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Porto vs Lisbon: Which is better?

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Guest contributor Kirsten Raccuia is an American expat and writer living in Penang, Malaysia. She writes travel articles for BBC Travel, International Living and other publications. Here, she compares Lisbon with Porto.


If you’re planning a trip to Portugal and you have to choose between Porto vs Lisbon, I don’t envy your position.

It’s not an easy one.

You might even be wondering, is Porto worth visiting at all?

The answer is a very loud yes!

Lisbon vs Porto: Which is the better city?

Porto vs Lisbon: Comparing the two Portuguese cities

Porto vs Lisbon: Which is better?

Getting there and around

Lisbon

A colorful narrow street in Lisbon

Lisbon is located in western Europe on the Atlantic Ocean.

If you’re coming from North America, flying into Lisbon is easy. Lisbon is the capital, its airport is the largest in the country and it has the most international connections. You’ll have no problem finding direct flights to Lisbon.

Porto, not so much.

Once in Lisbon, it’s quite easy getting around using public transport. The vintage yellow trams that screech through the narrow streets are the most popular way to navigate the city – and the most photographed!

The vintage yellow trams that screech through the narrow streets of Lisbon are the most popular way to navigate the city.

Porto

If you’re coming from Europe, flying into Lisbon or Porto is a breeze.

Both airports are well connected with European routes.

From North America, however, you’ll likely have to fly to Lisbon first. From there, you can fly to Porto.

Porto

But the easiest way of getting from Lisbon to Porto is by train. The Porto to Lisbon train (operated by Comboios de Portugal, or CP) only takes about three hours and runs along the coast.

How far is Porto from Lisbon? It’s 195 miles, making both cities doable in one trip.

You can add Spain to the same trip too and visit both Spain and Portugal by train.

Within the city of Porto, the best way to get around is by foot. Trams, buses funiculars and Uber are also available.

Winner: Getting there

Lisbon takes the prize on this one, since it’s more accessible internationally.

Historical center

Lisbon

The Alfama district is Lisbon’s oldest and most historic area.

It’s one of the only areas that wasn’t completely destroyed in the 1755 earthquake that devastated Lisbon. 

The Alfama district is Lisbon's oldest and most historic area.

The best thing to do here is to wander.

The neighborhood’s crumbling ochre walls and soft white limestone buildings are woven into the labyrinth of alleyways. The cobbled streets are packed with cafés and wine bars.

It’s easy to never leave the area.

Sights in the Alfama:

Se Cathedral

The Se Cathedral is Lisbon’s oldest. Construction began in the 12th century on the site of a Moorish mosque.

The façade is medieval, but there’s an eclectic mix of Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque features. The jewel-toned stained glass windows are the highlight.

Fado Museum

Fado music is such an integral part of Lisbon. It oozes out of the pores of the city. The Fado Museum pays tribute to the history and meaning of these centuries-old soulful sounds.

St. George’s Castle

After a steep and winding climb, you’ll reach St. Georges Castle (Sao Jorge Castle). It’s the perfect spot for 360 degree views of the city’s whitewashed buildings and red roofs that seem to stretch on for miles.

Wander the castle’s walls and imagine what life was like there in the 11th century.

Porto

The Ribeira district is Porto’s historical center, and it’s perfect for strolling.

Wander the Cais da Ribeira which runs along the Douro River, and check out the 18th century homes dressed in colors of gold, claret and emerald. Take in the laid-back vibe of the café-packed streets.

And hop on a Rabelo boat for a tour on the river. (A Rabelo boat is a traditional Portuguese wooden boat used to transport port wine.)

A Rabelo boat is a traditional Portuguese wooden boat used to transport port wine.

One of the best (and free!) things to do in Porto is to get lost, take that little side street, follow the criss-crossed web of alleyways into the nooks and crannies of the area. See what you find.

Sights in the Ribeira:

Clerigos Church and tower

The Baroque-style Clerigos Church in Porto

Visit the Baroque-style Clerigos Church and its tower looming overhead. Climb to the top of the tower, all 225 steps of it, for a bird’s eye view of the city.

São Bento Train Station

The Sao Bento train station is covered in over 20,000 azulejo tiles (Portugal's celebrated blue and white tiles).

This is no ordinary train station – the inside is covered in over 20,000 azulejo tiles (Portugal’s celebrated blue and white tiles).

