Portugal or Croatia? Which Vacation Hotspot Should I Choose?

Dubrovnik, Croatia
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So, it’s either going to be Portugal or Croatia this year, eh? The good news is that we think you’re sure to have a fantastic time whichever you go for. Both of these countries are downright enthralling. They both have stunning coastlines and rich histories, vibrant towns and oodles of sun. But which is best for you and your travel crew?

That’s what we’re here to help with. This guide will delve into the culture, cuisine, climate, and a whole load more about both spots, all to help you pick the right one for your upcoming vacation to the sunny southern ends of Europe.

Along the way, we’ll check out where offers the best beaches, the top activities, and the most budget-friendly costs. We’ll also run through some of the most enticing destinations in both places and give some tips on where to go if you want wild nature, pumping nightlife, and a whole load more.

Portugal or Croatia: Ease of travel

Cars by a beach in Portugal
Photo by joseph Richard Francis

Portugal is now one of the top destinations in Western Europe. It draws millions of travelers every year with the promise of sea, sand, sun, and surf. The upshot? You should find it’s pretty accessible. There are three main gateways from the air: Lisbon, Porto, and then Faro, for access to the Algarve. The last two mainly get short-hail flights from across Europe, which can be real bargains if you book early. The first is served by long-haul links from the USA to boot. You should also find it easy to arrive in Portugal by car or rail via Spain.

Croatia was slightly slower to open to mass tourism after it emerged from Yugoslavia in the 90s. However, it’s now also firmly on the map, with the major airport gateways being in Zadar, Split Dubrovnik, and the capital of Zagreb, though it’s almost solely short-haul connections to them all. You should also bear in mind that Croatia is very long and thin, not to mention fragmented into countless islands. It’s generally harder to get around and travel to than its Iberian compadre.

Winner: Portugal

Portugal or Croatia: Things to do

A tram going through the streets of Lisbon.
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You’re not going to struggle to pack an itinerary for either Portugal or Croatia. Some of the more popular locations in the first include Lisbon, for its bustling capital city feel, Sintra, for its colorful, fairy-tale setting, the Algarve, for the ultimate soak-in-the-sun coastal destination, and Porto, for its mix of old-world charm and modern-day culture.

Sightseeing is big in Portugal. Be sure to drop by the Belem Tower (16th century fortification, which served as a base for Portuguese explorers), the Pena Palace (pastel colored castle in the hills of Sintra) and Cape Saint Vincent in Sagres (referred to as “the end of the world”, it is continental Europe’s most southwesterly point). Beyond those, you’ve got ample opportunities to surf, to hike coastal reserves, to hit the wine trails of the north – there’s loads.

But how does all that compare with Croatia? Well, you may not find as much colorful architecture in the Balkan country, but you will find plenty of Roman ruins and even an amphitheater to rival that of Rome. Yep, the Pula Arena is the only remaining Roman amphitheater with all sides entirely preserved. The southern city of Dubrovnik is known as the backdrop of Game of Thrones. Head there to wander medieval walls and see castles lurching from the sea.

On top of all that, there’s the Blue Cave (a mesmerizing natural phenomena in Bisevo, explored by boat), the old towns of Zadar and Zagreb, the Plitvice Lakes National Park (a plethora of turquoise lakes connected by waterfalls and one of Croatia’s UNESCO World Heritage sites), and the lovely Krka waterfalls.

Winner: Draw.

Portugal or Croatia: Beaches

A beach in Croatia.
Photo by PixelRaw/Pixabay

Pristine beaches with shimmering crystal-clear waters are certainly something you won’t struggle to find at each destination.

The Algarve is the region that usually takes center stage in Portugal. However, no matter where you base yourself in this relatively small country, you are never too far from the ocean. Although the Algarve is home to some spectacular seaside spots, such as surfer’s paradise, Praia do Amado and the sandstone cliff surrounds of Praia de Dona Ana, there is plenty more to see. At the opposite end of the country, just 15 minutes from Porto, you are blessed with equally breathtaking surroundings in Canide Beach on the lusher Green Coast. Lisbon, meanwhile has the cool beaches towns of the Estoril Coast, and the Silver Coast promises mile upon mile of wild, ocean-lashed shoreline with big waves and sand dunes.

But while the beaches of Portugal are definitely something to write home about, they can get rather crowded. Cue Croatia. With several secluded spots to choose from, you can often have a little slice of heaven pretty much to yourself in this Balkan nation…

Nugal Beach, with its pine tree-covered rocky surrounds is one of the most beautiful. It’s considered the jewel of the Makarska Riveira. There’s also Sveti Jakov Beach, another highly recommended spot. Even though it is sitting at Dubrovnik’s east end, it’s a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the town – perhaps due to the 100 plus stairs it takes to get to it. If you don’t mind crowds, be sure to hit up Brac Island – it’s home to the famous spot of the Golden Horn, one of the top beaches in the country.

