Showdown: Austin or Portland or Seattle: Which Hipster Heaven is For You?

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Which Hipster Heaven is For You?

‘Hipster’ may be a dirty word these days, but there’s a lot about hipster culture that draws me to a city. Good food, world class craft beer, beautiful landscapes to explore, and an overall sense of zany weirdness combine to make a city the kind of place

Good food, world class craft beer, beautiful landscapes to explore, and an overall sense of zany weirdness combine to make a city something remarkable.

In the United States, the hipster movement is most often commonly associated with a foursome of cities: Portland, Oregon, Austin, Texas, Seattle, Washington, and Denver, Colorado.

Of the four hipster heavens, I’ve managed to make it to three of them, with Denver thus far eluding my hunt for craft beer and kindred spirits.

With that in mind, I thought I’d compare the three I have spent some time in and see which hipster heaven is for you.

Is it Austin or Portland or Seattle?

portland cityscape
Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk

Beer

A good craft beer goes hand in hand with a well-trimmed beard, a collection of vinyl, and an impractical vintage camera, and all three of these hipster havens boast fantastic craft beer scenes just begging to be explored.

American beer often gets a bad wrap due to watery messes like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Budweiser, but each of these cities is home to some world-class brews.

Portland Craft Beer

My love affair with craft beer started way back in the fall of 2009 when I paid a visit to Portland with my then girlfriend and we designed our own Portland brewery tour. Stumbling the streets of Portland in between flights of beer and greasy plates of delicious food remains one of the highlights of my trips to the US.

I returned again in 2012 to attend the epic Portland Craft Beer Festival, where I soaked in the summer sun while over-indulging in IPAs that were definitely not made for a session.

Intrigued? You can read more about my experience at the then Oregon Brewers Festival.

Portland is an eclectic city and its selection of beers is no different. There are almost as many breweries as there are Portland hotels, so you’re bound to be spoiled for choice.

Check out Thrillist’s guide on craft beer in Portland to further whet your appetite.

oregon brewers festival

Seattle Craft Beer

While its quirkier neighbour might get many of the plaudits when it comes to craft beer, it was Seattle that was innovating craft beer back in the 70s and 80s.

The city might be most famous for its major exports like Amazon, Starbucks, and Microsoft, but Seattle’s liberal dusting of microbrewers, nano brewers, and craft beer bars flies in the face of its more corporate outward appearance.

It’s true that Seattle lags a bit behind Portland and Austin when it comes to the craft beer scene, but Lonely Planet’s beer lover’s guide to Seattle paints a pretty appetising picture.

Austin Craft Beer

Texans love beer, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the state’s quirky capital has produced more than its fair share of top-class beers over the years.

While Lone Star still holds sway as the most popular local brew, you’d be hard-pressed to find a grocery store in the city that doesn’t stock a dizzying variety of locally and nationally brewed craft beers.

There’s nothing quite as good as soaking in the Texan sun with an ice cold beer and a bit of (potentially vegan) barbeque.

My own visit to Austin saw me sipping suds and indulging in a curry at the deliciously weird Whip In, but there’s no shortage of options when it comes to craft beer in Austin.

magnolia cafe austin
Image courtesy of Sergey Galyonkin

Verdict

Choosing whether Austin or Portland or Seattle has the best craft beer scene is a bit like trying to choose your favourite niece or nephew, but Portland gets the edge for me. As the #5 city in the US for microbreweries for capita, it edges out Austin (12th) and Seattle (19th). You just get more beer for your buck.

You just get more beer for your buck.

Score: Portland – 1 / Austin – 0 / Seattle – 0

Food

Having a great beer scene is all well and good, but you can’t live on beer alone.

(Trust me, I tried)

In addition to superfluous eyewear and beards that smell of perfumed oils, we hipsters are well-known for our enduring love affair with good food.

Sure, sometimes we take it too far and wax lyrical about pseudo-foods like arugula, kale, and durian but that kind of culinary extremism doesn’t take away from the fact all three of these cities have some ridiculously good food on offer.

Food in Portland

While Portland began my love affair with craft beer, it’s fair to say that my love affair with good food had started quite a few years earlier.

Even so, I found plenty to like during my visits to Portland in 2009 and 2012. Not only did the breweries all have some pretty amazing food to accompany my flights of beer, but my local guides had me sampling delicious Thai at e-San, braving Salvador Molly’s infamous spicy snacks, and making an obligatory stop at Voodoo Donuts.

