There’s a reason why Spain is one of the world’s five most-popular destinations. Not only is it one of Europe’s biggest countries, it’s also one of the world’s most breathtaking in terms of natural beauty and cultural attractions. For that reason, after a tour of Portugal’s neighbor, most travelers conclude that they have seen enough of Iberia and overlook Portugal, figuring it’s just another version of Spain. Those who know Portugal know that despite the many similarities, the smaller Iberian nation has quite a different essence and temperament, not to mention its own individual character and culture. Portugal usually ranks between the world’s top 15 or 20 most-visited countries, but living in the tourism shadow of Spain means that it could actually be higher on that list. So if you’re not sure if you should visit Portugal or Spain (or both) on your next trip, here are ten reasons why you should choose Portugal now:
If you’re in the United States or anywhere in North America or South America, Portugal is the closest European country to you. If you’re in the British Isles, Portugal is the only country in mainland Europe that shares your time zone, and you’ll reach Lisbon or Porto before you reach Madrid or Barcelona. Portugal is therefore perfect if you prefer shorter flights.
Also, Portugal’s location on the Atlantic means that its coastline is quite different from Spain’s which is for the most part on the Mediterranean. Portugal’s coast is therefore a different experience, with mystical capes that includes the westernmost point in Europe, making it a unique, unforgettable experience.
IT’S MORE AFFORDABLE
Prices in Portugal are the lowest of all Western European countries, and that of course includes Spain. Even 5-star hotels in major tourism areas can be anywhere from 25% to 50% lower than in the neighbor country, and even more affordable are the restaurants which even in Lisbon can be quite inexpensive.
Spanish tapas are now a worldwide trend and Spanish paella is more famous than any Portuguese dish, but even many Spaniards will agree that Portuguese food is simply better. And we emphasize the word “simply,” as Portuguese food stands out for its freshness and simplicity. It’s also more varied and quite frankly better prepared than the typical meat-heavy Spanish cuisine (we’re not talking about the new wave of innovative Catalan cuisine here, but the traditional Spanish food).
If you feel more comfortable going to a country where you can communicate in English, choose Portugal. You’ll find more (young) people speaking at least some basic English than in Spain, and with quite a better accent to be understood. English in Portugal is learned not just in school but also through TV and movies, as they are not dubbed but subtitled. In Spain and throughout much of Europe everything is dubbed so it’s difficult to develop a good accent and learn English. It’s for that reason that Portugal has more English speakers than any other southern European country, which is always good news for travelers.
Good things do come in small packages. Being a varied, compact country like Portugal has its advantages, proving that size does matter.
Spain is probably Europe’s most diverse country, being for example quite different in the south (Andalusia) and in the north (Galicia or Basque Country). Considering it’s four times larger than Portugal, you won’t be able to experience all of its regions unless you spend a few weeks in the country. But you can in Portugal. You’ll also find a variety of landscapes and cultural attractions, and there’s also a great north-south contrast, but here you’ll easily travel between the different regions and are able to leave with a greater sense of the country. You can wake up in the peaceful Douro Valley wine country, and fall asleep by the relaxing beaches of Algarve.
The advantages of the country’s small size mentioned above also mean that you can dedicate more time to each destination. You don’t have to rush from place to place if you have several attractions on your list. You have time for more museums, more meals, more time at the beach. You’ll get more from your trip.
Many of the major Spanish cities located away from the coast such as Madrid suffer from extreme temperatures: They may be scorching hot in the summer, and freezing in winter. In Portugal, weather is never so extreme, even in the colder, rainier north. The country is cooled off by the Atlantic and warmed by the winds of the south, making it a year-round destination, especially Lisbon and the southern coast, the sunniest regions in Europe.
Portugal’s capital stands out for being a big city that charms rather than overwhelm. Its old historic center where the tourism attractions are found is quite compact and has a greater sense of history than Madrid or Barcelona which are essentially late-19th and early-20th-century cities. Lisbon is Europe’s oldest capital after Athens and if Iberia became unified as one country it would probably become the capital, as a Spanish king once envisioned. This is one of the world’s greatest natural harbors and as one of the world’s great historic cities, it should not be missed, especially by history buffs. And when we say Lisbon we also say Sintra with its fantastic palaces.
Those looking for Southern European sunshine and warmth in resort accommodation that maintains some local charm should choose Portugal’s Algarve over Spain’s Costa del Sol. While parts of Algarve have also been stripped of any character by mass tourism’s overdevelopment (ugly concrete hotels and apartment buildings), it fortunately did not reach the proportions of many areas of southern Spain. Also, Algarve is Atlantic and not Mediterranean, yet its culture mixes that of the two. It’s in many ways similar to Costa del Sol but with its own flavor, and you’ll want to stand by the cape of St. Vincent, known as the end of the world to ancient Europeans before the Age of Discovery.
THE ATLANTIC ISLANDS
Spain’s Canary and Balearic islands are great and beautiful, but for something completely different, look for Portugal’s Azores. This archipelago halfway between Europe and the United States is more New Zealand or Ireland than Mediterranean island resorts. There is no mass tourism or beach resorts — instead you’ll find an incredibly magic atmosphere of volcanos, breathtaking landscapes and whales swimming in the Atlantic. Pictures are not capable of illustrating or capturing the natural grandeur of the place, making it a truly unique destination that needs to be lived to be believed.