Porto and Lisbon have much in common – both are hilly cities, with attractive riverside quarters and winding warrens of old lanes and alleyways. Portugal's two main cities both have fantastic restaurants – with a good mix of traditional and Michelin-starred cuisine – plus great bars and nightlife. Add all this to the fact that they are easy on the pocket and you'll see why these two cities make for such an alluring city break.
But which of these top Portuguese cities should you visit first? Here’s the lowdown on what they have to offer.
Let’s face it, they both have fantastic views over their respective riverfronts, squares and ancient quarters.
Set on seven hills, Lisbon has several miradouros – open viewing areas where locals gather at sunset to chat and admire the panoramas below – including the beautiful tile-clad Miradouro de Santa Luzia which looks down over the maze of tumble-down buildings in the Alfama quarter to the river and beyond, and the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, looking over the city’s central grid of streets to the Castelo de São Jorge opposite.
Porto has plenty of impressive viewpoints too – one of the best is from the top tier of the Ponte Dom Luís I. From here you can enjoy the fantastic vistas over the UNESCO World Heritage Ribeira district and across to the port suburb of Vila Nova de Gaia.
Porto’s cuisine is perhaps the more hearty, as befits a northern city, with its local specialities of tripe and the francesinha, a gut-busting cooked sandwich containing steak, sausage and ham, and covered in melted cheese and a tomato and beer sauce.
In Lisbon, the capital has a rather more refined delicacy – the delicious flaky pastel de nata custard tart. It’s best eaten warm, and sprinkled with cinnamon, at the beautifully tiled Pastéis de Belem, in the suburb of Belém, where the tasty treat was invented and is still handmade today.
Portugal’s cuisine is much underrated, with an emphasis on fresh fish, seafood and vegetables – indeed, a recent survey showed the Portuguese consume the least processed foods in Europe. Both cities have their fair share of upmarket eating places, where you can sample innovative, exciting food for less than you would pay for the same calibre of cooking elsewhere in Europe.
In Porto, the two-Michelin-starred Yeatman restaurant boasts amazing vistas to rival its food. Meanwhile in Lisbon, José Avillez has two Michelin stars at his Belcanto restaurant, but also runs a few more affordable and informal places – the theatrical, fun Mini Bar, for example, serves playful dishes such as exploding olives, and ice-cream cones made of seaweed and filled with tuna tartare.
There’s plenty to see in both Lisbon and Porto – the classic Porto sights are the pretty Torre dos Clérigos, the wacky Lello bookshop – whose lavish Art Nouveau interior is said to have inspired JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books – and the stunning Serralves contemporary art museum (get your entrance ticket ahead of time here) set in beautiful gardens.
However, Porto can’t really compete with Lisbon in terms of sheer volume of sights. Packed into the capital highlights include the Castelo de São Jorge, the Jeronimos Monastery and Berardo Collection in Belém, and the fantastic Gulbenkian art museum (book your skip-the-lines ticket here) – and that’s just the start.
Both cities have traditional trams trundling around which are fun to ride – the #28 in Lisbon and the #1 in Porto are good routes to take in the sights – plus characterful funiculars clunking up and down their steep hills.
Porto has a cable car that glides gently down to the port wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, but it’s Lisbon’s eye-catching Elevador de Santa Justa that really stands out. This nineteenth-century iron latticework creation was designed by a pupil of Gustav Eiffel and today it still whisks passengers up from street level in the Baixa district to the Largo do Carmo above.
If you want to discover even more of the cable railways and routes in Lisbon, take a guided tour to explore more.
Both cities have a plethora of clubs, cafés and places to drink, with Lisbon’s lively Bairro Alto bars spilling over into the street until sunrise.
However, there aren’t many cities where an entire suburb is dedicated to just one drink, so for this reason the port wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia in Porto have to win. Just stroll along the riverfront here and almost every other building is a port lodge where you can have a tour, learn about the port-making process, look round the cellars or simply go straight to the tasting room to sample the city’s eponymous drink.
But beer lovers don't have to fear - the craft beer scene in Porto is well developed. Enjoy an evening learning about both the beers and wines of Porto, paired with light snacks along the way.
Whilst neither city is actually on the coast, both are only a short journey away from the beach.
In Porto, a traditional tram trundles alongside the river to Foz do Douro, formerly a pretty fishing village and now an upmarket coastal resort with arty boutiques, trendy cafés and a long stretch of sand.
From Lisbon, you can catch a commuter train out to the smart seaside resort of Cascais, with its chi-chi marina and designer shops. Another Lisbon option is to take a ferry and bus to the slightly more tacky Costa da Caparica, where a toy train runs along 10km of long sandy beaches battered by Atlantic breakers.
Well, it really depends on how much time you’ve got. Porto’s centre is smaller and more compact, so if you are planning a long weekend this city is the perfect size. Lisbon, on the other hand, is larger and needs longer to get to grips with its attractions. Better still, with the cities less than three hours apart by train, why not hop on a train and visit both?