Looking for the best museums in Portland, Oregon? This lifelong local has you covered.
I’ve had the pleasure of calling the City of Roses home for 20+ years and in that time have visited almost all the museums in Portland. From first dates to play dates with my nephews, I’ve done it all. I thought it’d be helpful to roundup some of the best museums in Portland for those planning a visit.
As longtime readers of this site know well, I’m not one for small talk. So let’s get to the good stuff!
10 Best Museums Portland, Oregon
Oregon Historical Society
Started in 1898 in an effort to preserve the “state’s collective memory,” the Oregon Historical Society has a well-curated collection of artifacts dating back to the Oregon Trail. This beloved Portland museum has been sharing Oregon’s history for more than 118 years!
If you’re looking for unique date ideas in Portland on a rainy day, I suggest swinging by the Portland Historical Society to see the famous 1845 penny used to decide Portland’s name in a coin toss. That’s right, naming our city boiled down to a coin toss.
The founders of Portland, Oregon were two settlers from New England. One from Boston, Massachusetts and the other from Portland, Maine
Both settlers wanted to name the city after their respective home towns. and decided to settle for a coin toss. And that’s how Portland, Oregon got its name (yes, really).
And while I can’t guarantee the penny will impress your date, it surely can’t hurt.
The best part? It’s free for Multnomah County residents, making this one of the best free things to do in Portland when it rains. If you’re not a resident, admission is $10 and worth every penny (some pun intended).
Anyone searching for the best museums in Portland, Oregon would be remiss to skip the Pittock Mansion. Built between 1912-1914, this stunning French Renaissance-style mansion sitting atop the West Hills and spanning 16,000 square feet. Pittock Mansion boasts 46 elaborate rooms and is open to the public for tours.
The tours are really cool because you can see the original furniture from the time period and learn more about the family that called it home (these folks were loaded). Commissioned by the publisher of the Oregonian, Henry Pittock, no expenses spared, the house was built so well that even the original elevator is operational to this day.
Touring Pittock Mansion is one of the best Portland museums for kids too. It’s fun to play I Spy with the kids while secretly adding up the exorbitant expenses of thing you’re pointing to.
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI)
The Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (OMSI) is a Portland musuem staple. Most lifelong locals have memories of spending drizzly weekends at OMSI or visiting during school field trips. It’s a great place to get your fill of fascinating science exhibits spread across five themed halls.
Indeed, those searching for the best museums in Portland for kids, will find plenty to do at OMSI. Proven by how busy this place gets on the weekend days. But even if you don’t have kids you shouldn’t write off this gem. Rather, sign up for the fun OMSI After Dark experiences.
OMSI After Dark is a 21+ event that takes place the last Wednesday of the month (typically). Local vendors, scientists and artisans host creative science-themed workshops. Visitors can get drinks, watch shows or try a plethora of interesting demos.
What’s more, all the permanent exhibits are open during the event, which means you can explore at your heart’s content. Spending a day learning something new is one of the best ways to take advantage of a rainy day in Portland! Learn more here.
The Portland Art Museum
Founded in 1892, few know that the Portland Art Museum is the oldest art museum on the west coast, reason alone to visit. Boasting more than 42,000 pieces, the permanent collection is breathtaking and will keep you occupied for several visits.
However, should you find yourself wanting more, the rotating exhibits offer something new to see. Ensuring you never get bored while visiting this popular Portland museum.
The musuem is best known for its extensive collection of Native American, European, Asian and American art.
This Portland museum doesn’t feel overwhelming like most art museums I’ve visited before. The architectural design deserves part of the credit. Designed in 1932, two buildings connect underground to comprise the museum, giving visitors a great overall experience while enjoying art.
Oregon Maritime Museum
Most of us know someone that loves the sea. I swear my own 94-year-old grandad is brushing up for a nautical test when he reaches the pearly gates. The breadth of his knowledge surpasses understanding, so I knew he would consider this one of the best museums in Portland when he visited last spring.
For starters, the Oregon Maritime Museum is located inside of the last operating sternwheeler in the country, the Portland. Getting a chance to tour the last operating steam-powered sternwheel tug in the U.S is pretty bad ass.
Moored along the Willamette River, visitors can tour the engine room and pilot house to learn about the daily operations of running such a beast.
Tours are led by impassioned volunteers, eager to share their knowledge of maritime artifacts and memorabilia. It’s always fun to get a tour alongside a history nut or military enthusiast because banter is bound to ensure. The museum’s library contains a catalog of more than 2,500 volumes and 22,000 photographs related to maritime history.
World Forestry Center Discovery Museum
My first introduction to the World Forestry Center Museum in Portland occurred while I was working at Washington Park. While walking around the Oregon Zoo parking lot, I noticed a beautiful log building and decided to pop in.
