Portland and San Francisco are two of the most popular destinations for people in the US who are looking to relocate to the Pacific Northwest. These two cities are both known to have very culturally diverse communities and are both very populous as well. They are not that far from each other either but they do have a number of striking differences. A closer look at these differences will help you decide as to which city would be the better choice for you.
Portland vs. San Francisco: Culture and Friendliness
Anyone who comes to Portland will easily see that this is a very friendly city where the locals are very welcoming to visitors and would talk to strangers like they have known each other all their lives. It is technically a city but the community vibe is very similar to that of a small town. For example, if you are new to the area, the cashier at the local supermarket would probably introduce herself to you and welcome you to town.
San Francisco is not that different. While strolling on the streets, don’t be surprised if people smile at you, and maybe even nod in greeting and ask how you are doing today. It is perfectly common for strangers to offer to help you carry heavy luggage out of the sincerity of their hearts and they will absolutely refuse to accept a tip even if you offer.
Almost everyone in both of these places has a natural love for the outdoors because why not? There are so many beautiful mountains, lakes and rivers in the area where people often go to ski, hike, windsurf, or bike.
In terms of population, the difference is not very big with San Francisco’s 0.8 million compared to Portland’s 0.6 million. But when it comes to population density, it is decidedly a lot more crowded in San Francisco with more than 6,600 people per sq. km. compared to less than 1700 people per sq. km. in Portland.
This is due largely to the constant influx of immigrants to the city brought about by the rapid growth of the tech industry. San Francisco has a much more racially diverse population than Portland, where whites make up the majority of the population. While the diversity does have its benefits, it is also one of the major causes of the growing problem of income inequality in the city.
Both cities have relatively young populations. The median age in Portland is 38.5 years while San Francisco residents have a median age of 35.9 years.
Portland vs. San Francisco: Weather
Although San Francisco does have a lot in common with Portland, Seattle and the rest of the Pacific Northwest in terms of culture and politics, it is still more So Cal in terms of geography and climate. It is really more of a West Coast city and this is evident from the weather in the region, while Portland has the typical weather of the PNW.
San Francisco gets a lot more sunshine throughout the year and just about half the number of rainy days that Portland gets. It never snows in San Francisco but Portland does occasionally get some ice storms.
It’s pretty interesting though that Portland gets more extreme temperature than San Francisco, with warmer summers and colder winters. The average summer temperature in San Francisco is 67° Celsius while Portland gets a little toastier at an average of 81° Celsius in July. Winters are colder in Portland at 36° Celsius compared to the January average of 46° Celsius in San Francisco.
With all weather factors taken into consideration, San Francisco gets a 13.3% higher rating than Portland in the Best Places comfort index where it actually ranks 6th among the major US cities.
Portland vs. San Francisco: Budget and Cost of Living
There is no contest at all when it comes to cost of living – San Francisco is way more expensive than Portland across all aspects. In housing alone, the average home cost in San Francisco is a staggering $1,378,300 compared to only $419,600 in Portland. Of course, both of these are significantly higher than the US average home cost of $231,200.
Food is also cheaper in Portland. An ordinary lunch would cost you about $13.40 in the Rose City while a similar meal would cost more than $16.20 in San Francisco. A McDonald’s meal is almost $2 more expensive in San Francisco than in Portland. Even a Pepsi is pricier by about 50 cents in San Francisco.
When it comes to groceries, practically everything is still cheaper in Portland. The price of a quart of milk is only $0.88 versus $1.24 in SF, bread is $2.75 compared to $3.88 and a kilo of potatoes is only $1.67 in Portland versus $3.24 in SF.
In some aspects, the price differences are much more evident, like for gym memberships. A one-month membership fee costs $36.70 in Portland compared to a whopping $86.90 in San Francisco.
There are some areas though where you need to spend more in Portland, like for private school tuition fees, doctor’s visits, and utilities like electricity, heating and water.
Portland vs. San Francisco: Lifestyle
Portland is considered to be a progressive city and the people are highly liberal. There is a strong inherent concern for the environment and it comes very naturally for people to do things such as recycling and caring for the surroundings. The use of plastic bags is not allowed in the city and people will be very unimpressed if you so much as leave a candy wrapper lying around.
Similarly, there is also a strong liberal political climate in San Francisco. The people are very open to just about anything and it would take a lot to shock a local. If you are a first-time visitor, you might have to prepare for culture shock because you will likely see all kinds of strange things in the city that are considered perfectly normal. This is a place where everyone will fit in perfectly – the more different you are, the better.