What’s unique about this train station’s display is its depiction of Portugal’s history. From weddings and pilgrimages to conquests and wars, it’s all there in blue and white.

Port wine tour:

No trip to Porto would be complete without tasting its namesake Port.

No trip to Porto would be complete without tasting its namesake.

Head across the river to the Vila Nova de Gaia neighborhood. Since the 17th century, wine barrels from the Douro Valley have been transported to port lodges in Gaia, where the wine is made into port.

There are loads of port and wine cellars to choose from, and they all offer wine tastings.

Winner: Historical center

The winner of the “Lisbon or Porto” historical center showdown is Lisbon.

But here’s the scoop. You won’t be bored in either city. They’re two of the best cities in Portugal to visit.

Still, Lisbon is the capital. With more tourist attractions, there’s more to do and see overall. So by default, the winner is Lisbon.

Where else to go in Portugal? If you love hiking, there are great levada walks in Madeira

Food and restaurants

Lisbon

Portugal’s namesake egg tart (pasteis de nata) originated in the Belem district of Lisbon. It’s a must-eat while there.

Portugal's namesake egg tart (pasteis de nata) originated in the Belem district of Lisbon.

Start your day with a flaky pastry filled with a sweet creamy-eggy center and blistered on top from high heat.

Another must-try food in Lisbon is the bifana sandwich.

Portuguese bifana sandwich

Bifana is simple but popular with locals and can be found all over the city.

It is garlic and herb-marinated pork, sliced and stuffed inside a freshly baked roll. It becomes tasty, juicy, porky goodness when cooking juices are poured all over the top. 

Where to eat in Lisbon?

Belcanto – A 2-Michelin star food experience

Cervejaria Ramiro – For exceptional seafood

Time Out Market – A massive food hall with all the best chefs under one roof

Porto

The traditional Portuguese food in Porto is a bit richer and more decadent than Lisbon’s.

The renowned francesinha is a heart-stopper – it’s a very meaty sandwich filled with ham, two types of sausage, steak and bologna.

But wait, there’s more…

Then it’s covered with melted cheese, topped with a gooey fried egg and smothered in a beer-and-tomato sauce.

Like I said, it’s a heart attack on a plate.

What to eat in Porto? A Francesinha sandwich!

Where to eat in Porto?

Petisqueira Voltaria – A tiny restaurant with big local flavors

Apego Restaurante – An exquisite seasonal food experience (go for the tasting menu)

Mercado Beira-Rio – A farmer’s market with loads of food stalls

The winner of the “Porto or Lisbon” food battle royale is…

There is no real loser in the food war between Lisbon vs. Porto. You can’t go wrong in either city.

However, Lisbon’s food scene is exploding with new generations of unique and international restaurants.

So the winner, just by an egg tart, is Lisbon. The sheer variety and options edge out Porto, but barely.

Local drink

Some of the best Portuguese wines are produced in the Douro Valley.

Lisbon

Ginjinha is Lisbon’s most well-known drink, and outside of Portugal, no one’s heard of it. So that tells you something.

The syrupy liqueur is made from brandy-infused sour cherries, sugar and cinnamon. And the result is a super sweet concoction you drink by the shot. It is said to cure all your ailments.

For the most authentic shot full, try it at A Ginjinha Bar.

This tiny bar next to Rossio Square opened in 1840 and has been in the same family for generations. There’s room for only three people at a time to squeeze in, standing up.

Porto

What to drink in Porto? Port wine, of course!

Since port is named after Porto and it’s one of the country’s most famous exports, you’ve got to know the wine is good here.

Plus, some of the best Portuguese wines are produced right in the adjacent Douro Valley.

Local drink winner

No question. The winner of the local drink contest between Porto and Lisbon is definitely Porto.

Most beautiful views

Lisbon

Lisbon is a city of hills. It’s not easy on the calves, but it is great to work off all the delicious egg tarts you’re eating daily.

More to the point, a hilly city makes for amazing views. And Lisbon has a myriad of miradouros, or viewpoints, which are a perfect way to end the day.

Don’t miss the Miradouro de Sao Pedro da Alcantara, a garden terrace offering panoramic views of the city. You’ll find it in Bairro Alto, a bohemian quarter with narrow streets, centuries’ old houses, street art and lively fado bars.

Don’t miss the Miradouro de Sao Pedro da Alcantara, a garden terrace offering panoramic views of Lisbon.

