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The description of the plane shift spell (PHB, pg. 266) says:

You and up to eight willing creatures who link hands in a circle are transported to a different plane of existence. You can specify a target destination in general terms, such as the City of Brass on the Elemental Plane of Fire or the palace of Dispater on the second level of the Nine Hells, and you appear in or near that destination. If you are trying to reach the City of Brass, for example, you might arrive in its Streets of Steel, before its Gate of Ashes, or looking at the city from across the Sea of Fire, at the DM's discretion.

The spell's description singles out a location on a layer of the Nine Hells that is not the first (Avernus), which implies that you can use plane shift to teleport from another plane (i.e. not the Nine Hells) directly to a specific layer of the Nine Hells.

However, in the DMG (pg. 64), under the heading "The Nine Layers", it describes Avernus as follows:

No planar portals connect directly to the lower layers of the Nine Hells, by Asmodeus's orders. As such, the first layer of Avernus is the arrival point for visitors to the plane.

This implies that you cannot go directly to any layer of the Nine Hells other than Avernus. In the plane shift description, it says "you appear in or near that destination", which given this quote from the DMG, might mean that, because you might not be able to get directly to the second layer of the Hells, you arrive "near", meaning Avernus. The last sentence of my plane shift quote expands on the City of Brass example, but not the palace of Dispater example.

However, the DMG quote also describes portals specifically, so this might not apply to plane shift since it doesn't explicitly mention a portal.

Can you plane shift to any layer of the Nine Hells besides Avernus? In other words, does this DMG quote prevent you from plane shifting to, say, "the palace of Dispater on the second level of the Nine Hells"?

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Yes, Plane Shift can bring you to any layer of the 9 hells

Evidence from the Plane Shift spell

The spell Plane Shift specifically says that it can transport the party directly to the palace of Dispater, which is located in Dis, the second layer of Hell. Thus it can clearly bring you directly to the lower layers of Hell.

Getting the material components to enable this transition, however, will be difficult. To utilise the spell you require a tuning fork specifically attuned to the layer of Hell you want to plane shift to.

Finally, Plane Shift doesn't create a portal, it transports the people affected by the spell to a different plane of existence.

Contrast this with the 9th level Gate spell which specifically states:

You conjure a portal [...]

Even if Plane Shift did create a portal, the fact the spell text specifically says it can transport creatures to Layers other than the 1st Layer of Hell would be a perfect example of the specific beats general rule.

Evidence from the DMG

The DMG section on the Outer Planes has two big caveats that we can drive our caravans through down to the lower levels of the Nine Hells:

  1. It states (emphasis mine):

    Planar portals don't connect to the lower levels of the Nine Hells by Asmodeus' orders

    • If planar portals couldn't connect to the lower layers, there would be no reason for Asmodeus to make this order. As a result we infer two things:
      1. Asmodeus has told the other lords that they are not to allow the creation of planar portals on their layers (aside from Avernus).
      2. Planar portals can be connected to the lower layers...they just aren't created by the native denziens, who would likely work very hard to permanently close/guard any that did exist due to the aforementioned orders.
  2. The Infinite Staircase section states

    [...] on any given plane, there can be multiple doors to the Infinite Staircase, though entrances aren't common knowledge and are occasionally guarded by devas, sphinxes, yugoloths, and other powerful monsters

    • This is certainly one type of portal (using the literal meaning of the word portal to mean door) that connects different planes, which is explicitly designed to connect to every plane of existence.

The DMG also has a specific section on the Plane Shift spell (under Planar Travel), discussing it's limitations.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ There is also some material from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes which is of interest for this question, however I don't have the time right now to add it into my answer. I will do so when I get home later \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Oct 10 '18 at 11:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ You can't infer anything from Asmodeus's order except that it was a very effective order, since planar rulers can block portals. \$\endgroup\$ – user10063 Oct 10 '18 at 18:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user10063 sure you can. If planar travel to the lower levels wasn't possible by his force of will alone he wouldn't need to make an order. Thus you can infer that at some stage planar travel via portals must have been possible (necessitating the order). \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Oct 10 '18 at 18:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Asmodeus' orders in the Nine Hells are absolute. His will changes the laws of reality there. Planar travel between the Circles isn't like doing 50 in a 25 zone, its trying to go faster than light. \$\endgroup\$ – Dallium Oct 10 '18 at 20:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point with #1. To make a real world analogy, I could say that "Pharmacists in New York City do not sell LSD". That's true in a general and a regulatory sense, in that any pharmacist who did so would be seriously breaking the law as well as professional ethics, but that doesn't mean that someone with more money than sense, and plenty of underworld contacts, couldn't find a pharmacist willing to deal.... \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Nov 25 '18 at 21:30
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Yes you can.

