Spain or Portugal? which iberian country is the best destination?

Spain or Portugal… Portugal or Spain? Which should you go to…? This is a doubt that emerges in many traveler’s minds. Both are well-known tourism hotspots, but most importantly they offer a wide range of things to do and the guarantee of a great trip. Here, we will explore what each country has to offer in order to will help you figure out if you should travel to Portugal or Spain!

Portugal and Spain are neighbors and rivals since… ever! Besides sharing the Iberian Peninsula they share many characters, history heritage, and even culture. To better understand the differences and similarities we will compare the countries under the following terms:

  • Tourist attractions;
  • Natural beauty;
  • Beaches;
  • Culture and heritage;
  • The people;
  • Eco-friendliness;
  • Nightlife;
  • Food scene;
  • Travel infrastructure;
  • Travel safety;
  • Costs;
  • Number of tourists;

Note, if you are looking for complete guides to Portugal and Spain have a look at ours:

Spain vs Portugal – travel edition

Tourist attractions and landmarks in Portugal and Spain

Tourist attractions and Landmarks are probably the main reason anyone travels to a country, so it’s a very important topic to discuss in this comparison. First of all, we need to say that whether you end up choosing Portugal or Spain, you’ll have plenty of things to do and see. Both Portugal and Spain are loaded with tourist attractions. However, Spain is a much bigger country (5 times) and thus, has way more things to do and see. And, honestly, they are more impressive. Let’s explore some of them

In Spain, some of the most well known and visited attractions and destinations include:

Spain Or Portugal?
UNESCO World Heritage- Alhambra in Spain

As you can see Spain is impressive, but what about Portugal? In Portugal you can find:

So, Spain wins this and clearly. But again, it’s not that Portugal doesn’t have some great attractions, it’s Spain that’s one of the best destinations in the world in this regard.

Tourist attractions and landmarks in Portugal and Spain
UNESCO World Heritage- Ribeira of Porto in Portugal

Natural Beauty and Landscape of Portugal vs Spain

As we said Portugal and Spain share many features making them somehow similar, but with a few striking differences. Landscape and Natural beauty

Spain has a much bigger variety of landscapes, mostly due to its size. Spain a little for everyone! Spain has the Pyrenees, Asturias, and the Sierra Nevada, if you want mountain charm. The Mediterranean coast and the islands if you want beaches. The beautiful rugged northern coast is great for surfing and sightseeing and obviously the hot and dry interior, if you like that kind of appeal.

Portugal is a country much more defined by the Atlantic sea, with a long coast and many coastal cities. Algarve is the summer the beach capital of Portugal, with many wonderful beaches and coastline, and the interior and rural Portugal is rustic and lovely. Finally, the Azores and Madeira are truly wonderlands and help Portugal go to the next level.

We were tempted to give a tie here, but Spain will take the win. Spain has essentially everything Portugal has and then some more.

Top activities to do in the Basque country
The Basque country in Spain

Beaches of Portugal Vs Spain

This is not an easy item, both Portugal and Spain are world-famous beach destinations. Plus, the beaches are somehow similar, which isn’t surprising… The beaches in Algarve are similar to the ones on the Mediterranean coast, and the western beaches of Portugal are similar to northern Spain.

Algarve has a beautiful coastline, with some dramatic cliffs, caves, sandy beaches and nice warm water, but it’s already outside the mediterranean sea so the water is cooler than in Spain. The Portuguese west coast is home to some of the best surf spots in the world, like peniche and Nazare (which is world-famous for its giant waves). It is also loaded with some picturesque and scenic beaches like the ones in Arrabida, Pessegueiro island, Berlengas, and Caminha. Yet, the water is considerably colder making them easy on the eyes but very difficult to dive in.