Also try Portas do Sol, Miradouro de Santa Luzia or Miradouro de Graca.

Most miradouros have wine bars and cafés to refresh yourself and recover. You can sit and take in the sweeping landscape while watching the setting sun turn the sky a coppery glow.

Porto

Even though Porto is by no means flat, it’s not nearly as hilly as Lisbon.

However, there are some fantastic viewpoints to take in the river and cityscape below.

The best is the viewpoint at Serra do Pilar (where the Monastery of Serra do Pilar is found). It’s an incredible view over the river and the vibrant homes of the Ribeira below.

The best viewpoint in Porto is at the Serra do Pilar.

Another option is the view from the Clérigos Church Tower.

If you don’t care about getting up high and just want a great view, head to the Ribeira riverside and plant yourself at one of the many cafés.

Winner of the Porto vs Lisbon viewpoint challenge?

Lisbon.

Your legs may hurt from climbing up all the steep hills, but once you’re at a miradouro, chilling with a cocktail, you’ll forget all about the pain.

Beaches

If you want beaches, you’re in luck. Both Porto and Lisbon are on the Atlantic coast, surrounded by enough beaches to keep you beach-hopping for days.

Lisbon

There are dozens of beautiful beaches surrounding Lisbon, and you really can’t go wrong. For a day at the beach, just hop on a train or in a car and pick one.

Some get incredibly crowded because of their close proximity to the city. If you’d prefer something more off-the-beaten-path, head south to Costa da Caparica.

Costa da Caparica is an off-the-beaten-track beach near Lisbon.

Porto

Even though most people don’t think of Porto as a beach destination, it really is. The city is right along the coast. It’s hugged by a dramatic landscape of golden sand beaches and rocky headlands.

Porto’s nearby beaches are much closer than Lisbon’s.

Praia do Carneiro is a 10-minute drive out of town, while 20 minutes from the city center is Matosinhos, a beginner’s surf beach.

Matisonhos, Portugal

Matosinhos is also known for its fresh fish market and seafood restaurants, where the sea bass, sole, monkfish and lobster were swimming in the ocean just a few hours earlier.

Plant yourself down at an outdoor resto, and your fish will be grilled on outdoor BBQ. Follow that with velvety crème brulee, uniquely prepared also on the grill.

Winner of the Port vs Lisbon debate on beaches?

Porto wins the beach face-off.

It’s not an easy decision because both cities are bordered by the gorgeous shoreline.

However, Porto takes the best beaches award because of the ease and proximity of its best beaches. (Now, if we’re talking about day trips, then Cascais is the beach winner – see next.)

Day trips

Lisbon

The Lisbon area has some incredible beaches and towns nearby that are must-sees.

Sintra:

Visiting the magical castle town of Sintra is a great day trip from Lisbon.

It feels like you’re walking through a fairy tale in this magical castle town.

A 45-minute train ride from Lisbon, Sintra is home to oodles of historical sites, including the UNESCO-listed Pena Palace, the 19th century Monserrate Palace and the Castle of the Moors.

You can even sleep overnight in a palace in Sintra – at the 5-star Palacio de Seteais.

Cascais:

Lovely Cascais, once the vacation retreat for Portuguese royals, has world-class  beaches.

Lovely Cascais, once the vacation retreat for Portuguese royals, has world-class beaches.

If visiting independently, take a stroll along a seaside promenade, perhaps rent a bike to pedal to Guincho Beach and linger over a fresh sea-to-table lunch.

Or if you prefer an all-in-one experience, check out this top-rated, all-day guided tour from Lisbon (with skip-the-line-tickets), combining a visit to Cascais with a visit to Sintra to see its gorgeous architecture (and explore Pena Palace).

Obidos:

One of the best day trips from Lisbon is an excursion to the medieval walled village of Obidos.

About an hour away from Lisbon by bus, the medieval walled village of Obidos is an enchanting mix of narrow cobblestone streets, houses awash in blue and yellow colors, souvenir shops, cafés and gardens bursting with calla lilies. The main city gate is beautifully adorned with azulejos.

Walk atop the wall encircling the hilltop town, poke about the streets and peek into the Obidos Castle (now a hotel).

Do you love medieval walled cities? Then you’ll love Dubrovnik – the best thing to do there is walk the Dubrovnik city walls

Evora:

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Evora is known for its Chapel of Bones (Franciscan monks used the skeletons of 5,000 dead people to build the chapel) and ancient Roman temple.

