Portland and Seattle are both truly awesome cities in the Pacific Northwest. They both have unique and vibrant cultures and populations that are growing rapidly and I’m actually a huge fan of them both. But how do these two cities compare?
If you’re thinking of either taking a city break or even moving to one of the cities and can’t decide between the two, here is my guide to the key differences between Portland in Oregon and Seattle in Washington…
Culture and Friendliness
I’ve spent a lot of time in both and both Portland and Seattle are very liberal cities. The main difference that I can see is that the culture in Seattle is slightly more libertarian while Portland has a greater emphasis on communitarianism.
Essentially, Portland residents are more about the collective than the individual. This means you find lots of co-op and co-housing arrangements with diffused responsibilities in the community.
I’ve always found the city is also really friendly which is typical of the Pacific Northwest. That said, Portlanders aren’t afraid to speak up about injustice. They were actually one of the first cities to protest over inequality and BLM.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Portland is among the highest ranking in terms of progressiveness in the United States.
Seattle, on the other hand, I find is slightly more individualistic and a little less friendly. These ‘independent’ streaks were seen in 2020 when protestors took to declare an ‘autonomous zone’ with no leaders. There’s also a widely-held belief that Seattle’s residents are somewhat standoffish, a phenomenon that has been referred to in the media as The Seattle Freeze.
In terms of laws and policies, both Seattle and Portland reflect these cultural differences. In Oregon, individuals don’t fill their cars with gas by themselves, while in Seattle, this law has never existed.
Portland also has extensive and varied public transport, unlike Seattle where individual cars are used much more.
Demographics and Diversity
Believe it or not, Portland is actually America’s whitest major city and one of the least diverse, so it doesn’t take a lot for Seattle to have more racial and cultural diversity. Considering how Portland has a progressive attitude toward politics, this may come as a surprise to some.
Seattle is home to large non-white populations. In King County, for example, there are more than half a million immigrants. A lot of Seattle’s recent population growth is due to immigration.
Unfortunately, though, Seattle is rivaling San Francisco with its record highs in terms of income inequality as a result.
Both Seattle and Portland have 0.6 million people (with Seattle having around 200,000 more). In terms of population density, however, there is a huge difference.
Portland has 1609 people per square kilometer, while Seattle has 2842 people per square kilometer. The difference of 1200 per square kilometer is actually quite significant.
Age-wise, residents of Portland have a median age of 35.9 years. Seattle has an older population with its median age of 37.1 years.
Ah, the weather! Everyone talks about the weather! The Pacific Northwest is not well-known for its amazing weather and both Portland and Seattle are stereotypical of this. The winter months are wet, dreary, and cool, and have very little sunshine from fall to spring. Portland is even known to have the odd winter ice storm.
Since Seattle has the Columbia Gorge, temperatures are slightly different.
Though both cities have an average annual temperature of 13.1°, the average maximum temperature in Portland is 1° C higher than that of Seattle (17.9° Vs 16.9°). In terms of minimum temperature, Portland’s is 1° C lower than Seattle’s (8.3° Vs 9.3°). This means that Portland has a greater temperature variation throughout the year.
Budget and Cost of Living
Both Portland and Seattle are expensive cities when compared with the average in the United States and I find this out every time I spend a lot of time in the cities! That said, Portland is more affordable because of its housing prices.
In Portland, you can expect to pay around $1,621.50 per month to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the city center. In Seattle, this would cost around $2,046.35 – a whopping $400 more!
That said, the average salary in Seattle reflects this higher cost of living with people earning an average $6,231.23 per month. Portland’s average salary is $3,981.24 – over $2,000 less.
Portland’s prices are generally lower too. One liter of milk costs around $0.82 in Portland compared with $0.96 in Seattle.
Fuel prices are similar too – in Portland, you’ll pay around $0.84 per liter and in Seattle, $0.91. While beer is similar in price ($3.08 in Portland and $3.16 in Seattle for 0.5L), the price of a McDonald’s meal is very different. For a Portland combo meal, you’ll pay $8 while the same in Seattle is $3 more.
For both cities, the cost of living is way above the national average apart from in Portland for utilities – these are below the national average.
One reason for Seattle being more expensive is due to the growth of its tech industry. Some believe that these “techies” (largely male tech workers) are part of the reason why Seattle’s culture is changing towards one that is less social and less culturally diverse.
This is my favorite subject when people ask me to compare the two. Well, I would say residents of both Portland and Seattle share a love of the outdoors. Both cities have lakes, mountains, and rivers but it’s only Seattle that has a seaside beach. For people who love the outdoors, Seattle is arguably better, especially if you want to go boating or find open water.
Seattle is the Pacific Northwest’s largest city and it’s significantly bigger than Portland. For people looking for a huge variety of nightlife, restaurants, activities, and events, Seattle is a great place to go.