Best Beaches of Portugal
Algarve Beach, Portugal

Northern Spain also has a number of well-known surf spots, particularly in the Basque country. In fact, we believe that the beaches in northern Spain are probably the most underrated of Spain’s attraction. They are stunning, however, the water is cold and that puts away lots of people. The Mediterranean beaches, on the other hand, are well known for their warm water, family-friendly activities by day and hot nightlife. It’s no wonder that Malaga, Valencia, Almeria, Murcia and so on, receive millions of tourists per year!

All in all, it really depends on what you are looking for. If warm water is the most important, then the south of Spain is the obvious answer, while Algarve is the best option in Portugal. Well, apart from the small Porto Santo Island in Madeira.

If you prefer to explore the coastline, enjoying small villages and less-visited beaches then you are probably better off in Portugal’s west coast, but note that the Asturian, Galician and Basque coast are also very interesting. We absolutely love the Basque Coast. Check our Basque coast itinerary here.

Overall, we believe people tend to prefer the Mediterranean like beaches so Spain takes this one, but only by an inch.

Things to do in Marbella
Puerto Banus in Marbella, Spain

Culture and heritage to explore in Spain and Portugal

Despite Portugal being independent for more than 900 years (with a short union during 60 years during the 16th and 17th centuries), the countries share a lot of history and both nations had a huge influence on world history. One easy way to assess this is by noticing that Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, and Portuguese is the sixth. Both Portugal and Spain went through the Moorish period and then had “Reconquista” together and were the two main players of the Age of Discoveries, soon after.

Portugal has 17 sites (16 cultural and 1 natural) while Spain is home to 48 (42 cultural, 4 natural, and 2 mixed) sites. So, the Portuguese number is impressive, but Spain is the 3rd country with more UNESCO sites inscribed. In both countries, you’ll have more sites than you can visit so this won’t be a problem. You’ll find aqueducts, walls, fortifications, cathedrals, bridges, complete city centers and old towns, monasteries, and mosques/Cathedrals, Moorish Palaces, and so much more!

Which is the best country to visit Portugal or Spain
Guimarães Castle in Portugla

In Spain, you’ll also find a huge number of festivities spread all over the country and throughout the year. Some of the most famous are the bull run in Pamplona and the tomato fight in Buñol. In Portugal, the most important festivities are the June festivities of Santo António, São João and São Pedro.

Spain is also much more diverse than Portugal. In fact, within Spain, there are several different cultures, with the Basque, Catalans, Galician and Andalucian being very different from each other, with different languages and even independentist movements.

In conclusion, both countries have very strong cultures, with plenty of peculiarities, festivities, music, dances, and arts for a tourist to explore. Similarly to the landmarks and destinations, Portugal is very impressive in this, but Spain is even more! If Portugal had a huge influence in the world, Spain had even bigger! In fact, the thing with Spain is that you always get the feeling that you need to get back because you missed so much… no matter how long you stayed.

Where to go in Spain
UNESCO world heritage site – Burgos cathedral in Spain

Eco-friendliness in Spain and Portugal

Both Portugal and Spain have been working towards being more environment-friendly. We have visited Spain many times, during the last 20, 25 years and we live in Portugal, and during this time it’s obvious that there have been huge improvements, but we find that streets are now much cleaner than they were, which is great to see. There’s also a big push towards recycling, though there’s a lot to be done. They have also been reducing air pollution and carbon emissions.

It’s rather difficult to separate the countries in this item, so we will give it a tie.

The people of Portugal vs Spain

The interaction with the locals influences greatly the experience we have in each country and we find the Portuguese very different from the Spaniards.

In general, the Portuguese are quiet and relaxed. Portugal has a very laidback vibe which is perfect for anyone on a trip or on vacations. Tourists usually also find the Portuguese to be very helpful and easy-going. The Spaniards are much louder and proud people.

Finally, The Portuguese also speak much better English than Spaniards. In both countries, the younger generations speak much better English than the older, so, with more or less difficulty you’ll be able to communicate.

All things considered, we think the Portuguese people really make a difference here and Portugal takes this one.

reasons to visit Portugal
Nazare street vendors in Portugal

The nightlife of Spain vs Portugal

When it comes to nightlife, Spain wins clearly. Spain is world-famous for its parties and nightlife while Portugal is only… average.