Chapel of Bones, Evora, Portugal

Porto

Porto has beaches, historic towns and the wine country nearby. The following are the best day trips from Porto:

Douro Valley:

Boat tours in the Douro Valley are popular day trips from Porto.

Take a Douro Valley wine tour via boat or train.

This highly-rated all-day tour (for a small group by mini-van) includes visits to two different vineyards, local Portuguese lunch and a one-hour Douro River cruise.

Braga:

The third largest city in Portugal, Braga has a pedestrian-only Old Town with beautiful Baroque churches, buzzing cafés (and excellent restaurants) and the oldest cathedral in Portugal.

Guimares:

A medieval town and UNESCO site, Guimares is known for its 10th century Guimares Castle (offering panoramic hilltop views) and the restored Dukes of Braganca Palace.

Aveiro:

Aveiro is one of the best day trips from Porto.

Visit Aveiro for a glimpse of a Portuguese Venice.

The city is criss-crossed by canals traversed by colorful boats. Once used for seaweed harvesting, these boats now carry tourists on canal cruises.

Read next: Did you know there are more than 400 bridges in Venice crossing over all those Venetian canals?

Winner of the Lisbon vs Porto day trip duel?

This is a hard one. I’d like to call it a tie, but wine tours and beaches are pretty much my happy places, so I’m going with Porto.

However, the better choice for you really depends on what you’re looking for on vacation. Are you a city lover? A culture craver? A beach bum? A wine devotee?

You can have it all in Portugal. It just depends on your travel style.

Accommodation

Lisbon

Olissippo Lapa Palace:

The Olissippo Lapa Palace is a luxury 5-star hotel in Lisbon.

The best place for a palatial stay in Lisbon is, you guessed it, in a restored palace.

Hidden away in Lisbon’s exclusive embassy district, the Olissippo Lapa Palace Hotel oozes luxury with elegant rooms, furnished with antiques. It also boasts a large outdoor pool, nestled in a lush garden.

Olissippo Lapa Palace: Check rates and availability

Hotel da Baixa:

Hotel da Baixa is a gem of a 4-star hotel in Lisbon.

For an excellent 4-star hotel in Lisbon’s downtown historic area, the boutique Hotel da Baixa is a real gem. Contemporary rooms come with Nespresso coffee makers, bathrobes and powered blinds. Breakfasts are excellent, with a good selection of gluten-free and vegan options.

Hotel da Baixa: Check rates and availability

Porto

The Yeatman:

The Yeatman is the best hotel in Porto.

A member of the Relais & Chateaux collection, the Yeatman is considered by many to be the best hotel in Porto. Set atop a hill among the port wine lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, the luxury hotel has sweeping views of Porto and a decanter-shaped outdoor pool.

Wine lovers, especially, will appreciate its wine cellar with over 20,000 bottles.

The Yeatman: Check rates and availability

PortoBay Flores:

The new PortoBay Flores is a 5-stay hotel in the heart of Porto.

Right in the heart of Porto, this new 5-star hotel (opened in 2019) is the reincarnation of a 500-year-old palace. The design blends wrought iron balconies and grandiose stone archways with contemporary, tastefully decorated guest rooms.

PortoBay Flores: Check rates and availability

Winner for good hotels?

What’s excellent about Lisbon and Porto is the ease of finding accommodations in your neighborhood and price point.

However, Lisbon is a larger city and has more options. So, if I had to pick a winner in the hotels category, I’d say it’s Lisbon.

Lisbon vs Porto: Best city?

Having to choose between these two fascinating and different cities is like having to choose between wine and chocolate. I want both. But you came here for a decision.

So, Porto or Lisbon: Which is better?

Lisbon, the bigger city, takes the award – but not without a good fight from Porto. If it’s your first time in Portugal, you simply can’t skip Lisbon. Like Berlin, it’s one of the “it” European capitals.

However, the distance from Lisbon to Porto is relatively close. If you have enough time, don’t choose, visit both Portuguese cities and compare for yourself. You won’t be sorry.


About the author:

A Chicago girl at heart, Kirsten Raccuia lives with her husband in Penang, Malaysia, where she writes about the realities of expat life. (“It’s insane, absurd and laughable, and the best thing I’ve ever done!”)

See her blog Sand In My Curls for her unique and funny perspective on living abroad, along with other travel guides.

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