If you’re new to the city, or it’s been a while, this quick reference guide may help you get your bearings as you tour the city, navigate to off-site events, or find yourself wanting to escape.
Like the rest of the city, Portland’s literary scene is often in flux and growing in many ways. There are weekly events covering every genre of writing and performance in a variety of formats. From small gatherings of intimate readings and book groups to large-scale theater filling lectures, there is always something going on to fill that literary craving. Thanks in part to Portland’s vibrant independent book stores we see a great deal of visiting writers, whether they’re reading or signing books at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, Passages Bookshop, Powell’s Books, Floating World Comics, Broadway Books, Annie Bloom’s Books, or Another Read Through, or those a bit further out like Books Around the Corner. Universities like Portland State University and Reed College also host visiting and local authors, with open to the public readings and smaller sessions with students. Reed College also hosts the Tin House Summer Workshop, which draws writers from across the country. We also have a very active library network, which hosts a variety of community growth and reading initiatives, such as Everybody Reads, through the Multnomah County Library network. Independent reading series and organizations do great work in supporting voices throughout the community as well, such as Literary Arts, the IPRC, Corporeal Writing, Whitenoise Project, De-Canon, Stay Litt, Incite, Attic Institute, Corporeal Writing, Dovesong Labs, and more. If looking for something fresh, there’s a few reading series that mix things up with inventive formats like Tender Table, Comedy vs. Tragedy, Booklover’s Burlesque, and Songbook. Storytelling is big in Portland as well, with The Moth, Back Fence, ROAR, Portland Storytellers’ Guild, Portland Story Theater, The Mystery Box Show, Invisible Spectrum, and more. And of course there’s the very active poetry slam community lead by Slamlandia and Portland Poetry Slam…
Quite honestly, to cover the full scope of Portland’s literary scene is a difficult task to accomplish in a few short paragraphs without leaving someone or something out. For example, what’s missing from above is the expansive number of small publishers, micropresses, literary journals, zine producers, letterpresses, printing studios and resources, book pubs and cafes, workshops, nonprofit organizations, independent services, Indigenous storytellers, editors, teachers, and writers, etc. that inhabit the city and have contributed to building its literary story. Our project with Literary Portland is an attempt to chronicle and spread awareness of these. So, to best get an idea of what the city really provides, I’d suggest clicking around on some of our pages and following the links to hear from them directly. We still of course have more work to do as well, so there are bound to be things we have missed and not yet included here.
The City Overview
Portland is a “small town” big city that’s currently undergoing a large growth of new residents (and has been for some time). You’ll notice a lot of construction in many parts of the city, especially some parts of downtown and south east. This may make getting around a bit more difficult, but heed construction signs as you would anywhere else and you’ll be fine. The biggest difficulty can be traffic, as much of Portland’s infrastructure isn’t built for the growing capacity. This makes traveling by car frustrating during peak hours (7 – 10 am and 3 – 6 pm) depending on where you’re going. Through much of the city we also have a great deal of green space, with parks to be found in many neighborhoods. The biggest park in the downtown area is Washington Park on the West side. Getting around the city is relatively easy…
Navigating Portland is fairly easy, as the blocks are small and the transportation options abundant. Getting around without a car is easily doable, as Portland has various forms of public transportation that are run by TriMet (bus, streetcar, and a light rail called MAX), with cash, credit, and app-payment options. Pickup-wise there’s of course the ever-present Lyft and Uber (likely your fastest option for getting from reading to reading), and a selection of taxi services (though taxi wait times can be pretty long and they’re fairly rare to see cruising for fares). Most areas have pretty good walking options and bike lanes are prominent (Portland’s biking culture is rather extensive, see these sites for bike maps and trails). There’s also the Nike BIKETOWN system from which you can rent bikes for short periods of time. Structure wise, like most major cities, Portland is basically a grid in nature with some winding curves throughout. Primarily, Portland is broken up into “quadrants” and neighborhoods.
Six quadrants make up the basic layout of the city. They are split by the Willamette River (East and West) and Burnside Street (North and South). South East, for example, is East of the river and South of Burnside. There are two caveats to this, which is North Portland and the new South Portland. South Portland is a new label for an old area due to confusing addresses and still under conceptual development, but to most people it will still be considered South West. North Portland covers the area between the Willamette River and around NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, I-5, or North Interstate Ave. The five to remember are: South East, North East, North, North West, and South West.
Streets running North to South are typically numbers, with the Willamette River acting as 0 and the numbers going up in either direction from the river. Knowing if you’re going to SE 10th (East of the Willamette River) or SW 10th (West of the river) is an important distinction as they’ll have similar cross streets (10th and Main). Many of the named streets (paved East to West) cross the river in name, though some change name at the river, merge with others (Madison becomes Hawthorne), or change direction (Broadway goes E/W on the East side, but N/S on the West). While this can be a bit confusing at first, it’s fairly straightforward if you pay attention to those spatial directions before the street names and which side of the river you’re on.
