Ready to travel? Click here to plan your next trip!
The Best Iberian Capital

The Best Iberian Capital

Every time I go back, the Iberian Peninsula notches up in my rankings of favorite places in Europe. From the amazing weather, to the beautiful cityscapes, to the delicious food, there’s very little not to love about Spain and Portugal.

Of course, while these countries (and their capital cities) do share some similarities with one another, the reality is that they’re different in other profound ways as well. One isn’t a direct replacement for the other, even if you don’t have time to visit both. 

In particular, I’ll be talking you through some of the differences of Madrid vs Lisbon. These are two of the European cities I love the most—I hope reading what I have to say gets you excited!

Need help planning your trip to Europe? Hire me as your Travel Coach!

How I Came to Know (And Love) Both Madrid and Lisbon

I started deciding between Madrid or Lisbon pretty early in my life as a traveler. I first visited both during my autumn 2011 trip to Europe and North Africa, starting with Madrid in October and Lisbon in November. At that time, I loved both cities, but found Lisbon to be a generally quieter city—it was less crowded, and it was easier. (I’ve been back multiple times since and…well, Lisbon is not quiet anymore, let’s just say that!)

My subsequent explorations of both these capitals, to be sure, have occurred largely within the context of their larger countries. While I have yet to do the Camino de Santiago from Porto (or at all), I have ultimately explored much of Portugal—and not just Porto, but the Algarve and smaller cities like Aveiro and Coimbra as well. Likewise, I spent two entire weeks in Spain in 2022 alone!


Ways to Compare Madrid with Lisbon


Lisbon’s city center has a denser array of attractions than Madrid, whether you’re looking down on hilly Alfama from Castelo de São Jorge, or snacking on a pastel de nata as you wait to enter Jeronimos Monastery in Belém. Madrid too, of course, has many awesome attractions, from the Royal Palace in the west of the city, to the Parque del Buen Retiro (and adjacent El Prado Museum) in the east. 

Getting there and around

Both of these cities have regular air service from multiple cities in the US. If you’re coming from within Europe, meanwhile, it’s conceivable to reach Madrid by high-speed train; Lisbon will likely require a flight. In terms of getting around in Lisbon vs Madrid, I find Lisbon to be more wholly walkable (with the exception of Belem, which requires a tram ride down the river); the Madrid Metro is indispensable in that city.


Madrid has gotten global plaudits for its dining scene in recent years, but I find that both its tapas bars and ordinary restaurants are less than hospitable to solo travelers. Lisbon, by contrast, is generally more inviting, whether at small, family eateries in Alfama or at upscale spots in Barrio Alto. Both Lisbon’s TimeOut Market and Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel are fabulous foodie destinations.

Natural scenery

This is an area where Lisbon and Madrid couldn’t be more different from one another. Lisbon sits along the Tagus River near where it opens into the Atlantic. This, combined with the fact that the ocean just isn’t far away, really gives the city a coastal feeling. Landlocked Madrid feels dry and dusty by comparison, though that is of course not without its charms.

Day trips and excursions

You could fully occupy an entire trip simply by staying in either of these cities’ centers—but why would you want to? My favorite day trips from Lisbon include medieval Sintra and its Pena Palace, plus the coastal idyll of Cascais. From Madrid, meanwhile, the castle city of Segovia and history-rich Toledo are tops, but these places are just the beginning.


How Many Days Do You Need in Lisbon? What About Madrid?

Unless you plan on taking epic walks in Europe and really need a lot of space in your itinerary, neither of these cities is going to take you very long to explore. I usually recommend around 2-4 days in Lisbon, depending upon how many day trips you want to take. You need parts of two days to see the city itself; you can combine Sintra and Cascais into one day trip, or do them separately.

Moving on from Lisbon to Madrid, things are a bit more complicated. Not because Madrid is a complicated city—it definitely isn’t—but because it’s larger both in terms of what to do in the city center, as well as offering many more destinations you can visit on day trips. My favorites, Segovia and Toledo, are relatively far from one another, which makes it inopportune to do both in one day.

Other FAQ About Visiting Lisbon or Madrid

Is it better to visit Lisbon or Madrid?

I love Lisbon and Madrid for different reasons, though the cities are different. Lisbon probably has better “attractions,” but is also more touristic on the whole. Madrid, by contrast, feels like more of a “real” city, but because of that, might not immediately charm you as much as Lisbon does.

Is Lisbon more expensive than Madrid?

Lisbon is similarly priced to Madrid, which is to say that both cities are pretty noticeably cheaper than most of their other Western European counterparts. While in the past I’d probably have said that Lisbon was cheaper than Madrid, Portugal’s tourism boom has meant this is no longer true.

Which city is bigger, Madrid or Lisbon?

Madrid is bigger than Lisbon both in terms of population (3.2 million vs about 500,000) and land area (600 vs. 100 square miles). Likewise, I do find that for tourists to both cities, Lisbon tends to be smaller and more easily navigable on foot, though Madrid is also perfectly walkable in most places.

The Bottom Line

Madrid vs Lisbon isn’t as direct a comparison as you might think. While both cities are colorful, inviting and sunny most of the year, key differences exist between them. And not just that Lisbon’s orientation along the waterfront makes its character fundamentally different from that of landlocked Madrid, though this is an important distinction. Ultimately, I do hope you’re able to visit both of these cities at some point, and to compare them for yourself. In the meantime, I hope my insights have proven helpful—and that if you need more assistance, you won’t be shy about hiring me as your Travel Coach.


Subscribe to email updates!

Words, images and design ©2009-2024 Robert Schrader, All rights reserved. Read Privacy Policy or view sitemap.