Portland’s Pearl District is the realization of a big dream. What was once a largely abandoned industrial district is now one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city.
Scattered throughout, you will find cobblestone streets, loading docks, and lofty buildings that offer a glimpse into the district’s grittier past. It is an urban renaissance with its own unique blend of artistry and productivity.
The neighborhood extends east from the waterfront to Broadway, Burnside on the south and NW 15th Avenue and I- 405 on the west. It is only about 285 acres, but within those blocks you will find an abundance of brew pubs, restaurants, and stylish boutiques. People come to the Pearl District to immerse themselves in its lively culture, to explore the vibrant art scene and to indulge in the fascinating food scene; so, it’s no surprise that the neighborhood hums with activity both day and night. Particularly popular is First Thursday, a free monthly event that draws huge crowds of people looking to wander through the neighborhood galleries and boutiques while chatting with artists, sipping free wine, and nibbling on snacks.
There is a running joke that Portland is the place where young people go to retire, which would be funny if it were not so true. Portland is not a city driven by corporations, despite having a number of large-scale in-city and nearby employers like Nike, Intel, Adidas, and Columbia Sportswear. Instead, the city is fueled by the creative moxie of artists, chefs, designers, and developers who are driven by their passion and the pursuit of something new. This influx of enthusiasm and energy has been particularly exciting for the Pearl District where young professionals in fields such as tech, real estate, architecture, and manufacturing are snatching up condominiums and studios as soon as developers can build them.
The Pearl District is also home to many actual retirees, who flock from places like Hawaii, Michigan, Idaho, Montana, and Illinois to find more temperate climates, walkable streets, public transportation, and easily accessible entertainment. The convergence is not surprising because the district was specifically designed to offer a healthy balance of work, art, and life.
This bustling district is also the workday destination for thousands of young urban professionals, artists, and uptown bohemians. These folks, many of whom commute from the east side, work at places such as Weiden+Kennedy, Vacasa, Gerding Edlen, and Wacom, not to mention Powell’s Books, Portland Center Stage, and the plethora of boutiques, hotels, and restaurants that occupy the neighborhood.
Navigating the Pearl is pretty easy thanks to some clever urban planning. Streets running north to south are alphabetical--beginning at Burnside and ending at Vaughn--and streets running east to west are numerical with the exception of Broadway, which is essentially 7th Avenue. City blocks here average about 200 feet in length, which makes for more walkable blocks and more retail corners.
Parking is a hot commodity around here and while there is a lot of street parking, most spots do not extend beyond three hours, so catching an open one can be a bit of a trick. For day trips, it is best to find a nearby garage or Smart Park (10th Avenue and SW Yamhill) and use the Portland Streetcar to travel into the thick of things. You can also park in the Brewery Blocks garage located underground on NW 11th or 13th Avenue between Couch and Davis. Many of the shops in the area (including Whole Foods) will validate your parking for this lot when you make a purchase.
If you are taking the streetcar, jump off around 10th or 11th Avenue and NW Couch, where you will find local hot-spots such as Deschutes Brewery, Powell’s Books, and Portland Center Stage all within a few blocks of countless boutiques and galleries.
For shoppers and gallery fans, there is a lot to see here, so be sure to give yourself a break at one of the local coffee shops such as Barista (539 NW 13th Ave.), Lovejoy Bakers (939 NW 10th Ave., or Pearl Bakery (102 NW 9th Ave.).
In the Pearl, you won’t find a lot of the things that typically define Portland as “weird.” Most of Portland’s youthful, hipster crowd prefers to live on the east side of the river and that is where you will find the vast majority of dive bars, music clubs, and pop-up restaurants. With its stylish lofts and swanky restaurants, the Pearl caters to a more buttoned-up crowd, so you also won’t see a lot of street artists or buskers (unless, of course, it is First Thursday).
The Pearl is easily accessible off of I-405 but can be a little tricky to navigate via car on account of pedestrian traffic, historic industrial spaces, and a smattering of cobblestone streets. Streetcars run along 10th and 11th Avenue from one end of the district to the other as well as to other neighborhoods like Nob Hill, Downtown, Portland State University, and the Lloyd District. They operate weekdays 5:30am to 11:30pm and on weekends, 7:30am to 11:30pm on Saturdays and 10:30pm on Sundays. Fares ($2 or less) can be purchased onboard or at stations along the route. The Portland MAX system can be accessed just a couple of blocks east of the neighborhood along 5th and 6th Avenue and several Trimet buses have stops all throughout, particularly route 77.
Portland is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, and the Pearl neighborhood is no exception. With numerous bike lanes and drivers who are accustomed to sharing the road, navigating around the district is relatively easy, even for riders who don’t hop on a bicycle every day. The Pearl even has a high concentration of Biketown stations where you can rent a bright orange bicycle for a small fee.
Of course, with a Walk Score of 96, the best way to get around the Pearl is to hoof it. Blocks are significantly shorter than most cities and you are never more than a few steps away from another shop, gallery, restaurant, or bar.
