Oregon's far-flung corners house plenty of weird, wonderful, swoon-worthy museums. We'll get to those. But you don't have to hit the road to explore something new.
Here are our picks for your best bets right here in Portland, from sturdy favorites to hidden gems to quintessentially Stumptown larks. If there's a theme, it's DIY: Museums are one area where Portland has maintained its scrappy, individualistic ethos. Aside from our tentpoles, most in-town museums are built on the passions and collections of individuals, who've transformed often-small spaces into eccentric windows straight to their minds.
Dreamed up by a once-amateur kayak enthusiast, this salon-turned-museum now houses 64 full-size watercraft and 50 models, most built by founder/curator Harvey Golden, with period-specific artifacts to supplement. Golden has taken care to provide extensive historical context for each vessel (most in the style of various Indigenous cultures) and has supplemented his collection with a pair of books and a website that compile his research and provide insight into his construction process. Dads everywhere fear him. 5340 SE Lincoln St, traditionalkayaks.com
Good for: The outdoorsy; someone who is into woodworking and would like to feel jealous.
Admission: Free (by appointment only)
The beloved Belmont video store is known for its extensive inventory, but mere movie renters may not grasp the extent of its memorabilia archive. In glass cases and amid DVD shelves, Movie Madness displays a stunning array of props, costumes, and ephemera from major films: one of Julie Andrews’s dresses from The Sound of Music, the prop soap from the Fight Club poster, a severed ear from Blue Velvet. Go in swearing you’re just there to admire the fabrics from West Side Story, come out with a copy of There Will Be Blood and a tallboy for good measure. 4320 SE Belmont St, moviemadness.org
Good for: Movie buffs; impressing out-of-town friends; extracting ineffable wisdom from Julianne Moore’s Magnolia coat.
Formerly known as the Oregon Nikkei Endowment, this museum is pointedly placed in a segment of the city that was on its way to becoming a thriving Japantown, pre-World War II internment. Featuring interactive exhibits, the jail cell where Japanese American attorney Minoru Yasui was held for breaking curfew during internment, and guided tours of the waterfront’s Japanese American Historical Plaza, it’s small but mighty. 411 NW Flanders St, oregonnikkei.org
Good for: Families
Admission: $5–8 (ages 10 and under free)
You know her. You love her. You’ve tried and failed to beat her Pac-Man game that illustrates how alcohol affects the body's reaction time. The trusty Oregon Museum of Science and Industry has been serving Portland-area families since 1944, and its now-iconic waterfront space (opened in 1992)—complete with a planetarium, movie theater, and tourable US Navy submarine—makes every trip feel like a certified event. 1945 SE Water Ave, omsi.edu
Good for: Families; being a little stoned at the planetarium (shhhh)
Admission: $8–12 (more for some special exhibits; check website)
The Chinatown Museum—opened in 2018 and located just up the street from the Lan Su Chinese Garden—offers a robust glimpse at our once-thriving Chinatown, which was among the largest in the country into the mid-20th century. Featuring local history exhibitions, a slate of panels and storytelling events, and regular musical performances, it’s one of the brightest spots in Old Town. 127 NW Third Ave, portlandchinatownmuseum.org
Good for: Local history buffs.
Admission: $5–8 (ages 12 and under free)
Started by Jim Stewart in 2000, this compact museum houses strange, beautiful, surreal found-object sculptures, all celebrating “the Zymoglyphic Period.” What is the Zymoglyphic Period? Per Stewart: “I made it up.” A meticulous, poignant ode to an era that never was, the project is situated upstairs in Stewart’s home near Mount Tabor, and available to aspiring Zymoglyphologists by appointment. 6225 SE Alder St, zymoglyphic.org
Good for: Communicating that you are a dork (in a fun way); feeling like you are perhaps in an extended sketch about Portland.
Admission: Free (by appointment only)
The state’s official Bigfoot shrine rests 45 minutes southeast of the city, in Boring, but this 54-year-old love letter to goth friends the world over (somewhat confusingly) pays the big guy his respects right here in Northwest Portland. The sturdy favorite—a small space filled to bursting with bizarre, upsetting art and oddities (including a rendering of the ’Squatch himself)—survived a 2020 sidewalk-only walk-up arrangement, and started welcoming fans of the macabre back behind its doors this summer. 2234 NW Thurman St, peculiarium.com
Good for: Prepping to join the Addams family; giving your children nightmares; an überkitschy date.
Depending on who you are, this one’s either fiendishly adorable or the stuff of absolute nightmares. We like to think it can be both. Launched in Sellwood in 2012 by marionette professional Steven Overton, the Puppet Museum features a collection more than 2,000 strong, spanning styles, sizes, and all corners of the uncanny valley. Labors of love don’t come more full-throttle than this. 906 SE Umatilla St, puppetmusuem.com
Good for: Kids; brave adults; anyone planning to launch a Goosebumps-adjacent franchise who might need a little inspiration.
The Jewish Museum began as a nomadic effort in 1989, taking up residence at the Central Library, Montgomery Park, a storefront in the Pearl District, and elsewhere, until it opened its permanent home in 2016 just off the North Park Blocks, snuggled between the Blue Sky and Froelick galleries. After a 2014 merger with the Center for Holocaust Education, the museum expanded its mission and now marries in-person and virtual exhibitions with educational programs and regular talks and events. 724 NW Davis St, ojmche.org
Good for: Linking local and global Jewish history.
Admission: $2.50–4 (ages 11 and under and members free)
Located in its namesake neon-clad vacuum store near the mouth of the Burnside Bridge, this ode to clean carpets showcases vacuum models from the late 19th century through the 21st from a permanent collection of more than 300. A 2017 remodel added an explicative timeline, which we’re always into. The use of “museum” here is a bit dubious (it fills up a single wall), but it’s a great way to acquire a weird vacuum-centric party trick while replacing that decades-old Hoover. 107 NE Grand Ave, starks.com
Good for: A lark; a distraction while buying a vacuum.