Dine on Alberta
Vita Café on Alberta is known for hearty, tasty fare with plenty of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. Enjoy spicy tempeh sticks, 3-bean vegan chili, the Buffalo Tofu Wrap or a Mushroom Onion Burger, to name a few. The kids menu has lots of crowd pleasers for little ones, like burritos, PB & J, grilled cheese, berry smoothies, mac and cheese and veggies with rice and tofu. As if that’s not tempting enough, the Kids Happy Hour means that kids eat for $1 from 5 p.m.- 7p.m. every day!
7) Strike Up A Good Time
Slip on those rental shoes, and get ready to bowl. Visit the Kids Bowl Free site for a list of places in the Portland area that offer free bowling for tykes. Here’s our list of the best bowling alleys for kids in the area.
8) All Aboard!
If you’ve got little train lovers, be sure to make a stop at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center. Railroad enthusiasts can check out historic trains and browse the latest exhibit. Admission is always free, although donations are accepted and appreciated. The center is open Thursday- Sunday from 1-5 p.m. If you visit on a Saturday, you can also purchase tickets to take a short 45 minute ride on the Oregon Pacific Railroad passenger train. Tickets are $5/person, and 2 & under are free. If your tiny engineer just can’t get enough of the impressive locomotives, the Oregon Rail Heritage Center also offers birthday party packages.
photo: Portland Children’s Art Museum via Yelp
9) A Night at the Museum
The Portland Children’s Museum is always a hit with the younger set. They can build and explore the Bridgetown construction zone, splash in the water works or even give a pup a checkup in the Pet Hospital. Second Sunday Savings offers reduced admission to the Museum: just $3 per person between 9 a.m.–noon every second Sunday of the month. (On occasion the date changes for special events, so check the museum’s website or calendar for the most up to date information.)
10) Learn Fire Safety
At the Historic Belmont Firehouse, families can explore hands-on exhibits, stories and history while learning fire and safety education. Kids will love checking out the fire pole and the emergency response simulator, as well as all of the firefighting tools and equipment. Every Wednesday is Open House, and families are welcome to come and visit free from 9 a.m.- 3p.m. The firehouse also offers Safety Saturdays on the 2nd Saturday of each month. Visits and tours at other times must be scheduled in advance.
11) Brush up on History
For history buffs, the Oregon Historical Society awaits you. Located downtown and always free for Multnomah County residents (with proof of residency), the museum houses a variety of exhibits designed to bring Oregon’s history to life. The permanent History Hub exhibit, with content that spans K-12 with a focus on 4th-8th graders, delves into the topic of diversity, with hands-on activities and displays.
photo: Anna Doogan
12) Browse Some Art
Kids 17 and under are always free at the Portland Art Museum, where families can get inspired in the enormous galleries full of art. Let kids take the lead by chatting about the colors and shapes they see, or which pieces they particularly like. Feeling more adventurous? Check out some of the artwork online together before you go, and then make a scavenger hunt for kids to find the pieces they recognize! For adults, the museum offers free admission every first Thursday from 5 -8 p.m. You can also check out the museum on Friday evenings, when admission is just $5 after 5 p.m. The museum also participates in the Blue Star Museums Program, which offers free admission to active-duty military personnel and their families.
13) Catch a Flick
At McMenamin’s Kennedy School, families can enjoy second-run movies while relaxing on comfy couches and snacking on pizza, burgers and salads from the menu, along with wine, beer and ciders for those over 21. (And don’t forget the popcorn and candy!) Movie tickets are $4/adult, and just $2 for age 11 & under.
McMenamins Kennedy School Theater
5736 NE 33rd Ave.
14) Get Physical with a Free Trial Class
Kids need to get some energy out? Head to The Playground Gym to try out any of their amazing classes for kids. The first trial class is always free! With two locations teaching Parkour, Circus Arts and Martial Arts, there’s something for everyone.
The Playground Gym- NE
505 NE Grand Ave.
The Playground Gym- N Pdx
5215 N. Lombard St.
15) Head to an Indoor Play Space
At Playdate PDX’s spacious indoor play space, kids can climb through a three level play structure, crawl through tunnels, shoot ball cannons, and play games on an interactive dance floor. On Mondays after 5 p.m., admission is free! You can also get free admission on the last Wednesday of every month with two canned goods per child. Along with the massive play area, Playdate PDX also has a designated toddler area for smaller explorers, as well a full menu for dining. Kids will love mixing and matching items to create the perfect Kids Meal ($7), while parents can enjoy paninis, salads, wraps, beer and wine.
photo: Ginko Biloba via Yelp
16) Take a Hike!
Pack up some snacks and water, slick on the sunscreen and head out for a glorious hike on one of the many trails around Portland! Younger kids might enjoy adventuring around Hoyt Arboretum, which has a variety of walks and trails, including a 1-mile paved path that is suitable for strollers. Tryon Creek State Natural Area has plenty of nature trails, and activity sheets that families can print online and take with them to enhance the experience. Kids will also love trying the scavenger hunt as they explore the flora and fauna of the Leach Botantical Garden. (Print the scavenger hunt from the Garden’s website, access it on your phone or pick up a laminated copy in the gift shop when you arrive.)
For kids who can do more serious hiking, Latourell Falls has a 2.4 mile loop, gorgeous waterfall views and is often less crowded than Multnomah Falls. For fascinating city walks, pick up a copy of Laura O. Foster’s The Portland Stairs Book at Powell’s or the library, and do a self-guided tour of Portland’s most interesting urban hikes, including hidden staircases that you never even knew existed.
17) Make a Splash
Grab your suits and take a dip for a Family Swim, Open Swim or Parent/Preschool Swim at one of the local pools through Portland Parks and Rec. Admission varies slightly by location, but is generally less than $6/person, with kids 2 & under swimming for free. Swim times also vary with each location, so check each pool’s schedule through the Portland Parks and Recreation website for the most current information.
18) Take a Ladybug Walk
Perfect for the littlest legs! Preschoolers age 2-5 and their parents can explore parks around Portland with Ladybug Nature Walks. Environmental educators guide children and their grown-ups on exciting journeys to find bugs, plants, and other wonders of nature. Walks are $4/child, with no charge for adults. Locations vary, so check the website for the most current schedule.
19) Big Fun in a Little Bookstore
There’s always something magical happening at Green Bean Books, the sweet bookstore nestled along Alberta. Although technically a store, one glance at the schedule shows plenty of free events and activities that families can join. Stop by for story times, the Middle Reader Book Club, craft times, author book signings, musical Spanish story time and much more. Both kids and adults will love the fun surprises tucked all through the store, along with the outdoor space, which is perfect for sunny days.