The Dragon Boat Races are hands down one of those can’t-miss Rose Festival traditions. Teams come from around the world to compete in this ancient Chinese tradition. In Portland, the Willamette River is the race’s home base and Tom McCall Waterfront Park is the grandstand. So grab your chairs, blankets, picnic basket and binoculars, find your spot and make a day of it with the family.

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Four teams at a time race in heats every nine minutes for fast-paced action with teams paddling their hardest in unison in a race to the finish line.  The hand-painted, hand carved boats are a feast for the eyes, and best of all, you can sit on the bank (grass or rocks, it’s up to you), cheering on your favorite team or business and watching it all unfold for free.

The dragon boat races have been held here for 25 years. 80 teams of local, national and international paddlers compete every nine minutes in teams of four boats with one member solely responsible for grabbing the flag at the end of the race. You don’t win unless the flag is in hand. The boats themselves are gorgeous, painted brightly and graciously donated by the Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Association.

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The dragon boat races are held the first Saturday and Sunday of the Rose Fest events. Running from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., you and the kiddos can watch, wander, grab lunch, wander some more, catch a nap and still see plenty of the feats of strength and commitment. Some races are crazy close! And some are heartbreakingly hard. Plus, walking around Waterfront Park is fun with all the teams stretching, chanting, eating, relaxing and maybe even talking a little smack, all in good fun, of course.

If the action on the river isn’t enough, your backdrops will be the Hawthorne Bridge and the new Tillikum Bridge. For the wiggly ones, there are rocks to climb over and sand to play with along the river’s edge. As a bonus, this spot provides a front-row view of winners grabbing their flags.

The always-pretty South Waterfront is close-by, as well. With cafes, patios, green spaces and paved walkways – little feet and bodies can definitely get their wiggles out and bellies will not go hungry.

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We like The Little River Café, the further afield Riverwalk Café and Bean and Tree Coffeehouse for a quick muffin, mocha or milk. Sandwiches, salads, breakfast and ice cream or gelato are plentiful at these spots.

For something a little more relaxed with a view/sun/experience, we heart Three Degrees (and their fab patio) at Kimpton’s Riverplace Hotel. (Hint, hint, make a beeline for the rocking chairs.) Newport Seafood Grill is a floating restaurant – try their Widmer Hefeweizen fish and chips, or check out McCormick and Schmick’s outdoor tables and huge windows that make the marina feel like it’s your front door.

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If you need a few more close-by options to truly round out the day, then check out the Oregon Maritime Museum, Saturday Market, explore downtown, or cross the Hawthorne Bridge and head to OMSI.

Rose Festival Dragon Boat Races
June 7 and 8, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., Free
Tom McCall Waterfront Park – south end, between the Hawthorne and Marquam bridges
Online: Rose Festival Dragon Boat Races

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What’s your favorite spot to watch the Dragon Boat Races?  Let us know in the Comments section below!

– Liz Overson

Photos courtesy of Liz Overson and the Rose Festival’s Facebook page