Guest contributor Kirsten Raccuia is a well-traveled American expat living in Malaysia. A travel lover, she writes for BBC and other publications. Here, she compares Lisbon with Porto.
If you’re planning a trip to Portugal in western Europe, and you have to choose between Porto vs Lisbon, I don’t envy your position.
It’s not an easy decision.
Is Lisbon worth visiting? The capital city, it is colorful, cultural and has bagged piles of ink for its holiday appeal. Visiting Lisbon is a no-brainer.
So you might even be wondering, is Porto worth visiting at all?
The answer is also a very loud yes!
Porto vs Lisbon: Comparing the two Portuguese cities
Porto and Lisbon are the two largest cities of Portugal.
Located beside the Tagus River in western Portugal, Lisbon is the biggest, with a population of over 500,000. It’s about 39 square miles in size, and you need to take a tram to get around between some of the tourist areas.
Where is Porto?
Also on the Atlantic Coast, it’s located in the northern part of the country.
It’s the smaller city, with a population hovering around 250,000.
And at 16 square miles, Porto is more compact. You can see much of it by walking up and down its hilly streets.
Now that we have our geography behind us, let’s look at some of the unique features of each city – so you can decide which to visit if time is short.
Getting there and around
Let’s start with flying to Portugal and transportation within the two major cities.
If you’re coming from the United States or Canada, flying into Lisbon is easy. Lisbon’s airport is the largest in the country, with 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!
If you’re coming from Europe, flying into Lisbon or Porto is a breeze.
Both have international airports that 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 in the northern part of the country.
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.
Both Lisbon and Porto are blessed with lively historic centers made for walking and poking about. But there are differences…
Lisbon’s historic neighborhoods
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 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:
The Se Cathedral is Lisbon’s oldest. Construction began in the 12th century on the site of a Moorish mosque.
The facade is medieval, but there’s an eclectic mix of Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque features. The jewel-toned stained glass windows are the highlight.
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.
Lisbon has several other historic neighborhoods too.
In particular, the Belem district in the western part of the city is where you’ll find many of the most famous monuments and attractions in Lisbon.
One is the Jeronimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos). Its cloisters are magnificent.
The other is the Belem Tower (Torre de Belem), officially the Tower of Saint Vincent.
This 16th century historical building served as a fortress to protect the city. It’s also the place where Portuguese explorers like Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan set sail from Lisbon.
Porto’s historic center
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.)
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
Visit the Baroque-style Clerigos Church and its tower looming overhead.
Climb to the top of the tower (Torre dos Clerigos), all 225 steps of it, for a bird’s eye view of the city.
Sao Bento Train Station
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.
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.
Where else to go in Portugal? If you love hiking, there are great levada walks in Madeira
Food and restaurants
The Portuguese love good food. You certainly won’t go hungry!
Portugal has its own culinary traditions, different from what you find in neighboring European countries. And within the country there are regional differences.
Food in Lisbon
Portugal’s namesake egg tart (pasteis de nata) originated in the Belem district of Lisbon. It’s a must-eat while there.
Start your day with this 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.
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.
Food in 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 drink in 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.
What to drink in Porto
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.
Most beautiful views
Both cities offer gasp-worthy views. Read on for the best viewpoints in each…
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.
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.
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.
Another option is the view from the Clerigos 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.
If you want beaches, you’re in luck.
Both Porto and Lisbon are on the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by enough beaches to keep you beach-hopping for days.
Beachs in 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.
Beaches in 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.
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 an outdoor BBQ. Follow that with velvety crème brulee, uniquely prepared also on the grill.
Both cities offer a wealth of amazing day trips.
Lisbon day trips
The Lisbon area has some incredible beaches and towns nearby that are must-sees.
Visiting Sintra is one of the best day trips 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.
Sintra, in fact, is one of the big reasons to visit Lisbon!
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).
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
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.
Porto day trips
Porto has beaches, historic towns and the wine country nearby. The following are the best 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.
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.
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.
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?
Take the train from Porto to Penafiel (45-minute trip) for one of the best hikes in Portugal. Talk to farmers, walk among ruins of Roman houses and pass through small local villages on the Penafiel hiking trail.
Accommodation in Portugal is relatively good value, compared with France, Spain and Italy. You won’t have any difficulty finding great places to bed down.
Just be aware that in high season, the best places to stay in Lisbon and Porto get booked up early, so you’ll want to make advance reservations.
Where to stay in Lisbon
Olissippo Lapa Palace:
The best place for a palatial stay in Lisbon is, you guessed it, in a restored palace.
Hotel da Baixa:
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
Where to stay 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
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
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. (Save Porto for your next trip to Portugal.)
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.