Operating as a nonprofit education institution, the World Forestry Center was founded in 1964 with the goal of sharing knowledge about forests through interactive exhibits. Focusing on Northwest forests and those around the world, visitors will get a chance to learn about the ways forests impact our daily lives.
The creative exhibits span the gamut. From re-evaluating our perspective on wild fires to addressing the detrimental affects of climate change, you’re bound to learn something new at one of the most unique museums in Portland.
Considering Oregonians are big advocates for environmental causes, it’s no wonder why the World Forestry Center is considered one of the best museums in Portland, Oregon. To book tickets, see the official website here.
Oregon Rail Heritage Center
The Oregon Rail and Heritage Center houses three steam locomotives owned by the City of Portland. Two of the locomotives are fully operable and one of them – Southern Pacific 4449 — is considered one of the most beautiful locomotives in the world. You can see this gem for yourself at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, one of the most popular museums in Portland for kids.
This Portland musuem protects and maintains steam locomotives and even occasionally takes visitors on trips through Portland’s Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. Folks can’t get enough of the exciting exhibits and maps on display.
Admission to this musuem is free but donations are accepted. All told, you don’t have to be a railroad enthusiast to see why this is considered one of the best museums in Portland.
Fun Fact: The 4449 Daylight is the second most photographed steam locomotive in the world. Second only to Thomas the Train.
Rice Museum of Rocks and Minerals
Located in the neighboring city of Hillsboro, the Rice Museum of Rocks & Minerals is worth the drive for those that can’t seem to get their fill of geological wonders. From rare rocks and minerals to fascinating fossils, meteorites and gemstones, this is one of the best museums in Portland for those that want to linger and learn something new.
Home to beautiful galleries and varied displays, the Northwest specific exhibits are breathtaking. In terms of the collection, the Rice Museum of Rocks and Minerals is recognized for having one of the finest collections of rocks in the Pacific Northwest and the country.
If the collection isn’t alone to entice you to visit this underrated Portland musuem, it might help to learn that the building itself is listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its unique architecture and natural stonework.
I consider this one of the most underrated museums in Portland because I’ve seldom seen crowds while visiting. However, it seems the secret it out because in 2018 the Rice Museum saw record breaking crowds.
Best Museums Portland | To learn more about the Rice Museum of Rocks and Minerals (or to book your tickets) visit the official website here.
This has to be one of the hardest Portland museums to describe. It’s part art show, part gift shop, part exhibit of oddities and 100% “what the hell am I looking at?” Featuring creepy and strange exhibits, gags, edible insects and strange books, there’s no denying that the Freakbuttrue Pecularium is the weirdest musuem in Portland.
Started by famed Portland adventurer, Conrad Talmadge Elwood, he spent his life traveling the world in search of odd objects that he found inexplicable. He decided to share his treasures with the world by establishing this Portland museum in 1967.
For the measly admission price of $5 you won’t want to miss it. Well, unless you have kids in tow, this is definitely not the best musuem for kids in Portland due to some of the art and novelties.
Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum
Admittedly the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum is located in McMinville, Oregon, but the 1-hour drive from Portland shouldn’t deter you. Heck, make a day trip out of it and head to the beach afterwards! This is one of the best museums in the Portland metro area for aviation enthusiasts and amateurs alike.
The musuem was founded by Captain Michael King Smith, a former US Air Force fighter-jet pilot. Alongside his aviation executive father, Delford Smith, the pair opened the musuem in 1991 with a small (but impressive) collection of vintage aircraft.
Within one year of opening, the musuem won a bid to acquire the coveted Hughes H-4 Hercules by offering to make the monolithic historic plane the museum’s centerpiece. Today, the exhibit includes more than 50 military and civilian aircraft and spacecraft.
You can’t miss this stunning musuem it if you tried. The building is marked by a mounted Boeing 747, making this one of the most unique museums in Portland’s metro area. It’s one of my (personal) favorite museums in Portland and the one I take most out-of-town guests to. I think you’ll love it as well!
Best Museums Portland | To learn more about the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum (or to book your tickets) visit the official website here.
Best Portland, Oregon Museums (Post Overview)
In sum, here’s a quick roundup of the best museums in Portland, Oregon.
- Oregon Historical Society
- Pittock Mansion
- Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI)
- The Portland Art Museum
- Oregon Maritime Museum
- World Forestry Center Discovery Museum
- Oregon Rail Heritage Center
- Rice Northwest Museum
- Freakbuttrue Pecularium
- Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum
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Map of the best museums in Portland
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I hope you enjoyed this roundup of the best museums in Portland, Oregon for kids and adults alike. Portland has several gems to choose from, but the ones on this list are some of my personal favorites. If you have the time, I highly (highly!) recommend making the trip to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. It’s unforgettable!
What do you think?