In my quest to visit all 50 states, I turned my attention towards a place I’d never been before…the Pacific Northwest!
I’d been wanting to make a trip out that way for a while. Washington is lousy with National Parks and everybody talks about how beautiful Oregon is.
Now if you know anything about this area at all, all roads lead to two cities: Seattle and Portland.
**First things first (and hopefully you can tell), but this is a post comparing travel to Seattle vs travel to Portland, not living in either city.
Seattle and Portland are both known for being uniquely (and some may say weird..ahem, Portland) Pacific Northwest cities. Very outdoor focused and with a whole culture. But you know what, I LOVE a place that is distinctly like nowhere else.
While Seattle and Portland are very different, they’re only about three hours apart and the general culture of the region is similar. AND SO MUCH NATURAL BEAUTY.
I’ve been to a lot of places, but the Pacific Northwest just might be the most beautiful part of the country.
And while I love a good city as much as the next girl, for me, the Pacific Northwest is all about the nature.
So after mulling around several different itineraries, I decided on this:
2 nights in Seattle
2 nights in Forks, WA (Olympic National Park)
2 nights in Portland
I figured this would give me a full day in each city plus plenty of time to see the natural beauty that the Pacific Northwest is famous for. But also knowing that I would definitely need to come back.
Seattle vs Portland
Here’s my bottom line: I think of both of these cities as gateways, but not necessarily destinations.
I see plenty of chatter on social media of people planning trips or asking for recommendations in Seattle and Portland but I can’t imagine coming to this part of the country and spending 4-5 days in either city. Unless you’re a major foodie and your trips revolve around how many restaurants and bars you can fit into each day, I think both of these cities are jumping off points for greater adventures in the area.
So I’m going to operate under the assumption that if you’re thinking about a trip to Seattle, you mean you’re going to fly into Seattle and spend your trip in the area. Because that’s what I would do. I think 1-2 days is plenty of time to spend in Seattle itself. Same with Portland.
Most itineraries you’ll find created by locals for Seattle only have 1-2 days of activities/attractions before they start making recommendations to explore local neighborhoods and they’re all focused on food.
I think that’s great if you’re local or even if you live in this part of the country and you come to Seattle/Portland often, but if you’re getting on a plane and flying across the country to get to Seattle/Portland, I can’t really justify spending days eating and shopping in trendy neighborhoods instead of, you know, visiting National Parks, seeing an orca whale, or hiking to a waterfall ; )
So this goes for either city…having been to both cities, neither is a place where I would spend more than a couple days without heading out to explore the surrounding country. But the good news is that the amount of parks, trails, and spectacular things to see is SO DENSE around both of these cities that you could spend your whole trip in either city and just do day trips and see a lot. And sometimes staying in just one hotel is worth it.
Day Trips from Seattle vs Day Trips from Portland
So if we’re talking about the surrounding areas of each city, here are your options:
Seattle, Washington: Seattle is within range of THREE National Parks. Which is kind of a big deal. Seattle is about 2 hours from Mount Rainier National Park which makes it a pretty easy day trip. It’s about 2.5 hours to the north side of Olympic National Park (doable as a day trip), but 4 hours to the west side where you’ll find the Hoh Rain Forest and coastal areas (my favorites). And it’s about 2 hours to the entrance of North Cascades National Park.
Victoria, BC is also doable as a day trip from Seattle via ferry. And you’ve got all of the islands including the San Juan Islands (there’s a National Historical Park here). They call this area the American Serengeti because it has one of the highest concentrations of whales, dolphins, and other sea life in the world.
And I have to throw this one in here…Washington is famous for peonies! The climate is perfect for growing them here and there are a ton of peony farms some of which are open to the public. The most famous one is Pure Peonies in Everson, WA which is about an hour and 45 minutes from Seattle. On weekends in late May through June, they open their fields for picking and photos. It’s on my bucket list to go here!
And from there it’s really just over the border to Vancouver where you could spend quite a bit of time.
Portland, Oregon: Portland doesn’t have the National Parks like Washington (although Crater Lake National Park is just about 4 hours away), but it’s got plenty else!
The Columbia River Gorge stretches 90 miles east of Portland and it’s spectacular. I almost wouldn’t even call it a day trip, because the waterfalls are only about 20-30 minutes out of Portland. I’ve got a whole post about this day trip here.
The Oregon Coast is supposed to be one of the best stretches of Pacific Coast Highway and very dramatic. You could spend a whole trip doing this, but Astoria and Cannon Beach are both very doable as a day trip from Portland.
And the Willamette Valley is starting to build up a reputation as a must visit wine destination.
Things to Do in Seattle vs Things to Do in Portland
If you like structured activities and unique things to do, I think Seattle definitely has more to offer than Portland.
