All Articles Lisbon vs. Porto

Lisbon vs. Porto

How to choose between these two Portuguese cities.

By Benjamin Grossberg3 Jun 2024 10 minutes read
Lisbon, Portugal skyline with Sao Jorge Castle at sunset
View of Douro river and city of Porto
Left: Lisbon; Right: Porto
Image: Left: Sean3810/Getty Images; Right: DANNY HU/Getty Images

There’s a reason all your friends are buzzing about Portugal. It's got it all. With picturesque scenery, rich history, friendly English-speaking locals, and delicious wine and gastronomy, this tiny country is receiving unprecedented interest from travelers. Right now, millions of people each year are discovering the pleasures of Portugal and its two most visited cities—Lisbon and Porto.

You can't go wrong with either location, but if you've got to choose just one, we've gathered the essential details to help you decide which is a better fit for you.

When to go

Lisbon: Lisbon can feel overrun with tourists during the summer months. If you don't mind the crowds, the weather in summer is typically excellent. Lisbon stays cooler than many other European capitals during the dog days of summer, but it can get quite hot if you're unlucky enough to visit during a heat wave. September and May offer the best balance of beautiful weather and tolerable crowds. October through April can be rainy, but it is also possible–especially in the dead of winter–to feel like the streets are mainly full of locals.

Porto: Just like Lisbon, Porto's warmest and driest months also tend to be those same summer months in which the city is most overrun with tourists. Porto is a bit cooler and rainier than Lisbon, with summer highs in Porto more likely to be in the high 70s compared to the low 80s in Lisbon. Porto's biggest party occurs on June 23 for the Festa de São João. Like in Lisbon, the number of tourists in Porto decreases drastically during the rainier and cooler winter months.

The takeaway: Both cities tend to see the largest influx of tourists during the warmer and drier months and then empty out when it’s cooler and rainier. I personally love visiting both cities in winter, when I'll gladly accept a bit of rain and cooler temperatures to hear mostly Portuguese on the streets and in the bars and restaurants. If you're traveling in summer and tend to melt in higher temperatures, Porto may be better for you. If you want your summer to feel like summer, Lisbon is the way to go.

Ways to tour Portugal

Where to stay

Hotel room balcony with breakfast spread on table overlooking trees and buildings
Le Consulat
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Lisbon: Lisbon is full of distinctive neighborhoods with a range of accommodation options to suit different tastes and budgets. Stay in the Baixa, Chiado, or Bairro Alto neighborhoods for the ideal combination of proximity to sites, great shopping and restaurants, and lively nightlife. Check out Hotel Le Consulat in Chiado, a gorgeous hotel built in the former Brazilian consulate. You can get great value at the two My Story properties (My Story Hotel Tejo and My Story Hotel Figueira) in Baixa, which feature cozy but well-appointed modern rooms. Travelers looking to maximize their hotel dollars may wish to look closer to the Praça do Marquês de Pombal and the Parque Eduaro VII. There are also great deals to be found on the streets off Avenida da Liberdade, like the plain but clean and comfortable Marino Lisboa Boutique Hotel. But know that if you stay in those neighborhoods, you'll probably spend a bit more time traveling back and forth to the historic center.

Porto: Like Lisbon, Porto has many great neighborhoods. The best hotel experiences in Porto may be those places lined along the river banks, where usually, for a small premium, you can snag a room with a river view. There's the Neya Porto Hotel, whose river view rooms have incredible sweeping views, to be topped only by the views from the hotel's rooftop bar. Also recommended is the Vila Galé Porto Ribeira, with its well-appointed rooms and quiet courtyard. Travelers are advised for now to avoid hotels around the Praça da Liberdade, which is still undergoing major construction.

The takeaway: Both Porto and Lisbon have amazing neighborhoods dripping with historic charm. Some of Lisbon's neighborhoods may have a bit more density of shopping and restaurants, but there are plenty of those amenities in Porto, too. And it's hard to beat the romance of a hotel room in Porto looking out over the Douro River.

Culture and activities

Door surrounded by ornate stonework and blue tiling
Porto Cathedral
Image: Erin Doering/Unsplash

Lisbon: Lisbon has far too many world-class attractions to list here. Start your Lisbon visit on the city's most imposing square, the Praça do Comércio in the Baixa neighborhood. Art lovers will want to head to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, and the contemporary art collection housed in the Belém Cultural Center. History buffs will want to check out the medieval Castelo de São Jorge and, in Belém, the Jerónimos Monastery and the Belém Tower. Much of the joy in Lisbon lies simply in making your way around the city, whether that means strolling the Alfama neighborhood's serpentine medieval streets or riding the historic Tram 28. If you're physically up to it, it's best to appreciate the slow-moving funiculars and the Santa Justa Elevator from the outside and just hoof it up the hills.

