Portland vs. Seattle: Which City Is Best?
Ah, the Portland vs. Seattle debate. Both cities are northwestern titans with their own staunch loyalists. But which is right for you?
In this post, we’ll give you an in-depth comparison of life in Seattle and Portland. We’ll cover climate, safety, culture and much more. This will help you decide which city you’d rather live in, either permanently or temporarily as a digital nomad.
Let’s dive in!
Portland vs. Seattle: Overview
Let’s begin by briefly getting you up to speed on the basics of each city’s history and current standing.
Portland is a major city in the U.S. state of Oregon. While the city we know today was formally founded in the mid-1800s, Upper Chinook Indians are believed to have lived there for centuries.
Looking at the city on the map, it’s not hard to see why it was such an obvious choice to inhabit. Portland lies along the Willamette River, which joins with the Columbia River and leads to the Pacific Ocean. This geography made Portland a prime transportation and shipping hub throughout history.
From the 1960s onwards, it has developed a reputation for its progressivism and counterculture.
With a population of 653,115, Portland is America’s 24th most populous city.
Just 174 miles from Portland, Oregon lies Seattle, Washington. According to The Seattle Times, it’s America’s northernmost city with a population of more than 500,000. In fact, Seattle lies further north than several of Canada’s largest cities, including Toronto and Montreal.
Like Portland, Seattle was also a port city founded in the founded in the mid-1800s. As North America’s fourth-largest port, Seattle has remained true to this history. The city is also the the largest in the Pacific Northwest region, with a population of 744,955 residents.
Seattle is known for many things. Perhaps chief among these, culturally speaking, is its prominence in the 1990s grunge scene, which produced bands like:
- Pearl Jam
- Foo Fighters
- Alice In Chains
Seattle vs. Portland: Direct Comparison
Both cities sound pretty cool, right? Well, let’s dive into some direct comparisons to help you choose just one.
Cost of Living
According to SmartAsset, the median cost of rent in Portland is as outlined below.
The average meal for two in a mid-range Portland restaurant costs $55, according to Numbeo.
A study by GOBankingRates.com found that you need a salary of about $60,000 to live comfortably in Portland.
As for Seattle, SmartAsset found the median cost of rent to be the following.
A meal at a mid-range restaurant for two in Seattle will cost you an average of $75, according to Numbeo.
Seattle Refined lists the salary needed to live comfortably in the city at just above $72,000. As you can tell, there’s a pretty drastic difference between the cost of living in Portland vs. Seattle.
While the winner of most comparison points in this article will be subjective, Portland is demonstrably cheaper and therefore friendlier to lower-income people.
That’s not the only criteria that matters, though, so let’s continue.
The Pacific Northwest region of North America is undoubtedly rainy.
Fittingly, both cities are comparable in terms of precipitation. Oregon Live found that from 2000 to 2014, Seattle received an annual average rainfall of 38.34 inches while Portland got 35.09 inches. The U.S. average is 30.21 inches.
In terms of sunshine, the cities are also not that different. Seattle has an average of 152 sunny days per year while Portland gets 144. Those are both well below the American average of 205 sunny days per year.
If you’re going to live in Portland or Seattle, you have to be okay with lots of rain and a lack of sunshine relative to other parts of the country.
As far as deciding between the two based on this criterion alone, it’s somewhat of a wash.
Overall, both cities can be considered as relatively safe compared to other cities in the United States. According to U.S. News, the rates of violent and property crime are for Portland and Seattle lower than the national average.
Having said this, there seems to be a recent sharp increase in crime and addiction problems in Seattle, especially downtown.
When it comes to Portland, crime is increasing as well, but by a very slight amount. To avoid sketchy areas, I would suggest you have a look at the up-to-date crime map of the Portland Police Bureau before moving to the city.
Recreation & Culture
There’s so much to say about the cultures and recreational activities found in these two cities. Let’s break this into a few categories.
Both Portland and Seattle are home to several major annual festivals.
Festivals in Seattle include:
- Ballard SeafoodFest
- Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair
- Capitol Hill Block Party
- Olympic Music Festival
- University District Street Fair
Some of Portland’s biggest festivals, meanwhile, are:
- PDX Adult Soapbox Derby
- Swift Watch
- Feast Portland
Some travel experts have described Portland as more “openly quirky” than Seattle. This goes back to Portland’s days as a hub for counterculture. In the 1960s, “hippies” (as they were referred to at the time) descended on Portland in the thousands. They used the city as a home base for their political activism, taking over local media outlets and staging strikes at Portland State University.
