Free things to do in PDX with your family

I, personally, was never a kid person and never wanted kids until my 30s. So when I finally had them, I had no idea what to do with them, beyond keeping them alive (I knew that much). Thankfully, there are a lot of helpful websites on things you can do with your kids and most are free and cheap. Here are a few websites I would get ideas from.

PDX Kids Calendar –I just found this one recently–really handy!

Red Tricycle This has good ideas as well as a nice layout and easy-to-read calendar.


Bronze Deer Downtown Portland (note knitted booties on deer)

The City of Portland, the main government entity, does not provide a lot of activities directly, but Portland Parks and Recreation, an arm of the City of Portland, does have a lot of free and inexpensive things to do throughout the year. Check them out. Memorize this site, and/or add things to your schedule so you don’t forget them. There’s things going on year-round. 

Metro, a regional government body covering the whole Metro Area, provides many services and activites, such as our Zoo.  Go here to see the things Metro provides.  Many are free.  

Even without having a lot of money at our disposal the people of Portland manages to provide a ton of free, family-friendly activities, mostly created and run by volunteers, often the parents themselves.  These are what I tend to go to most, other than parks.

Here is a list of free things to do that my kids and I have found enjoyable, or that we hope to do soon:

  • Visit the Central Library.   With its large children’s area with the bronze tree for kids to sit by while reading, this is a fun library to visit.  Go here to see upcoming events. Visit the John Wilson Special Collections to see some very old books.
  • Each weekend, go to a new park, have a picnic,  and play on the play structures. Some parks have some very awesome play structures such as:
    • East Portland Community Center. Play structure is in the back. Best of all, it’s next to a full running track so you and your kids can run off some steam.
    • Laurelhurst Park (wheelchair accessible!). Visit the play structure or have a picnic by the large pond in the middle of the park.
    • Mount Scott Park . My daughter loves the “mushrooms” you can spin in.
    • Mount Tabor Park. This park is on an old volcano. You can play basketball or look at the lavarocks in the theater area.  Be sure to visit the visitor’s station and walk along the reservoirs while you’re there. NOTE: Bring some mosquito repellant! They are hungry and vicious up there!
    • Normandale Park. What I like about this one is there’s two structures–one for little tykes and one for older kids so each group can play safely.  There’s also a very large leashless area if you have any 4-legged children.
    • Peninsula Park. This has a beautiful rose garden and fountain on one side, and a great playstructure and water play area on the other.  Go across the street and get a latte at AJ Java before settling in.
    • Washingon Park. Caveat: This is pay to park, $4, but there are tons of attractions in the area, including the Oregon Zoo, all connected by trails or the Zoo train.  The play structure just down the hill from the Zoo at the old Elephant cages is free and there is a small stream across the street to look at.
    • Westmoreland Park. Enjoy the pond with the various waterfowl, or play on the playstructure.
    • Of course, that’s not nearly all the parks in Portland, just some of my favorites. For a complete list, go here.
  • Or go on the fabulous play structures at many Portland area schools such as:
  • Get a free lunch at the park. Adult lunches are $4. Some sites also have breakfast and free crafts and other activities
  • Hot outside? Enjoy the cool water at one of Portland’s many fountains. Be sure to follow the rules posted on the site. This list does not include Director Park for some reason.
  • Not enough water choices? Enjoy water play at many of Portland’s parks. 
  • Take a hike in the largest forest in a city in North America: Forest Park
  • Need more trail space? Try biking or walking the 40 mile loop and see how far you get.
  • Want a more secluded walk? Portland is full of nooks and crannies. Try the walking up the Alameda stairs
  • Need to burn more energy? Try walking up and down the stairs between the Upper and Lower Reservoirs at Mt. Tabor.
  • Or the stairs on the Terwilliger Trail.
  • Or check out these other awesome stairways (I can’t believe there’s a

    Need to burn off energy? Try these stairs between the upper and lower reservoirs at Mt. Tabor!

    website on this–how handy!)

  • Enjoy a free Portland Festival Symphony concert in the park
  • Free movies at the park!
  • Walk, bike, or go fishing (mostly strugeon and steelhead) along the river at Waterfront Park, the Esplanade, or Cathedral Park and watch the boats, birds, nutria, fish, and any other animals you find.
  • Go bird watching and see what you find. Portland Audubon Society has a good guide of local birds and will help you identify them (send a picture). You can also look up birds on Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology’s Online Bird Guide.
  • Watch a softball or baseball game at the Erv Lind Stadium at Normandale Park.
  • Find a spot and watch trains go by in various places around Union Station in NW Portland, or along the tracks in NE and SE Portland. Be sure to stay far away from them.  The conductors might even wave!
  • Watch the planes come and go at the Portland International Airport (PDX).
  • Watch the entertainment and other people while learning about and trying new foods and recipes at Portland’s many Farmer’s Markets. My favorite is at Portland State University downtown on Saturdays.
  • Get a cappuccino at a coffee shop and then hang out at the community room (I believe it’s the Swindell’s Resource Room) at Providence Child Center (to the right of the entrance). Enjoy the huge stuffed animals, the train table and other toys. Peruse the library of books as well. Public is welcome.
  • Meander through old Portland neighborhoods by car, bike, or even better, walking, and see what adventures you can find. Walk through alley ways in Ladd’s Addition, enjoy the views around Council Crest, and drive around and look for streets that say “No outlet” Sometimes the sign is wrong–see if you can get through.
  • Enjoy the stars and view from Council Crest or Rocky Butte
  • Look for bunnies on Powell Butte
  • Look for OMSI’s  free Star Parties, especially when the Perseid meteor shower is happening in August. Caveat: These aren’t in Portland, they’re about 20 miles outside the city for better viewing. But they’re free.
  • Like flowers and looking for a relaxing afternoon? Visit the rose gardens at Peninsula Park and Ladd’s Addition. There is, of course, the International Rose Test Garden, but it costs $4 for parking so it isn’t really free–see it on the “Cheap things to do in PDX with your family“post though.
  • In the NW (?) corner of Gabriel Park are some large hills. Spend some
    Picnic on Hills at Gabriel Park