Of course, there is far more to Portland’s foodie scene than my brief foray into over-indulgence. Check out this fantastic Portland foodie guide for more info.

Food in Seattle

I’m at something of a disadvantage when it comes to discussing Seattle’s foodie scene with any real authority, as all of my meals in the city were either home-cooked, eaten at the baseball, or grabbed from a fast food joint.

Even so, Seattle’s love affair with good food is common knowledge. From Zagat’s delectable Seattle foodie bucket list to the dizzying catalogue on Seattle Eater, you’re definitely spoiled for choice.

Famous for its smoked salmon, Seattle is also home to some world-class seafood and a remarkable array of high-quality Vietnamese food.

Are you a Seattle expert? I’m headed there next year and I would love your recommendations!

pike place market seattle
Image courtesy of Michael Noirot

Food in Austin

Texas’ most famous dish is undoubtedly a bit of barbeque, and Austin has that in spades. There’s far more to Austin’s food scene than a bit of meat cooked to perfection on the grill, however, and I was lucky enough to immerse myself in Austin foodie culture during my visit in 2016.

My introduction to Austin’s amazing food scene came thanks to the dynamic duo beyond Over Yonderlust, who introduced me to the Al Pastor Taco Truck that changed my life.

I then spent a day devouring all of the things with an Austin Detours food tour that took me to everything from the aforementioned Whip In to delectable food trucks to a vegan cat cafe where I had a remarkably good vegan beef brisket.

Only in Austin.

Then there were gourmet sausages (and beers) at Bangers, a fantastic brunch at Magnolia Cafe, and happy hour tapas at Hightower

Even late at night, Austin thrives. The city has a terrific late night food scene.

whipincake

Verdict

As you can probably tell by the way I waxed lyrical about Austin’s food scene, I was enamored of the place. There’s just so much variety and so much mouthgasm inducing deliciousness!

Score: Portland – 1 / Austin – 1 / Seattle – 0

Natural Beauty

When I travel, breathtaking vistas are something I take very seriously.

It’s all well and good to have a fantastic nightlife and top-shelf amenities, but you also need to be able to wow me with the natural beauty of your city to make it a keeper in my books.

While all three cities boast plenty of appeal, which hipster haven has the most to offer for an amateur outdoorsman?

Portland’s Natural Beauty

There’s no denying that the Pacific Northwest is one of the most beautiful regions of the US.

Mist-shrouded pine forests, dazzling waterfalls, and the angry grey of the Pacific make for a very appealing combination.

Portland is a city with a proudly green feel to it, with a number of gorgeous parks to complement its famous rose garden. Forest Park, in particular, has over 70 miles worth of trails for those wanting to get into the great outdoors without having to leave the city.

The nearby Columbia River Gorge is a truly stunning region of lush forest and gorgeous waterfalls where you can hike, camp, windsurf, and even indulge your love of craft beer.

Head in the other direction, and you’re on the beautiful Pacific coast where quaint towns like Astoria, Tillamook, and Seaside blend the stark beauty of the windswept coast with saltwater taffy, clam chowder, and (you guessed it) craft beer.

portland japanese maple
Image courtesy of Scott McCracken.

Austin’s Natural Beauty

You can’t get much farther than the perennially wet and cool Pacific Northwest than the dry of Austin, Texas, but that’s not to say that Austin isn’t possessed of some truly gorgeous landscapes.

300 days of sunshine a year and some great hiking and cycling make Austin one of the fittest cities in America.

Like Portland, Austin boasts some great parklands, with the trails around Lady Bird Lake offering locals and visitors more than 10 miles of hiking in idyllic surrounds. The popular Barton Springs Pool is the place to be on a hot summer day, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to take a dip in all of Texas.

Leave your Austin hotel and you can venture to nearby state parks and some of Texas’ famous waterholes. Hamilton Pool, in particular, is one I was sad to miss on my recent visit to the Lone Star State.

barton springs austin
Image courtesy of Todd Dwyer

Seattle’s Natural Beauty

While many joke about the fact it’s always raining in Seattle, the city’s notoriously fickle weather is a small price to pay for access to some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the continental US. There’s no need to stay cooped up in your Seattle hotel when you can be out exploring.

Snow-capped Mt. Rainier, the vast Puget Sound, and lush evergreen forests combine to create one of the most picturesque cities in the world, and it’s a beauty that is only enhanced by the somewhat ominous weather that tends to cling to the city.

