Vancouver, WA vs Portland, OR
It’s easier to find similarities than differences between two cities that are less than five miles apart. But if you only visit one and not the other, you’re missing out.
There are cities that crave the spotlight. They shine bright, make the news, and appear center stage in movies. Then there are their backstage neighbors reveling in the lack of expectations and crowds afforded with anonymity. And because European colonizers weren’t known for their branding skills, there are also many American cities with more famous namesakes—I’ve yet to try the wine in Paris, Texas, or the souvlaki in Athens, Georgia, visit a pub in Dublin, Ohio, or palaces in Moscow, Kansas. All of these elements collide along the shores of the Columbia River, west of the Cascades.
On the southern bank, we find Portland, stereotypically characterized by hipsters, coffee shops, and liberals. In 2011, Portland got a starring role in the aptly named TV show, Portlandia. For better or for worse, the city became known nationwide. And on the northern bank, we find Vancouver, not typically stereotyped by many, since both its neighbor and its namesake crave the spotlight.
The Columbia River between them also defines the state line. Washington boasts beautiful forests, mountain ranges, glaciers, rivers, and diverse wildlife. Oregon does, too. One is known as the Evergreen State and exports apples. The other is known as the Beaver State and exports hazelnuts. Both have vast wine regions and beautiful coastlines, and are spoiled by the splendor of the Pacific Northwest. So what does the state line mean to Vancouver and Portland? Simply, that in one there’s no sales tax while in the other there’s no income tax.
Indeed, it’s easier to find similarities than differences between two cities that are less than five miles apart. Both have creative murals, delicious street tacos, local craft beer, waterfront walking trails, and weekend farmers’ markets. But if you only visit one and not the other, you’re missing out.
Portland has a sprawling downtown with a sparkling skyline and streets filled with the hustle and bustle of city life. Downtown Portland cozies up against the foothills and the Willamette River which runs south to north. At any given point, there are five or more bridges in sight and an endless stream of cars navigating the multiple surrounding freeways including the I5, 405, 84, and 26. It’s a busy, big city, beehive feel. Along the water, Portland offers miles of riverside trails that feel established. Many have walked the trails before you and there’s a rich history that can be felt in the infrastructure and the views. Portland’s vibrancy is part of what inspired global companies such as Nike, Columbia Sportswear, and Adidas to open headquarters in the city. And they’ve attracted global talent which has brought a lot of diversity and growth, and among other silver linings, resulted in a delicious selection of ethnic foods.
Ten miles north, Vancouver’s downtown proudly preserves a small-town feel. There are more trees, less traffic, and slower-paced strolls. The gateway to downtown is the waterfront along the Columbia River. Unlike the Willamette, the Columbia flows east to west which affords Vancouver’s Waterfront Renaissance Trail beautiful sunrise and sunset views. There’s only one bridge in sight and because Vancouver is pretty flat, the cloud banks prefer the hillsides across the river, adding to Vancouver’s bright, sunny, calm feel.
At the same time, there’s a sense that you’ve discovered something special. After more than a decade of planning and construction, Vancouver’s new waterfront was unveiled in 2018. A $1.5 billion public-private partnership brought public art, bistros, grills, patios, martini bars, and wineries, alongside new condos and hotels. Many awe at Grant Street Pier—jutting 90 feet out over the river, the pier was designed by renowned public artist, Larry Kirkland, to evoke the billow of a passing sailboat, and the lighting concepts were designed by Fisher Marantz Stone, who also illuminated the Washington Monument, and the Tribute in Light at New York’s World Trade Center—but the true crown jewel of the waterfront is the experience. You can walk from tasting room to tasting room, never feel under-dressed in yoga pants, bring your dog, find a table last minute, and always be greeted with a smile. Vancouver feels like Portland 30 years ago, and being in Vancouver is like being in on a really cool secret. There’s no national prestige that comes from saying you live in Vancouver, Washington, but there is local pride. The people here want to be here. They love the Pacific Northwest and because of them, everything about the local culture feels authentic.
Both Vancouver and Portland will be filled with the smell of spring as cherry blossoms bloom, and mesmerized by autumn breezes carrying leaves in bright yellows, oranges, and reds. While Vancouverites might escape for a hike to Mt St Helens, Portlanders might explore the trails in Mt Hood. Vancouverites might rendezvous for a trendy brunch in Camas while Portlanders might meet in Sellwood. Vancouverites might proudly uncork a wine from the Columbia Valley while Portlanders might look for labels that read, “Willamette.” But despite all their parallels, grabbing a cup of coffee and taking a stroll down Main Street will feel vastly different in each. And you should experience the beauty of both.