Portland or Seattle: where should you visit first?

Freya Godfrey

written by
Freya Godfrey

updated 09.11.2020

The Pacific Northwest, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, is known for its picturesque national parks, stunning coastline and awe-inspiring mountain scenery.

But what about its urban areas? The region’s two largest cities are both celebrated for their farm-to-table produce and liberal, easy going attitude. They also offer some great attractions, from museums and galleries to markets and gardens.

Here, we’ve pitched the City of Roses against the Emerald City to help you decide whether you should visit Portland or Seattle first.

Which is best for culture?

Both cities have a number of worthwhile cultural sights. Portland shows the influence of its sister city, Luzhou, in the Lan Su Chinese Garden, which offers peace and calm within the city boundaries. Its various museums include the creative Portland Art Museum and the fascinating Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. High in the West Hills, Pittock Mansion gives a glimpse into Portland’s past, as well as the city’s best views.

Seattle’s museums are plentiful, but a particular highlight is the EMP Museum. Dedicated to contemporary popular culture, its exhibitions range from video games to fashion. The building’s quirky design, said to be inspired by smashed up electric guitars, is a sight in its own right. For something a bit different, try the unusual Chihuly Glass Museum, which celebrates sculptor Dale Chihuly’s blown glass creations.

And of course, a visit to Seattle wouldn’t be complete without climbing 520ft in the air up the Space Needle for the best views over the city, as well as interactive exhibits.

Portland, Oregon

via Pixabay/CC0

What food can I expect?

The Pacific Northwest is a great destination for foodies, with a focus on fresh, locally sourced produce in many of its restaurants.

Located in the Willamette Valley and close to the Pacific Ocean, Portland’s proximity to quality ingredients keeps prices low and food standards high, and it’s a good spot for vegetarians and vegans.

The city is perhaps most noted for its thriving food cart scene. After springing up as a reaction to the recession, there are now 500 food carts in the city serving a range of international dishes.

Surrounded by water, Seattle is renowned for its seafood for good reason. The best place for food on-the-go is Pike Place Market, the longest continually operating farmers market in the US. The most famous stall is Pike Place Fish Co., where fishmongers hurl fish between themselves when a sale is made.

And how about drink?

Sometimes described as the coffee capital of the world, Seattle is the birthplace of Starbucks, and there’s always a lengthy queue of coffee-lovers trailing outside the rebuilt original shop in Pike Place.

But it’s not just coffee that Seattle does well. Washington State is home to more than 850 wineries, as well as breweries and a growing number of craft distilleries.

Portland, or “Beervana” as it is sometimes known, boasts over 65 craft breweries. Oregon’s early legalisation of brewpubs in 1983, and proximity to hops and barley, has contributed to the city’s many breweries. It’s also the base of the nation’s first urban cider pub, Bushwacker Cider – the city drinks more cider per capita than anywhere else in the US.

Where can I shop?

Oregon is one of five US states with no sales tax, allowing Portland’s visitors to enjoy tax-free shopping. Pioneer Place and Union Way offer a wealth of shopping opportunities, while Powell’s City of Books is a haven for any bibliophile – make your way to the top floor to explore the rare books room.

The city also has over twenty farmers’ markets and the Portland Saturday Market, located on the riverside, is the largest arts fair in the US.

Seattle’s varied neighbourhoods mean there’s a shop for every taste. Try Downtown for the mainstream fashion, Ballard for boutiques and the hip Belltown neighbourhood for arts and galleries. And of course, Pike Place Market for hand-crafted goods and souvenirs.

What’s nearby?

The great outdoors is the jewel in the Pacific Northwest’s green crown. Within miles of Portland, you can find yourself on Eastern Oregon’s desert plains, mountain biking, strolling on a beach or admiring jaw-dropping Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the US. Columbia River Gorge, just a short drive away from the city, has some of the best waterfalls, such as the magnificent Multnomah Falls.

The gorgeous, glacier-capped Mount Rainier looms over Seattle; its sprawling National Park, resplendent in wildflower meadows, is picture-perfect year-round. Also nearby, orca whales can be spotted from the San Juan islands, while for rainforests and natural springs, head to the Olympic Peninsula.

Seattle skyline

via Pixabay/CC0

So where should I go first?

The two cities share many similarities between their people, food and lifestyle, but Seattle certainly has more of a big city feel; it’s more dynamic, busier and buzzier. Yet Portland’s quirky, laidback and chilled-out vibe give it its own unique edge.

If you can, try to get to both (they’re only a three-hour drive from each other). One really does complement the other.

Explore more of the USA with the Rough Guide to the USA and www.VisitTheUSA.co.uk.

Top image © emperorcosar/Shutterstock

Ready to travel and discover

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