Some of the best (and messiest) burgers in town can be found at TILT (1355 NW Everett St.) where unfussy breakfast plates and burgers are accompanied by a great selection of beers on tap. Irving Street Kitchen (701 NW 13th Ave.), on the other hand, is upscale without being snobby—so it is great for dates and business dinners. Here, Southern-influenced New American cuisine feels both sophisticated and satisfying, with dishes like chorizo and squid ink risotto or smoked salt-baked salmon.
If you are looking for something more special, Andina (1314 NW Glisan St.) frequently tops the list of Portland’s best restaurants. They offer a smartly-done menu of Peruvian tapas and entrees as well as a collection of cocktails that are as delightful to look at as they are to drink.
Lastly, vegans and vegetarians will find their happy place at Los Gorditos (922 NW Davis St.), a local Mexican place that serves up traditional tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. What started as a single food cart is now a hugely popular local favorite with six locations across the city. They also have a plethora of options for meat eaters, like the “garbage burrito”, which is stuffed with chicken, beef, and pork as well as rice, beans, sour cream, salsa, onions, and cilantro.
Teardrop Cocktail Lounge (1015 NW Everett St.) is a terrific spot for classic cocktails with a bit of a Portland twist. The owners make their own bitters, tinctures, specialty liqueurs, and tonic and the menu changes regularly to reflect the season and what ingredients are locally available. Alternatively, if gin is your jam, check out Botanist Bar (1300 NW Lovejoy St.), a gin-focused cocktail lounge that offers olive oil-washed martinis and fancy snacks like whitefish ceviche and poké “nachos”
If you prefer something a little more lowbrow, sidle over to Low Brow Lounge (1036 NW Hoyt St.), one of the only “dive bars” in the Pearl, where you can find strong cocktails, seductive lighting, and tater tots served alongside mini corn dogs. With its kitschy decor and no-nonsense attitude, Low Brow Lounge serves as a little peek into what the neighborhood once was before the development boom of the early '90s.
The Pearl District boasts a plethora of options for beer connoisseurs as well. If you’re seeking a pint or flight of some of Oregon’s best craft brew, stop by Deschutes Brewery and Public House, Ascendant Beer Company, Back Pedal Brewing, Von Ebert Brewing, Rogue Pearl Public House, Backwoods Brewing, or 10 Barrel Brewing Co., all of which are within an easy walk of one another.
Bullseye Projects (300 NW 13th Ave.) is a contemporary art gallery that features the work of internationally-renowned glass artists, particularly those who work with kiln-formed glass. Artists host regular events, panel discussions, and lectures that are open to the public as well as hands-on learning and making experiences that are fun for all ages.
Another popular gallery is the Elizabeth Leach Gallery (417 NW 9th Ave.), which has been around since 1981 and focuses on prominent northwest contemporary artists as well as internationally known artists who work with multiple mediums.
When it comes to shopping, the big daddy of this district is Powell’s Books (1005 W. Burnside St.), which occupies a full city block and holds over a million books within its walls. You will also find national retailers such as Anthropologie, Free People, Lululemon, Hanna Andersson, and Madewell among others.
If you are looking for something a little more local, be sure to check out Garnish (404 NW 12th Ave.), where you can find stylish women’s clothing and accessories, most of which is designed and made in-house. Nau (304 NW 11th Ave.) is another good stop for Pacific Northwest fashion, whether you are hiking in the forest or just trekking to the office. At this shop (which is pronounced “now”), clothing is designed to have the lowest impact on the environment possible and--in keeping with the northwest attitude of sustainability--a portion of their sales are donated to charitable organizations.
Accessorizing your home can be lots of fun at Porch Light (255 NW 11th Ave.), where you will find interesting home accessories, candles, plants, soaps and perfumes, all with a rustic-chic look. Porch Light offers a well-curated selection of new and vintage items that look like they came straight from a midwest farmhouse circa 1935.
If you are looking for trinkets or gifts that honor Portland and the northwest, MadeHere PDX (40 NW 10th Ave.) is a great place to stop. Founded by a former footwear product developer and a former Fender executive, MadeHere PDX is a shop that highlights the talents of Portland-based designers, artists, and makers. You will find locally roasted coffees, drinking vinegars from Pok Pok, beard grooming essentials from Damn Good Soap, and Blaq Design backpacks, as well as countless other treasures.
The Pearl District is arguably one of the most robust cultural, residential, and commercial neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest. What was once a largely abandoned area characterized by cobblestone streets, empty warehouses, railroad yards, and light industrial business is now a vibrant part of Portland’s overall personality. Mixed-use spaces blend effortlessly with loft-style condos, townhouses, and apartments, giving the neighborhood a sophisticated charm that is all at once cutting-edge and nostalgic. Over the years, a convergence of hip, small businesses, architecture firms, multimedia companies and marketing agencies have set up shop in the district, attracting a diverse mix of residents--from young professionals to empty-nesters--who appreciate the efficiency and excitement of urban living as well as access to some of the city’s finest dining, shopping, and culture.