We’ve tackled Australia vs New Zealand and Italy vs France, and now we’re here to sort out another marquee matchup. When heading on a sunny Western Europe trip, which destination is right for you, Portugal or Spain.
Depending on who you ask, you might get passionate answers for one over the other or shrugged shoulders and admissions that people can’t tell the difference between the two. We get it. Both of these countries share the Iberian Peninsula, have a lot of common history, and occupy a similar headspace for vacationers wanting to get away to sunny climates with good food and friendly people. But that’s where similarities end. Portugal and Spain are very different, and knowing how to choose between the two will help you plan your ideal Western European vacation.
Below we break down the differences between these sunny European nations, focusing on landscape and climate, expenses and infrastructure, landmarks, food and drink, and history and culture. Spoiler alert: we’re not throwing either country under the bus and you should definitely visit both countries if you can commit the time and money to it, but knowing the above will help you prioritize for your Europe trip in the near future.
Landscape and Climate
Since Portugal and Spain share the same peninsula, their landscapes and climate are similar. Geographically, Portugal is defined by its long coastline, making it abound with beaches. The north of the country is mountainous and wet while the south is drier and has rolling plains with many beaches near the Algarve. There is a desert near Alentejo and the country lacks any large natural lakes. Spain is mainly a highland plateau with mountain ranges running through it. As well, there are coastal plains and river valleys crisscrossing the peripheries. The biggest geographic difference between Portugal and Spain is the size; Spain is around five times larger than Portugal.
Both countries have Mediterranean climates, meaning they are generally temperate, with warm summers and mild winters. In Portugal, the average temperature in Lisbon is 24°C in July and 11°C in January, and in Spain the average temperature in Barcelona is around the same: 24°C in August and 10°C in January. This similarity makes sense as both nations are known for their beaches and for enticing travellers during the colder months.
Your choice between the two will likely be determined by the amount of time you can spend on your Europe trip. If you have only a few weeks, you can see more of Portugal than Spain as it’s a smaller country. But if you have around a month to spare, the size is no longer an issue and Spain becomes equally as appealing as Portugal.
Expenses and Infrastructure
Generally speaking, Portugal is cheaper than Spain, although the flight there will likely be the most expensive part of your Portugal vacation. A standard flight from North America to Lisbon in May will cost around $1,200 to $1,300CAD for a round trip. For comparison, a round-trip flight to Barcelona is around $1,200CAD in May. It’s also easier to connect to Spain than Portugal from major North American cities. You’ll find more flight options and lower prices from some airlines as a result.
However, once you’re in the country, you’ll find Portugal remarkably affordable. A 3-star hotel in Lisbon in the middle of May (high season) will set you back around $166CAD on average, while accommodations outside the major centres will be much cheaper. Accommodations are more expensive in Spain than in Portugal, with a 3-star hotel in Barcelona in May costing around $183CAD on average. However, while accommodations are more expensive in Spain, you’ll find that some food and alcohol is cheaper than in Portugal, especially if you’re travelling outside of the high season. Overall, Portugal remains one of Europe’s most appealing budget destinations, although Spain is hardly expensive as far as Western European countries go.
As far as infrastructure goes, both countries are well-developed, although not quite on the level of France or Germany. Portugal has a large train network that is affordable and easy to navigate. Spain also has a large high-speed train network, the AVE Alta Velocidad, which runs between all the major cities. Smaller public transit systems, by train or bus, cover the gaps between the major cities. As for driving, Portugal’s highways have improved in recent years, but overall, Portugal continues to have poor road conditions and a bad reputation for road safety. Highways are in better conditions in Spain than in Portugal, but you should opt for transit unless you’re planning a self-drive on your Europe trip. Just remember that Sundays and public holidays have limited service.
Overall, Portugal will cost less, but Spain has a higher level of infrastructure. It’s a small trade off either way.
Like so many Western European nations, both Portugal and Spain are rich with cultural and historical icons. Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon, has many landmarks that would be the envy of other cities. Perhaps most iconic is Belem Tower, the 16th-century fortified tower that sits on the water, but you’ll also find Sao Jorge Castle and Jeronimos Monastery. In Sintra, you’ll find the Romanticist building, Pena Palace, as well as the medieval Castle of the Moors.
Aside from historical icons, you’ll find the Dom Luis Bridge spanning the Douro River between Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. For natural wonders, you’ll also find one of the best caves in Europe in Portugal – the Benagil Sea Cave, which has an incredible natural skylight in its ceiling and a secluded beach cut off from the rest of the Algarve. The Algarve as a whole, with its many breathtaking beaches and rocky coastlines, is also as much an icon as any of these historical monuments.
Spain has no shortage of historical sites as well. For ancient wonders, it’s got the Aqueduct of Segovia, which is possibly the best-preserved Roman aqueduct in the world. For the medieval era, you’ll find the Moorish city of Cuenca and the Mezquita of Cordoba, once the Great Mosque of the Iberian Peninsula. Even better is the Alhambra, a grand palace built in 889AD and once home to the Emirate of Granada. The era of the Spanish Empire brought the Royal Palace in Madrid, as well as El Escorial, located in San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
For more modern landmarks and icons, you’ll find the works of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, such as the Sagrada Familia. In the Mediterranean Sea, you’ll find the popular party islands of Majorca and Ibiza. For natural icons, in San Sebastian you’ll find the beach of La Concha, which is essentially the Platonic ideal of a beach. And in Pamplona, you’ll find the yearly nine-day festival of the Running of the Bulls.
