When it comes to the Northwest’s best cities, there’s no doubt the number one spot goes to Portland or Seattle. Which it is, however, depends on who you ask. While most residents of the Pacific Northwest have (very) strong opinions on the matter, the truth is both metropolises are fantastic and have heaps to offer tourists, from stunning natural landscapes to dynamic culture and bomb eats.
In general, Portland is great for those who want to enjoy street food, thrifting, lovely parks and a laid-back vibe. On the other hand, Seattle is a great choice for those after big-city energy, fantastic live music and artisan coffee.
While both cities have a lot to offer visitors and are worth visiting in their own right, here’s a guide to help you decide on a Portland vs. Seattle vacation.
The slogan, “Keep Portland Weird,” which you’ll find on countless signs and bumper stickers throughout the city, sums up its beloved offbeat character. Here, you may find Darth Vader playing bagpipes riding a unicycle in the city center, not far from a critically acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant.
Portland is home to about 654,000 people, with several thousand more residing in its suburbs. While it’s still a bustling metropolis, by all means, it’s noticeably less hectic compared to Seattle, making it much easier to get around by car. That said, Portland is famous for its massive population of (often fervent) cyclists.
While Portlanders will probably say it’s because they love the outdoors and exercise, I’m not sure they’d say that if they had to contend with Seattle’s killer hills. Regardless, if you enjoy cycling, it’s a great way to see the city.
Prefer to go on foot? Downtown Portland is also quite pedestrian-friendly and, unlike some cycle-heavy cities (Amsterdam), you don’t have to worry about getting hit by a bike, either.
For longer excursions, or when you’re just too tired to hoof it, you’ll be pleased to find Portland has a stellar public transit system. An extensive TriMet bus network combined with MAX light rail and streetcars makes it easy to get around.
You can rent a car but like many big cities, parking and traffic can be a hassle, not to mention the numerous one-way streets.
If budget is a key factor in trying to figure out the difference between Portland and Seattle, Portland may be the place for you. Granted, it’s possible to live on a shoestring or spend crazy cash, just about anywhere. But PDX does tend to cost a bit less all-around than its northern counterpart.
Portland’s hotels and hostels are generally about 15 to 20% less expensive than the Emerald City. A single room for one person costs around $100-120 on average, though you can find an Airbnb or a room a little ways afield for less.
Even hostels are more expensive than you might expect (if you’re used to hostelling outside the U.S., anyway) in both cities. A dorm bed at the Hostelling International hostel in Portland, for instance, starts at about $40 per night.
Portland is also excellent for cheap eats, especially if you’re into street food (see below). And a night out likely won’t run you as much as it would in Seattle, either.
As for transportation, a TriMet ticket costs $2.50 for adults for 2.5 hours of travel on any of the system’s buses or trains. Or you can buy a day pass for $5.
Things to do in Portland
Portland has tons to offer in terms of entertainment and recreation. From lush green spaces to lively nightlife and the world’s largest independent bookstore to the most strip clubs per capita in the U.S., there’s something for everyone.
The famous Powell’s Books is heaven for bookworms, featuring thousands of new and used titles, including a rare books room for us super book-nerds.
Nob Hill is a low-key spot to hang out and have a coffee or drink, or you can spend some time in Pioneer Courthouse Square, known as the city’s living room.
Forest Park is a massive green space smack in the middle of the city; it’s so big you may forget you’re in the city at all.
There’s also the Japanese Garden and Lan Su Chinese Garden, both gorgeous spots to spend some time, have a tea, and stroll through impeccably landscaped botanical gardens.
In the West Hills is Pittock Mansion, which offers some incredible views of the city and a glimpse into its past.
Not far off is the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, with tons of outdoor recreation potential, including hiking, kayaking, and skiing (in winter). The gorgeous Oregon Coast and towns like Seaside and Cannon Beach are just a couple of hours’ drive (or a bus ride) away as well.
Portland is famous for its food trucks and carts, which have earned rave reviews from international publications, including Bon Appetit magazine and CNN. The latter even proclaimed, “With an abundance of fresh and local ingredients, this is a city where street food rivals the finest restaurants.”
With the most food carts per capita of any U.S. city, Portland’s mobile eateries dot the town in 25 “pods.”
Chefs tend to be equally inventive, scrappy, and talented, delivering a broad array of cuisine. This includes everything from fresh Oregon produce foraged from the Willamette Valley to bacon-topped maple bars and vegan pizza to fried chicken.