Spain comes to life at night. The Spaniards love to go out with friends and family to have a drink, to party, to have tapas and pintxos. There’s something for everyone and it’s usually top-notch. From the pintxos bars in San Sebastian to the legendary parties in Ibiza, Malaga and Marbella, and the discos in Madrid and Barcelona. All of this obviously attracts thousands of tourists every year.

In Portugal, the nightlife is good, but nowhere near the levels popularity of their neighbors. It’s also much more concentrated in Lisbon, Porto, and Algarve. In the rest of the country, it doesn’t really happen much at night.

The nightlife of Spain
Nightlife in Cordoba Spain

Food in Portugal and Spain

Do you really travel if you don’t try the local food? Yes, you do. But, for us, not indulging in the local delicacies is just not an option! We love trying new things and eat what the locals eat… mostly! Between, Portugal and Spain, who has the best food? This a difficult one, but I think we prefer Portuguese food to the Spanish. Though, as Portuguese, we know Portuguese food better than any other… Let’s explore a little about each cuisine.

Portuguese cuisine isn’t as widely famous as the Spanish, but it still had a huge influence on world cuisine. The Portuguese took spices from the east to the west and many ingredients from the Americas to the rest of the world. Portuguese cuisine is famous for the extensive use of salted cod (Bacalhau). When in Portugal you really should try it in a couple of different ways. One other thing that tourists love in Portugal is the wonderful fresh fish and seafood. Besides being delicious it’s also much cheaper than in western Europe and the US. Some of the things you should try in Portugal include:

  • Bacalhau à Bras
  • Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá
  • Peri-Peri chicken
  • Pastel de Nata
  • All the conventual sweets you can find
  • Francesinha
  • and sou much more! Have a look at our complete guide on traditional Portuguese cuisine!
Portuguese cuisine
Traditional Portuguese dish- Bacalhau

Spanish food is somehow similar to the Portuguese, particularly in terms of fresh seafood, fish and smoked meats. As in everything else in Spain, food is also very local or regional. The food from Galicia is different from the food in Valencia, of example. In this regard, we need to mention the basque country which has some of the best food in the world. San Sebastian’s pintxo bars are out of this world. The most famous thing about Spanish cuisine is probable the tapas/pintxos, which aren’t really one dish but a way of serving the food. Tapas have quickly become an international thing, with tapas bars/restaurants everywhere. Besides the tapas and pintxos, some of the most famous Spanish food include:

  • Paella
  • The Cured meats like Chorizo and Iberian Ham
  • Gazpacho
  • Polpo à Feira
  • Churros with hot chocolate
  • Fabada asturiana
  • Patatas bravas

We will have to give a tie to this one. The food will probably create some of the best memories on a trip to either Portugal or Spain!

What to eat in Spain
Traditional Spanish dish – Pulpo à feira

Travel infrastructure in Spain vs Portugal

Spain is richer and more developed in Portugal and that reflects on the travel infrastructure, however, the difference isn’t that big. Portugal is more than ok, and you’ll probably have no problems moving around into and around the country.

Both Portugal and Spain have a good road network and highways connecting the bigger towns. Though in Portugal there are fewer free highways. Public transportation also seems to work fairly well in both countries, but Spain has high-speed trains and Portugal doesn’t. Spain has many more airports than Portugal, but the country is also bigger. Both have lots of cheap flights from Europe through several low-cost airlines.

In a hindsight, Spain wins this one, as it’s slightly better in every aspect, but as we said earlier, the travel infrastructure isn’t something you should worry about in Portugal or Spain.

Visit Ronda Spain
Beautiful city of Ronda in Spain

Safety in Portugal or Spain

So we were talking about things you don’t really need to worry about… travel safety in Portugal and Spain is another. Both Portugal and Spain are some of the safest and most peaceful countries to visit. You would need to be very unlucky to encounter any kind of problem, particularly violent ones.

