Last Updated on July 31, 2020 by Anisa
If you haven’t been to Portugal yet, you need to go! There is so much to see we couldn’t fit it all in our 8 day Portugal itinerary. I know some of you may not have that much time to spend in Portugal – you may only have a weekend or maybe your budget is tight.
If that is the case, you are probably wondering what city in Portugal you should go to. The most popular choices are Lisbon and Porto. Both are amazing cities, but if you can only pick one, what do you do?
I want to go over the similarities and differences between the two largest cities in Portugal, so you can decide which one (Lisbon or Porto) you should visit. If you are lucky even to be able to visit both cities, this information can also help you figure out if you want to spend more time in Lisbon or Porto.
If you are planning a trip, you might appreciate my free printable travel checklist.
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Porto or Lisbon: Which one is best?
It’s not a simple question. Both cities are amazing and in an ideal world, you would get to visit both. Unfortunately, time is limited and sometimes you have to choose. Let’s take a look at the different factors you should take into consideration when choosing between Porto and Lisbon.
When you have limited time to travel, you have to take into consideration the time it takes to get to your destination. Longer travel time means less time you have to enjoy it.
If you are traveling from the US, you are going to have an easier time getting to Lisbon than to Porto. The only US airport that has direct flights to Porto is Newark, while you can fly directly to Lisbon from Newark, JFK, Miami, Boston, and Philadelphia. The Portuguese airline TAP plans to add direct flights to Lisbon from Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC in June 2019.
If you are not based close to Newark airport, then you can either book a flight with a layover (in Newark or perhaps London) to get to Porto or fly to Lisbon and take the train or bus to get from Lisbon to Porto. The trip from Lisbon to Porto takes around 3-4 hours and will cost around another €30 each way.
If you are flying from Europe, both Porto and Lisbon are equally easy to get to. Both are served by many major and discount airlines.
Both Lisbon and Porto Airports are located close to the city. They both have public transportation options or a taxi would cost around €20. In Porto, the public transportation options from the airport are included in the Porto Pass.
In general, I was impressed with the quality of the food everywhere I visited in Portugal. Each area does have its specialty though. In Lisbon’s Belem neighborhood we had the best Pastéis de Nata (Portuguese egg custards) on our entire trip. Not surprisingly, that’s where they were invented.
Porto is known for the Francesinha, which is a sandwich with lots of meat covered with melted cheese, a sunnyside-up egg, and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce. We were too full from our Porto Food tour that we didn’t get a chance to try the famous sandwich. It is on the list for next time. Porto is also known for the tripe dish, Tripas à Moda do Porto, but we weren’t brave enough to try it!
One other food experience that you must try when you are in Portugal is Fado. Fado is a Portuguese style of music that is very expressive and mostly melancholic. Some restaurants will have live Fado performers during dinner. While it originated in Lisbon, you can also have a Fado dinner in Porto.
Lisbon is the capital and largest city in Portugal, so not surprisingly it has the most attractions. We loved St. Jorge’s Castle, Jeronimos Monastery, and the Belem Tower. Both Alfama and Bairro Alto are charming neighborhoods to explore. There were many other attractions that we didn’t have time to get to like the Discoveries Monument, Basílica da Estrela, the Oceanarium, or any of the museums. I would have also liked to do a boat cruise on the Tagus.
Don’t worry in Porto, you won’t be bored. There is still plenty to see. We spent most of our time sampling the port and the food. We did get a chance to pop into São Bento Train Station which some say is the most beautiful in the world. Some of the other top attractions in Porto are the Clérigos Tower (360 views from the top), Crystal Palace gardens, Monastery of Serra do Pilar, and Porto Cathedral.
Overall Portugal is one of the cheaper destinations in Western Europe. For us, there wasn’t a noticeable difference in prices when we visited Porto and Lisbon. Both cities offer a range of both budget and luxury hotels, restaurants, tours, etc.
Both cities also offer tourist attraction passes:
- The Lisboa Card includes unlimited travel by bus, metro, tram, elevadores, the CP train lines to Sintra and Cascais, free admission to 26 tops attractions, and discounts on other tours, shopping and nightlife. Options for the Lisboa card start at €19. You can find more details about the Lisboa card here.
- The Porto Card includes unlimited public transportation on buses and metro in Porto, the suburban trains between Valongo and Espinho, free admission to 11 attractions, and discounts for certain other sights, tours, restaurants, bars, cafes, Fado shows, stores, parking, and rental cars. Options for the Porto card start at €6. You can find more details about the Porto Card here.
You may not have time for a day trip if you only have a few days in Portugal, but both cities do have some exciting options. From Lisbon, the most popular one is a day trip to Sintra, which is a must for castle lovers like myself. From Porto, many visitors go to the Douro Valley, the most famous wine region in Portugal.
It’s also possible to do a day trip to some towns located between Porto and Lisbon from either city. I don’t think it is practical to do a day trip from Lisbon to Porto (or vice versa). It would be more than 3 hours of travel time each way.
When a place is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you know it is worth a visit. Those that enjoy checking off visiting UNESCO sites are in luck, both cities have them. The historic center of Porto, the Luiz I Bridge and Monastery of Serra do Pilar are on the list! In Lisbon, the Monastery of the Hieronymites (more commonly referred to as Jerónimos Monastery) and Tower of Belém together form a UNESCO site.
Both cities also have UNESCO sites that you can do as a day trip. The Alto Douro Wine Region is a popular day trip from Porto. The Cultural Landscape of Sintra is a UNESCO site that you can visit on a day trip from Lisbon.
Overall both cities have fantastic weather. It doesn’t get too cold in the winter and summers are warm. Since Lisbon is a bit south of Porto, it is slightly warmer. For example, the average high in Lisbon in August is 82°F compared to 77°F in Porto. Lisbon also gets a little bit less rain. The average annual rainfall in Lisbon is 30 inches compared to 46 inches in Porto.
