Sometimes we have to make hard choices. Like ice cream or gelato. Beaches or mountains. Lisbon or Porto. Portugal has fast become one of my favorite countries in Europe, and Lisbon and Porto are two of my favorite cities.
These two towns are only a 3 hour train ride or 45 minute flight apart, but they have their own distinct character. Though I’m sure you’d love to visit both, limited time and budgets don’t always allow. If you have to make the hard choice, here’s a few differences between the two to help you pick the better fit for your next trip.
The saying goes, “Porto works, Braga Prays, Coimbra studies, and Lisbon gets the money.” Lisbon clearly is the richer city. It’s larger, more developed, generally cleaner, busier, and feels much more cosmopolitan. Although Portugal doesn’t seem as crushed with tourists as its next door neighbor Spain, Lisbon has been on the radar longer than Porto.
Porto feels less developed and a bit less shiny, like it hasn’t quite been bleached or sugar coated to look better for tourists yet. Walking along the river instantly transported me back to its roots as an old port town, with barrels of port wine sailing down the Douro to the wine cellars over in Gaia. Backpackers seem to flock to Porto for its authentic, hipster and casual vibe, though we definitely didn’t need a large pack slung over our shoulders to appreciate everything this city has to offer. Porto is often touted as Portugal’s foodie city, and all of our meals lived up to that honor.
2 Historic neighborhood
Lisbon‘s Alfama neighborhood winds its way up one of the 7 hills, from the main downtown area of Baixa, to the medieval Castelo do São Jorge on top. It’s Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood as it was one of the only areas spared from the 1755 earthquake/tsunami/fire nightmare.
During Moorish times, the Alfama was whole city. The neighborhood includes the oldest Cathedral (Se Cathedral), the best miradouros (Portas do Sol , Miradouro de Santa Luzia and Miradouro da Graça). It’s very popular with tourists, but we could still got lost and found ourselves alone in its magical maze of narrow, winding streets, tiny alleys, and quaint squares.
The Ribeira district is Porto‘s historical city center, and gets its name from its location on the river. At the heart of the district is a large square, opening up to the river and surrounded by shops and restaurants. We loved strolling along the river, watching the sunset and the Rabelo boats glide by. Tall and colorful row houses are crammed along the river bank, creating maze-like streets, similar to the Alfama. In a little opening, a family had set up small above ground pool, where all the neighborhood kids were splashing about.
Parts of the Tagus running along side Lisbon look so wide, I thought I was already walking along the Atlantic. The river opens up into a large estuary around Lisbon, but narrows down before it flows into the ocean. I love the feel of a city on the water, and areas like Doca do Jardim do Tabaco and Docas Santo Amaro take full advantage of the view. There’s plenty of restaurants and shops right on the river, so you’ll never be searching for a reason to spend some time on the banks.
The Douro river in Porto has a much more intimate feel. The banks on both sides quickly slope up so we almost felt like we were in a little valley. With so many bridges connecting Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia on the other side, we found ourselves in a new city within a few minutes walk. Sail up the Douro, and you’ll pass through some of the most beautiful riverbanks in Europe, terraced with vineyards used for making the famous port wine.
Two iconic bridges span the Tagus in Lisbon. The 25 de Abril bridge looks like the Bay Bridge (and built by the same company), but painted red like the Golden Gate. Every time I look at it, I think I’m in San Francisco, especially when the fog starts to roll in.
Lisbon’s second main bridge, the Vasco da Gama spans the massive breadth of the estuary, making it the longest bridge in Europe. And it’s soooo long. Seriously, don’t miss the turn off here, because you’ll be stuck for 12.3 km.
Standing on one edge of the city, I almost lost track of the number of bridges stitching Porto and Villa de Gaia together across the Douro. Turns out it’s six, which is the most bridges in any city (a record shared with Gaia, obviously). Two bridges are wrought-iron masterpieces designed by Gustave Eiffel. Gustave’s double-decker Luis I Bridge is open to trams, cars, foot traffic, and crazy kids hustling for your euros by diving off into the river below.
Lisbon feels like a colorful, happy place with white buildings covered in boldly painted tiles called azulejos. Blue is a traditional color for tiles, but you’ll find almost every color and countless designs. I loved walking the streets to discover my favorite pattern, or even trying to find two-of-a-kind tiles, sometimes on buildings in completely different parts of the city. The towns in Portugal reflect the limestone and marble quarried in the area, so you’ll find white buildings from Coimbra all the way down south to the Algarve. Looking down on the city from any one of the many beautiful miradouros, a sea of terracotta rooftops stretches out until you hit the Tagus.
Most of Lisbon was destroyed during an earthquake on November 1, 1755. What was spared from the tremors was destroyed by the ensuing fire, then washed away by the tsunami. Lisbon was literally the Phoenix rising from the ashes. Starting off with mostly a clean slate, rebuilding was in the new Pombaline style, Neo-classical in approach and pragmatically earthquake resistant.
Further north, the buildings are darker and rougher, hewn from grey granite. Churches, homes and shops in Porto also feature azulejos, but it doesn’t seem to be to the same extent as Lisbon. Because Porto didn’t experience an all-encompassing natural disaster, the architectural styles are more varied, from Baroque to Neo-classical, Romanesque to Modern.
This may seem like a weird thing to point out, but Lisbon has some of the most beautiful sidewalks I’ve ever seen. Similar to the buildings, the sidewalks are made out of white limestone and marble stones, with black stones patterns making flowers, waves, criss-crosses, everything you can think of! I could literally follow the patterns in the pavement like breadcrumbs back to our apartment. They’re beautiful, but extremely slippery when wet, which is a very precarious situation when you’re walking down a steep hill or up stone steps and carrying a baby.