Each quadrant has its own distinct neighborhoods. Some of the more popular ones include: (in the SE) Buckman, Hawthorne / Sunnyside, Division / Clinton, Hosford-Abernethy, and Richmond, Laurelhurst, and Mt. Tabor, (in NE) Hollywood, and Alberta, (N) Mississippi / Boise, and St. Johns, (NW) the Pearl District, Old Town, Chinatown, North West, and Nob Hill / Alphabet, and (SW) Goose Hollow, and Downtown.
Hiking and Parks
There are some great hiking trails within the parks, and a lot of flatter ground, easy-walking parks as well. Check out these guides to Portland Parks and Trails. Some favorite parks include Washington Park (West of Goose Hollow), the International Rose Test Garden (in Washington Park), Japanese Garden (also in Washington Park), the Park Blocks (SW and NW Downtown), Lan Su Chinese Garden (in Chinatown), Tom McCall Waterfront (Downtown along the Willamette), Forest Park (West and North of NW), Laurelhurst Park (SE), Mt. Tabor Park (SE), and Peninsula Park (N / NE). While not a park, the Ladd’s Addition neighborhood is a residential area with some beautiful rose garden islands. A little north of the city is Sauvie Island, with a great beach along the Columbia River and wildlife areas. Mill Ends Park in the Downtown area is one of the smallest parks at 452 square inches. For more, check out Portland Parks & Recreation’s site.
Bar life is varied and plentiful, with a great deal of dive bars, fancy bars, and of course breweries, even cider houses. Your best bet is to find a good guide or float around to the off-site readings. Some of our faves are Multnomah Whiskey Library, Roadside Attraction, Crush Bar, Psychic Bar, Rose City Book Pub, The Nerd Out, Holman’s, Alberta Street Pub, The Pope House Bourbon Lounge, Bar of the Gods, and HOME, A Bar. There’s also two bar arcades that are worth checking out if you’re into arcade games or pinball: Ground Kontrol and Quarter World.
Recreational weed is legal, and there are dispensaries throughout Portland’s neighborhoods, including one across from the Convention Center on MLK Jr. Blvd. It is not legal to consume in public (though many still do), bars or cafes, nor in most hotels. Though there are a few places where you can consume low-CBD products on-site, and you may see CBD drinks at some bars. If you’re staying in an AirBnB be sure to check their personal policy.
Of course, be mindful of your own experiences and tolerances, as nothing’s worse than a bad trip in the middle of a convention. There are some helpful guides for first time buyers, and magazines dedicated to the local weed scene as well. There are great recommendations for going out to trail blaze or ordering in with some delivery or even taking a tour.
Outside the City
Exploring the surrounding area, or a bit further, is worth the time if you’ll be in Portland for an extended visit. The closest and biggest draw is likely to be the Gorge leading to Mt. Hood, which is about an hour or so drive East of the city. Farther North is Mount Saint Helen’s, which has great trails as well. An hour and a half to two hours away is the coast, along which are some beautiful spots you can check out here and here. For more, check here.
Powell’s Books will likely be on your list of things to see. Located on West Burnside Powell’s City of Books is a full block and three stories of books. There are also locations in SE on Hawthorne and at the airport. Portland also has a thriving independent bookstore community that is worth checking out as well, including Passages Bookshop (within easy walking distance of the Convention Center), Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, Broadway Books, Belmont Books, Backstory Books and Yarn, and many others.
Voodoo Doughnuts is another on the tourist checklist. While by far the most popular doughnut store (with a 24/7 location on Sandy Ave), there are other local doughnut shops that many contest are just as tasty, like Blue Star.
Seeing a movie may be a great break from the convention bustle. Portland has some wonderful theaters, including Hollywood Theatre, Clinton Street, Laurelhurst Theater, Baghdad Theater (on Hawthorne), Cinema 21 (Nob Hill / Alphabet), among others.
Popular areas for eating, shopping, etc. include North West 21nd and 23rd, The Pearl, Hawthorne, Belmont, Alberta, and Mississippi. You’ll also want to check out a Farmers Market or the Saturday Market. Or one of our food cart pods. We also have a great variety of conveyor sushi!
You might also enjoy: Portland Art Museum (PAM), Oregon Historical Society, Movie Madness, Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden, Museum of Metal Typography, Paxton Gate, Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals, Pittock Mansion, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), Yale Union, Portland Aerial Tram, Multnomah Whiskey Library, Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, The Pied Cow Coffeehouse, Roadside Attraction, brunch at Screen Door or Jam or Helser’s or Zell’s Cafe or Juniors Cafe, Rose City Book Pub, and The Stacks Coffeehouse.
For more suggestions of places to go, see Tin House’s “We Live Here: A Food and Drink Guide to AWP 2019.” Writer Paulette Perhach put together this AWP Portland Essentials map as well, which has more suggestions and locations.