Lisbon vs Porto – how to pick your next Portuguese city break

Lisbon vs Porto – how to pick your next Portuguese city break

We know Portugal has great beaches, and now it’s on the up for popular city breaks, too. But to Lisbon or to Porto? That is the question… 

It’s pasteis de nata versus Port wine. The Tagus River versus the Douro River. North versus south. There’s only a direct three-hour train between them, so if you simply can’t choose, the good news is – you don’t actually have to. But if time is of the essence, we’ve pitted the two Portuguese cities against each other in a series of rounds. So, see who comes out on top for your fave travel picks… 

The beaches 

Both cities are on the Atlantic coast and so get the best of both worlds, with busy street life and sandy beaches for days. 

Porto might be the underdog here, as many people don’t expect it to be a beach destination, being more north than Lisbon and often a bit cooler. But sandy spots like Praia do Carniero are just a 10-minute drive out of town. Being an urban beach so close to town, there are toilets and restaurants so you can stick around all day. Or Matosinhos is a 20-minute drive away and is a great beginner’s surf beach with a legendary seafood scene for your post-swim lunch. 

But on a city break, you might be less likely to hire a car or want to pay for a taxi, so beaches with public transport options are a real win. Matosinhos is also reachable by bus, but this doubles the travel time to 40 minutes. Instead, Foz do Douro is only a 20-minute tram away on tram line one. Once you’re there, you can just walk along the prom to pick your spot. 

For Lisbon, Cascais is THE daytrip destination. It’s the end of the line from Cais do Sodre train station and takes around 40 minutes but the long stretch of beach, still waters and cute town are worth it. Or Carcavelos is on the same route but less than half an hour’s ride away. It’s safe to say both can deliver in this department but Porto’s picks are closer to the city. 

The food 

Another one high on the holiday wishlist – tasty food. In terms of national dishes, everyone loves Portugal’s famous pasteis de nata and there’s no denying that they originated in Lisbon’s Belem district, so they own the best sweet treat. Head to Pasteis de Belem and you won’t regret queuing. Time Out Market is another foodie pick in favour the capital’s favour. This place has stalls selling sushi, burgers, pizza, traditional saltcod fritters, sardines and more. 

Over in Porto, the Francesinha is a meaty sandwich of ham, smoked sausage and steak, covered in melted cheese and sometimes a runny fried egg. But this city is known for a more liquid diet, primarily focused on Port wine. With the Douro Valley being up this way, Porto is home to a number of famous Port cellars. You can do a little Port house hop between them, as they’re all on the south side of the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. 

Really, if you’re looking at Michelin-starred and acclaimed restaurants, Lisbon takes the win on this one. Although, you can’t compare one local dish to another, and with them both being on the waterfront, the competition’s tied on fresh fish. 

The history  

These cities both have lively historic streets that were made for walking. In Lisbon, the Alfama district is the oldest part and it’s one of the only areas that wasn’t completely destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. The Se Cathedral is a top tourist attraction here or you can walk up to St George’s Castle. It’s got panoramic views back over the city and is a popular spot for sunset. Or the iconic Tram 28 winds its way around Alfama, too, if you fancy saving your feet. Portuguese Fado music was also born in Lisbon, so you can learn all about it in the Fado Museum. The Belem district’s also got the Belem Tower, which served as a fortress to protect the city in the 16th century and it’s the place where explorers like Vasco de Gama once set sail on their adventures. 

Porto raises you the Ribeira district. Past and present are both covered here, as it’s UNESCO listed but you can also seek out modern street art down the backstreets. Another more recent attraction is Livraria Lello, the old bookshop said to have inspired JK Rowling’s Hogwarts library. So, depending on when you were born, this could be considered a bit of history…  

The Elevador da Ribeira, meanwhile, is this city’s answer to Lisbon’s Santa Justa Lift – both raise you up for some of the best urban views. And while Lisbon’s version was designed by the same guy as the Eiffel Tower, that’s okay because Gustave Eiffel gifted Porto the Dom Luis I Bridge over the Douro River – fair’s fair.   

There’s clearly a bit of a pattern here and both cities have similar historical sites to satisfy any history geeks planning a Portuguese getaway. But if the oldest city has to win, that would be Lisbon.   

The nightlife 

Let’s start with Porto. In Portugal, things only start to get busy from 10pm-ish onwards. So, if you fancy an earlier start while you wait for the locals to catch up, Praca de Gomes Teixeira is a square with a bit of buzz about it. Then, you head to the parallel streets of Galeria de Paris and Candido dos Reis, where every other door is a bar or café. Clubs are a bit more limited but Plano B is right in the heart of this nightlife district and really, the main party is in the streets. Bars give out plastic cups so you can sip your drinks outside. 

Lisbon’s late-night scene is a bit more notorious. Bairro Alto is the place to start. Intimate bars line the narrow streets or you can take it up a level to a rooftop bar. Baixa and Chiado have plenty of nice hotels with access to the roof, and Park Bar is actually a converted roof of a multi-storey carpark that hosts DJs after sunset. As the night goes on, the riverside and former red-light district of Cais do Sodre, with its famous Pink Street, is where the crowds head for more lively bars and clubs.  

Okay, this one isn’t as close. Porto is definitely up and coming on the party scene, but Lisbon has already been there for a few years. That means the bars are just that bit busier and touring events have taken note, with big names playing in more venues here throughout the year. 

 The budget 

 Lisbon has boomed as a hot European city break destination because of its affordable flights and food and drink, putting Portugal on the map. This place is still super popular outside the peak season in September for more budget-friendly holidays, as the sun is still fairly strong and the sea is that bit warmer. And if sightseeing is on your list, trust us, you don’t want to be trekking up and down Lisbon’s steep hills and steps in mid-August heat. The average price of a beer in this city is €2.10 and a coffee is even less.  

But take your bank card over to Porto and you’ll only be tapping €1.50 in most places for your finest bottle of Super Bock or Sagres. It’s not by much but Porto is considered to be ever so slightly cheaper. The perks of not being a capital city probably show the most in flight prices to Porto Airport. So, while both are still very affordable compared to other Western European destinations, Lisbon’s longer-lasting reputation might just cost you a bit more in the end. 


Ready to pick? Lisbon and Porto are both great choices but only one can be your winner… It’s time to book your next city break to Portugal. 
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Author: Lily Owen
Last updated: 15/03/2024