Porto: Heavily touristed but nonetheless worth seeing, the waterfront in Ribeira, along with the ancient streets that stretch up the hill and the nearby Ponte de Dom Luís I bridge, are the most emblematic sights of Porto. From there, visitors may choose to cross the river and tour one of the old Port houses, like (Càlem or Sandeman), stroll along the river toward its mouth into the Atlantic, or wander up the hill to enjoy the city's ancient architecture and squares, like the ornate old stock exchange, the tiled Se Cathedral, and the dazzling Livraria Lello bookstore. Even more so than in Lisbon, the true pleasures of Porto lie in getting lost in the city's medieval streets and absorbing the city's distinctive heartbeat.

The takeaway: Lisbon is definitely the way to go for those who want to cram their days full of as many blockbuster-level landmark tourist sights as possible. There's probably a bit more for kids to do there as well. Although Portuguese everywhere love and welcome children, Porto, where much of the pleasure lies in wandering its streets, sitting in cafes and bars, and soaking up the city's essence, is lower-key and a bit more of an adult destination.

Eat

Elegantly plated vegetables like carrot, corn, and cauliflower
Em Carne Viva
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Lisbon: I typically advise visitors to Portugal to focus on seafood when on the coast, and this applies to Lisbon. There are certainly folks doing top-level, elevated cuisine here (including the now legendary Alma and Belcanto and the upstart SáLa). But much of the pleasure in dining in Portugal lies in places that focus on sourcing top-quality ingredients and then using them to prepare well-executed but classic/simple preparations. These restaurants may be fancy, like the classic Solar dos Presuntos. Still, they don't have to be (check out trendy O Velho Eurico with its chalkboard menus and simple tavern preparations, or try the inexpensive, classic food in the beautiful old room of Solar dos Bicos). Although touristy, Cervejaria Ramiro is well deserving of its reputation as one of the country's top places to get incredibly fresh, simply prepared shellfish. Try the percebes (gooseneck barnacles)! And, of course, try the city's delicious egg custard tarts, Pastéis de Nata. The most famous and original version of the pastry is from the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, but quality versions can be found in higher-end pastry shops all over town. Vegetarians should book at vegetarian specialty restaurants (like the upscale Arkhe or more casual Senhor Uva) because plant-based offerings at other restaurants may be nonexistent.

Porto: Like Lisbon, Porto is, first and foremost, a place to eat fish and shellfish. If you're chasing elevated gastronomy and Michelin stars, try the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Casa de Chá da Boa Nova, the Yeatman (which has arguably Portugal's best winelist), or splurge for the chef's counter at Euskalduna Studio. If you want more classic, simple food, try Ostras e Coisas for fresh shellfish or the popular Taberna dos Mercadores (must book in advance). If you love shellfish, it's also worth checking out the restaurants in Matosinhos, a traditional fishing neighborhood about a 20-minute taxi ride north of the center. The two most classic places here are the upscale O Gaveto and the slightly more casual A Marisqueira de Matosinhos. Both are among the best destinations in the country for shellfish. Porto is also home to a classic and very messy sandwich, the Francesinha, served covered in a hot tomato and beer sauce. The debate over who makes the city's tastiest Francesinha can be a heated topic in Porto, but local favorites include Lado B., O Golfinho, and O Afonso. In Lisbon, vegetarians and vegans are advised to book at specialty restaurants like Essência or Em Carne Viva.

The takeaway: Food lovers can't go wrong picking either Lisbon or Porto. Both cities offer a range of world-class Michelin star gastronomic restaurants as well as more simple affairs, with favorites being those that specialize in extraordinarily fresh shellfish and fish (note that seafood restaurants in Portugal will often specialize in shellfish or finfish, but not necessarily both). In both cities, vegetarians and vegans should plan to seek out specialized restaurants.

Great stays in Lisbon

Drink

Marble bar and flower-patterned stools surrounded by wine and liquor bottles
Negroni cocktail on marble counter
Rocco
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Lisbon: In the South of Portugal, including Lisbon, the macro beer of choice is Sagres. Even when the city feels mobbed by tourists, having a cold draft Sagres from the kiosk at one of the city's gorgeous scenic overlooks or large parks can feel like a very local experience. Although small, Portugal's combination of oceanic and mountain geography creates many varied wine regions, and you can find wines from all of the country's wine regions in the restaurants, wine shops, and wine bars of Lisbon. Natural wine lovers should flock to Black Sheep Lisboa. At the same time, those with more classic palates might prefer Rocco, a newer bar housed in a somewhat gaudy Italian restaurant but featuring one of the city's most extensive Portuguese lists with many by-the-glass options. Those looking to visit a winery can check out the Urban Winery in Belém. If you're up for a day trip, you can get to Colares in less than an hour, one of the most remarkable wine regions in the world where the vines are grown ungrafted in beach sand (try visiting the important co-op or Viúva Gomes, the most classic producer). Alternatively, a visit to Horácio Simões, just south of the city on the Setúbal peninsula, will reveal incredibly profound fortified dessert wines.

