Movies, music and saltwater soaks bring locals to mingle with guests
No city in America does making the old new again better than Portland. And if there’s an icon for the movement, it’s McMenamins Kennedy School Hotel, an old elementary school that’s now one of the city’s most sought-after hotels. Locals flock here for the live shows in the old gym, which also doubles as a movie theater. At $5 a ticket for both, it’s one of the more popular low-budget entertainment options in the city. You’ll also find Portlanders in the Kennedy School’s welcoming saltwater soaking pool, an Italian-inspired oasis that’s free for neighbors too.
The hotel’s trio of bars are worth hitting, whether enjoying a cigar in the Detention Bar, savoring rare rums in the lush Cypress Room or playing pool in the Boiler Room. The whole place is school themed in case you didn’t notice, which makes even things as small as sitting down for a beer a truly unique experience.
A quiet area that’s not too far from everything
McMenamins Kennedy School Hotel sits in Concordia, a northeast Portland neighborhood that’s mostly residential and not exactly teeming with nightlife. If you want something centrally located to Portland’s attractions, you might want to look elsewhere. That said, getting out and exploring isn’t tough, even without a car. The hotel is part of the BIKETOWN area and has four of the public bike program’s racks on property. If you do have a car while staying at the Kennedy School, exploring will be even easier, though parking is limited. With a homebase in sleepy Concordia, it’s not too painful a drive to lots of lively stuff.
For Portland’s most notable and quintessential experiences, see our Best Things to Do in Portland guide.
Here are nearby places to explore:
- Stroll the Alberta Arts District, home to galleries, boutiques and plenty of places to pick up a quirky Portland souvenir. It’s the closest attraction to the hotel: about a five-minute drive or 30-minute walk.
- Explore downtown Portland, which is about 15-20 minutes away from the hotel by car depending on traffic.
- Catch a Trail Blazers basketball game or a Winterhawks hockey game at the Moda Center, a 10-15-minute drive away.
- Feed your brain at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Oregon Zoo, which are both a 15-20-minute drive away.
- Shopping at the Lloyd Center mall might be the main attraction, but you can also strap on a pair of skates and glide along the same ice Tonya Harding once used for Olympic training. It’s about a 12-minute drive from the hotel.
- Peruse the fresh fruits and veggies, crafts and colorful characters at the Portland Saturday Market, which runs from March through December and is about a 15-20-minute drive from the Kennedy School.
Converted classrooms and an English literature wing
When the Kennedy School first opened, the biggest knock on the property were the rooms, which were considerably smaller than most hotel rooms and had old windows that were useless in keeping out noise. So, in 2012, the hotel opened the new English Wing, a set of rooms in the school’s old courtyard themed after classic works of English literature.
Converted classrooms — The main building’s King and Queen guestrooms are all converted classrooms, which means you’ll be sleeping in the same spot where kids learned long division in the 1920s. While not overly spacious, the rooms boast the big, arching windows through which many of us used to gaze outside and dream of recess as a kid. Many also have original chalkboards, which complement colorful art on the walls and simple, classical décor. Just be aware the bathrooms are only slightly larger than ones you’d find on a cruise ship, so don’t plan on spreading out your week’s worth of toiletries.
English Wing — These newer rooms opened in 2012 and are each cleverly themed after classic works of English literature. If you’ve ever wanted to wake up under a painting inspired by “Tropic of Capricorn,” consider the Kennedy School your dream come true. Though newer and quieter, English Wing rooms aren’t all that big either and offer the same small-ish bathrooms as the converted classrooms.
Three bars, a movie theater and a restaurant in the old cafeteria
The most creative use of old space in the Kennedy School is found in its common areas, where spots like the old gym, the cafeteria and even the boiler room have been transformed into wildly creative concepts. They make the hotel the odd urban property where you can have a great night without ever stepping outside. And while we’d never recommend skipping the urban exploration, you may find it harder to leave school than you ever thought possible.
- The saltwater soaking pool looks like it was dropped from an Italian villa, a ceramic rectangle surrounded by tropical plants in the location of the old teacher’s lounge. Guests can use it gratis from 8 a.m.-10:00 p.m., and neighborhood residents are also welcome for free until 6:30 p.m.
- The school’s old gymnasium has been converted into a movie theater, where you can catch second-run movies (think stuff that was in theaters or dropped on HBO Max a few months ago) almost every night. It also hosts live music, so check the hotel website ahead of your stay to see who’s playing. The theater is filled with plush couches and offers a full bar where you can order beers, cocktails and a menu of pizza and bar food to enjoy during the show.
- The Courtyard Restaurant sits in the Kennedy School’s old cafeteria, though, sadly, the hotel didn’t go all-in on school lunch cuisine and offer sloppy joes and square pizza on plastic trays. Instead, they’ve got a more mature selection of inventive American food like ahi tuna tacos, pulled-pork flatbreads, steaks and seafood — and maybe chocolate milk, if you ask nicely.
- Hidden behind a nondescript hallway door inside the school’s main building, you’ll find an epic, two-story drinking den crafted out of the school’s old boiler room. The appropriately named Boiler Room looks a bit like a cross between an Irish pub and a well-lit dungeon, with stone walls and old industrial fixtures that make it one of the most unique backdrops for a beer you’ll find in the 50 states.
- The upstairs Detention Bar is a former cigar bar named after the smokers who used to be frequent attendees. Now it serves beer, wine, cider, single malts and bourbons, but, as the website notes: “Though cigars were once allowed in this detention-like-no-other, we regret to inform you that they can no longer be smoked in detention. We still sell cigars, so take your wayward cigar-smoking ways outdoors to the front firepit area.”
- The Honors Bar is where cocktails are crafted with fresh-squeezed juice and classical music are the rewards for good grades.
- The Cypress Room is a plant-filled rum bar that’s about as close to a Hemingway-esque experience as you’re getting in Portland. You can sample rare and exotic rums from all over the world while surrounded by lush greenery and tropical reggae music on the stereo.
The Kennedy School also boasts its own onsite brewery set inside an old girl’s restroom. Concordia Brewery is a six-barrel brewhouse adorned in colorful murals of playful schoolgirls and is best known for their Yule Shoot Your Eye Out! IPA.