Three National Parks (Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades) sit right on Seattle’s doorstep, and this is complemented by a number of close parks perfect for hiking or camping.

There’s an enduring love affair between Seattle and the ocean that can be experienced in the form of kayaking, whale watching in the San Juan Islands, taking a scenic ferry trip, or simply soaking in the frigid serenity of a Washington beach.

Put simply, Seattle is a communion between man and nature that is hard not to love. The Emerald City is justified in its name.

Looking for some Seattle inspiration? Check out this list of the best day trips from Seattle.

olympic national park
Image courtesy of Rene Leubert

Verdict

I could wax lyrical about the beauty of each of the above cities for some time, but to me, Seattle best exemplifies the union between a city and its surrounding landscapes. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.

Score: Portland – 1 / Austin – 1 / Seattle – 1

Sports

The hipster movement and sport don’t always go hand in hand, but I’m a complicated guy with complicated loves.

Who says I can’t enjoy brunch and a craft beer while also caring about the outcome of a bunch of grown men beating one another up for my amusement?

Sports may not be why everyone travels, but I’m of the belief that attending a local sporting event is a great insight into a city’s culture.

Sport in Portland

Sport probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Portland, but the Oregon city does have two professional teams competing in the NBA and in the MLS.

While the Portland Trail Blazers haven’t won the league since the 70s, the level of support the team has in its home city is so fierce that it’s been called “Blazermania”.

A more recent addition to the Portland sports scene, the Portland Timbers joined the national soccer league in 2011 and have already built a strong following. Whether it’s due to rampant soccer love in the city or a lack of competition, the Timbers enjoy large, vocal crowds for their home games.

For a fun Portland experience, join the Timbers Army for a game and listen to them belt out the likes of “You Are My Sunshine” as the team plays.

portland flute player
Image courtesy of Ian Sane.

Sport in Austin

While Texas has a proud history in a number of national sporting leagues, Austin lags a bit behind the likes of Houston and Dallas in this regard. With no presence in the NBA, MLB, MLS, or NFL – Austin sports fans instead get behind their University of Texas Longhorns in basketball, football, and baseball.

Of course, there are more sports than just team ones, and Austin is definitely a hiking, jogging, and cycling city with a number of trails and parks to explore.

Austin also has a cricket club, and an American cricket team is the ultimate in irony.

austin sunrise
Image courtesy of Joey Parsons.

Sport in Seattle

Seattle is definitely a city that loves its sport.

From the legendary “12th Man” that the crowd represents at a Seattle Seahawks game to the game day experience at a Seattle Mariners game to the passionate fans behind the Seattle Sounders, this is a city that enthusiastically embraces its sporting heroes.

Seattle is a city obsessed with its Seahawks, and the Blue Friday tradition ahead of a Sunday game is a sight to behold.

I was lucky enough to attend a Seattle Mariners game back in 2012 with an avid fan, and while the game against the Toronto Bluejays wasn’t much of a spectacle, it’s hard not to enjoy a day out in the sun with beers, hot dogs, and good friends.

The Seattle Sounders boast the largest attendances in the entire MLS (Major League Soccer), with more than 40,000 people turning out to support the team when it runs out.

seattle sports fans
Image courtesy of Philip Robertson

Verdict

For a sports fan, Seattle is a runaway winner when it comes to both variety and the passion of its locals.

While Portland does a great job of embracing its local sides, Seattle edges it out on account of having more teams in top tier leagues.

Score: Portland – 1 / Austin – 1 / Seattle – 2

Overall Weirdness

Being weird is part and parcel of being a hipster. Standing outside of cultural and social norms is a what we do.

Austin and Portland share a “Keep X Weird” credo that best emphasises their desire to be seen as different, while Seattle has always been an outlier. Grunge found its roots in Seattle, and some of the world’s most influential and different companies have started in the Emerald City.

Is Austin or Portland or Seattle the capital of American weird?

Portland’s Weirdness

It might have found its roots in Austin, but Portland has definitely embraced the ‘Keep Portland Weird’ motto.

From naked bike rides to the city’s quirky selection of strip clubs (stripperoke, anyone?) to an adult soap box derby to the city’s massive Paul Bunyan statue to the town’s enduring obsession with Elvis, Portland is just deliciously quirky.

Voodoo Donuts is a local institution, and you’ve not really lived until you’ve stabbed a jelly filled, screaming man with a pretzel stick.

