Portugal has become Europe’s “it” destination—and it feels like it. Unless you visit during the deepest part of winter (which, let’s face it, is not so cold and dark there), Portugal’s big cities are some of the most bustling on the continent.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. But it is a good idea to set realistic expectations for places like Lisbon and Porto before you get there, particularly if you aren’t going to have time within your Portugal itinerary to go further off the beaten path.
Whether or not you end up having to choose between these two Portuguese cities, here’s how to think about them as you put your trip together.
Why I’ve Visited Both Lisbon and Porto
I’ll be frank: If you have more than a few days in Portugal, I don’t recommend choosing between Porto or Lisbon. Both of these cities are essential to understanding the bigger picture of the country. Lisbon, as the capital, is the nuclear of Portuguese culture, cuisine and architecture, while Porto (which sits on the country’s northern periphery) pushes these boundaries in more ways than one.
During my first trip to Portugal, I visited Porto simply as a yin to Lisbon’s yang. I didn’t plan to travel southward to the Algarve or fly offshore to the Azores, so a few days in Porto presented the ideal opportunity to see another side of Portugal. Ideally, you’ll spend a couple of weeks in Portugal and be able to do all these destinations (and then some) but then, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
How to Compare Lisbon with Porto
In my opinion, Lisbon is a bit denser when it comes to attractions than Porto. If you get bored of the countless attractions on your way up the hill from Praça do Comércio up to Castelo de São Jorge, you can ride a tram down the river to Belem, where monasteries and towers await. In Porto, meanwhile, you’ve really just got a handful of attractions on either side of the Douro River.
Both Lisbon and Porto are defined by tightly-packed churches, homes and other buildings that range in age from a few decades to a few centuries. Contrasts in colors, whether in terms of different blocks of color along a row of houses, or the unique color palette created by azulejo tiles that cover the fronts of certain buildings and plazas, further add character to both skylines.
Indeed, when contrasting Lisbon and Porto, they’re as similar when it comes to their landscapes as they are in terms of their cityscapes. Both are sprawled on hillsides on the bank of a major river. The main difference, at least for tourists, is that Porto is more or less bisected by its river, while Lisbon sits primarily on the north bank of its river.
Food and drink
Both Porto and Lisbon are culinary capitals, whether you sit down in a restaurant to dine on seafood or petiscos (aka Portuguese-style tapas), or make your way through markets such as Lisbon’s TimeOut market. Unless you take a food tour or otherwise plan to dive deep into regional differences in Portuguese cuisine, I’d say these cities are pretty equal on the food front.
From Porto, you should obviously rent a car and continue driving into the Douro Valley, particularly if the port wine you sampled in the Vila Nova de Gaia part of the city appealed to you. From Lisbon, you’ve got even more options. You can stay close to town and take day trips to medieval Sintra and coastal Cascais, or even hit the road head south to the sun-seeking Algarve coast.
How Many Days Should I Spend in Lisbon and Porto?
If you only plan to visit Lisbon and Porto on your trip to Portugal, then I’d recommend dividing 5-7 days between the cities. This will allow you two full days in Lisbon, as well as the option of taking a day trip to Sintra or Cascais. From here, you can head north to Porto for 1-2 days, then rent a car and drive into the Douro Valley for 1-2 more days.
Of course, the longer you can spend in these cities, the better. You could easily devote a week each to the Lisbon and Porto areas, with the latter including the option of driving southward into Portugal’s interior. On the other hand, if you have just 3-4 days in Portugal, you can obviously condense your Lisbon and Porto itinerary to focus only on the most essential destinations and experiences.
Other FAQ About Porto and Lisbon
Which is better, Porto or Lisbon?
If we are just talking about city centers, I think Lisbon’s is more interesting. From central districts like Baixa and Chiado to Belem located just down the river, you can spend 2-3 days just exploring “main” attractions, without even talking about day trips. In Porto, on the other hand, things don’t really come together until you venture outward into the Douro Valley wine lands.
Which is cheaper, Porto or Lisbon?
Both Porto and Lisbon are pretty affordable compared to other major cities in Europe. However, since your trip to Porto will probably precede a road trip into the Douro Valley—and since renting a car in Europe is always pretty expensive—you’ll probably spend less on a per-day basis in Lisbon.
Are the beaches better in Porto or Lisbon?
If you want to swim in the ocean while in Portugal, you really need to head down to the Algarve, where beaches are more beautiful and feature warmer water than those near Lisbon or Porto. However, if we are just comparing these two cities, then the beaches near Lisbon (in particular, the ones in Cascais) are much better than ones near Porto.
The Bottom Line
Both Lisbon and Porto are worth visiting if you have time, although they offer very different travel experiences from one another. Lisbon is more culturally, culinarily and architecturally dense than Porto, which is worth visiting primarily for its proximity to the Douro Valley wine region. Of course, an array of awesome potential day trips boast Lisbon’s attractiveness as a destination, namely medieval Sintra and coastal Cascais. Want to take your trip to Portugal up a notch? Hire me as your Travel Coach—and let me sweat the details!