Traveling is often seen as an opportunity to see a new city — visit tourist attractions, try new foods, and overall just to relax. After all, traveling is often associated with vacations, and the last thing you should be doing is working.
Over the past year, I've had the privilege of visiting a number of cities for the first time, across North America. Some were in the Pacific Northwest, like Vancouver and Portland, others on the West Coast, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, and a handful on the East Coast, like Boston and New York (where I'm currently writing this post).
In a lot of ways, I succumbed to the typical approach of visiting a city. I had a list of places to go and restaurants to try, making it a priority to check them off my list. At the same time, I had an urge to not just see the city, but experience the city — to understand the people that live there, their attitude towards life, and how the city affects that.
In this post, I'll be diving into the differences I noticed in the cities I visited, how I think it affects one's lifestyle, and what that means for me moving forward.
There are some stark differences between North American cities that even Captain Obvious would laugh at. It snows on the East Coast, rains heavily in the Pacific Northwest, and has a temperament climate on the West Coast.
This affects you depending on what you're looking for in a city. If you hate the snow, then maybe the East Coast isn't the best fit. If you don't really care for nature, the Pacific Northwest won't have the same allure. These are observations that are easy to make.
I found physical factors to have a reasonable impact on where I want to live, but less so than other people. Growing up in Canada, I'm used to the snow, extreme weather (hot/cold), and a bit of nature to enjoy. Moving to San Francisco and having the same weather year-round was odd and also wasn't necessarily a good / bad thing. With that being said, I'm sure someone who lived in LA and moved to Toronto would be shocked by the snow, and will probably either love it or hate it.
The reason being, that physical factors dictate a lot beyond what the city looks like. In Toronto, there's winter style, summer style, etc. In San Francisco, that's really not the case. From another angle, there's a changing of seasons in Toronto, and that helps you identify with the passing of time, whereas in San Francisco, it looks the same year-round, so it can be hard to tell.
There are also observations that will take some more thought, like analyzing how the city is built. I rented a car when I visited Los Angeles a month ago, and it was a decision I'm glad I made. It can be 45-60 minutes from Venice Beach to Koreatown, and similar distances to the downtown, Santa Monica, and other areas of the Greater LA area.
The lifestyles of people who live in LA are impacted by this factor. Compared to New York, where the entire city is accessible by 20-30 minutes on the subway, people I met in LA had to think more deeply about their plans and friend groups. If you live on the Upper West side in NYC, grabbing drinks with a friend in Manhattan doesn't take a lot of effort. For someone in LA, there are a ton of factors — is there parking where I'm going? How is traffic? Will I drink too much to drive? How badly do I really want to see this friend?
Chatting with a friend in NYC who moved from LA, these were all valid considerations. It led to a smaller friend group, largely based by where in LA you lived. In New York, that isn't as much of a concern, so your friends are spread out across the city — and you typically have a lot more of them.
Now contrast that to San Francisco, where the subway (BART) only runs through one part of the city, and Uber is necessary to get anywhere else. I never go and visit my friends in South Bay (San Jose, Mountain View, etc), and rarely go to the West side of the city (Outer Richmond, Sunset, etc). There are distinct communities based on where you live, and a divide between SF proper and the surrounding Bay Area. This changes based on the city you live in, and affects how large your friend group is and what you do with them.
The biggest difference I've found between cities is the attitude that people have — towards work, friends, and really just their general outlook on life. In LA, the vibe was pretty laid back, with people working hard but taking time to enjoy the weather, restaurants, and shopping. Conversations with friends here showed me that there was rarely one hard focus (i.e. work, specific interest, etc), and things definitely moved a little slower.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but it made me wonder what type of person I'd be (or need to be) to live in LA. Draw a contrast to New York, where most people I met were laser-focused on a specific goal or interest. A friend working in education technology wasn't distracted by what else the city had to offer, instead spending 90% of his time on work or other endeavours surrounding that interest. The same went for people in finance, advertising, etc. It's a city that moves fast, and you either know yourself before going in, or the city dictates it for you. People I met weren't necessarily happy with their current lifestyles, but they knew their goals and why they were doing what they were doing.
Now a final contrast to San Francisco; I found that despite all the stigma around brutal work culture, the city itself upholds a good work-life balance. People are larger companies (Google, Facebook, etc) commute from SF to South Bay (~ 1hr), putting in reasonable hours from Monday to Thursday, and working remotely (from the city) on Fridays. Weekends are an open window — trips to Tahoe, day drinking at Dolores Park, and lining up for brunch on Sundays. Everyone works hard, and stays accountable to their projects, but I found SF sits in the middle of the spectrum between LA and NYC — there isn't a laser-focused mentality, but there also is a fair amount of direction around what you're doing.
So what's the verdict — what is the best city to live in? I think the answer is: it depends, largely on your value system and what your goals are. If you're young, very interested in a specific area, and want to commit to that, maybe NYC is the place for you. If you're more interested in personal development and a more chill culture, then LA could be a better fit. And if you're... Well, if you're in tech and want to maximize that, then SF is a solid choice.
Unfortunately I didn't spend enough time in Portland or Boston to have a solid opinion on them, but I know they both have their unique allure and culture that you'd have to experience to understand. Boston is flushed with post-secondary institutions, has distinct areas like New York (Cambridge, South Boston, downtown), but to a smaller scale. I didn't feel it being very fast-paced, but the industries (healthcare, tech) that thrived there fed into the vibe. Portland is known for craft breweries, nature, and a hipster culture, but I couldn't really place the work culture or general vibe.
There are a bunch of externalities to this that I didn't mention, like if you value being close to home, have a significant other, etc. Personally, I'm not sure where I'll end up after graduation. But I'm glad I visited a bunch of different cities to see what they're really like, and chatted with people living there, as it really gives you a better sense of what that city is like (and if it's a good fit for you).