Last Updated on January 21, 2022 by Lea Melo
This article ‘Lisbon, Porto or Algarve: Which one should I choose?‘ was originally posted on May 11, 2021. It has been reviewed and republished on January 18, 2022.
Portugal is known as a country with many countries inside. Despite its small size, there is no lack of variety between different regions, whether we are talking about accents, lifestyle, figments of the culture, and, of course, food and climate. Such variety is often found in a frequently asked question: Lisbon, Porto, or Algarve?
Nonetheless, and in the words of a famous Porto artist, “there is more that unites us than what it sets us apart”.
One entertaining way to confirm this surmise is to look at the different regions of wine production: Dão and Bairrada (Both in the central areas of Portugal), Douro (Littoral North), Alentejo (South of Portugal), Setúbal (Vicinities of Lisbon), etc.
All of these types of wine flourish in different climates, typologies in terms of terrain, types of flora, etc.
But this division falls apart when we talk about food: From the lovely, cozy dish of Beira Baixa, Chanfana (an old goat soaked in wine and baked for an entire day) to the light, grilled sardines, a littoral dish by nature, the meals we are accustomed to reflecting the way of life and the environment available to our ancients, and its differences are living proof of the cultural richness of this small country.
In this article, we will discuss three particular regions to help you come to an answer to the question: Lisbon, Porto, or Algarve? We’ll paint a small portrait of the three cities, in all their idiosyncrasies, to slowly open the curtain and show the reality of living in the three most sought-after regions in Portugal.
What’s common among the three?
I will start with what’s common to Lisbon, Porto, and Algarve alike: you can expect a strong influx of tourists in the spring and summer and, with that, lively celebrations, streets packed with people from all cultures, sharing its own particularities and enrichening the cities’ culture.
When we talk about these three cities, we can talk about what is becoming to be known as cultural tourism, that is, tourism focused on absorbing the art, architecture, and music of Portugal, and the party tourism, alas, tourism to take advantage of the beaches, the food, and the steaming nightlife that permeates every corner of the cities.
In 2019, Portugal hosted, throughout the year, a stunning 26 million tourists (according to INE), a number that is almost triple of our current population.
Then, there’s the crime rate in Portugal: because we are talking about cities with a large density in terms of population, it’s normal that these numbers are not an exact reflection of crime in these locations; nonetheless, and according to the Global Peace Index, Portugal is the third most peaceful country in the world.
This doesn’t exclude the possibility of small crimes, such as pickpocketing or robbery, especially aimed at tourists.
But, all in all, Portugal is quite peaceful, and most inhabitants go through life without any major occurrence.
One last contemplation that attests to the commonality of these three cities is their hospitality: as we are, for centuries now, a multicultural hub, the native people embrace those who come from different countries and cultures, and you can expect most people, especially the younger ones, to be able to speak and understand clear English.
The same can be said about restaurants, stores, museums, etc. You should be able to easily navigate these cities, especially because Portugal made an effort to equip the main cities with tourism centers, to further provide all the aid and dissipate any doubt you might have.
Now that we set these things aside, let’s delve into the differences.
Choosing to live in the Algarve
Living in the Algarve is a top choice for most expats looking for sun and peace in Portugal. Known nationally and internationally as the kingdom of the beaches, the Algarve region has an incredible particularity. Although Porto and Lisbon also have beaches, in Algarve you can have access to the beaches from the South of Portugal, and not only those directed to the West. The beaches that are pointed towards Africa are quite different from the rest of the littoral in Portugal.
The water is warmer, calmer, and shallower, and the sandplain is bigger. These characteristics may not be so cool to surf on but are perfect for a peaceful afternoon with the family.
If you want harsher beaches, you can travel as little as 20 miles and experience more intense sensations in the Algarve west coast beaches, in the Vicentina Coast. And the many different cities in the Algarve offer various advantages for all tastes.
To ease the comparisons, let’s divide it into key aspects that define the quality of life in these three regions:
Entertainment in the Algarve
Algarve is a place with a relatively recent history of tourism and expat immigration. It is exactly this phenomenon that made Algarve grow to its fame, nowadays.