Lisbon is a bigger city than Porto and it has more significant attractions, so more tourists tend to visit Lisbon. For the most part, the crowds in Lisbon did not bother us, except when we had to wait in line forever for the Belem Tower and when we took the Number 28 Tram. It was my fault though because I should have spent a little more for the skip the line tickets in Belem. I also think if your time is limited it’s not worth taking the 28 tram in Lisbon.
In Porto, the one place we had an issue with crowds was at Livraria Lello. Since the famous bookstore is one of the spots connected to Harry Potter in Porto, I should have known it would be crowded. I thought it was a bookstore and we could just pop inside for a few photos. Wrong! The line was crazy and I wish I would have known you need to buy tickets in advance. We didn’t have any other issues with crowds in Porto, and we even had our own cable car on our ride along the Douro river.
In general, Portugal is a safe country. It is one of the 20 safest countries according to the World Economic Forum. Still, you need to keep your guard up, especially in tourist areas and on crowded trains/buses. Being a bigger city with more tourists, Lisbon has more petty crime than Porto. It wouldn’t stop me from visiting either city, even if I was traveling solo.
In some places, it can be hard to get around if you don’t speak the language. I don’t speak any Portuguese but I didn’t have any communication issues in Portugal. In fact, the majority of people that I came across spoke excellent English in both Lisbon and Porto.
At this stage in my life, nightlife is more about fancy cocktails, quiet conversation, and getting a good night sleep! I still remember the days when I would dance until dawn though. If nightlife is important to you, I don’t think you will be disappointed with either city.
Both cities also have several bars where you can enjoy nice cocktails with a view. Try Park or UpScale at Epic Sana Hotel in Lisbon or Portobello Rooftop Bar or 17° Restaurant & Bar (otherwise known as Decimo Setimo Restaurant & Bar) in Porto.
Keep in mind that like in many other Latin cultures, the evening starts later than it would in the US or UK. Many bars stay open until at least 3 am, while clubs are usually open until 6 am. Clubs may not let you in if you are not dressed appropriately.
In Lisbon, you will probably pay a bit more for drinks and entry to clubs than in Porto, but again, there is a range of options in every budget. The Bairro Alto neighborhood has over 100 bars and restaurants. For nightclubs, check out Groove Bar, Urban Beach, Lux, or Plateau, which are located in different areas.
In Porto, the nightlife scene has exploded in the last few years. In the Baixa area, head towards Galerias de Paris or Cândido dos Reis to find bars and clubs for all tastes. For those interested in house music, the Zona Industrial area is a bit outside the city center but has a bunch of discos best to take a taxi (or Uber) if you want to go.
The good news is that you do not need a car to get around in either city. Both have reasonable public transportation options. You can also walk or take a taxi or uber if necessary. Since we visited Porto on our Portugal road trip, we had a car with us. Traffic inside the city center was terrible, so we kept it parked while we were there.
We mostly walked in Porto, although when we were tight on time we did take an uber. They have a newer metro system (opened in 2002) that is clean and efficient but not comprehensive. For some areas, it is better to take the bus or tram. The metro and buses are included in the Porto Pass.
Lisbon is a much bigger city than Porto and there are several transportation options. We rode the metro on several occasions and found it modern, efficient, clean, and reasonably priced. There are also trams and buses depending on where you want to go. The metro, buses, and trams are all included with the Lisboa Card.
Both cities have some transportation options that double as tourist attractions. Lisbon has the 28 tram and the Santa Justa Elevator. Porto has the cable car along the Douro River in Gaia and the Funicular dos Guindais.
Expect to do a fair bit of exploring by foot in either city. Keep in mind both cities have hills!
Unfortunately, like many other destinations, Portugal has some work to do to become more accessible. Many old buildings have not been updated. In general, hotels will have accessible rooms but you may be best to look outside the old city centers. Additionally, Portugal is known for its cobblestone streets which can be difficult in a wheelchair.
Lisbon is the city of seven hills so that can be a challenge for those with mobility issues. Some of the newer public transportation options are accessible but it’s inconsistent. For example, only some metro stations have elevators but I couldn’t find a map to tell you which ones do.
Most attractions and restaurants have steps to enter. One popular attraction that is fully accessible is Jerinomos Monastery! It is free for people with disabilities and even has a disabled bathroom. Many of the other attractions have to be appreciated from the outside. You can read more about accessible attractions in Lisbon here.
Porto, like Lisbon, is a hilly city, but they have done a better job of making it accessible. Their metro is relatively new and the accessible areas are marked in green on this map. Several of the popular attractions in Porto are wheelchair accessible like Rosa Mota Pavilion, Serralves Museum, and the Clerigos Tower. You can take an elevator so that you can enjoy the spectacular views. You can read more about accessibility in Porto here.
Lisbon or Porto? It’s a Hard Decision
I am so glad I got to visit both Porto and Lisbon on my first trip to Portugal. It would be too hard for me to choose between the two! My logical side says Lisbon, but there is something about Porto that pulls at my heart.
Ok, now after learning more about both cities, which one would you choose? I hope that if you only get to visit Porto or Lisbon on your first trip you are able to go back to see the other city at some point. Maybe even do a road trip in Portugal!
Expert Tips for Choosing Between Lisbon and Porto
- Both cities are fantastic travel destinations, so I am sure you will love whichever one you choose. Hopefully, you get the chance to return and visit the other one.
- Lisbon is a bigger city with more attractions. You can also do a day trip to Sintra.
- Fans of port wine will appreciate visiting the port houses in Porto.
- If you have mobility issues, Porto seems to be more accommodating.
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