It’s effortless to find food catering to all sorts of tastes and dietary needs and equally effortless to find fantastic coffee, craft cocktails, and beer, and locally sourced wine.
Where to Stay in Portland
If you’ve decided that Portland is the place for you, you will likely be looking for a great place to stay. Check out these great accommodation options for a place to rest your head in this Oregon city:
The Society Hotel — Located within easy reach of some of the city’s top attractions, this hotel is perfect for those looking for a chic and comfortable place to stay in Portland. There are a number of great rooms to choose from and there is also a restaurant on site. Click here to see their availability
Kimpton Riverplace Hotel — If you’re more interested in staying in a luxury hotel during your time in Portland, then this is a great option for you. Located on the banks of the Willamette River, this plush hotel has a myriad of luxe rooms and fantastic amenities to make your stay a great one. Click here to see their availability
HI Portland – Northwest — If you’re travelling solo or on a budget, then this hostel can be an excellent choice. They have a number of both private rooms and dorm beds available and include great common areas and self-catering facilities, as well. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental — If you would rather have a bit of privacy or experience Portland “like a local,” then a private apartment rental is a great option for you. There are countless fantastic great properties to choose from in Portland, like this quaint, centrally located cottage. Click here to find the best private rentals in Portland!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more hotels in Portland!
Portland may be the “weird” one, but Seattle has plenty of character of its own. Nestled in the heart of Puget Sound, this coastal city has long been at the intersection of culture and industry and old and new America. Like Portland, there’s no shortage of things to do, whether you’re more into boating to a rural island or catching a live music show.
Seattle is a much larger city than Portland and consists of several distinct, self-sufficient neighborhoods (like Capitol Hill and Queen Anne).
About 745,000 people live within the city limits, not to mention tens of thousands more in the greater Seattle/King County area, many of whom commute into the Emerald City for work. You could easily spend a couple of hours in the car before exiting the urban sprawl and entering the countryside.
Traffic is not quite the nightmare that it is in LA, but it is quite a bit more intense than Portland’s, especially during rush hour. And as in Portland, you’ll have to contend with limited parking (especially downtown) and lots of one-ways.
That said, you’ll want to rent a car (you can find great prices on Rentalcars.com) if you plan to explore the greater Puget Sound area (which I highly recommend). Many of the area’s most colorful small towns like Port Townsend, Langley, and Friday Harbor are only connected via ferry or boat and/or limited bus service.
While Seattle’s public transit system is not as extensive as Portland’s, it’s still pretty good. The light rail connects SeaTac International Airport to downtown and Westlake to Seattle Center. And you can use the Metro buses to get around the city and greater King County area, including Tacoma and Everett.
As mentioned previously, Seattle tends to be more expensive than Portland, especially if you enjoy the finer things in life. A luxury hotel room for two people, for instance, will likely cost $300 minimum.
But even pinching pennies, you’ll have to brace for a tad more expensive in the Emerald City.
The cheapest eats dining out (gyros, pho, etc.) will likely still be around $10. Mid-range eateries can range from $12 to $30 per main. And drinks are about $10 to $15 per cocktail or $5 to $10 for a beer.
A hotel room for one person is about $150-200 on average. But like in Portland, you can find a room in the suburbs or an Airbnb for less. Hostels are also about $60 on average for a dorm bed.
Transportation is about the same as in PDX. A bus ticket is about $2.75 for an adult for a few hours. Day passes are $5 for the card and $8 for the pass for unlimited rides throughout the greater Seattle area.
Things to do in Seattle
Like Portland, Seattle has a vast range of attractions and activities, from museums to historic markets and live music festivals to eclectic art galleries and top-notch shopping.
A ride up the Space Needle offers sweeping views of the city (on a clear day), and Seattle Center is the spot to go for festivals, including world-famous Bumbershoot and concerts.
Speaking of concerts, as the birthplace of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Fleet Foxes, and numerous other famous acts, the Emerald City has still reigns as one of the best places to catch live music pretty much any night of the week.
Of course, Pike Place Market is an absolute must, with an extensive array of shops and cafes, and vendors from all over the world. You can even do a chef-guided food tour there.
Thinking of visiting both Seattle & Portland? Check out the best places to stop on a Seattle to Portland road trip!
The Museum of Pop Culture (formerly EMP Museum) is another must-see, with a broad range of exhibitions from fashion and music to horror cinema and video games.