You can Plane Shift to any location on a different plane of existence. The DMG specifically mentions portals, which are standard paths between planes.

With conflicting rules like this the general rule is specific beats general and as the Plane Shift spell lists Dispater as a specific example of possible locations it can be concluded that it is possible.

Of course your DM might rule otherwise.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "The DMG specifically mentions portals, which are [the] standard paths between planes.", I find this bit particularly helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Oct 10 '18 at 10:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am happy you found it usefull \$\endgroup\$ – Dinomaster Oct 10 '18 at 13:34
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Yes, because plane shift doesn't create a portal

From page 45 of the DMG:

"Portal" is a general term for a stationary interplanar connection that links a specific location on one plane to a specific location on another. Some portals function like doorways, appearing as a clear window or a fog-shrouded passage, and interplanar travel is as simple as stepping through the doorway. Other portals are locations—circles of standing stones, soaring towers, sailing ships, or even whole towns—that exist in multiple planes at once or flicker from one plane to another. Some are vortices, joining an Elemental Plane with a very similar location on the Material Plane, such as the heart of a volcano (leading to the Plane of Fire) or the depths of the ocean (to the Plane of Water).

Locating planar portals (and acquiring the knowledge or means to open them) is the single most common method of interplanar travel. DMG page 58:

Characters can also use plane shift to reach a different plane more directly. Most often, though, characters use portals—either a portal that links the two planes directly or a portal leading to Sigil, City of Doors, which holds portals to all the planes.

Which makes sense considering following rumors of a pre-existing portal is relatively more achievable for most characters than learning a 7th level spell is.

No planar portals connect directly to the lower layers of the Nine Hells, by Asmodeus's orders.

On the surface, this is a straightforward statement of fact: there is no planar portal in existence anywhere that connects another plane to the Nine Hells' lower layers. (Meaning any doorways into the extradimensional Infinite Staircase connecting the planes, for example, exist exclusively within Avernus.)

But it's also an allusion to an ability that Asmodeus has. This ability is more explicitly spelled out as a known limitation of the 9th level gate spell, which creates temporary portals:

Deities and other planar rulers can prevent portals created by this spell from opening in their presence or anywhere within their domains.

Even the ferries on the interplanar river Styx can't bypass Asmodeus's edict, as while it flows into the lower layers, any interplanar travel has to pass through the top layer, Avernus (DMG p58):

The Styx churns through the top layers of Acheron, the Nine Hells, Gehenna, Hades, Carceri, the Abyss, and Pandemonium.

When Asmodeus speaks of where portals are permitted to open in his domain, his word becomes law. As in a law of physics. For the vast majority of people without access to 7th level spells, that's enough to stop them from skipping the welcome mat at Avernus.

But planar rulers don't have any magically-enforced authority over unauthorized casting of plane shift. The requisite forked, metal rod attuned to the Nine Hells isn't necessarily extraordinarily difficult to create, but may by DM fiat require extensive research/adventure (DMG p46):

Crafting the fork is expensive (at least 250 gp), but even the act of researching the correct specifications can lead to adventure. After all, not many people voluntarily travel into the depths of Carceri, so very few know what kind of tuning fork is required to get there.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The River Styx does go through all of the layers of the Hells. the Monster Manual states, when talking about the Nine Hells: "The most expeditious means of doing so is the River Styx, which plunges ever deeper as it flows from one layer to the next. Only the most courageous adventurers can withstand the torment and horror of that journey." \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Oct 10 '18 at 19:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's right after the MM states "To reach the deepest layer of the Nine Hells, one must descend through all eight of the layers above it, in order." There is no way to use the Styx for interplanar travel directly to the lower layers, one has to enter Avernus first, which is what Asmodeus's edict is. Edited to clarify. \$\endgroup\$ – user10063 Oct 11 '18 at 16:18

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