More than 75% of the residents of San Francisco are not natives. Many are immigrants from Asia and more than 100 languages are spoken in this city. It is really just a rich and beautiful hodgepodge of international cultures that is very enriching, educational and entertaining.
There is a plethora of outdoor activities that you can enjoy whether you are in any of these cities. San Francisco, however, has the advantage of having a seaside beach.
Although the typical activities in both cities are actually very similar, the stark difference is that everything is much more expensive and faster-paced in San Francisco. Because of this, Portlanders are typically much more relaxed and easygoing, compared to the often harried days of people living in San Francisco.
Portland vs. San Francisco: Attractions and Things to Do
The geographical location of San Francisco makes beach activities much more accessible so if you like the sea and the sand, this would be a huge factor. If you want to enjoy the standard tourist experience, you should definitely see the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.
One of the positive effects of the rich cultural diversity in San Francisco is the abundance of leisure activities and attractions. For instance, it has an astonishing 48 museums compared to only 22 in Portland. It also has 2 major sports facilities and it has even hosted the FIFA World Cup.
And of course, they have the Golden Gate Park which is a world-renowned tourist attraction, attracting over 24 million visitors annually. Whether you want to hike through the redwoods, bike through the natural trails or have a picnic by one of the many lakes, this park will not disappoint.
Portland, on the other hand, has just as many natural attractions to offer, such as the Forest Park which is perfect for jogging, cycling and hiking. There are also the Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden. Avid shoppers also have a lot to look forward to when visiting Portland. The Saturday Market is actually the biggest fair for arts and crafts in the country, and you can definitely score some amazing items here. Powell’s City of Books is a haven for book lovers and the Portland Art Museum will certainly feed your appetite for culture and the arts.
Portland vs. San Francisco: Creative Scenes and Neighborhoods
Portland has gained a reputation for being unconventional, creative and even weird in a positively interesting way, and this can be attributed to the growing population of talented and culturally diverse people that make up its communities. The city is brimming with world-class literary talent, exceptionally hilarious comedians, young inspired musicians and a variety of performing artists.
Likewise, San Francisco is also a very conducive environment for the artistically inclined. With their easy acceptance for the unique and different, as well as the frequent art and music festivals that are open to the public, it is positively easy to flourish as an artist in this town.
Notable Portland Neighborhoods
There are over 90 official neighborhoods in the city and many of these are definitely worthy of exploring. North Portland boasts of a vibrant assortment of bars, restaurants, boutiques and a very active LGBTQ+ center in the Mississippi neighborhood. If you prefer the outdoors, you can head to St. Johns and experience nature in some of the city’s gorgeous parks.
The more artistically inclined Portland visitor would appreciate a visit to the Alberta Arts District in the Northeast quadrant with its abundant galleries and amazing street art. A similar neighborhood can be found in the Southeast if you head to Hawthorne Boulevard, where you can visit vintage stores and support local artisans and their creative products.
Notable San Francisco Neighborhoods
Cultural diversity is one of the most notable features of San Francisco and this is quite apparent in the city’s varied neighborhoods. There are a few neighborhoods that represent just about all demographics in the region. The Castro, to begin with, is the ultimate community for gays and lesbians that embody a large percentage of the San Francisco population. This is definitely the place to go to if you are seeking an alternative lifestyle.
Mission District is made up mostly of immigrants from Mexico and other South American and Central American nations. It is called such because it was established in 1776 shortly after Mission Dolores was completed. Visiting this community will certainly fill your appetite not just for Latino cuisine but for music and the arts as well.
San Francisco is one of the most diverse cities in the country and right at the center of this diversity is the Fillmore District. Today, the residents of this neighborhood are mostly African American but in the 1920s, it was home to thousands of Japanese Americans. Their numbers have diminished after World War II but Japantown is still very much alive.
Another very interesting neighborhood that you should check out is Haight Ashbury with all its quaint shops and boutiques of vintage clothing and other items. Remnants of the hippie culture of the 1960s can still be seen in the décor and overall vibe of the community.
If you want to get a feel of Italy, just head to North Beach where you can sample a vast array of delectable Italian cuisine or take a moment to meditate at the Saints Peter and Paul Church or the Italian Cathedral. On the other hand, if you want to join some Vietnamese festivities or immerse yourself in Southeast Asian culture, Little Saigon would be a good place to visit. And of course, who could forget San Francisco’s Chinatown, which is one of the largest Chinese communities in the West.
