I've lived and worked in a lot of cities: Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, to name a few. My last real "job", before returning to my hometown of Vancouver to become an independent web developer, was with Expedia in Seattle. I love Vancouver, and I love Seattle. But despite people consistently throwing them into the same boat and saying things like "they're basically the same", they're not. They're not the same. Aside from being Pacific Northwest cities and a populous with a proclivity for yoga, hiking, and not working too hard, they're very, very different. I'd like to describe why.
Seattle has an Economy
People move to Seattle to make money. People move to Vancouver when they've already made it. That about describes it.
Some of the world's largest and most innovative companies call Seattle home. Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon, Nordstrom, Costco, T-Mobile (US) are all companies based in the greater Seattle area. All this commerce creates with it a cascading set of high-end professional service businesses like patent law firms, venture capital, investment banks, and lobbyists. If you're young and have a good college degree, it's not a stretch to be making six-figures with a few years of experience under your belt.
What's the biggest company in Vancouver, on the other hand? BC Hydro - a crown utility. What's the most well-known tech company in Vancouver? Probably Hootsuite - a business that effectively makes a popular Twitter app and employs a few hundred people. Electronic Arts has a gaming studio in Burnaby, but is merely a satellite of a much larger American company. Vancouver's economy is mostly predicated on cyclical real estate bubbles, drugs, and junior mining companies who employ half a dozen engineers and yet don't actually mine anything.
Vancouver is More Beautiful (and its beauty is more accessible)
I know it's subjective, but at least to this writer, Vancouver wins in the beauty department. The mountains are closer to the city and more easily accessible. Stanley Park along with the beautiful seawall that surrounds it are literally a part of downtown. With the exception of the occasional port or lumber yard, the entirety of Vancouver's coastline consists of publicly-accessible beaches or parks, whereas Seattle's western coastline (with the exception of overcrowded beaches like Alki and Golden Gardens) largely consists of industrial parks and inaccessible raised platforms, while the eastern coastline around Lake Washington is almost entirely privatized. Great if you are a member of the 0.001% who can afford property there. Not so great if you are not.
Vancouverites Are Nicer, But Seattlites Are More Interesting
Passive aggressive is a word many locals use to describe Seattle. People in Vancouver are less passive agressive and just generally more passive. Meeting people is hard in both cities, no doubt. Neither has the critical mass of transient diaspora, the likes of a New York or Washington, that makes people want to talk to and meet strangers, but I've found that at least in Vancouver, there is a crack in walls of people's exclusion that comes from a Canadian politeness that Seattle doesn't have.
On the other hand, if you do manage to get to know people in either city, Seattlites are generally more interesting. Much more interesting. Every bar tender and barista in Seattle is aspiring to be something. Whether it be a PhD, a musician, a producer, a writer, whatever. In Vancouver, bar-tending is a career. Smoke weed and play video games in the day and bartend at night is the name of the game. Or waiter in the day and snowboard at night. I wont judge these people for choosing to live an unburdened life, but I will judge them for how incredibly vapid most of them are.
Seattle Has a Better Music Scene
Seattle is a city of music in a way that makes it unfair, if not meaningless, to compare it to Vancouver. As the home of grunge, it is one of North America's music capitals. Seattle doesn't just make musicians. It creates groundbreaking musicians: Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and Pearl Jam to name a few. Macklemore is pretty good, too.
Vancouver is More Organized, Seattle is More Chaotic
Vancouver zoning laws are brutally protective of mixing commercial, residential, or industrial area. The outcome is an autistic urban planner's wet dream: highly organized neighbourhood grids, straight lines, pristine hedges, and slow transitions between property types.
Seattle is almost the exact opposite. Breweries next to bike shops next to a stack of townhouses next to a highway next to factory a converted to a coffee shop converted to a yoga studio converted to a beed store.
There is a statue of Lenin in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. Not something you'd expect in America. Then again, Fremont's unofficial slogan is "De Libertas Quirkas" ("Freedom to be Peculiar")
Vancouver is Centralized
The thing about strict municipal zoning and urban planning is that urban planners really like centralization. They are taught density leads to a bunch of good stuff like better public transit and easier allocation of social services. And that is at least partly to explain why Vancouver is incredibly centralized. Everything happens in downtown Vancouver. People live there, they work there, and they go out there. Look at any list of top restaurants or bars in the city and odds are good that at least half of them are in downtown. The good? Downtown Vancouver is awesome. The bad? The rest of the city sometimes feels like a really big suburb.
Seattle, on the other hand, is all about neighbourhoods. Downtown Seattle kind of sucks. Maybe I could put it more eloquently than that, but "sucks" just fits. Pike Place market is nice and so is Pioneer Square, but the list mostly ends there. But what its downtown lacks, its neighborhoods make up for. The beauty about a city made up of discrete neighborhoods is that it's easier to feel like a member of a community. And when you feel like you want something new, to experience a new vibe or a different type of people, you only need to drive a few miles.
Seattle Has More Highways, Vancouver Has Better Transit
There aren't many bus lines in Seattle, and if you are lucky enough to find a bus that'll get you where you need to go, depending on the time and location, you might not want to get on. I was once on my way from downtown to Fremont when a guy in a blood-soaked wife beater and a fresh stab wound was trying to get on. Needless to say, it's nice if not necessary to have a car in Seattle.
Having a car in Vancouver, conversely, is nice but not necessary. Buses take you everywhere, and dedicated lanes sometimes make it faster to get around on the bus than a car in heavy traffic. On the downside, thanks to zoning (again), and wealthy property owners who don't want noise (or suburban "lessers"... let's be honest) in their neighborhoods, there are no real highways in the city of Vancouver. In rush hour it takes literally one hour to go the 15km from west side Vancouver to neighbouring Burnaby.
Time to Get Racial
When someone lands in Vancouver for the first time, the first thing they notice is how many Asian people there are. According to the 2006 census, almost 40 percent of the city is of East Asian (Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, or Korean) origin. This is why Vancouver has some of the best sushi and Chinese food outside of Asia, as well as perhaps the largest population of second generation Asians who do great accents and impressions of their parents.
It's a stretch to call Vancouver multi-cultural, though. When people from the City visit Seattle for the first time, they're normally shocked by all the black and hispanic people, which is funny because people in Seattle often make fun of how white the city is.
For all the sushi we have in Vancouver, it's impossible to find decent ribs, cajun food, or Mexican food. And while I make this all about food, that's only because that is the most obvious benefit of a pluralistic city. And to that extent, Seattle and Vancouver are kind of a draw. Fuck, I'm hungry.
I'm not here to say which is better. I love both cities. But they are not the same. If I look at the list above and think to myself, "what is it really that sets the cities apart?", it does come down to the nebulous Canadian/American thing. Seattle, like America is more economically free, more chaotic, more raw, more enterprising, more expressive, and more industrial than Vancouver. Meanwhile Vancouver is more compassionate, more organized, more pleasant, more free-flowing, and more untouched than Seattle. Both are great.