As such, the region adapted to host people eager to indulge in its wonderful beaches, warm climate, and tasty food.
This created a rich industry of entertainment, that is mostly directed to leisure: you should not expect a complex tapestry of culture, but rather an explosive nightlife, golf clubs, and a general consumption-based lifestyle.
Cost of Living in the Algarve
Because Algarve is mainly a summer region, the cost of living peaks in this season. The rents go up, and most houses are rented for 2 weeks at a time.
If chosen wisely, and in the calmer season, you can live comfortably for 800€/month.
A T3 (three-bedroom apartment) can have a relatively small rent, and the grocery prices are akin to those in the rest of the country.
Add to it the cost of water and electricity (40€ minimum), and Internet (20€ minimum), and the sum will add up to what was said previously.
The famous Algarve weather
Algarve has a warm Mediterranean climate, ranging from an average temperature of *10-20ºC in the Winter (50-68ºF), and 18-31ºC in the Summer (64-87ºF).
With endless hours of sun and pluviosity that is modest, at best, Algarve sits at the top, in what refers to the hospitality of the climate.
It is, indeed, a gem, a small region that, due to its proximity to the sea, and its zone and proximity to Africa, remains tempered throughout the year.
Typical Algarvian Food
The dishes that the Algarve has to offer are light but full of soul.
Drinking from the history of the region, which was and still is, focused heavily on fishing for a living, you can expect an incredible variety of fresh fish and shellfish throughout the year, grilled with a pinch of salt and lemon, served with boiled potatoes and vegetables.
One great dish you ought to experiment with at least once is the cataplana, a mixture of different fresh shellfishes, that go great with white wine or beer, and of, course, good friends and light chats.
Public transportation in the Algarve
The Achilles’ Heel of Algarve, the public transportation is only efficient in the Summer. So you definitely should consider buying your own car here.
When the high season is over, Algarve turns into a relatively underpopulated area, and the offer is adapted to such conditions.
The quality and quantity options are incomparably lower than in Porto or Lisbon. Also one of the favorite places the wealthy choose in Portugal.
Choosing to live in Porto
Living in Porto is a reality for many expats, and once you’re there, it’s easy to see why.
Once a small Celtic settlement, that Romans deemed that should be called Cale, it’s what they built there that would name Porto and, at the same time, Portugal. Keen on using Porto’s shore to garner resources, they would build a Port, which they name “Portus Cale”. You can see the resemblance and, also, the history.
It’s the Battle of Ourique, in 1138, that effectively creates the idea of a kingdom, Portugal, later accepted by the Pope, in 1143. In Porto, buildings tell stories of kings and queens, of bishops and writers, of fishermen and the prole.
The “Invicta”, as is kindly named by its inhabitants, is a hub of history, and it is clear once you step your feet on the city.
Entertainment in Porto
We can say that Porto is the 2nd most important cultural center of Portugal.
Historic places like Torre dos Clérigos, Capela das Almas, and other mythical places for the history of Portugal are plainly available for visitation.
Theater and concerts are also cherished, and the most relevant artistic movements in Portugal reach Porto, sometimes more rapidly than Lisbon. Serralves is held as one of the most innovative hubs for painting, sculpture, and plastic art galleries.
Apart from that, there are plenty of places to just have fun, have a few drinks, and relax.
Overall, it is a great city for both culture and entertainment.
Cost of Living in Porto
Still cheaper than Lisbon, the cost of living in Porto is increasing. Comparatively to Algarve, it may look ominous, but the main problem is the housing prices, which have been skyrocketing for some years now.
To put in perspective, what you paid for a T3 (600€) in 2012 is now what you pay for a room in a house. Endemic explanations aside, this is also a testament to the demand for a house in Porto.
The prices decrease as you get far from the center, but generally, you can expect to spend up to 1,200€ to have a comfortable lifestyle in Porto.
The weather in Porto
The summer is pleasant, with pleasant temperatures and almost no rain at all.
The winter is fresh but nowhere near as cool as the regions to its right.
