Portland Geography: Where The Heck Is The Pearl Anyway?

There are many qualities I love about Portland but one of my favorites is the distinctiveness of our neighborhoods.  At times it seems like each neighborhood is its own self contained little town.  There are a lot of great restaurants, breweries, cafes, and pubs, spread across Portland in a variety of different neighborhoods.  Because Portlanders love to talk about food this naturally leads to conversations like this:

“Hey, have you been to Escape from New York Pizza in Northwest”

“Yes I love it, have you tried Pine State in Alberta?”

As a visitor when you ask people for advice on places to eat, you will often get a response like “you should try ______ in the Pearl.”

The restaurant recommendation may be spot on but where the hell is the Pearl? For locals or frequent visitors when we hear “Alberta,” “Northwest,” “The Pearl,” etc… we know exactly what the person is talking about.  For example, Northwest is technically all of Portland west of the river and north of Burnside.  However, when us locals talk about Northwest we are referring to the neighborhood that encompasses the blocks around NW 23rd between Burnside and Vaughn.

If you are going to be visiting Portland it is important to know where a few key neighborhoods are.  These are the neighborhoods with the most popular restaurants, bars, breweries, and shopping.  For orientation purposes I will start with downtown.  For one, this is where most of you will likely be staying and, second, it is a good reference point.


Downtown will most likely be your home base.  Since downtown also happens to be mostly commercial with lots of office towers and places that cater to the working stiffs, it is mostly dead at night and on weekends.  The exception would be around Pioneer Square, the mall, and on the north end close to Burnside.



If you are into the clubbing thing, then this is where the action is.  Personally, I hate Old Town.  I can’t stand clubs, and sixth avenue in Old Town is known as crack alley amongst law enforcement because it is basically an open air drug market. But if you want to dance and party at the clubs, this is where it’s at.

Old Town


Ahh, so this is where the Pearl is.  The Pearl used to be an old warehouse district west of Old Town.  Now it has turned into the definition of urban living in Portland.  It is home to Powell’s City of Books, great restaurants, bars, and shopping. The Pearl is a must visit.

The Pearl


Northwest is home to NW 23rd Street.  23rd is lined with great restaurants, bars, and shops.  There is a lot going on in this part of town plus a good hotel at the Inn at Northrup Station.  I would actually consider staying up here instead of downtown.



I love this part of town.  Hawthorne borders one of my favorite residential neighborhoods in Portland, Ladd’s Addition.  Hawthorne is home to great restaurants and is also known for its vintage shopping.  Even the Goodwill on Hawthorne is phenomenal.



I often consider Belmont and Hawthorne to be one big awesome area in southeast Portland.  There is a lot going on between these two parts of town.  If bed and breakfasts or vacation rentals are more your style this area should be high on the list of options.



I love this neighborhood.  If you come down here you will see what I mean when I say that neighborhoods feel like their own little towns (it helps that Sellwood use to actually be one). Sellwood is known for its antique shops that take up a block on Milwaukee and Bybee.



North Mississippi has really come of age in the last five years or so.  On the eastern side of this neighborhood is N. Williams which is currently exploding with new restaurants and bars.  I swear every time I drive up N. Williams I see a new bar or restaurant going in.



This neighborhood is home to Last Thursday a street fair on the last Thursday of every month.  The neighborhood is known for its eclectic shops and also, of course, good places to eat.


When you visit, try to explore some the neighborhoods on the east side of the river.  You will get a much better feel for the character of the city, plus I think all the best restaurants and breweries are on that side of town anyway.

Portland Geography 101: Navigation
Portland Geography 102: Portland Bridges
Portland Geography 103: Surrounding Areas

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3 thoughts on “Portland Geography: Where The Heck Is The Pearl Anyway?

  1. Thanks for this post. I live in Eugene and get up to Portland regularly but still had some confusion about some of the neighborhoods people talk about or I read about. Very helpful!

  2. Pingback: Portland Geography 102: Portland’s Bridges | Portland Travel Tips

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