How to Turn a College Tour Into a Vacation: Pacific Northwest Edition

Cherry blossoms cover the University of Washington campus in spring. Photo by Leslie C. Saber/Adobe Stock

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Outdoor enthusiasts flock to the Pacific Northwest for its natural beauty, varied year-round activities and vibrant local culture. These same attributes are a natural draw for college students lured by bike-friendly campuses, cutting-edge coffee culture, an interesting foodie scene and plenty of breweries (for those of age, naturally). For ease of planning, this guide starts with schools south of Portland and then heads north toward Seattle.

As with our other college touring mini-guides (see the links at the bottom of this piece), we suggest devoting a full day to any given school. It is hard to capture “that feeling” of stepping onto a dream campus when you are racing through a visit, particularly since official information sessions and tours can eat up a good chunk of the day. Cramming multiple visits into a short timeframe not only makes for cranky teenagers, but it also leaves the entire experience feeling like a blur.

Pacific Northwest College Tour Ideas
Johnson Hall is the administrative building on the University of Oregon campus. Photo by Joshua Rainey/Adobe Stock

Pacific Northwest College Tour Vacation Ideas

Day 1

First up is the University of Oregon, nestled in the Willamette Valley in Eugene — an easy drive to both the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Home to more than 22,000 Ducks (Oregon’s mascot), the university is known for a wide range of academic majors, including business administration, psychology, political science, biology and computer science.

For lunch a stone’s throw from campus, try Little Big Burger or Wild Duck, known for its Oregon vibe and plenty of outdoor seating. Then head down 13th Avenue for a gear stop at The Duck Store. McMenamins is another solid food option, and this mini-chain has a few locations in and around campus. If you are craving pizza, Pegasus is located inside a former fraternity house and is a good way to take a peek at Greek life on campus.

In the afternoon, consider hiking around Hendricks Park or whitewater rafting down the McKenzie River. You could even head to the coast for a dune buggy tour.

TIP: Make sure to book campus tours well in advance for all schools on your list, as many fill up a couple of months ahead. If you can’t find a good option, register for a virtual tour in advance of your time on campus to give you some context for the places you will see.

Pacific Northwest College Tour Vacation Ideas
Weatherford Hall, one of the dormitories at Oregon State. Photo by Devin Allphin/Adobe Stock

Day 2

Next up is a visit to Oregon State in Corvallis, home of the Beavers. Oregon State is an international public research university serving more than 34,000 total students. It is one of three land, sea, space and sun grant universities in the country and its academic focus ranges from marine life to forestry and liberal arts. Soak up the atmosphere on this historic campus with its red-brick buildings and greenery for days.

Satisfy your sweet tooth with a visit to Le Patissiér for croissants, pastries and coffee. For a taste of Australia in Corvallis, stop into the Corvallis Meat Pie Shop. Or visit relative newcomer the Biere Library, a gastropub with a mouthwatering range of Belgian-inspired food and craft beers.

This afternoon, consider biking or hiking on one of the many trails in Corvallis or venture into Portland. Avid readers will be enthralled by Powell’s “city of books” spanning an entire city block. Check out Pine Street Market for a taste of the local food scene and don’t miss a stop at nearby local favorite Voodoo Doughnuts. If the timing aligns, go to a Portland Trail Blazers NBA game or a Portland Timbers soccer match tonight.

TIP: When packing, be prepared for all seasons in the Pacific Northwest. A packable rain jacket and an umbrella will serve you well.

Pacific Northwest College Tour Vacation Ideas
The reflecting pool at the Estate Gardens on the Lewis & Clark College campus. Photo courtesy of Lewis & Clark College

Day 3

Consider one of the many smaller campus options in and around Portland today.

Reed College. This liberal arts college, founded in 1908 in southeast Portland, is focused on developing critical thinking skills and is home to about 1,400 “Reedies.” Jam on Hawthorne is a good spot for coffee and all-day fare, and Broder is the place for a Swedish-inspired brunch.

Lewis & Clark College. This private arts and sciences college in southwest Portland makes its home on land that was originally owned by the family of Frank Lloyd Wright; one highlight is the 63-acre Estate Gardens, including a beautiful reflecting pool. Students rave about Marco’s café and espresso bar and 24-hour diner Banning Restaurant and Pie House.

