Although 174 miles and a state line technically separate them, many people lump Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, together as Northwestern cities with similar traits and qualities. Many people who are drawn to one are also drawn to the other. However, while both cities have that unique Pacific Northwest vibe going on, they are headed in directions in terms of their economic, cultural and social development. Let’s take a closer look at how, and how people considering moving to one of these cities can decide between the two.
Demographically, both cities are similar. With a population of about 725,000, Seattle has a 10 percent edge over Portland’s population of around 647,000. The average age, ethnic origins and other census statistics for these two cities don’t present any major differences either. However, while both cities have suburbs and are close to other major cities, Seattle has a large metropolitan area thanks to nearby cities such as Bellevue and Tacoma. By contrast, Portland feels much more suburban around its edges.
Both cities enjoy mostly moderate summer and winter temperatures. However, Seattle has better air quality and fewer toxic clean-up sites, while Portland enjoys better water quality.
Seattle and Portland both have a lot to offer in terms of natural attractions, museums and other places to go. The downtown shopping scenes in both cities have plenty of local color, including Powell’s Books in Portland, and Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. Unsurprisingly, you can get great coffee in both cities, though Seattle is better known for it, and the beer, bar and restaurant scenes are vibrant and unique in both cities.
Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square is a great place to catch performances by Tibetan and Persian artists, for example, or even learn how to make your own terrarium. Seattle’s Pioneer Square bills itself as the city’s original neighborhood and is the starting point for many city tours, as well as the location of many festivals and concerts.
Although both cities are near the water, Seattle is located on Puget Sound’s Elliott Bay, and also touches Lake Union, Lake Washington and Green Lake. This gives locals and tourists an impressive array of water-related opportunities, from whale-watching cruises to leisurely afternoons on the nearest lake. In Portland, the Willamette River and Columbia River provide scenic views and a chance to live on or near the water.
For hikers and nature enthusiasts, Mt. Rainier, visible on clear days, is just 54 miles away outside Seattle. Meanwhile, Mt. Hood, 50 miles from Portland, is a great place to camp and enjoy the area’s woodlands. Mt. Rainier towers at 14,411 feet, rising above Mt. Hood’s 11,249 feet. However, Mt. Hood has many more ski resorts.
Seattle and Portland both serve as the hub for major companies and corporations. For instance, Seattle is home to Boeing, Amazon and Microsoft. Meanwhile, Portland is Nike’s hometown and welcomes start-ups and indie businesses, which have created a dynamic vibe in the city’s downtown area.
While both cities are growing, the concentration of higher-paying tech companies in Seattle – which recently became a major Amazon location – is reflected in the higher household median income of nearly $100,000 compared to Portland’s more modest $69,000. Both cities are attractive to millennials in tech, since many neighborhoods are walkable and have great public transportation systems. In fact, up to 45 percent of Seattle’s workers get to work by mass transit, biking or walking, or work from home. In Portland, that number is closer to 34 percent, but that is still more than twice the U.S. average of 15% (85 percent of Americans drive alone or carpool to work). This lifestyle tends to attract many younger workers to both cities.
Real Estate and Cost of Living
The cost of utilities and healthcare are relatively inexpensive in both cities, while transportation costs are among the highest in the nation. However, it’s the housing costs that drive Seattle’s high overall cost of living. The median home price in Portland is about $440,000 compared to $804,000 ins Seattle, with a greater availability of homes in Portland. Many predict that Seattle’s overall cost of living will increase dramatically as the area continues to attract new companies.
Both cities have great qualities that continue to attract new residents and corporations. However, the choice between these two cities comes down to the type of lifestyle you’re looking for.
Neither of these cities is very formal, but Portland, famously proud to be “weird”, has a more laid-back vibe. Many online reviews state that Portland feels like the friendlier city of the two. Those who would rather be in the center of two other major cities would pick Seattle over Portland. Vancouver is just a three-hour drive away to the north, in British Columbia, Canada, and has the added glamor of being in another country; to the south, Portland’s laid-back vibe is another three-hour drive. Seattle has been associated with more of an East Coast pace, so transplants from large cities looking for a similar lifestyle may be happier here.
For up-and-coming millennials who prefer a professional environment, Seattle’s role as a major port and tech hub may be appealing. Although, predictions are that Generation Z, just now finishing high school and college, may prefer informal business styles. Portland has a more quirky, small-town feel, which natives and transplants to the city seem to enjoy, and which may appeal to this demographic more than others.
Nearly 62 percent of Seattle residents have a 4-year degree compared to 48 percent in Portland and 30 percent in the nation as a whole. Seattle also outperforms Portland in K-12 retention, test scores and other factors. On the other hand, Portland is known as a mecca for alternative lifestyles, so vegans, families who prefer organic produce or want to grow their own vegetable gardens might find kindred spirits in this large city with a hometown feel.
Portland has a more ingrained foodie culture, down-to-earth residents with a wide age spread, quality produce to feed its demanding consumers and easy commuting – if you are so inclined, you can bike everywhere and Portland has a reputedly more reliable public transit system. Long-time residents stay involved in the community, which is viewed as more accepting and gracious by visitors and residents alike. If you want access to modern metropolitan amenities and value a career-driven, sophisticated culture, Seattle might be the place to call home, with its greater diversity, burgeoning job market, and plenty of options for happy hours and weekend activities, especially for the city’s up and coming younger crowd. With its influx of transplants from all over the country, it may offer a wider social commentary than the somewhat insulated culture of Portland.
Ultimately, residents who’ve lived in both cities tend to agree that the choice of living in either city comes down to an individual definition of good living.