Portland vs. San Francisco: Transportation and Traffic
The easiest way to explore and move around San Francisco is by using the public transportation system. The city is well-known for its history of street cars and cable cars, which you should definitely ride even if you don’t really have to go anywhere. You can also take the bus or train. It is notable to mention that San Francisco is one of the rare cities in the world where electricity-powered buses have actually become the norm.
Traveling around in Portland takes less time. This is partly because of the lower population density and partly because of the city’s smaller area. It is also interesting that while a single transport ticket is cheaper in Portland at $2.50 compared to the $3 of San Francisco, the monthly public transport ticket in Portland is $100 whereas in San Francisco, you only need to pay $82.
A key difference that puts San Francisco one step ahead is that they have an excellent bike-sharing system in place. There are a few areas in Portland that are very bike-friendly like the Foster-Powell neighborhood in the Southeast but this is something that has yet to be introduced in Portland on a larger scale.
Portland vs. San Francisco: Crime
The crime rates in both Portland and San Francisco are both significantly higher than the US average. This is an increasing cause for concern since the numbers seem to be increasing in recent years.
San Francisco, in particular, has very disturbing crime data. The latest reports from the FBI show that for every 1,000 residents in San Francisco, there were 64.64 crimes committed. Of these, 6.91 were violent crimes while the rest were property crimes. If you live in this city, you have a 1 in 145 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime, which includes murder, rape, robbery and assault. You also have a 1 in 18 chance of becoming a victim of property crime
Portland is not that far behind. The latest crime statistics for the city show that for every 1,000 residents, there had been 5.52 violent crimes and 53.48 property crimes that had been committed. Your chances of becoming a victim in Portland are 1 in 181 for violent crime and 1 in 19 for property crime.
Portland vs. San Francisco: Income
Income is one of the aspects in which there is a rather glaring difference between the two cities. According to the latest data, the average household income in Portland is $78,439. This is actually not bad at all and it is considerably higher than the national average of $68,703 but it does pale in comparison to the $114,696 that the average household in San Francisco earns in a year.
This is really not that surprising when you see just how work-focused the people of San Francisco can be. Most of them are in the tech industry and it’s quite apparent that they are very committed to their profession. Even in social settings, conversations tend to open up with where one works and it all revolves around career.
To better illustrate just how rich San Francisco residents have become, recent statistics show that one out of every 11,600 residents of the city is now a billionaire. As of today, Portland does have one billionaire but it’s going to be a tough ride if they want to catch up with San Francisco.
Portland vs. San Francisco: Social Issues
Portland’s homeless problem is the worst in the entire country as of today. The local government has been trying different approaches to solving the problem, like instituting the safe sleep policy, but the problem has continued to get worse in recent years. It has also led to the rise in crime, drug use and garbage all over the city.
You would think that for such an affluent city, San Francisco would not have homelessness issues but that is not the case at all. Recent data shows that there are over 10,000 homeless people in San Francisco, more than 90% of which are unsheltered.
Another social problem that Portland is facing today is overcrowding. The population has been increasing and this has led to more crowded neighborhoods, schools and even roads. The traffic jams at the freeways have been getting worse in recent years. The government has been investing a lot in improving the public transportation systems but they are not building new freeways and this is probably what the people need more now.
Portland vs. San Francisco: Final Thoughts
Both Portland and San Francisco have their pros and cons and they both certainly have amazing, unique features to offer. The cost of living is much lower in Portland so that’s a huge plus for someone with a so-so income but it does rain most days of the year and that can get really depressing, unless you can love puddles. On the other hand, San Francisco has more sunshine and there are a lot of fabulous entertainment options but just about everything is way more expensive, which can be stressful unless you easily earn 6 digits.
At the end of the day, it will ultimately be a personal choice. You have to consider your own circumstances and your own needs. Only you can decide which between the two cities would be the better place for you to call home.
Gary is an award winning full time professional photographer and videographer with too much wanderlust for his own good. Fuelled by strong coffee, you’ll often find him wandering well off hiking trails in search of interesting photographic subjects or scenery to video. Self taught and with the use of pioneering digital techniques, he quickly built up a strong client base and has worked with many prestigious organisations, including GQ, BBC, London Fashion Week, Grazia, Sky, Metro, Vogue Italia. He specialising in evocative images of people, places and cinematic videography and his goal is to make the viewer look twice and engage. As well as a penchant for good design, the ketogenic diet and Hungarian Vizslas, he also has a huge affection for Chicago, Bucharest, Scandinavia, Croatia and absolutely everywhere in Italy. Find him on Instagram @garynansome, Twitter @garynansome and his website https://garynunn.co.uk/