    Picnic on Hills at Gabriel Park

    time running up and rolling down then, and then have a picnic at the top.  There is also a nice skate park there.

  • If your kids like rolling down hills, Menlo Park Elementary has some nice ones in the back surrounding the football and baseball fields.
  • Besides Gabriel Park, there’s other skating parks around Portland. Go here to see a list.
  • Rainy day, or did it just rain? Dress your kids up in boots and slickers and go puddle jumping!  Invite some friends or neighbors and have a party. Finish it off with some cookies and hot cocoa. My kids don’t mind doing this even when it’s cold. They have too much fun to notice!
  • Have a little one that needs to get some energy out? Go to Lloyd Center or Clackamas Town Center and play on the soft, toddler-safe playstructures there.
  • Learn a little Portland and Oregon pioneer history! Visit one of the many cemetaries in town, esp on the East Side. Many have been around since Oregon’s earliest days.  Metro: Historic cemetaries
  • Take a ride on an elephant. Or deer. Or bear. Downtown is full of bronze statues to enjoy, climb and take pictures on.  Look especially on the sidewalks around the blocks between SW 4th and Broadway and SW Morrison and Yamhill. There’s an impressive giant elephant (and play area) in the North Park Blocks that I believe is the one mentioned in The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan.
  • Visit Dairyville or go Easter Egg Hunting at Alpenrose Dairy or enjoy any of the other many activities. Most events at the dairy are free or cheap. A real family-oriented place.  For the Easter Egg Hunt, plan to get there a little early to get a good parking spot where you can exit easily. It’s very hectic after the hunt is over.
  • Sunny day? Finally! Take a walk along SE Hawthorne, SE Division, SE Clinton, SE Belmont, NE Alberta, N Mississippi, NE Fremont, or Hillsdale around SW Capitol, SW Troy, SW 35th and SW Multnomah and window shop and dream. Bring a snack to eat in a neighborhood park, or buy a cheap snack at one of the food carts or a nearby farmer’s market.
  • Go to the top of Mt. Tabor, Council Crest,  or Joseph Wood Hill Park (at Rocky Butte) and look at the mountains or lay on the grass and stare up at the sky and watch the clouds.
  • Want to explore? Wander through Rocky Butte’s natural area or for a smaller adventure, try little Rosemont Bluff in NE Portland off 68th.  Hoyt Arboretum and Forest Park offer a more extensive trails to meander through. Warning: Going south along the Hoyt Arboretum trails, past the Vietnam Memorial, will eventually take you to the Zoo, Children’s Museum and Forestry Center. If you think your kids won’t take “no” for an answer to going to one of those places, stay to the north!
  • Take a historic tour of Portland or just your neighborhood. Review the Historic Resource Inventory Map and get ideas of places to go.
  • Take a hike or have a picnic at the Portland Audubon Society’s sanctuary next to Forest Park in NW Portland, or check out the Wildlife Care Center to learn more about Portland’s native birds and animals.
  • Take a hike and learn about the birds, plants and other wildlife near the Willamette River at Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge.
  • Prefer learning about plants to learning about animals? Learn all about Northwest plants and get great gardening tips at Leach Botanical Garden. Don’t forget to check out the library!
  • Take a smell tour around Portland!  Start with the bad and clean your sinuses with the best! Start with the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater  Treatment Plant in NE. Next head down to Oaks Bottom in SE and smell the wildlife. Then head up north again and go to Franz Bakery on NE 12th and Flanders. Open the windows and smell the best smell ever made–baking bread! Then head over to Widmer Brothers Brewing on N Russell off Interstate and smell the hops brewing.  End the tour on a sweet note by continuing up Interstate to Rosa Parks Way to Peninsula Park to smell the roses.
  • Get an excellent sunset (or sunrise!) view from these spots throughout Portland:
  • Don’t forget your friendly neighborhood library will often have events going on such as storytime (in Spanish, Russian and English!), puppet shows, holiday celebrations and more!
  • Take the kids for a round of disc golf at Pier Park, or any of these other parks at
  • Learn about the toys your great-great-grandparents played with at Kidd’s Toy Museum on SE Grand.

Have any other great ideas? Please pass them on and help other parents!