‘Psychedelic coffeehouses’ were a cultural mainstay back then and you’ll still see plenty of quirky events like Portland Psychedelic referencing the era.
Seattle has some quirky aspects to speak of as well (the Fremont Troll being one of them) but, again, these traits are generally believed to be much more visible in Portland.
Many foodies (like those at Thrillist) will tell you that Portland’s cuisine gets the upper hand. Portland is, after all, home to Feast, a massive food festival that is among the most acclaimed in the entire country. Even Seattle Magazine will attest to that!
Local culinary staples in Portland include Salt & Straw, an exotic ice cream shop, and Kim Jong Grillin’, a food truck that meshes Korean food and southern BBQ. If you’re looking for lots of up-and-coming restaurants, head to the Central Eastside Industrial District.
Seattle isn’t terrible when it comes to food, mind you. In fact, some critics describe it as the place to be if you’re a seafood lover, which should come as no surprise given Seattle’s modern role as a major port city. RockCreek Seafood & Spirits is a local favorite.
The general consensus, however, is that Portland is the better all-around place to be as a foodie.
Portland is ranked as America’s 5th most “fun” city in terms of nightlife, bar accessibility, and the cost of entertainment. Seattle is ranked way down at number 17.
Put simply, if you’re looking to get out and mingle with people, it’s hard to beat Portland.
On a related note, Portland is also ranked America’s most promiscuous city. Use that information as you please.
Seattle is nicknamed the Emerald City thanks to the lush evergreen forests that you can behold from atop landmarks like the Space Needle and Mount Rainier.
Portland, meanwhile, is known for its ski hills. Timberline Lodge is open year-round and has been a popular spot for more than eight decades.
Seattle does get a slight edge in this category due to its proximity to the Canadian border. You can easily make your way up to British Columbia within a couple of hours’ drive. Along the way, you’ll enjoy some of North America’s most beautiful stretches, such as the Chuckanut Drive roadway.
Best Time to Move
If you’re only looking to relocate temporarily, U.S. News ranks the best time to go to Portland as being from June to August, which is sunny and warm.
Weather-wise, Seattle is similar, with the best conditions being during the summer months.
Of course, both cities will be busy during these months given the major festivals and events that also take advantage of the great weather. This shouldn’t be a huge issue unless you’re highly introverted or have a hard time focusing on work when there’s lots of excitement around.
If you’re living in Portland or Seattle without a car, you’ll need to use either the TriMet or King Country Metro respectively.
Some critics say that Portland’s TriMet has fallen a long way in recent years, with Seattle’s transit overtaking it in terms of convenience.
Any growing city’s public transportation network needs to keep up with rising demand. Portland has arguably done poorly in this regard. Subway tunnel boring projects have stalled, resulting in huge cost overruns that undermine attempts at revitalization.
Seattle, meanwhile, has kept consistent with its upgrades. The local government has pumped billions of dollars into its transit, resulting in increased ridership. Features like preserved bike lanes and electric buses are the icing on the cake.
Suitability for Digital Nomads
If you’re looking for a place to work remotely, Portland arguably gets the upper hand.
As America’s leading counterculture city, Portland has also been very welcoming of the digital nomad lifestyle.
You’ll find tons of quirky coffee shops where you can meet people as passionate about what they do as you are. My Father’s Place, with its all-day breakfast, is also a great choice.
There’s also the fact that Portland is a much more affordable city. If you’re in the process of establishing a steady income as a digital nomad, you’ll likely find this much less stressful.
So, which city is best for you: Portland or Seattle?
While there are some clear categories in which one city edges out the other, this is, of course, subjective.
It’s hard to argue with the lower cost of living in Portland, however. Even though I have a reliable income, I’d much rather funnel money into my projects than pay higher rent.
As far as recreation and culture, I’m also a major foodie. This is perhaps the most important category for me when I consider visiting a city. That’s yet another reason Portland gets my pick.
Public transit is somewhat of a letdown in Portland, especially compared to Seattle. However, having lived in South America where transit isn’t the best, I can deal with that.
As a digital nomad, I also enjoy Portland’s quirkiness and history as a hub for counterculture. These characteristics have made it very accepting of unconventional working arrangements. You’ll find lots of fellow digital nomads and creative types to keep you company.