If you’re interested in art, The Chihuly Glass Museum, featuring works by the glass artist Dale Chihuly, is also excellent.
For a relaxed afternoon of vintage shopping and cozy eats, head to Capitol Hill, the city’s hippest district. Or stroll around Queen Anne to see superb Victorian architecture.
To get a breath of fresh sea air, head to Discovery Park for a stunning view of Puget Sound.
There are also plenty of day trip opportunities to choose from, including countless islands in Puget Sound or even to beautiful Mount Rainier.
Seattle is also home to two major sports teams, the Seahawks and the Mariners, who you can watch in season.
Seattle may not drink as much jo per capita as places like Finland and Norway, but it’s without a doubt America’s coffee capital and a haven for coffee lovers. It is the birthplace of Starbucks, after all. But besides a Starbucks every few blocks, the city has multitudes of smaller coffee roasters and cafes serving just about any variety of bean roasted and served in just about any way imaginable.
Besides coffee, Seattle is most famous for its fresh-caught seafood, a staple at many of its restaurants (and a highlight of Pike Place Market).
Besides this, the most significant difference between Seattle and Portland is the former has many more fine dining restaurants than food trucks, including some notable establishments like Canlis, El Gaucho, and Altura.
But that doesn’t mean you won’t find plenty of homey restaurants and eclectic cafes serving an array of cuisines and catering to a broad range of dietary needs. You can also find everything from Middle Eastern and African to Central and South American, along with soul food and traditional Americana.
The city is particularly well-known for its vast array of Asian American eateries; you will not have to look far to find some fantastic pho or sushi.
Where to Stay in Seattle
If you’ve decided that Seattle is the best choice for you, then you’re going to need to find a great place to stay. Whether you’re looking for a boutique or luxury hotel, a hostel or a private apartment rental, there are lots of great options in the Emerald City to choose from.
The Mediterranean Inn — Situated within easy walking distance of the iconic Space Needle, this hotel is a fantastic option in Seattle. There are countless clean and comfortable rooms available (and each one includes a kitchenette) and helpful staff to ensure you have a lovely time in the Emerald City. Click here to see their availability
Inn at the Market – Located within spitting distance of the iconic Pike Place Market, this luxury boutique hotel is an excellent option for those with a higher budget to contend with. There are a myriad of plush rooms to choose from and a cool rooftop bar with an unbeatable view of the Seattle skyline. Click here to see their availability
Green Tortoise Hostel — If you’re travelling on a budget or are solo and looking for a social atmosphere, then this hostel is a fantastic choice for you! They have a number of both dorm beds and private rooms available and good common areas that make meeting other travellers fun and easy! Click here to see their availability
Private Rental — If having your own place to stay appeals in the Emerald City, then you should consider a private apartment rental during your trip. There are countless fantastic properties to choose from, from a basic one-bedroom to unique stays like this urban treehouse. Click here to find the best private rentals in Seattle!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more hotels in Seattle!
Portland or Seattle: Which is Better to Visit
So which city is the Pacific Northwest’s best, Seattle or Portland? Despite what most Northwesterners will tell you, there isn’t a clear-cut winner. Both cities are fantastic in their own right, with an abundance of character and plenty of things to see and do. Deciding whether to visit Portland or Seattle is a matter of preference.
If you prefer a slower pace and laid-back vibes, Portland is the place for you. The Rose City is also better suited for those who prefer food carts to Michelin Stars and thrift store vintage to high-end shopping. It’s not that both cities don’t offer a bit of both. But this is thing Portland specializes in, and residents are proud of that too.
While stunning natural landscapes also surround Seattle, Portland beats the Emerald City for green spaces within city limits. PDX is also much easier to cycle, walk, or bus around.
On the other hand, if you relish the rush of the big city, Seattle is best. Seattle is also the place for history buffs, techies, coffee fanatics, and pop culture enthusiasts.
If you’re keen on catching a live music performance, whether, from an emerging local artist or a world-famous act, Seattle is your best bet (and be sure to tune into KEXP, the area’s radio station, to discover new acts).
The Emerald City is also the place to go if you’re looking for a maritime adventure, whether that means staying in a houseboat for a night or sailing off to a nearby island.
Deciding between Portland vs. Seattle for a vacation may not be easy, but you can’t go wrong with either one.
Are you struggling to decide between visiting Seattle or Portland? Do you have an opinion on either city? Let us know in the comments!