Top Literary Cities in the U.S.

Gabriella Tutino


What determines a city as ‘literary?’ It’s not enough to have a large library, unique bookstores, or be the birthplace of a famous writer. Nor is it enough to be one of the top literate cities in the United States  Most literary cities have a strong writing program at one of their numerous colleges and universities, as well as bookstores and institutions hosting event after event. If anything, a literary city is a blend of the historical, cultural, and modern parts of literature, encouraging and inspiring future generations to appreciate and take part in the literary world.

Below are a handful of popular literary cities (besides New York City) in the U.S.:


Iowa City, IA

One of Iowa City’s literary claims is its strong writing programs:  the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (Flannery O’Connor graduated from here), the International Writing Program, and the nation’s leading non-fiction writing program -- to name a few. In addition, Iowa City is the only U.S. city that is a designated “City of Literature” by UNESCO (the others are all international), meaning the city promotes and encourages diverse literature and literary events. Other programs that solidify Iowa City as a literary city: Poetry in Public, which highlights local writers and displays their work on buses and in parks.


Washington, D.C.

The Library of Congress, the world’s largest library,  resides in the capital city with over 158 million items—36 million of which are cataloged books and 69 million of which are manuscripts. On top of that, D.C. also has the Folger Shakespeare Library, a haven for the Bard’s biggest fans. The city boasts multiple bookstores—Politics & Prose being the most famous—and has many reading series, poetry festivals and workshops as yearly staples. Busboys and Poets (whose name is a nod to Langston Hughes) is a restaurant-lounge-bookstore-event space that hosts poetry readings, slams, open mic nights and panels. The Poetry Foundation also holds tours in D.C. (as well as in Chicago and NYC) that highlight areas relevant in the lives of poets past and present such as Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and Myra Sklarew.


Atlanta, GA

Margaret Mitchell put Atlanta on the literary map, when she penned her epic novel Gone With the Wind, but the city has more to offer than Southern Belles and top-notch barbeque. There are a variety of writing programs, reading series, bookstores, and publishers for literati. Emory University was named the #1 Best American College for Writers in 2011,  and budding writers can get published in The Atlanta Review; visit the Georgia Center for the Book; or attend Dragon Con Atlanta or the Atlanta Queer Lit Festival.



San Francisco, CA

October 7, 1955: Allen Ginsberg reads his poem ‘Howl’ for the first time in public at Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. This moment is credited as the birth of the Beat Generation. Besides this pivotal event in literary and U.S. history, San Francisco was also home to many other writers, journalists, and editors including Robert Milne, Herb Caen and Alice B. Toklas. The West Coast’s oldest library also calls San Francisco home—the Mechanic’s Institute Library was founded in 1854 for out-of-work gold miners. Today, the city by the bay is still a hub of literary activity. David Egger’s nonprofit organization, 826 Valencia, assists students and teachers with their writing.  Residents and visitors also have the city’s annual literary festival LitQuake, which gave birth to the LitCrawl. Nearby U.C. Berkeley also boasts a top-rated English Lit. department, second only to Yale, and the anchor of the literary scene in S.F. is still City Lights Bookstore, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s unique collection of books in North Beach.


Chicago, IL

One of Chicago’s literary festivals is the Printer’s Row Lit Fest, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The festival started as a way to draw crowds to Printer’s Row neighborhood, which was Chicago’s bookmaking center, and is now considered one of the biggest free literary events in the Midwest (think panels, bookstalls, lectures, and reading). Chicago is the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, and home to the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Chicago is also home to Quimby’s, an indie bookstore that specializes in independently published books, zines, and comics—as well as the Myopic Books Poetry series. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs has held its’ writing conference in Chicago three times in the past 10 years.


Boston, MA

Boston may be primarily known for the American Revolution, but it was and still is a great literary city. Boston was home to famous writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Sylvia Plath. The city has a thriving literary scene with multiple reading series: there’s the New England Poetry Club, which is the oldest reading series in the U.S; the Boston National Poetry Month Festival in April and the Boston Book Festival in October. There are a few literary groups that meet as well, such as the Boston Haiku Society and Bagel Bards, where members get together and give each other feedback as well as have readings. Library and bookstore-wise, there’s the Boston Athenaeum (its collections numbers more than half a million volumes), the Cambridge Public Library, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, and Lame Duck Books, which specializes in rare literature. Currently, independent writing center Grub Street won a planning grant from the Massachussets Cultural Council to create a literary district in Boston. If they succeed, it would be the U.S’ first literary district.


Portland, OR

Nowadays, Portland is known as the home to the IFC comedy skit series ‘Portlandia.’ The city is as quirky and charming as portrayed, and it also has a big literary presence. First off, the ‘feminist bookstore’ does exist in Portland—In Other Words is a nonprofit, feminist community center with a bookstore for a storefront, a lending library and an event space. They’re stocked with mostly queer and feminist literature. Powell’s City of Books is one of the biggest independent bookstores: it has four floors with color-coded rooms, has its own Rare Books room and takes up an entire city block. Portland also has plenty of resources for writers: The Writer’s Dojo offers workshops and memberships with access to the space, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center is a must for the production of zines, books, comics and more. Reading series include the Portland Arts & Lectures and the Mountain Writers Series. To complete a literary stay, there’s the Bedside Book Package at the Heathman Hotel, which has over 2000 autographed books for guests to borrow.



Author Bio:

Gabriella Tutino is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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Stephen Cummings (Flickr); dewitahs (Flickr); Wikipedia Commons
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