Of course, its weirdness can also be a tad creepy. A tour of the city’s infamous Shanghai Tunnels is a must while visiting.

portland horse rider
Image courtesy of Ian Sane.

Austin’s Weirdness

“We said Keep Austin Weird first,” my Austin friend proudly told me as he showed me around the city’s eclectic collection of converted houses and containers that act as bars on Rainey Street, “Portland stole that”.

Far be it from me to weigh in on this controversial topic, but you can certainly see and feel a lot of similarities between Portland and Austin. They’ve both got a similar affection for the zanier side of life, they’ve both got fantastic food and beer, and they both embrace that delightful weirdness in a way that is totally endearing.

The Keep Austin Weirdfest is a perfect example of this dedication to the bizarre, but locals don’t need a special occasion to embrace the weirdness of it all.

Yard art, creatively dressed locals (and creatively decorated cars), and an openness to things frowned upon elsewhere in Texas make Austin every bit as quirky as its northern cousin.

cathedral of junk austin
Image courtesy of That Other Paper

Seattle’s Weirdness

Poor old Seattle doesn’t have the same reputation for eccentricity as Portland or Austin, but that’s seen as a point of pride by locals. Going out of your way to be weird is…well… it’s weird.

The weirdness in Seattle feels a bit more organic. Whether it’s the famous fish throwers at Pike Place Market (and the nearby chewing gum wall), the steampunk-esque Gasworks Park, the ultra-nerdy Science Fiction Museum or the ominous Fremont Troll hiding under a bridge, there’s enough zany in Seattle to keep even the most jaded tourist occupied.

Like Portland, Seattle also has its share of darker weirdness.

There’s the creepy Seattle Underground – a city beneath a city, as well as a haunted soda machine. Drink at your own peril!

As you can see, Seattle has an abundance of weird that doesn’t get the press it deserves.

seattle gum wall
Image courtesy of Jay Thompson

Verdict

This is a bit of a dead heat if you ask me.

Every one of these cities can lay claim to being the weirdest, and it’s all about which flavour of crazy you like best.

While Portland is more in your face weird and Austin has a more laid back approach to its oddity, Seattle has plenty of weirdness about it as well.

I’m gonna have to give the edge to Portland and Austin here, giving them both a point and giving us a complete deadlock.

Score: Portland – 2 / Austin – 2 / Seattle – 2

The Winner

The truth is, every one of these cities has a hell of a lot to offer.

I couldn’t tell you which city I’ve had more fun in.

While Portland’s beer scene and overall weirdness were a breath of fresh air coming from rural Australia, the food scene and nightlife in Austin were among the best I’ve encountered anywhere.

While I haven’t spent nearly as much time in Seattle, my many friends from the city have painted such glowing pictures that it’s hard not to give it its due. My girlfriend, Adventures Around Asia is a Seattle girl, and I’d be remiss to not keep the missus happy.

My suggestion? Sample them all and figure out for yourself which is your hipster heaven.

Their Say

I polled my readers on Aussie on the Road on Facebook and it turned up some interesting results!

Pondicherry, India! – Utkarsh

Canberra, Australia. I wouldn’t say favourite , but the other day I went in for a haircut and came out looking like a hipster. – Sanj

Brooklyn! Come visit me and I’ll show you around a new city – Where is Kait?

San Luis Obispo, California – It’s One World. Travel.

San Luis Obsipo (SLO) was one of the highlights of my 2016 Great US Road Trip. I could wax lyrical about why I love SLO.

Montreal or Toronto, Canada – Danielle.

Melbourne, Australia of course! My cousins call me a hipster because I wear skinny jeans.. I just like skinny jeans because I have great legs – Elizabeth.

I love Salzburg! The Gr├╝nmarkt (maybe I spelt that wrong) markets there are incredible – Ains.

Mancora, Peru. Very laid back surfing and backpacker town. Lots of cheap food and beer, and en route to a bunch of amazing destinations – MJ Sailing.

Berkley, California. Lots of craft beers from the area, food has a healthier presence as the area has alot of hippies, but doesn’t mean it doesn’t have all the usual yummy American food too. They have a place that makes deep dish pizza and it is hands down the best pizza of my life – Jem.

Beijing, China – Harshal.

Beijing’s hipster scene is surprisingly strong. I even wrote about Beijing’s hipster hutongs in 2015.

Reykjavik, Iceland – Tim.

Your Say

Austin or Portland or Seattle? Which of the above three takes the crown for you?

What other hipster havens have you found and loved in your time?

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