It varies, along the year, from 6ºC to 24ºC (42ºF to 75ºF). It rarely falls apart from this span.
Typical Porto food
Porto and the northern region of Portugal have the fame of being one of Portugal’s best places to eat. And you cannot talk about Porto without talking about Francesinha.
A heavy dish appreciated throughout Portugal but considered to be best served in Porto, its variety of meats and its secret homemade sauce is what makes the dish unique.
Porto has both light dishes, due to its proximity to the sea, and an influence from the more internal regions of Portugal.
Excellent, fresh fish from Matosinhos and great meat from the central region of Portugal make up a diverse diet that can attract different palates the same way.
Public Transportation in Porto
With a subway and a very sophisticated line of buses, you probably won’t even need to have a car in Porto to travel to wherever you want, at least in the vicinities.
Choosing to live in Lisbon
Living in Lisbon is the most common choice for expats in Portugal, and the city does deserve the respect it has.
The Capital of Portugal, Lisbon is a synonym of the most prolific endeavor that Portugal ever made: os Descobrimentos (The Discoveries).
A city of sailors, kings, and writers, exalted by the presence of people such as Saramago, Fernando Pessoa, Vasco da Gama, and retailored by Marquês de Pombal.
Completely devastated by an earthquake in 1755, Lisbon is now a modern, and even fashionable city, that retains its history but embraces modernity.
It’s this mix that makes Lisbon one of the most sought-after cities in all of Europe.
Entertainment in Lisbon
There’s no shortage of great monuments, museums, and old buildings to visit and savor the history of Portugal, in all its glory and shortcomings.
It is an ecumenic city, where the old and the new meet, and as such, you can visit a museum in the afternoon and at night, listen to the new bands mixing Fado with African sounds.
I do recommend listening to Fado in its original form too, as the Fado cafes and restaurants are the brands of Lisbon.
The nightlife is great, and so are the beaches around Lisbon.
Cost of Living in Lisbon
In the most expensive city in Portugal, you can expect to spend more than €1,200 to live comfortably in Lisbon: depending, of course, on how you envision your lifestyle.
The rents are high, but all other expenses are similar to Porto and Algarve. You can see more details in our article Cost of living in Lisbon: how much you need to live well.
Again, when we talk about the Littoral, fish is the norm: especially sardines. Lisbon is Portugal’s most visited city, so it’s also where you’re most likely to try traditional Portuguese cuisine.
Something that you simply cannot miss in Lisbon, is the codfish dishes. Codfish will be present in most restaurants, and it is the national choice.
The cuisine from Lisbon is quite aggregative, and it tries to represent the various tendencies of Portugal. Ameijoas à Bulhão Pato (shellfish with a super tasty sauce) is a must, Bacalhau à Brás (a codfish dish with fried potatoes) is, by far (in my opinion :D), one of the great dishes of Portugal, and the Pastel de Nata, a sweet pastry that was born in Belém, Lisboa, and it remains as one of the most eaten pastries in Portugal.
Public Transportation in Lisbon
Like Porto, Lisbon is always trying to create new solutions in terms of transportations, as well as researching alternatives to the use of cars, to reduce the carbon emictions.
The subway works well enough and the network of buses reaches all the points of the city and suburbs. There is a lot of traffic in rush hours, especially on the roads that link to the city’s dormitories, like Setúbal and Oeiras.
Overall: Which one to choose?
These three Portuguese regions all have pros and cons. Their history and their peculiarities are perfect for some, and a big no-no for others.
It’s up to you to choose the best place, looking at all the several segments of the decision-making process.
Something that many expats do is to visit Portugal on a scouting trip, to explore and discover what is best for you.
What I can guarantee is that, whichever place you choose, you can count on hospitality, a smiling face, and people that love to talk, to eat and drink, and most of all, to enjoy life.
If you want to start the process of moving to this beautiful country (no matter the chosen city), you can always count on Viv Europe to assist you.
Also, don’t be shy to ask other expats what their experiences in each city are like. Join our Facebook group All About Portugal For Expats to meet other like-minded brave individuals. See you in Portugal.