Portland vs Seattle: which is the best northwestern city for you?
Portland and Seattle, the stars of the US Northwest. These two beguiling cities couldn't be more different, even as they share a devotion to great coffee, cycling and living life outdoors – despite prodigious amounts of rain year-round.
Portland is loud and proud about the unique indie charms that set it apart from other faceless sleek urban environments – the focus on high-quality local cuisine that doesn't cost the earth, craft breweries whose renown spreads far beyond the city limits and an independent spirit that attracts like-minded people from all over the US.
On the other hand, it's hard to believe Seattle, the Pacific Northwest’s largest metropolis, was considered a ‘secondary’ US city until the 1980s, when a combination of bold innovation and unabashed individualism turned it into one of the tech era’s biggest success stories, thanks to homegrown icons like Microsoft and Amazon. It's renowned for celebrating over-caffeinated tech bros and serious musicians.
Buried in Portland’s DNA is a deep resentment that Seattle eclipsed it way back during the 1897 Klondike gold rush and only widened the gap since, especially with the tech boom. Meanwhile, Seattle casts a squinty eye on its precocious neighbor to the south – one that always seems to generate a buzz. Which is the better bet for travelers?
Seattle's sights versus Portland's nightlife
Portland has the pluck, Seattle has the size. Both prize their outdoors and passion for food and drink, all accented by offbeat individualism.
Portland prizes everything artisan
Downtown features parks lining the Willamette River. Summertime festivals are always a treat, especially the microbrew festival, which celebrated beers with flavor when the rest of the country was still drinking bland lager.
Neighborhoods are the soul of Portland, and visitors should prowl the commercial strips that give the city multiple beating hearts. The world-famous Powell's City of Books is not to be missed. N Mississippi Ave is a hot spot of trendy shops and eateries. Northeast is artsy NE Alberta St, a long ribbon of art galleries, boutiques and cafes. SE Hawthorne Blvd (near SE 39th Ave) is affluent-hippie territory, with gift stores, cafes, coffee shops and great bookstores. One leafy mile to the south, SE Division St has become a top dining destination, with plenty of excellent restaurants, bars and pubs.
Portland is nationally recognized for its food scene, with dozens of young top-notch chefs pushing the boundaries of global and regional cuisines and making the most of locally sourced, sustainably raised ingredients. On the other side of the spectrum, it is indisputably the country's strip club capital, with more clubs per capita than any other US city.
Drinking, whether it’s coffee or a craft brew, cider or kombucha, is practically a sport in Portland. In winter it’s a reason to hunker down and escape the rain; in summer, an excuse to sit outside and soak up the long-awaited sunshine. Whatever your poison, there’s bound to be an artisan handcrafted version of it here. And don’t miss the superb pinot noirs from the nearby Willamette Valley vineyards. Music, particularly indie rock, is one of Portland’s primary exports.
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Seattle is home to lots of world-class sights
Surprisingly elegant in places and coolly edgy in others, Seattle is notable for its strong neighborhoods, top-rated university and monstrous traffic jams. Although it has cultivated its own pop culture in recent times, it has yet to create an urban mythology befitting Paris or New York (...or even Portland), but it does have ‘the Mountain.’
Officially known as Rainier (efforts are currently being made to restore its original name of Tahoma), Seattle’s symbol is a 14,411ft mass of rock and ice, which acts as a perennial reminder that raw wilderness – and potential volcanic catastrophe – are never far away. It’s a heady sight for visitors, its look changing with every shift in the weather.
The historic waterfront and downtown are worth your time. You can’t help but feel the pull of the north as you gaze out over the chilly ferry-churned waters. Dip your finger into the culinary extravaganza of downtown’s Pike Place Market, a confederation of small-scale growers, hole-in-the-wall bakers, halibut-tossing fishermen, artisan cheesemakers and family-run fruit stalls. Look for fine bottles of wine from eastern Washington and across the border in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.
Start your neighborhood explorations in Ballard, an enclave of bars, breweries and pubs, if you want local gossip and unique libations of every stripe. Look out for historic century-old bars, modern cocktail lounges, inventive brewpubs and gastropubs with seasonal menus. Across the city, gritty clubs feature bands hoping to recapture the magic of nineties grunge. The only downside? Seattle's bars close notoriously early.
The winner: Seattle is the pick, simply because it has everything Portland has, only more so. The cities share many attributes, but your choices in Seattle are always greater and more diverse. One caveat: if you want to party all night long, Portland is your best bet.
Will I feel more welcome in Portland or Seattle?