It’s also been likened to San Francisco in certain areas with respect to its cultural variation and urban density in neighborhoods like Bellevue and Downtown Capitol Hill and I can personally see this point too. That said, I feel Seattle does seem more congested and crowded than Portland owing to its denser population.
Portland is, therefore, better for people seeking a less expensive and slower-paced life, while those seeking a metropolitan, fast-paced lifestyle would prefer Seattle.
In terms of analogies, Portland can be likened to college basketball, while Seattle is the NBA.
The land in Portland is less developed and I feel the city feels more ‘country’. People here seem more open to conversation and don’t move as hurriedly. Seattle also has much higher levels of stress.
Portland Vs Seattle: Transport and Traffic
For Portlandians, the average time spent on the commute is 26 minutes, which is in line with the national average for the United States. People in Seattle commute for around 27 minutes, making their journeys to work slightly longer than those in Portland.
In terms of transport methods, both cities have below-average numbers of people commuting to their place of work by car – and Portland residents are much more in favor of traveling by bicycle. Around 6.5% of Portland residents cycle to work, which is double that of Seattle.
The national figure is 0.6% so Portland is really ahead of the game in this regard. In fact, Portland has the highest percentage of people who commute by bike in the United States. There are 315 miles of cycle paths and bikeways making it easy to see the city by bike.
There is also the Seattle Center Monorail which takes you between lots of attractions in downtown Seattle, though is only around one mile long.
As for transportation in Portland, you’re spoilt for choice and I love that both cities have a huge variety of options. This city is ranked among the easiest cities to find your way around. Its transport system is state-of-the-art and its most famous public transport system is the MAX Light Rail.
This has 97 stations and 60 miles of track. It connects all of the major city and regional places, including the Portland International Airport (PAX).
Infrastructure-wise, Portland is better. Seattle has a canal cutting across the city which makes traveling between north and south quite a challenge. There are often lots of bottlenecks. Seattle is also hillier, which makes traveling more difficult.
However, another thing to consider is that Seattle is halfway between Portland and Vancouver and, therefore, has better access to areas of the Pacific Northwest.
Both cities have international airports but Seattle’s SeaTac airport has a wider selection of flights to international destinations compared to Portland.
In terms of safety, Portland is often considered one of the safest cities the U.S. has to offer.
While high levels of homelessness aren’t a guarantee for a higher crime rate, it does often have a correlation. In this respect, there is a bigger problem in Seattle compared to Portland. It could be that the high rental prices have something to do with this.
Attractions and Things to Do
In Seattle, you’ve got the Seattle Art Museum, the Olympic Sculpture Park, and the Space Needle. The Pike Place Museum is also worth a visit. This is a public market located by the water and I’m a big fan of this area, it’s a great place for foodies.
It is a traditional market that has forged connections between residents and farmers for generations. There are 80 restaurants at the market too and it’s on the doorstep of the Seattle Great Wheel.
Portland also has its fair share of interesting attractions. There are lots of unique areas and neighborhoods with huge bookstores and bizarre museums which I often spend time browsing.
Even though Portland is a large city, it has lots of outdoor spaces and green spaces to enjoy. These include the International Rose Test Garden,
Washington Park, and the Portland Japanese Garden. For restaurants and eateries, Portland is home to the famous Voodoo Doughnut. This establishment is full of surprises – you can have cereal, bubblegum, and candy-flavored treats alongside some more unusual ones like bacon!
Outdoors and Nature Attractions
I would say Seattle is a hiker’s paradise. It is home to the Olympic Hot Springs Trail, located in the Olympic National Park. It’s an ideal spot for beginners and children and there is a smattering of hot pools along the way.
Some of these get up to 118°F! For the more adventurous, Seattle has Mount Si and Mount Rainer. The former is a medium-difficulty hike while the latter is for the experts.
Mount Rainer is an active volcano. In the summer months, you’ll find it covered with wildflowers, while in winter, it is covered in snow. Snowshoes are a must for winter climbers!
Portland is also great for lovers of the outdoors. There are some wonderful waterfalls to be seen at Columbia River Gorge and Ridgefield Refuge is a lovely place to go bird watching. Forest Park and Mount Hood are great for hikers and bikers too. Whether going to Seattle or Portland, I certainly think the Pacific Northwest is among the most breathtaking and lushest areas in the world.
Creative Scene, music, and Neighborhoods
With its bearded, unicycle-riding, craft beer-loving crowd, Portland is an interesting city. In many ways, it’s a free-spirited and unconventional city where people are creative in their thousands.
There are many top writers, feminist authors, queer comedians, and compelling playwrights in the city. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Portland’s cultural scene has started to gain international recognition.
One of Portland’s biggest attractions is Powell’s City of Books, which I personally think speaks volumes about the culture and creative scene in the city.
