[Photo: Portland-based artist Chanti Darling. Credit: Kristin McPeek.]
Unruly beards, extra-hoppy craft beer and Darth Vader in a kilt playing flaming bagpipes while riding a unicycle (aka the Unipiper) — yes, you don’t need to look too far to find evidence of “Keep Portland Weird” cliches. But Portland is way more than that a mere caricature of its namesake sketch-comedy series.
This unconventional and free-spirited city is foremost a place where creative people of all stripes can find community — where top writers lecture to audiences of thousands at literary festivals, where feminist authors have launched their own cult zines, where queer comedians put on a very funny festival and where some of the present generation’s most compelling playwrights debut new work on artist-owned stages,
And even as Portland increasingly gains international recognition for its culture scene, its laid-back spirit keeps everything refreshingly low-key and accessible. So whether you want to mingle with a writerly crowd, immerse yourself in the local art community, catch the opening of a new play or see a trending synth-pop band woo crowds, this handy arts-and-culture starter kit will have you lining up at the box office in no time.
[Photo: Powell's City of Books. Credit: Thomas Hawk.]
The fact that a bookstore ranks among Portland’s most famous attractions speaks volumes about this city’s enthusiasm for the written word.
Of course, Powell’s City of Books isn’t an ordinary shop — it occupies an entire block, stocks around one million volumes, and declares itself the largest new and used bookstore in the world. But the literary scene only begins there.
Readings and lectures populate the calendar year-round, with such notable events including the acclaimed Portland Arts & Lectures series, the live and unscripted storytelling event Back Fence PDX, the Wordstock book festival in November, and the more than 500 author events hosted at Powell’s multiple locations annually.
An international epicenter of independent publishing, the city is home to many zinesters, literary magazines and comic book publishers — Tin House, Microcosm Publishing and Dark Horse Comics, to name a few. Notable comic and zine shops include Excalibur Comics, the oldest in the city; Bridge City Comics, home to Portland’s first-ever graphic novel reading club; and Floating World Comics. A hub for the self-publishers in the city, Independent Publishing Resource Center hosts a range of public classes and workshops, open studios, and readings.
No wonder National Geographic listed Portland among the 10 best literary cities in the world.
[Photo: Doug Fir Lounge. Credit: Michael Shay / Polera Studio.]
From ‘60s hitmakers to flanel-clad grunge kids to today’s rising hip-hop scene, Portland has long attracted a fiercely independent crowd of tunesmiths.
Count among them such legends as Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, The Kingsmen, The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, The Shins, The Decemberists, The Wipers, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Modest Mouse and many others. In recent years, a more sonically diverse generation of rising stars have pushed the city’s sound in new directions, including Aminé; Esperanza Spalding; Portugal the Man; The Last Artful, Dodgr; and Chanti Darling.
Local artists and touring talent share Portland’s seemingly countless stages. For live music any night of the week, check the calendars at Doug Fir Lounge, a futuristic log-cabin-themed venue with some of the crispest sounds in the city; electronic-focused and art-forward dance venue Holocene; Mississippi Studios, a church turned indie rock club; the historic Crystal Ballroom, complete with spring-loaded bouncy floors; the cluby and industrial Bunk Bar; and the state-of-the-art Revolution Hall, a high school converted into one of the most happening event spaces in the city.
Take home local LPs with a vinyl shopping spree at Music Millennium on East Burnside Street, Everyday Music downtown, Jackpot Records on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and Beacon Sound on North Mississippi Avenue — representing only a handful of the city’s many thriving independent record stores, which also frequently host live performances and in-store artist appearances.
[Photo: Mural by artists Ernesto Maranje and Suhaib Attir. Credit: Chris Christian.]
Home to the oldest art museum on the West Coast — the Portland Art Museum — Portland’s dedication to the visual arts stretches back to its inception as a fledgling settlement at the end of the Oregon Trail.
Today, galleries dot every corner of the city — showcasing work ranging from funky and folksy to contemporary and cutting-edge. These varied art venues keep their doors open late for special events and exhibits during three buzzy art walks: the monthly First Thursday in Northwest, First Friday in the Central Eastside and Last Thursday in the Alberta Arts District.
You can pinpoint a few key nerve centers in the creative community, including Disjecta Contemporary Arts Center, PICA (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art) and the Pacific Northwest College of Art, which houses the permanent collection of the now-defunct Museum of Contemporary Craft.
Contemporary murals adorn walls across town — many of them produced during the annual Forest For The Trees NW mural festival, which for more than five years has welcomed artists from around the world to produce colorful, large-scale work on dozens of blank walls.
[Photo: Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Credit: Chelsea Petrakis.]
Nearly 3,000 miles from the bright lights of Broadway, Portland’s theater scene may seem a little off the grid, but this regional hub for the performing arts sets itself apart by embracing the creative freedom that comes with a relatively low profile.
The dozens of small- and mid-size theater companies produce work that challenges genre conventions as well as audience expectations. You see that spirit every summer at festivals such as PICA's Time-Based Art Festival, a format-breaking 10-day spectacle of edgy, multidisciplinary art, which The New York Times declared “the best contemporary summer festival in the country.” Both essential players in world of West Coast theater, Portland Center Stage and the Artists Repertory Theatre fill their respective calendars with a dynamic range of classic and original work. Portland’5 Centers for the Arts comprises five different venues that together welcome touring Broadway shows (in the past, including such blockbusters as “Hamilton” and “The Book of Mormon”) and a myriad of eclectic events that cover the spectrum of the performing arts.
Longstanding and notable emerging companies include the conversation-sparking work at Defunkt Theatre, bilingual and multicultural productions at Milagro Theatre, the aptly named Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, Lake Oswego’s long-standing Lakewood Theatre Company, and the intimate wide-ranging work staged by CoHo Productions.
[Photo: ADX. Credit: Xilia Faye.]
Portland has long had a reputation as a national hub for DIY culture, but a new generation of makers is now reshaping the city’s creative community. They are swinging open the doors of their ateliers, studios, and warehouses for tours and workshops so anyone can make the city their muse.
Legions of craftspeople share space, tools and knowledge at ADX (short for Art Design Portland), a makerspace in the still-industrial Central Eastside that offers free weekly tours and public classes.
Part art gallery and part handscraft boutique, MadeHere PDX showcases the work from dozens of local makers and designers in its Pearl District and North Mississippi Avenue storefronts, where you can shop for everything from guitar amps to surfboards.
Portland is also an international center of sneaker and streetwear culture, and you can get a taste of it at annual events such as Sneaker Week and the World Sneaker Championship, hosted by the world-leading Pensole Footwear Design Academy.
While conventional wisdom says comedians must move to New York City or Los Angeles to make a career, the City of Roses has gotten lucky by carving out its own distinct and laugh-worthy scene that keeps funny people rooted right here.
Portland’s crowd of comics is ever-changing and largely unconventional; these diverse performers benefit from dedicated audiences who come out in force to support annual festivals like the lauded Stumptown Comedy Festival, the women-only All Jane Comedy Festival and the LGBTQ-centric Portland Queer Comedy Festival.
Old-school venue Harvey’s Comedy Club has kept audiences coming back for decades, while contemporary venues such as Helium Comedy Club and Curious Comedy Theater host both top-notch touring comics as well as much-loved locals; and amateur comics test punchlines at dynamic range of open-mic nights happening at these and other venues across the city.