If you’re comfortable in Portland, you’ll be comfortable in Seattle and vice versa. Both cities are welcoming to LGBTIQ+ travelers, and whether you’re flying solo or as part of a couple or family, you should feel at home in both. Still, the experiences aren't identical.
Find friends in Portland's local drinking spots
Portland’s neighborhood bars proudly wear the cliche ‘friendly.’ If you’re traveling solo, you can wander into an idiosyncratic neighborhood tavern and emerge hours later with a passel of friends for life. Couples can enjoy intimate date nights, but this is a place where you’re less likely to splash out on a big-ticket evening out.
Families who enjoy the outdoors will love the local culture, which celebrates hiking and cycling through the parks and natural places in and around the city.
Seattle is a perfect mix of indoor and outdoor activities
Neighborhood cafes, bistros and bars welcome solo travelers – on one of many wet days, you can hole up with new friends while sipping some very fine beers and cocktails. Seattle’s wealth of tech money also means that a couple looking for a memorable night out will be well catered for.
Outdoor adventure awaits everyone, including families. A web of long-distance hiking and cycling trails fan out around the extensive waterfront and nearby wilderness areas. When it’s time to duck out of the overcast sky, there are great museums for all ages and interests.
The winner: Seattle again gets the nod, for having most of Portland’s attributes and many more of its own. It also offers more options to live large.
Are Portland and Seattle still budget-friendly?
Prosperity has threatened the once budget-friendly reputations of Portland and Seattle, but important differences remain.
Portland is the home of thrift shopping
The Rose City has been able to hold onto its celebration of the masses because it isn’t home to an Amazon, Microsoft or Starbucks. (Nike is off in the western suburbs and is noticeably absent from the city’s vibe.) Although restaurants can be expensive, overall prices are cheap by West Coast standards. There's also a thriving thrift shop community to keep shopping costs down.
Seattle isn't as cheap as it used to be
As home to some of the world’s richest corporations, there’s a lot of money floating around. Any resident whose age is in the double digits can tell a story about how cheap something used to be. Still, those beguiling neighborhoods can be sanctuaries of the budget-minded. Look to Capitol Hill and Fremont as well as Ballard.
The winner: Portland wins this one. Many are the travelers who landed here for a day or two and found themselves still planning to leave two years later. Ask anyone you meet where to find budget-this or budget-that, and you’ll get an earful of money-saving advice.
What city is easier to get around?
Both Pacific Northwest cities cater to cyclists, have good public transit and are well-positioned for day trips into the magnificent beauty of the surrounding wilderness.
Portland has premium public transport
Portland has an excellent public transportation system, including the best streetcar and light-rail network in the country, and its love of all things cycling justifies its renown. But while you can easily get around town by foot, bike, bus and tram, when you venture further out, you’ll need your own wheels – and there’s a lot that’s worth the journey.
The fourth-largest river in the US by volume, the mighty Columbia runs 1243 miles from Alberta, Canada, to the Pacific Ocean. It cuts through the Cascade Mountains via the spectacular Columbia River Gorge east of Portland. Sheltering numerous ecosystems, waterfalls and magnificent vistas, the land bordering the river is protected as a National Scenic Area and is popular with windsurfers, cyclists and hikers. A highlight and huge tourist draw is Multnomah Falls.
Oregon’s highest peak, 11,240ft Mount Hood pops into view in Portland when you least expect it. Whenever there’s a sunny day, it exerts a magnetic tug on skiers, hikers and sightseers. In summer wildflowers bloom on the mountainsides, and hidden ponds shimmer in blue, making for some unforgettable hikes.
West of the city, Astoria watches over the turbulent waters where the Columbia meets the Pacific. Heading south is one alluring beach after another.
Plan to bring your car to Seattle
Despite the frequent rain and hilly terrain, cycling is a major form of both transportation and recreation in the Seattle area. Public transit is serviceable but suffers from a few missed opportunities at expansion decades ago.
Like much of the rest of the US, away from the metro region, you’ll need a car. A prime destination is the remote Olympic Peninsula, with its rare and endangered wildlife and dense primeval forest. The peninsula’s roadless interior is largely given over to the notoriously wet Olympic National Park, which attracts hardy hikers to its spectacular trails year-round.
The San Juan Islands comprise 172 landfalls, but unless you’re rich enough to charter your own yacht or seaplane, you’ll be restricted to seeing the big four – San Juan, Orcas, Shaw and Lopez Islands – all served daily by public ferries (which you still need a car to reach). The islands are famous for their tranquility, whale-watching opportunities, sea kayaking and general non-conformity.
The winner: Portland edges Seattle on this one. The Rose City has better public transit, and it's more bike-friendly; plus, the sights up the Columbia Gorge are compelling.
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