This is no ordinary bookshop, Powell’s City of Books is the self-proclaimed largest bookstore in the world, taking up an entire block in the city. It has around one million different books. It’s no wonder, then, that National Geographic has mentioned Portland as one of the world’s ten best literary cities.
How does Seattle compare then? Can it compete with Portland’s expansive literary scene? I think it can. Seattle has plenty to offer in terms of the arts. There is a huge range of art galleries and museums that house fantastic installations and exhibitions. In terms of art, Seattle is home to the Seattle Art Museum.
This has some amazing installations, global collections, and temporary exhibitions. Emerging and new artists have their space at Henry Art Gallery, and the stunning Olympic Sculpture Park is a wonderful place to enjoy art outdoors.
Seattle also has a great theater scene that showcases Broadway hits, cabaret, circus performances, and contemporary pieces.
There are lots of different theaters including 5th Avenue Theater and Paramount Theater, which are two of the largest and oldest theaters in Seattle. If dance is what you’re into, Century Ballroom and the Pacific Northwest Ballet are excellent.
As far as music goes, Seattle is home to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Jimi Hendrix, so I definitely think it has more than its fair share of talent! There are many excellent music venues, including The Show Box, Neumos, and The Triple Door.
Notable Portland Neighborhoods
In Portland, the Mississippi neighborhood offers shops, music, and many popular bars and restaurants. It’s also home to Portland’s LGBTQ+ center.
For those who love culture and galleries, Pearl District is full of stylish eateries and shops and is lined with cobblestone streets.
I think Portland’s Chinatown is also a great experience with its bustling entertainment and famous Saturday Market. Downtown Portland is compact and doable by foot. It has lots of cultural offerings and green spaces as well as tax-free shopping.
Notable Seattle Neighborhoods
Seattle has been referred to as a “city of neighborhoods” as each corner has its own personality and style. It’s one of the fastest-growing U.S. cities. An obvious place to start is Downtown Seattle.
This center is very manageable geographically speaking. There are some great restaurants, designer stores, and quirky places like Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. Another great neighborhood to check out is Capitol Hill, which is up the hill towards the east of downtown. This is a great area for entertainment, so for people who like vibrance, this is where it’s at.
Pioneer Square and Chinatown are two smaller neighborhoods located right next to each other to the south of downtown. Pioneer Square is the center of the art scene in Seattle while Chinatown is more like Chinatown, Little Saigon, and Japantown all in one.
There is amazing food and wonderful shops like Kobo at Higo and Momo which I’d suggest visiting.
This is a controversial issue so I will have to tread carefully here. In Portland, homelessness is a big problem, and sadly with this comes strewn drug needles and garbage. Back in 2016, there was a shantytown of sorts spanning over 2 miles.
It contained almost two hundred tents and was home to around five hundred homeless people. Homelessness is also a problem in Seattle with estimates of almost twelve thousand homeless people living in the King County area alone. This area is home to 85% of the city’s homeless people.
The root causes in both cities are multifaceted and complex. These include addiction, mental health problems, poverty, and economic disparities, the criminal justice system, and racial disparities which is just very sad.
There is also a problem with young people exiting the foster care system and a lack of ongoing support. Of the two, Seattle is the most affected due to its higher cost of living, which makes living there unaffordable for many people.
Choosing between Portland and Seattle isn’t easy, I personally feel both cities have a huge amount to offer their visitors and residents. Although in a broad summary, I would say Seattle is better for people who want big-city amenities with a real metropolitan experience.
I think Portland is better for those who want a smaller city with a tight-knit community and a certain quirkiness that can’t be found elsewhere. For tight budgets and friendliness, choose Portland, for the hustle and bustle of a busy city, choose Seattle.
In summary, though, I honestly think that both cities are great places to live and visit, and each city has its good points and bad points.
These cities aren’t too far apart and it’s practically a direct route down the I-405 for about 175 miles, taking around two hours and forty minutes so you really can get the best of both worlds! Enjoy!
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Gary Nunn – Videographer, photographer and writer
Gary is an award winning full time professional photographer and videographer with too much wanderlust for his own good. Fueled 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 organizations, including GQ, BBC, London Fashion Week, Grazia, Sky, Metro, Vogue Italia. He specializing 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, travel, starting up new businesses, the ketogenic diet and Hungarian Vizslas, he also has a huge affection for Chicago, Bucharest, Scandinavia, Croatia and absolutely everywhere in Italy. Find Gary on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or his Website.
Hotel Reviewing Experience – Asked by many tourist boards and many high-profile travel brands to formally review hotels including Germany Tourist Board, Expedia, Eviivo, Visit Morocco, and Wild in Sight Safaris. Also travelled around the world scouting out and reviewing all the most unique hotels in the world, check out our Instagram page for photos. Listed as a top UK travel journalist.