Portland is one of the country’s top cities for technology and science, has a vibrant cultural identity, and boasts a fascinating history that ranges from the settlement of Native American tribes in the 1700s to pioneers arriving from the Oregon Trail in the 1800s, and the origins of the Nike brand in the 1970s. So it only makes sense that the museums in today’s Portland reflect both its rich history and present-day popularity. Whether you’re looking for something educational, beautiful, family-friendly, entertaining, or just plain fun, here are the best museums in the City of Roses.
Go for the gilded French Renaissance architecture, stay for the views at the Pittock Mansion, a beautifully preserved estate that sits atop one of Portland’s most enviable perches. The historic, 16,000-square-foot mansion was built between 1912 and 1914. It was originally home to Henry Pittock, who in 1853 at age 19 braved the Oregon Trail to find his fortune. And find it he did, building a vast financial empire and becoming the publisher of The Oregonian, an award-winning newspaper that’s still in print today.
Tour the 23-room mansion for glimpses into a more glamorous era. Take in the majestic marble staircase, the elegant music room, sleeping porches, and Turkish smoking room. Then stroll through the rose-scented gardens and take in the panoramic views of downtown Portland and the Willamette River. On a clear day, you can even see five mountains in the Cascade Range.
The estate is just steps from Forest Park’s popular Wildwood trail, so once you’ve soaked up enough of the views and 1900s charm, make like a local and take a hike.
Portland Art Museum
Founded in 1892, the Portland Art Museum in the heart of downtown is the oldest art museum in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to the works by European masters and early American artists that have been at its core ever since, the museum houses permanent collections of photography, modern and contemporary pieces, and graphic arts. Also not to be missed is an impressive collection of Native American works that showcases a staggering 5,000 objects made by more than 200 cultural groups.
Past exhibitions include “The Shape of Speed: Streamlined Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1930–1942”, for which 17 automobiles and 2 motorcycles were displayed, and “Three Masters of Abstraction: Hagiwara Hideo, Ida Shōichi, and Takahashi Rikio,” which included nearly 50 prints by three Japanese artists whose works garnered acclaim in the years following World War II.
Looking ahead, the museum will run “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism,” featuring works by the famed couple (as well as other Mexican modernist artists) from June 13th through September 27, 2020.
Oregon Historical Society
Across the street from the Portland Art Museum is the Oregon Historical Society, which has strived to be the “state’s collective memory” for more than a century. The society makes Oregon’s fascinating history accessible to all through a diverse array of photographs, maps, manuscripts, books, films, oral histories, and artifacts.
“We exist because history is powerful, and because a history as deep and rich as Oregon's cannot be contained within a single story or point of view,” the museum declares in its mission statement. So while visitors can expect to learn about the Oregon Trail and the settlement of Portland, they’ll also discover information about the Native American tribes who first lived on the land, as well as the state’s leaders in the fight for LGBTQ rights.
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry
You’ll spot the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (known as OMSI to locals) long before you reach the building. The massive science center with bright-red smoke stacks is housed in a former power plant on 18 acres of Portland’s southeast waterfront that you’re bound to see as you’re exploring the city.
Visit and you’ll soon understand why OMSI’s ranked as one of the nation’s best science centers. There are five halls with more than 200 interactive exhibits and labs, a four-story theater, and a 200-seat planetarium. You can also tour the USS Blueback, a retired Navy submarine now docked in the river, to learn how a crew of 85 people lived and worked inside, underwater. There really is something for everyone in the family, from wide-eyed toddlers to too-cool-for-school teenagers, and their curious parents.
Check the calendar for events like film festivals, laser light shows set to the music of Beyoncé or Pink Floyd, and lunar viewing parties. For adults 21 and over, there are also “OMSI After Dark” events, where adults can stroll the museum blissfully kid-free (and with a glass of wine in their hand) while they learn about topics ranging from astronomy to the science behind booze.
World Forestry Discovery Museum
Budding young environmentalists and longtime tree huggers alike will love exploring the World Forestry Discovery Museum. Located in beautiful Washington Park, the sprawling 20,000 square foot museum is run by the World Forestry Center (WFC), a nonprofit founded in Portland in 1966 with the mission to create and inspire champions of sustainable forestry. They opened the museum back in 1971 as a way to educate the general public about local and global forests, sustainability, and how we can all be good stewards of the environment (which is so Portland).
On the first floor, learn about the systems, structure, and cycles of forests in the Pacific Northwest. Then head up to the second floor to take virtual tours of four types of forests (boreal, temperate, sub-tropical and tropical) around the world.
Visitors can also visit the Magness Memorial Tree Farm—the museum’s “demonstration forest” 45 minutes outside of the city in Sherwood, Oregon—to learn about forestry management as they enjoy the farm’s trees, streams, picnic spots, and hiking trails.
Oregon Maritime Museum
Moored in the Willamette River in downtown Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park is the Portland, the last operating stern-wheel steam towboat in the United States (that’s right…she still works!). Starting in 1947, the cheerful blue-and-white tugboat helped other ships dock and pass through the narrow bridge spans of the Willamette River.
Today, she’s listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, and her job in retirement is to share Portland’s nautical past. Hop aboard to tour the historic steamer’s pilot house and engine room, and to learn more about steam power and Portland’s golden era of maritime history.
Oregon Rail Heritage Center
You don’t have to imagine trains rushing by at this well curated railroad museum in Portland’s inner Southeast industrial neighborhood. You’ll hear them whooshing by and sounding their horns just outside the walls of the museum’s warehouse.
There are three locomotives on display: Southern Pacific 4449 (built in 1941), the Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700 (from 1938) and the Oregon Railway & Navigation 197, which arrived in Portland just in time for the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905.
Portland Children's Museum
Kids are encouraged to cut loose and get messy at the Portland Children’s Museum, where every exhibit screams fun and creativity. Pint-sized players can throw clay in the Studio, care for stuffed animals in the make-believe Pet Hospital, throw on a costume and put on their own play in the Theater, or find a cozy nook for story time inside Treehouse Adventure.
Or, get the kiddos outside in the ADA-accessible Outdoor Adventure area (complete with a kid-friendly creek, campsite, and dig-pit), or the Zany Maze, a lush labyrinth bursting with fruits, herbs and vegetables.