Seattle vs Portland: Which Pacific Northwest City is Best?

Seattle v Portland

Seattle and Portland are two darlings of the Pacific Northwest. Both cities feature vibrant and unique cultures as well as rapidly growing populations. But which one is right for you? Let’s take a deep dive and analyze some of the differences between Portland and Seattle. 

Culture

While Seattle and Portland are both overwhelmingly liberal, Portland is more communitarian while Seattle’s culture has a more libertarian emphasis. Basically, people in Portland believe more in the power of the collective rather than the individual. As a result, you’ll find plenty of co-housing and co-op living arrangements where responsibilities are diffused throughout the community.

Portland is also a very friendly place. While it’s known for being a hipster mecca, the people of Portland exude the stereotypical friendliness that one finds in the Pacific Northwest. But despite their friendliness, Portlandians will still strongly speak out when they sense injustice. In fact, Portlandians are often the first to protest over topics pertaining to inequality and the city has been nicknamed “Little Beirut”. Portland notably features one of the highest concentrations of progressives in the country.

Meanwhile, Seattle is perhaps a less friendly and more individualistic place. Seattle’s independent leanings were put on full display in Summer 2020 when protestors declared a part of Seattle as a self-governing “Autonomous Zone” without any official leaders. But perhaps this independence has its costs, as Seattle has a reputation for somewhat standoffish people who are not very friendly (AKA “The Seattle Freeze”).

You could even make the case that some of these cultural differences have had an impact on public policy. Historically in Oregon, people could not pump their own gas. The primary argument made in favor of this arrangement is to support the livelihoods of gas station attendants. Seattle features no such law, indicating that Seattle values independence more than Portland. The City of Portland also features superior public transportation when compared to Seattle, which is another sign of its greater community focus.

One thing people from both Seattle and Portland share is a love for the outdoors. While the Pacific Northwest doesn’t always deliver the best weather for outdoor activities, both destinations feature a population that loves to stay active. But if you really love the open water or boating, Seattle is probably your best bet as Portland only has a few rivers that pale in comparison to the Puget Sound.

Over the past few decades, Seattle has seen a proliferating number of “techies”, a group of affluent and mostly male technology workers. Some have felt that this group of transplants has produced some negative consequences. Examples of these complaints include rising housing costs, lack of cultural diversity, and lackluster social integration. Some have even boldly proclaimed that “Seattle is dead and Amazon killed it”. While that’s hyperbole, one should know that the tech industry is changing and shaping Seattle’s culture in a way that is not happening in Portland.

Lastly, Portland is much weirder than Seattle. With an unofficial motto of “Keep Portland Weird”, Portlandians embrace their eccentric tastes and interests. For instance, in Portland, you’ll find events like the PDX Adult Soap Box Derby, the World Naked Bike Ride, and glow in the dark mini-golf. Portland’s weirdness has also been extensively parodied in the television show Portlandia.

Downtown Seattle

Cost of Living

Let’s be honest: neither city is cheap to live in. But Portland is more affordable than Seattle, mainly because of more affordable housing. Here’s a breakdown of the cost of living comparison using WolframAlpha’s cost of living index, where a score of 100 represents the national average:

As you can see, housing costs are the biggest difference. For reference, a home that costs $500,000 in Portland will cost over $635,000 in Seattle. Both cities have become more expensive in recent years, but Seattle’s cost increases have been outpacing Portland:

You’ll notice that historically Seattle has only been marginally more expensive than Portland. But in recent years Seattle’s costliness has disproportionately risen. This is largely because of the growth of Seattle’s technology industry.

Portland OR SIgn

Quality of Life

As the biggest city in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle is significantly larger than Portland and therefore features a larger selection of restaurants, nightlife, events, and things to do. Seattle also features certain neighborhoods (like Downtown Capitol Hill, and Bellevue) that draw comparisons to San Francisco in terms of urban density and cultural variation. But Seattle’s denser population also makes the area feel much more overcrowded and congested than Portland.

Thus, the biggest difference is whether you want a slow-paced and less expensive life (Portland) or a fast-paced metropolitan lifestyle (Seattle). To use a sports analogy, Portland is college football whereas Seattle is the NFL. Don’t take this as a criticism, some people prefer the uniqueness and excitement that college football brings!