Most of the sidewalks in Porto also match the buildings, which means dark grey granite. Though not as pretty as Lisbon, they are much less slippery.
7 Train Stations
The trains, trams, buses and subway of Lisbon‘s public transit system are cheap and easy to navigate. (If you’re using mass transit, I highly recommend getting the rechargeable Viva Viagem card, which we explain here). The train stations are functional, but also feature some of the most beautiful and interesting architecture in Lisbon. The Rossio train station, right in the middle of the city, looks like a large, Moorish inspired palace, with two horseshoe openings for the entrance. Across town and closer to the airport, you’ll find metal lattice awnings arching over the train tracks of the modernist Oriente station. Even the oldest station in the city, the Lisboa Santa
It’s hard to compete with Porto‘s Sao Bento station, often touted as the most beautiful train station in the world. One you step inside, and we knew why. The main hall is completed covered with twenty thousand tiles, each one hand painted by one of the great painters of the time, Jorge Colaço.
Lisbon is known as the city of 7 hills, and they really mean it. Remember when your grandpa used to tell you stories about how his walk to school was uphill, both ways, in the snow? Well, the walk up to our apartment in Campo de Ourique from downtown Baixa was not only uphill both ways, but up two hills, in the hot sun, and with a baby strapped to my chest. But I wouldn’t change it for anything. 🙂 Also, good excuse to pick up some pastel de nata on the way for energy.
Porto is more like one big (steep) hill, with everything funneling down into the Ribeira (riverfront).
The bifana is a sandwich of sliced pork, sautéed in garlic and served warm and wet on a crusty roll, usually paired with mustard and maybe cheese. Sounds simple, but it’s oh so delicious.
The bifana technically originated in the town of Vendas Novas, about an hour drive east of Lisbon. But, you’ll find almost every little tasca in Lisbon serving them up for just €2. After eating bifanas all over Lisbon, my favorite is from O Trevo, just on the edge of Praça Luís de Camões.
Porto‘s francesinha is a shortcut to cardiac arrest: two slices of bread layered with steak, ham, linguiça, hotdogs and who knows what other animals, lovingly wrapped in melted cheese and soaked in a rich sauce. We tried to lessen the damage to our arteries by splitting one.
9 Local Drink
Lisbon gets its local drink thanks to a friar, who soaked ginja berries (sour cherries) in Portuguese brandy, then sweetened it up with sugar and cinnamon. You can find this cherry liquor in shops and cafés around Lisbon, or homemade versions sold from house windows in the Alfama. I didn’t try it, but it sounds strong and sweet; some people looked like they were feeling the effects after just one shot.
Porto‘s namesake drink is, of course, Port wine. Grapes grown along the Douro river are made into wine, and brought to one of the wine cellars in Gaia to age in barrels. Most of the producers offer tours of their lodge along with wine tastings. We enjoyed the tour at Cockburn’s, where we learned not only about the production of port wine, but its role in the development and growth of Porto and the Douro River valley.
Hop on the train at Cais de Sodre station in Lisbon, and almost every stop is a beautiful beach as you head west. In particular, we loved Carcavelos, Cascais and Guincho. Some of Lisbon’s best beaches are south of the city, but you’ll most likely need a car to get to places like Costa da Caparica or Meco.
In Porto, the smaller size of the city and the river has its perks. You can be at the closest beach, Praia do Carneiro, within a 10 minute drive of the city. Both Porto and Gaia have beaches with large stretches of soft sand and blue waters great for swimming and surfing.
Lisbon‘s Barrio Alto neighborhood is known for its nightlife. The area comes alive late, like 2 to 3 am, with plenty of bars, restaurants, people and live music for the party. Closer to the river, Cais de Sodre is also a popular spot.
Porto isn’t as much of a party city, but the action is focused on Rua Galeria de Paris and Rua Cândido dos Reisstreet, two parallel streets in downtown porto. We saw the aftermath the next morning, with the street cleaners coming through to sweep up the bottles, cups and random bits left over from looked like a wild night.
Lisbon has a Mediterranean climate with some of the warmest winters in Europe. That also comes with hot summers. And this summer felt exceptionally hot. Summer seems to be the busiest time of year for tourists, and a great time to enjoy the beaches. For visiting sites, I think September-October and April-May are the perfect months with sunny days and highs in the 20Cs (70Fs).
Almost all of Portugal enjoys a Mediterranean climate, but Porto is cooler and wetter than Lisbon. The driest months are June through August and the wettest months are October through December. Even with the rain, Porto generally has warm, mild weather.
13 Day Trips
For such a small country, Portugal packs it all in, with some of the best cities, food, rivers, beaches, palaces and history you’ll find. Near Lisbon, the palaces of Sintra are a must-do and if it’s summer, don’t miss out on the beaches around Cascais. Further north, you’ll find the walled-town of Obidos, complete with the azulejos covered city gate. Evora, about 2 hours east of Lisbon, is a UNESCO world heritage site with an ancient Roman temple and a Chapel of Bones.
If you’re staying in Porto for more than a few days and have time to fit in a day trip, then historic cities like Guimarães, a medieval town and UNESCO world heritage site, and Braga, with the oldest cathedral in Portugal, are great options. For more time on the water, Espinho beach is a relaxing escape, and a river cruise up the Douro River takes you through the heart of Portugal’s wine country. Other beautiful towns to visit include Aveiro, nicknamed the Venice of Portugal, and Coimbra, an ancient university town.
Favorite snaps from Porto (and Vila Nova de Gaia across the river)
Favorite snaps from Lisbon