It’s fair to say that Lisbon and Porto have a lot in common; they’re both full of historic architecture, both have riverside views, great food and a bustling nightlife. And, of course, they’re both impressively hilly. So, what’s the real difference between Lisbon and Porto, and which one offers the most for visitors? While Lisbon has been a popular and trendy city break destination for many years, Porto is hot on its heels. It may be known as Portugal’s ‘second city’, but its mix of beautiful views, unique attractions and vibrant atmosphere is drawing more savvy travellers.
In the ultimate head to head, we’re using our insider knowledge to pit Porto vs Lisbon in several of the most important categories for tourists. Let the battle of the islands commence!
Sights & attractions
Porto’s main attractions include the beautiful 13th-century Baroque Church of Saint Francis, the Torre dos Clérigos with its beautiful views over the city, and the Serralves modern art museum with its lovely landscaped gardens. A trip to the Livraria Lello is also an absolute must; this quirky bookshop is said to be JK Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books, and stepping inside it’s not hard to see why. If you fancy splashing some cash (or just a bit of window shopping), an afternoon at the Santa Catarina area is a safe bet.
While Porto does have its fair share of wonderful sights, Lisbon undeniably wins hands down here. From the imposing 11th-century Castelo de São Jorge to the magical Oceanário aquarium, there’s an impressive array of things to do. Historical sights like Belem Tower and Jerónimos Monastery are must-dos, and there’s also the otherworldly town of Sintra a short train ride away, with its palaces, castles, lush greenery and mountains.
While neither Porto or Lisbon are on the coast, they both offer the opportunity for some beach time at nearby resort towns. Close to Porto you have pretty Foz, while a 20-minute drive from Lisbon is the elegant seaside town of Cascais.
If holidaying somewhere flat is high on your priorities, you probably haven’t considered Porto or Lisbon for your next city break. However, while there’s no denying that they’re both very hilly, the good news is that getting around both cities is a lot easier than you might think.
Porto’s centre is a rather small area, so it’s very easy to explore by foot. You can avoid walking up and down all of the stairs here by hopping onto the cable car, inside the trams, or seeing the city via its metro system. Running from early morning until very late into the night, you can get from the city centre out to the suburbs on the metro, and there are day passes available to make things easier on the pocket.
Lisbon also has a great public transport network. From buses and trams to the metro and taxis, you’ll have no problem avoiding steep ascents in the city. There are also the impressive elevators to take advantage of; some of which have been here since the 19th century. The Elevador Castelo is a relatively new addition, but is definitely worth using if you’re going to the castle – it will drop you a short walk away and is free of charge.
The downside to Lisbon’s layout though is that most of the main attractions are quite spread out, so getting from one to the other can take up valuable sightseeing time, particularly if you’re just visiting for a weekend. For this reason, we’re giving this category to Porto.
The advantage of both cities being so hill-tastic is that they both offer some truly incredible views. Porto has the vantage points overlooking the Douro river, two of the best being the Ponte Dom Luís I bridge and Ponte Maria Pia, built by Gustave Eiffel himself. Lisbon’s views are usually best enjoyed from its miradouros. Not only do they offer gorgeous vistas overlooking the colourful rooftops, they often have a really special atmosphere, with musicians and food and drinks stalls at some of the larger terraces.
You can’t visit either city without spending some time wandering through the narrow winding streets of their historic quarters, and these districts make excellent photo fodder. In Porto the Ribeira district is full of charm (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less), while in Lisbon the streets of beautiful Alfama are ripe for photo ops. The main difference between Lisbon and Porto in terms of architecture is the colour; Porto is darker due to the use of granite in construction, while Lisbon is synonymous with its clean white buildings.
Basically, both cities are a dream for photography enthusiasts (or those looking for some enviable social media pics). We think Lisbon has the edge here though; the views from its trams as they climb high above the city alone make it a worthy winner.
Now onto the battle of the party scenes: Porto vs Lisbon. If you’re in Porto, you’ll find a nice mix of traditional taverns and new, trendier places that are frequented by the city’s students. The areas of Galerias de Paris and Praça dos Leões have a lot of quirky places to enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine, or for something a bit different head to Capela Incomum; a wine bar converted from a former chapel. Of course, the city is the home of Port, and there are plenty of port lodges and cellars to taste this drink beloved by everyone from Russian tsars to your nan.
Unsurprisingly given that it’s the capital city, Lisbon has a much bigger nightlife scene than Porto. The main nightlife districts of Bairro Alto and Cais do Sodré are buzzing after sunset, and there are also plenty of places to catch live music performances covering everything from indie bands to traditional Fado singers. From speakeasy bars and rooftop drinking spots to traditional taverns and wine bars, the options for a decent night out are almost endless.
Ok, so this one is particularly subjective because it depends what type of nightlife you’re into (and if you drink Port…), but due to the sheer number of options we’re going to declare Lisbon the winner here.
While the two cities are similar in lots of ways, it could be said that the main difference between Lisbon and Porto is the general feeling and atmosphere. Porto is low key; more laid back with a slower pace. It makes sense – this is wine country after all. It’s also not as crowded, and offers ample opportunities to enjoy relaxed strolls, leisurely lunches and riverside drinks. Some parts of the city can feel a little unloved, with abandoned old buildings left to ruin, but there’s a charming, very traditional vibe here that feels really special.
Lisbon, on the other hand, is a more commercial, bustling city with plenty to do and see. It’s definitely fair to say that the capital is a lot more cosmopolitan than the ‘second city’, and it’s more developed and generally more clean. Still, despite all of this it’s still not as packed with tourists as many other European capitals, so it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly busy.
For its authentic charm and relaxed pace we’re giving this one to Porto.
So, which city should you book your flight to? Well, that really depends on what you’re into. If you want something low key, where you can explore the city by foot and get a real feel for how the locals live, pick Porto. On the other hand, if you prefer more of a buzz, with plenty of things to do and a great nightlife, go for Lisbon.
Of course, there is always the option to do both. The distance between Lisbon and Porto is easily negotiated by train, and the two cities perfectly complement each other. Spend the majority of your time in Lisbon; there’s more to see and things being spread out means you’ll need more time to get from A to B, then enjoy a night or two in the more chilled Porto.
Whether you’re heading to Lisbon, Porto, or both, the Orbzii app will bring your ultimate getaway to life. Plan and book everything you need for your dream Portuguese trip today.