That being said, Portugal usually ranks higher than Spain. Portugal is just safe and relaxed. According to this rank, Portugal is the 3rd safest country in the world, while Spain is very safe but only ranks in the top20…

You should know that even in the safest countries in the world are areas that aren’t as safe and that you should be aware of your belongings everywhere particularly in places with lots of people and lots of tourists.

So, Portugal wins this item.

Things about Portugal
Cute city of Portugal – Mirandela

Costs of traveling in Portugal and Spain

Spain and Portugal look like great destinations, but are they affordable? And which is cheaper?

Portugal and Spain are the most budget-friendly destination in western Europe, and one of the cheapest among developed countries. Between Portugal and Spain, Portugal is cheaper than in Spain.

Portugal is all-around cheaper, with lower costs on lodging, food, internal transportation, and activities. The only thing where Portugal tends to be more expensive than Spain is the plane ticket. The difference tends to be small, and even small if you are coming from Europe in one of the Low-cost airlines, but it’s usually easier to find inexpensive tickets to Spain.

If you have a look at the backpacker index, you’ll notice that Lisbon is cheaper than any Spanish town on the list. You should also note that Lisbon is the most expensive place to stay in Portugal. Well, maybe the Algarve is more expensive during the summer. The rest of the country is much cheaper, particularly the attractions and food. Though, this is also valid for Spain. Those rustic small towns from Spain are much cheaper than Madrid, Ibiza or Barcelona.

Either way, Portugal clearly wins and it’s the cheaper option.

Best Beaches of Portugal
Caminha Beach in North of Portugal

Number of Tourists in Portugal vs Spain

As a whole neither Portugal or Spain are off the beaten track. Portugal receives about 12M tourists per year (with a Population of 10M) and Spain hosts more than 80M tourists per year (40M people living there). Note that Spain has more tourists per local and per sq2 than Portugal.

It’s easy to see that both countries are very popular, but you should also keep in mind that both nations receive much more tourists during Summer and in their major towns. Also, tourism is still increasing in both countries but it’s increasing faster in Portugal.

In Portugal, tourists tend to go to Lisbon, Porto, and Algarve, while in Spain, Barcelona, Andalusia, the entire Mediterranean coast, and the Islands are probably the most touristic. If you go to a smaller destination, like Guimaraes or Burgos during the low season, there are very few tourists. And the same goes for Spain. While cities like Lisbon or Barcelona are difficult to enjoy during Summer.

So, Portugal still has fewer tourists in general so it wins this one. But don’t expect to have the popular destinations for yourself…

What is Spain Famous For
Casa Mila in Barcelona, Spain

Portugal vs Spain Conclusion

In conclusion and no surprise, Spain wins this comparison 6 to 4, with 2 ties. Though, this doesn’t mean much. What you really should keep in mind is what you are looking for on this trip and which country better caters to it.

And you should travel to Spain if you are looking for:

  • Beautiful Mediterranean beaches with warm water;
  • Long history with an endless number of heritage sites;
  • Huge variety of Landscapes
  • Vibrant nightlife;
  • Good food, with a big variety of cuisines;
  • Cheap, but not the cheapest in the region;
  • Have at very least 2 weeks to travel around, or you won’t even scratch the surface;
  • Don’t mind the crowds, particularly in Summer;
  • Safe travel destination;

So, you should travel to Portugal if:

  • you have less time, but want to know a country full of history;
  • delicious food, form a lesser-known cuisine;
  • you are on a tight budget but want to visit a western Europe country;
  • Safety is a really big concern of yours;
  • A laidback and relaxed atmosphere;
  • very nice locals;
  • prefer small coastal towns to beach resorts;
  • water temperature isn’t that important;
  • you are looking for a unique culture that helped change the world

The good thing about choosing between Portugal and Spain is that you can’t really go wrong. In many aspects, you are choosing if you want a good thing or a very good thing. You are bound to have a great time in the Iberian Peninsula.

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