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Everyone loves Europe.
Backpacking the many European countries is how many travelers catch the travel bug to begin with.
From Paris to London, Europe is full of exciting and drastically different cities, scattered throughout the continent. Spain is a big destination, but its small neighbor to the south, Portugal, can often be overlooked.
I backpacked both Spain and Portugal in January of 2019 and fell in love with both countries. However, if the two were compared against each other, who would come out on top?
I’m personally not huge on cramming every single tourist attraction during a trip. I prefer to wander a city to get to know it before ticking off tourist attraction boxes. I do love to discover different sights in countries. Both Spain and Portugal have plenty to offer tourists who love sightseeing!
Spain is much larger than Portugal, with more big cities offering different tourist attractions. In sheer numbers, Spain definitely has Portugal beat. Destinations in Spain include:
- The Palacio Real (Royal Palace) in Madrid
- The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
- Real Alcázar in Seville
- Mezquita of Cordoba
- Art museums in Madrid
Inside the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona
Portugal is much smaller than Spain but does not lack incredible sightseeing opportunities, including:
- Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon
- The Palácio Nacional and other palaces in Sintra
- The Prazeres Cemetery in Lisbon
- Torre de Belém in Lisbon
- Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga
I will have to award Spain for the number of tourist attractions over Portugal.
With Madrid’s golden trio of art museums and Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain is chock full of tourist sights. Not to mention, Real Alcázar in Seville and Girona were both used as shooting destinations for Game of Thrones!
Spain vs Portugal Tourist Destinations Winner: Spain
Colorful castles in Sintra, Portugal
I visited Spain and Portugal in mid-January, so I did not do any beach or water-related activities. However, I can definitely comment on what I saw advertised, and the feeling of the coastlines in each country.
Spain is more known for its islands, such as Ibiza and Tenerife. The islands are full of tourism and resorts and are best for beachgoers looking for a relaxing vacation. The beaches on these islands, as well as in Barcelona, get remarkably crowded during the season.
The majority of Portugal is along the coastline, so beautiful beaches can be found everywhere. The beaches range from relaxing resorts like in Spain to empty beaches covered in massive rock formations and sand caves. Cliff jumping, hiking, and surfing are all very common activities in Portugal. The Atlantic Ocean definitely gets better waves on the Portuguese coastline!
Depending on what you look for in a beach, you may disagree with my decision. However, I get bored lying on the beach doing nothing, and large crowds irritate me on the beach.
Therefore, I award Portugal with the better beach scene!
Spain vs Portugal Beaches Winner: Portugal
The beautiful but crowded beaches of Barcelona
The nightlife in both Spain and Portugal are outstanding.
In Spain, Barcelona is known as a huge party city in Europe. My favorite bar there: Espit Chupitos! This bar has hundreds of different house shots that will definitely entertain you. Rooftop bars are popular in Madrid, and late-night tapas bars will have you eating and drinking your heart out in Seville.
In Portugal, most of the big-city feel nightlife will be in Lisbon. Lisbon has some pretty incredible bars and clubs, but nowhere near to the number found in Barcelona and Madrid.
Spain definitely has a larger variety of nightlife!
Spain vs Portugal Nightlife Winner: Spain
Streetcar on the winding roads of Lisbon
Safety and Friendliness
Both countries are incredibly safe. I never felt unsafe in either country, even at night and by myself.
While there is very little serious crime in Spain, pickpocketing is HUGE. Barcelona is actually the worst city in the world for pickpocketing crimes, and police can do little about it unless you catch the culprit. I was constantly checking my bag and pockets, especially after a little kid tried to steal my phone on a metro in Madrid!
The people in Spain, especially northern and mid-Spain, were fairly cold and unwelcoming to tourists as a whole. Language barriers are definitely something to think about as well.
In Portugal, I never had any problems. The people, in general, were much more friendly and open than in Spain. No one attempted to pickpocket me, and I was constantly striking up a conversation with locals. Every local I met speaks (nearly) perfect English as well!
Portugal definitely feels safer and friendlier than Spain!
Spain vs Portugal Safety and Friendliness Winner: Portugal
Spanish churros and hot chocolate
Food and Drink
The food in Spain and Portugal are fairly similar. Seafood is popular in both countries, and both countries have their signature drinks!
Madrid, Spain is where you will find the BEST drinking chocolate in the world. Thick, hot chocolate and churros are extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. Tapas restaurants are scattered around the country, with delicious plates of fish, cheese, bread, and meat. Whole smoked pigs can be seen in meat shops around the country.
My favorite coffee in the world is also in Spain: café bombón. It is made with espresso and sweetened condensed milk. I had one every day!
Portugal is a major lover of seafood. Lisbon’s tinned seafood culture is huge, and you can find some incredible, gourmet seafood in little tins around the city. Steamed octopus, fish soup, and mussels are also on nearly every menu.
Porto, Portugal is where Port wine is made. The city is full of wineries and restaurants that will let you try dozens of different kinds of wine! Lisbon’s signature liquor is delicious too: sour cherry liquor! The liquor is served in dark chocolate shot glasses and eaten whole. Delicious!
For dessert, Portugal’s Leite de Crème is incredible. These small custard tarts are sold all over for only a euro or two. Eat one with a latte, and you’ll be in heaven!
I definitely enjoyed the food and drink in Portugal more than Spain, overall.
Spain vs Portugal Food and Drink Winner: Portugal
Tibidabo Church with a view in Barcelona
Overall Winner of Spain vs Portugal
I overall enjoyed my time in Portugal more than Spain. Although both countries are incredible, Portugal had an overall more laid-back vibe and fun atmosphere than Spain.
However, I highly encourage travelers to backpack both countries, as it is so easy to jump from one to the other!
This article is part of the EU Smackdown series. Read the rest below:
Then, check out the complete Country Comparison series for more showdowns from around the world.
I’ve been traveling full-time for three years, these are the resources that make it happen:
➤ I exclusively use Airbnb for savings and security on long-term stays in furnished apartments.
➤ I use Booking.com for short-term stays in hostels and hotels on weekend trips.
➤ Upwork allowed me to take the leap to travel full-time because they make it so easy to find freelance clients in any field.
➤ The Superstar Blogging Travel Writing Course launched my travel writing career and helped me become a contributor at sites like Cincinnati Refined and International Living, and even get published in the Boston Globe.