Most residents of Portland couldn’t tell you the best coffee in St. John’s. In fact, the old working-class neighborhood at the mouth of the Columbia feels like its own small town. Edged at the confluence of two rivers and popular with students from nearby University of Portland, St. John’s has a sleepy, uncommercial, workaday feel. Discovering this old Portland community can provide a day of active fun for the whole family.
In a city where bicycles and public transit zip commuters home in minutes, even a mere 25-minute drive seems like a committed outing. This distance is part of what has kept St. John’s relatively autonomous and allowed it to develop its own identity.
While St. John’s can be reached by surface streets via North Portland, it’s easiest to drive out on the west side of the river. Highway 30 winds through the industrial riverside before flattening into a pleasant drive, with lush forested hills on the left and the Willamette River on the right.
Soon the gothic green arches of the St. John’s Bridge rise above the water. You’ll cross this steel suspension bridge to reach St. John’s. The bridge’s cathedral towers provide the name for the neighborhood and green space beneath it – Cathedral Park.
Take the morning to stroll this riverside park. Home to a jazz festival, a pirate festival, and many other summer events, Cathedral Park serves as both a community gathering spot and urban natural space. An off-leash area provides running ground for pets while kids and architecture lovers will enjoy playing in the shadow of the elegant bridge. Reputedly haunted by the ghost of a drowned pioneer girl, Cathedral Park is also thought to have been one of the docking places for Lewis & Clark’s expedition.
After wandering the park, wind your way into St. Johns. The small “downtown” – a cluster of one-story shops centered around the intersection of N Lombard and Philadelphia streets – feels like a time warp. A bicycle shop, antiques and bakeries, an old movie theater, and the (delicious and cheap) Super Burrito Express give these few blocks a distinctly old-town Americana feel.
To get your blood flowing, stop in to Fencing Center Salle Trois Armes for a quick lesson in swordsmanship. Fencing coach Rocky Beach has taught at the center for over ten years, and welcomes beginners of all ages – from young children to retirees looking for a new hobby. A few minutes tethered to a touch-sensitive machine, and you’ll be wielding an epeè like a pro.
If fencing has you feeling fit and Zorro-like, you’ll want to try lunch at Proper Eats, a homey health-food café and grocery. With a pleasant and simple seating area, Proper Eats serves tasty offerings such as the sunseed avocado spread, arugula and pear salad, and a cornmeal tempeh plate. If you worked up a cheesier appetite, head to Signal Station Pizza. This classic pizza parlor operates out of an old gas station, and buzzes with 1950s-style neon.
An afternoon in St. John’s really leads to only one thing: Frolf. Frisbee golf, to the uninitiated, combines the physicality of hurling a disc through the air with the precision of aiming for a target. The Pier Park Disc Golf Course is a large park filled with towering Douglas Firs, where the whole family can throw discs through the trees, aiming for the 18 Mach II buckets throughout the course.
Like a regular golf game, the 18-hole course takes several hours to complete and you’ll most likely be ready for dinner. The McMenamin brothers have created a Portland institution with their chain of restaurants and breweries. By renovating historic buildings throughout the city, the McMenamins create unique spaces – a swimming pool in an old elementary school, or a brewpub on a hotel rooftop.
The McMenamin’s St. John’s Pub was originally built for the 1905 World’s Fair and operated as a church for most of the 20th century. Now, a theater and pub cozy inside the domed building. Warmly lit, with eccentric chandeliers dangling from the high ceilings, vintage signs on the walls, and a fireplace, the pub makes a perfect place for dinner and a movie. Parents will enjoy the McMenamin’s beer selection; the Cajun tater tots – slightly spicy and only $1 during happy hour – will please the whole family.
The movie theater has limited seating, all on cushioned benches and chairs. Above you arches the wooden cupola, richly brown and still lit with reverence, harkening back to the theater’s time as a church. After a long, active day in St. John’s, kick back and enjoy the atmosphere in this historic building.
What & Where:
Cathedral Park (N Edison St & Pittsburg Ave)
Fencing Center Salle Trois Armes (8517 North Lombard St; 503-285-2962)
Proper Eats (8638 North Lombard St; 503-445-2007)
Signal Station Pizza (8302 North Lombard St; 503-286-2257)
Pier Park Disc Golf Course (N. Lombard St & Bruce Ave)
McMenamin’s St. John’s Theater and Pub (8203 N. Ivanhoe; 503-283-8520)
Caitlin Dwyer is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. Poet, screenwriter, journalist, and teacher, she loves placing words in skillful combinations. Born with a travel itch, she has recently traveled in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Thailand, and plans to circumnavigate the globe in 2010. Her travel blog can be found at