Porto: In the North of Portugal, including Porto, the macro beer of choice is Super Bock, which is very popular amongst locals. And at the end of a warm summer day in Porto, there are few moments as satisfying as gazing out on the river while sipping a white port and tonic. Although most Portuguese wine regions will be represented on the wine lists in Porto, it may be difficult to find wines from the Lisbon region here. Porto is the spiritual home of the fortified Port wines that bear the city's name, and many of the largest port companies offer tours of their port houses, most of which are across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. Prova, where sommelier Diogo Amado has assembled an incredible program, is correctly regarded as the top wine bar in Porto (and maybe in the country), but A Cave do Bon Vivant is also quite good and has a more complete food program. Those looking to take some Portuguese natural wine home with them should check out the ex-pat who owns theLab. Porto is close to three of the country's most important wine regions for those wishing to visit wineries: the Douro Valley, Vinho Verde, and Bairrada. The Douro Valley, with its classic terraced vineyards carved into the region's steep hills, is undoubtedly the most scenic of these three regions. There are a number of companies that organize day boat trips from Porto up the river to visit vineyards and wineries. But at a roughly one-hour drive from Porto, a visit to taste the complex, salty, oceanic wines of Bairrada may be the even better destination for the true oenophile. The paid tasting at Luis Pato, which often features at least one 20+-year-old wine, can be a life-changing experience. Travelers planning a day trip to Vinho Verde from Porto (45 min drive) should consider visiting a small, family-owned winery, like Sem Igual, rather than visiting one of the region's industrial fizzy wine producers.

The takeaway: With crisp, refreshing, locally made pilsners and one of Europe's most exciting up-and-coming wine scenes, beverage options abound in both Lisbon and Porto. And both cities are a stone's throw from incredible wine regions, meaning a day trip to a world-class winery is easily doable. As is the case anywhere in Europe, those planning on visiting wineries should book ahead, even if the winery lists visiting hours on its website.

The cost

Lisbon: Although more expensive than Porto, Lisbon's prices are still quite reasonable compared to those of other European capitals. If you do your research and have some flexibility, even at the peak of tourist season, you can find lovely hotel rooms in Lisbon for under $200 per night. Hotel prices drop drastically in winter–sometimes by as much as 50%. Michelin-starred dining will set you back here as it will anywhere, but if you avoid the top restaurants and eat like a local, you can get incredible value for your dining experience here.

Porto: Porto is typically cheaper than Lisbon but has the same seasonal patterns. If you do your research and are flexible, you can find great rooms during peak tourist season for under $175 per night. Just as is the case in Lisbon, hotel prices drop drastically here in winter. Restaurants are similarly varied, with the top gastronomic temples charging standard international prices for fine dining and more locally-oriented restaurants charging much more reasonable prices.

The takeaway: Both Lisbon and Porto are comparatively affordable compared to other top urban destinations in Western Europe. Porto is definitely cheaper when it comes to hotel rooms, but the more significant difference is the winter/summer difference rather than the Lisbon/Porto difference.

The geography and cityscapes

Sunrise over Vasco da Gama Bridge and water
Vasco da Gama Bridge
Image: ARoxo/Getty Images

Lisbon: Lisbon is built on a series of hills along the western and northern banks of the Tagus River's large estuary. This geography creates numerous terraces and rooftops all around town with commanding views of the city, the water, and the two massive bridges that cross the estuary.

Porto: Porto is built along a broad hill sloping down to the northern banks of the Douro River. The city then follows the river all the way until its terminus into the Atlantic Ocean. It also runs along the Atlantic coastline north of the mouth of the river. The Douro River and its scenic, often towering bridges and the ancient streets and squares that radiate up the hill dominate your experience in Porto.

The takeaway: Both cities feature historic architecture that is well integrated into their distinctive and scenic geographies. Lisbon's layout and its position on the estuary means the views, especially from its many rooftops and scenic outlooks, are maybe a bit more spectacular. In contrast, Porto's orientation along the Douro River, with its small boat traffic and many bridges, conjure a certain romance that Lisbon can't quite match.

The vibe

Lisbon: Lisbon has the capital city energy that comes with being a country's economic, financial, governmental, and cultural center. This imbues the city with a faster paced life and more intense feel. It's also more cosmopolitan.

Porto: Porto is sleepier, more romantic, and maybe just a bit grittier. While it is still very much a cosmopolitan city, it can feel like a big town in other ways.

The takeaway: With Lisbon and Porto so evenly matched in most categories, I think the vibe is probably the most important factor for determining which city suits you best. If you like Paris more than Lyon, Manhattan more than Philly, or Chicago, Lisbon is probably the place for you. If you want somewhere sleepier, less glitzy, but maybe just a bit more charming destination, then Porto is the better choice.

Benjamin Grossberg
Benjamin Grossberg is the co-founder of Grossberg/Kopman Selections, a boutique wine importer focused exclusively on bringing Portugal's top artisanal and family-made wines to the United States. He travels extensively in Portugal and regularly leads customers on trips to visit the country.