Portland definitely feels a bit more country than Seattle, where land is less developed and people aren’t rushed and more open to conversation. It should come as no surprise that Seattle is a more stressed city than Portland.

Jobs

Seattle is a significantly bigger city than Portland and features a more robust job market. In general, it will be more difficult to find a job in Portland compared to Seattle. And in some industries (like technology) it becomes very pronounced.

Seattle especially dominates Portland in terms of technology jobs. While Portland has a burgeoning tech industry, there’s simply no comparison when Seattle features companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. 

Portland Traffic

Traffic

Traffic is less severe in Portland than in Seattle, as the average driver in Portland spends 66 hours a year in traffic compared to 78 hours in Seattle. This is partly because Portland is less hilly and isn’t surrounded by water as much. See, Seattle is an isthmus with a canal that cuts across from the north. This makes traffic going from North to South quite terrible because the bridges across the canal create bottleneck points. Portland is the clear winner in terms of mass transit infrastructure.

The traffic is bad enough in Seattle that there’s a general rule of thumb to live within 5 miles of where you work if you’re living close to Downtown Seattle.

Demographics & Diversity

Seattle features a greater amount of cultural and racial diversity than Portland. Portland is the whitest major city in America and is consistently ranked as one of the least diverse big cities in America. To some, this is a little bit shocking considering Portland is a hub for progressive politics.

Seattle, on the other hand, features sizeable populations of non-white residents. There are over 500,000 immigrants in King County and much of the region’s population growth in recent years can be attributed to immigrants.

Seattle has also been hitting record highs for income inequality and is beginning to rival San Francisco. It’s also been rising in Oregon as well, but at a slower pace.

Seattle weather

Weather

Seattle and Portland both feature climates that are stereotypical of the Pacific Northwest: cool, wet, and dreary during the winter. Perhaps the only difference is that Seattle’s weather is a bit cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. This is because Portland is located at the outflow of the Columbia Gorge. Portland also features the occasional ice storm in the winter.

Before moving to either city, you should ensure that you can handle this weather. Are you going to have a problem with very little sunshine from October to May? Do you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder? Seasonal Affective Disorder impacts a lot of people in the Pacific Northwest 

Here’s a chart demonstrating some of the climate differences between Seattle and Portland:

Taxes

Most people probably aren’t thinking of taxes when deciding between Seattle and Portland, but there are some pretty big differences. Mainly, there’s an inverse relationship between each state’s income and sales tax. For example, Oregon features a 0% sales tax but a 9% income tax. Meanwhile, Seattle features a 10.1% sales tax and a 0% income tax:

Essentially, Washington taxes consumption and Oregon taxes income. This can make a big difference if you’re not receiving a large income or if you save (rather than spend) much of your income. 

Many people have claimed that Washington’s taxation system is regressive, especially when compared to Oregon. But Seattle voters have consistently rejected any attempts to institute a state income tax. 

Other Things to Consider

  • Seattle is halfway between Vancouver and Portland and offers better access to the Pacific Northwest.
  • Portland is often described as a smaller, tighter-knit, and more “weird” version of Seattle.
  • Portland is considered one of the safest cities in America.
  • The museum scene in Seattle is considered to be superior to Portland’s offerings.
  • There are a total of 8 major professional teams in Seattle and only 3 in Seattle. Seattle has an advantage with football (Seattle Seahawks) and Portland has an advantage with basketball (Portland Trail Blazers).
  • Seattle features more prevalent homelessness than Portland.
  • As you might expect, SeaTac Airport features a broader selection of international flights than Portland International Airport.
  • The microbrewery scene in Portland is superior to Seattle; you can thank the hipsters for that!

Conclusion

Honestly, choosing either city depends on your desired lifestyle and budget. Here’s our best attempt to broadly summarize the case for each city:

Choose Seattle if: You love big-city amenities and want a true metropolitan experience despite the higher cost of living or if you work in tech.

Choose Portland if: You love a tight-knit, mid-sized city that has some weirdness to it and a modest cost of living.

Hopefully, this helps clear up some of the distinguishing differences between Seattle and Portland. But in the end, neither choice is bad and a high quality of life can be found in both cities.

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