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Willamette University. This private liberal arts college is the oldest college in the western United States. It has a graduate campus in Portland, but the main campus for undergrads is in Salem. Grab a coffee at Isaac’s or lunch at campus favorite Ritter’s. Save room for dessert at local pastry specialist Gerry Frank’s Konditorei.

University of Portland. This Catholic school situated on a bluff overlooking the Willamette River serves about 4,000 students. Madrona Hill Café is a popular spot for coffee, smoothies and sandwiches. In the afternoon, try a bike tour of the Portland area or venture a bit further east of Portland to see the Multnomah Falls. For dinner, get a taste of the huge Portland food cart scene with a visit to the Cartopia Food Pod, then try a round of mini golf at black-lit venue Glowing Greens or grab a sweet treat at cult favorite Salt and Straw ice cream.

Pacific Northwest College Tour Vacation Ideas
Cherry blossoms cover the University of Washington campus in spring. Photo by Leslie C. Saber/Adobe Stock

Day 4

Today is devoted to the University of Washington in Seattle and all things Husky. Located in the University or “U” district, it is one of the biggest urban universities in the country, serving more than 30,000 undergrads. Many laud the fact that it feels like a true college town within the framework of a bigger city. Make sure to catch a glimpse of Mount Rainier from stately Red Square, and spend some time lingering in the Liberal Arts quad, which is particularly pretty in the spring when the cherry trees are blooming.

The Ave, a.k.a. University Way, is the main street through campus and is home to the bookstore and many shops. Café Solstice and the Ugly Mug are popular student hangouts for coffee and studying. There are also tons of interesting choices for lunch in the area, including U:Don for Japanese noodles, Pho Than Brothers for Vietnamese or Din Tai Fung in University Village for their famous soup dumplings.

If your teenager is interested in a slightly smaller school, consider visiting Seattle University today instead. With just over 7,000 total students, this Jesuit school is smack in the middle of the city, bordering Capitol Hill, First Hill and the Central District. Popular lunch eateries along 12th Avenue include Japanese-inspired burger joint Katsu Burger or the Rhein Haus German biergarten.

Pacific Northwest College Tour Vacation Ideas
Seattle is well worth an extra day or two on a Pacific Northwest college tour vacation. Photo by kenmc3/Adobe Stock

This afternoon, either spend more time exploring the U District or check out some of Seattle’s must-see attractions.

U District: For more of a chance to commune with nature, the Burke-Gilman trail threads through campus and there are bound to be lots of people out walking and biking. Or visit Montlake Cut at the south end of campus, a narrow, engineered channel that connects Lake Washington to the Puget Sound. It is also home to the Huskies rowing team and is a good spot for kayaking, canoeing or even swimming. Depending on time of year, consider trying to catch one of the varsity Pac-12 sports events to get a feel for student life. Musicians will want to seek out Grieg Garden, named for composer Edvard Grieg, a semi-secret spot where musicians often come to practice. Other campus highlights are the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory and the Husky Union Building bowling alley.

Greater Seattle: Visit MoPop, Seattle’s famous Museum of Pop Culture. This museum is sure to be a hit with teens, with rotating exhibits dedicated to iconic bands, entertainment genres like horror movies and science fiction and even a sound lab and guitar gallery. Then hit Pike Place Market, one of the oldest public markets in the country. Considered by many to be the soul of Seattle, this is the place to get a taste for Seattle delicacies. If time and season allow, you may be able to catch a Seahawks football game, a Mariners baseball game or a Sounders soccer match in the evening.

TIP: Have your student carry a small notebook (or at the very least use the Notes app) to jot down favorite spots, relevant info to their interests or gut reactions to each campus. It is much easier to capture things in the moment rather than trying to recreate it later. For more general touring tips, check out the New York edition of the CB college tour series.

Relevant Links:

Browse all ideas for traveling with tweens and teens on Ciao Bambino

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: New York/Tri-State edition

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: Boston edition

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: Southeast edition

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: Midwest edition

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: SoCal edition

9 places to make family travel memories with college-age kids

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