Pike Place Market is the big draw for tourists, and yes, it’s touristy, but you know what? It’s also really cool. I 100% enjoyed everything about it and honestly wished I had more time to try more places. We stayed within walking distance so it was easy to pop over, grab something to eat and walk around. And we did that each of the three days we were in Seattle in between other things.
Seattle also has some top notch “tourist attractions” that are completely unique to the city. Obviously the Space Needle is iconic and you can take the monorail from downtown to Seattle Center where the Space Needle and other attractions are.
Chihuly Garden & Glass and the Museum of Pop Culture are both at Seattle Center in the shadows of the Space Needle.
And don’t forget about whale watching! The Puget Sound Express has great whale watching trips that leave from Everett just about 30 minutes from downtown Seattle.
In a lot of ways I feel similar about Portland as I do about Austin, TX…it’s probably a great city/town to live in, but most of what it has to offer is more geared towards locals…parks, places to hang out, food, etc. But if you’re visiting, there’s less to do that isn’t centered around “hanging out.”
I think it all comes down to how you like to spend your time on vacation/when you’re traveling. I like to see and do things that I can’t do at home, and honestly there wasn’t a ton in Portland that interested me.
The International Rose Test Garden was beautiful (they don’t call Portland the City of Roses for nothing!), but most everything else the city has to offer are parks, food spots, and trendy neighborhoods.
Food in Seattle vs Food in Portland
While I definitely like to eat and love some good food, I wouldn’t call myself a foodie. I just like what I like. But I gathered that while both cities have “vibrant” food scenes, Seattle is known for being a little more upscale than Portland which people describe as more casual.
While I mostly stuck to Pike Place Market in Seattle which can be described as many things besides fancy, generally I would agree. Portland is generally more known for food trucks, carts, and holes in the walls whereas the food scene in Seattle is more like in any large city…diverse. But both of these are large/semi sized cities so you’ll be able to find a bit of everything.
Generally speaking though, Seattle definitely has the reputation for the more stellar seafood.
The General Vibe (& the Brutal Truth)
Okay, let’s get right down to it. Like I said, this was the first time I’d ever been to the Pacific Northwest but I, like everyone else, have seen everything in the media since the 2020 protests about the state of these two cities. Violence, crime, homelessness, defunding the police, etc.
Honestly, I was really interested to see it for myself.
Now, I am well aware that I only saw a tiny part of each city and these are broad generalizations, but here was my experience…
In both Seattle and Portland, I stayed downtown.
I’m always extra cautious when I’m in a downtown area, especially one I’m not familiar with but my experience was that Seattle felt like a big city with a lot of the problems that big cities tend to have. Yes there were some homeless folks here and there and there were signs of Police and private security at shops and businesses in the area, but there were also a TON of tourists walking around so the overall atmosphere felt fairly safe and “normal.”
On the other hand, Portland felt very different. I’ve never seen anything like it. There really are camps of tents on the sidewalks and blocks that are completely taken over.
While it’s not everywhere, it’s enough places and in pockets that if you’re not familiar with the city it feels like a place you shouldn’t be.
I think it’s mostly centered around downtown, but that’s also where a lot of the hotels are. It was just a few blocks from our hotel to Powell’s Books which I was really excited to check out, but once we got there, we weren’t comfortable walking (I’ll walk pretty much everywhere in NYC) and there wasn’t anywhere to park close enough that felt ok. But it was weird because one block would feel totally fine and one wouldn’t. But it really limits how you can move around.
I hope I just had a really limited view of things and it’s different in other parts of the city, but overall it was pretty offputting and I’m sure definitely colored how I viewed the city overall.
Okay, BESIDES all of that…what about the vibes of each city?
Here are my general impressions:
Seattle felt like an interesting large city with a handful of unique attractions. I really enjoyed it and in future trips I’ll probably plan to spend a day in the city.
Portland felt like a city that used to be unique and is now being used as a template to revitalize similar sized cities across the country. I kind of feel this way about Austin too, but that’s closer to home so it makes more sense for me to spend time there.
Example? One of the most recommended “you have to do this when you go to Portland” things was Voodoo Doughnuts. They were the original creators of the gourmet donut, but now their signature concoctions like maple donuts topped with bacon or donuts covered in Cap’n Crunch or M&Ms can be found at not just their different franchise locations around the country, but at other shops that have adopted their style. Heck, there’s one in my hometown Tulsa, OK!
So there’s still a lot of cool things in Portland, but you’re starting to see a lot of it copied throughout the country which I think makes it a little less special.
But all of that aside, BOTH Seattle and Portland have a great outdoor culture with epic adventures and beautiful sites at every turn. And since they’re only about three hours apart, it’s easy to hit both places on a weeklong Pacific Northwest road trip.
Want to read more posts about the area?