Journey Through Gaudi’s Barcelona in Spain
If you’re simply looking to visit the most famous sites on the Iberian Peninsula on your Europe trip, you should head to Spain, but you’ll be well treated when it comes to icons no matter which nation you visit.
Food and Drink
You’re in for a culinary treat regardless of whether you head on Spain holidays or trips to Portugal. Both Portuguese and Spanish cuisine rely on fresh seafood, fragrant ingredients like olive oil and garlic, and pair well with robust wines. Both countries use rice as a common grain and obsess over the use of the spicy pork sausage, chorizo. While you’ll find cutting edge cuisine in the major cities, the humility and universality of Portuguese and Spanish dishes is what make them so fabulous.
Portuguese food tends to consist of seafood cooked with lots of spice, such as piri piri, black pepper, cinnamon, and saffron. Most dishes are cooked in olive oil and feature copious amounts of garlic. Dishes tend to be light, but they grow heavier the more northerly you get. Likely the most common ingredient in Portuguese cooking is Bacalhau, a dried, salted cod that is eaten everywhere in the country. There’s even a saying that there are 365 ways to cook Bacalhau, one for every day of the year. Other popular Portuguese dishes include Francesinha, Cozido a Portuguesa, and Posta Mirandesa. In terms of wine, Portugal is known for port and dry whites, as well as some full-bodied reds from the Douro Valley.
As with Portugal, in Spain you’ll find more seafood in the south and heartier dishes in the north. The most famous style of Spanish food is tapas, which consists of small savoury dishes, such as patatas bravas, that are shared at dinner and paired with alcoholic beverages. Perhaps the most common Spanish dish is paella, which consists of rice cooked in a broth alongside seafood or chicken, saffron, and green and white beans. However, it’s more particular to the Valencia region than Spain as a whole. Other famous dishes include the cold soup, gazpacho, and tortilla Espanola or frittatas. Spain produces the most wine in the world after France and Italy. Popular vintages include Garnacha and Monastrell, as well as the sparkling wine, Cava. While Sangria has become popular in North America, you’re more likely to find Spaniards drinking Tinto De Verano (red wine and lemonade) when you visit.
Both Portuguese and Spanish cooking share a lot of similarities and have been massively influential on world cuisines, especially the national foods you’ll find in South America. However, the average person will probably find more to enjoy with Spanish cooking. It’s generally more accessible.
History and Culture
Portugal and Spain share a lot of history by virtue of their geography. They were both conquered by the Roman Empire, the Goths, and the Umayyad Caliphate during the past two thousand years and both became world powers during the Age of Discovery, when European colonial powers extended their empires to the edge of the known world. With such opulent heights in their pasts, it’s understandable that both nations have a strong historical pride. The people are proud of their heritage and the cities and towns are alive with history. However, there are key differences between the two cultures.
Portugal can come across as more laidback than other European nations. The coast attracts a lot of surfers and you’ll find plenty of quiet spots throughout the country’s backwaters where people are in no rush at all. Aside from food and football (mention Cristiano Ronaldo and you’re likely to hear a passionate declaration of his greatness and a mention that Portugal has a chance of winning the World Cup), Portugal is also known for Fado, the mournful folk music that you’re likely to hear in country houses across the nation. In terms of what to expect when on a Portugal vacation, don’t assume everyone speaks English, don’t demand that waiters and service professionals rush their work, and don’t expect to get much done on Sundays. Portuguese culture has no time for people who are in a hurry on their Europe trip.
In Spain, you’ll find different cultural specificities depending on which region you visit. Most Spaniards are fiercely regionalist, as we’re seeing in the current Catalonian struggle for independence. In broader terms, Spaniards are proud of food, football, and the arts, while stereotypical cultural elements like bullfighting have fallen by the wayside. Spain has been home to some of the great artists of the world – Antoni Gaudi, Pablo Picasso, and Miguel de Cervantes to name a few – and the culture openly celebrates this artistic heritage. As for general culture tips on Spain holidays, don’t expect people to know English everywhere you go. Also, don’t expect the same kind of service in restaurants and stores as you get in North America; tips aren’t common so servers won’t be overly chipper and hyper-attentive the way you’re used to. Most importantly, remember that Spaniards don’t eat on a North American schedule. Breakfast is at 8am, a massive lunch is at 3pm, and a light dinner is at 10pm. Do not expect restaurants to cater to you if you’re trying to diverge from this schedule.
Both Portugal and Spain have long, storied histories and robust cultures that’ll charm you when you visit. If you’re interested in seeing more famous artworks and experiencing the more influential culture, Spain probably edges Portugal out by virtue of its size. But remember that Portugal is no second fiddle.
Which one is right for you?
We’ve gone over the country’s similar landscapes and climates, discussed the costs of visiting, listed the numerous landmarks to be found, and tried to point out some highlights of food, history, and culture. Now you have to decide which country is right for you on your Europe trip.
Ideally, you’d see both nations, but you want to give each a fair shake. In general terms:
- If you want to visit a warm climate with affordable accommodations, lots of great food, and a unique culture that’s been influential on the world despite its size, head to Portugal.
- If you want to explore a large nation with good infrastructure, popular food and drink, and some of the world’s greatest artistic accomplishments, head to Spain.
Portugal and Spain share a lot of similarities, but they’re very different countries that have both had a huge influence on the world at large. No matter which country you choose to visit, you’re in for an unforgettable Western Europe trip.
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