Winner: Draw. This is impossible. The beaches in both places are stunning and very different indeed.

Portugal or Croatia: Prices

Hiking in Portugal
Photo by joseph Richard Francis

The good news is that Portugal is considered one of the cheapest destinations in Western Europe. Of course, much depends on when you visit. A cheaper time for a vacation in Portugal would be spring or early autumn (also worth noting the heat will be more bearable too) as accommodation prices tend to rise in the peak summer season. However, in general, you can get by on a daily budget of around €55 ($63) for food and transport. For hotels, you’re looking at prices starting at around €45 ($52), however, there is also a string of budget-friendly hostels to choose from too.

But, while Portugal shouldn’t have you breaking the bank to visit, Croatia is even cheaper. To be fair, it’s not by much, but it’s always a plus to save where you can. There are a range of accommodations to suit every traveler’s budget, from lavish villas to mid-range hotels and backpacker hostels. And over in these parts, a daily budget of around €45 ($52) should suffice. However, we think you’ll want to be putting the savings to good use – with over 1,000 islands, there’s bound to be a few day trips to tempt you to splash that cash.

Winner: Croatia.

Portugal or Croatia: Food & drink

Portuguese tarts.
Photo by Alice Butenko/Unsplash

Often the highlight of any vacation, the fresh and vibrant flavors of new cuisine. In Portugal, many of these delights come in the form of seafood, with bacalhau (dried and salted cod) generally considered the national dish. However, although flavors of the sea can be found pretty much everywhere you turn here, it’s not all they do. Pastel de nata (custard tart) is perfect for the vacationer with the sweet tooth. A bowl of caldo verde (literally translated as green soup) will satisfy any vegetarian. And a bit of alheira (Portuguese sausage) will keep the meat lover happy.

But although the gastronomy will certainly not disappoint, there is something even more tempting…the wine. Yep, the Port of Portugal is almost just as famous as the country itself and there are no shortage of bars, cafes, and restaurants in which to sip a glass or two.

Over in Croatia, much of the culinary influence comes from numerous empires that have invaded throughout history. Italian cuisine is especially prevalent, with pasta and pizza popular choices. And in fact, the number of Italian dishes found on any menu will have you feeling like you landed in Italy instead. However, like the Portuguese, seafood is also a favorite of the Croatians and is the star of many of the best dishes on offer, from salata od hobotnice (octopus salad) to brodet (fish broth).

Croatian cuisine tends to vary a lot from region to region. So, if you are in the south expect a lot of zelena menestra (green stew) and crni rižot (black risotto). But if you’re based up north, sir i vrhnje (cottage cheese with sour cream) and krpice sa zeljem (stewed cabbage with pasta) will be the main offerings.

Winner: Portugal, but it’s a close call.

Portugal or Croatia: Nature

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia.
Photo by Free-Photos/Pixabay

It’s a tough choice between Portugal or Croatia in the nature department. Both are blessed with shimmering turquoise waters, vast amounts of greenery, and a plethora of hiking trails. The north of Portugal is known for its mountainous landscape, and it is here you’ll find the national park of Peneda-Gerês. Promisibng a glorious mix of trails, lakes, dams and even possible wolves or deer sightings, this place is a nature lover’s dream. You should also consider the islands of Azores and Madeira if you really want wilderness – they are carved by mighty volcanos and dotted with primeval laurel forests.

So how does Croatia compare? Well, the fact that nature is one of the main draws to this captivating country should speak for itself. And there is no better place to start for any nature lover than Plitvice Lakes National Park. Walking along the wooden walkways amongst majestic lakes and waterfalls truly feels like you’ve entered a dreamland. However, this is just one of many national parks worth a visit around here. The Krka National Park is another favorite for swimming in the emerald green plunge pools of the waterfalls. Meanwhile, the whole country is scored by the Dinaric Alps, which come with more hiking than you can shake a shot of rakija at.

Winner: Croatia, the Plitvice Lakes National Park is truly a marvel.

Portugal or Croatia: Nightlife

A DJ at a nightclub.
Photo by 453169/Pixabay

When it comes to nightlife, Portugal has been on the map for quite some time. Areas such as Albufeira and Lagos are famed for their clubbing scene, with a bevvy of establishments to choose from. However, the Bairro Alto district over in Lisbon is also another hotspot for those looking for a night out on the town. Lisbon is also home to one of Portugal’s biggest nightclubs, Lux Fragil. Set over three floors, lovers of house, dance and techno music can easily get their fill here.

However, in recent years, growing numbers of partygoers have been opting to try out a bit of Croatian nightlife. Liking what they found, word got out that Croatia has some serious party spots also. The most popular areas for nightlife here are Zagreb, Split and Hvar, all with an assortment of cafes, pubs, and clubs. However, if partying by the beach sounds more up your street, we definitely recommend heading to Zrce Beach in the island of Pag. This blue flag beach is fast becoming one of the summer party capitals of Europe and is home to many festivals and beach clubs, including the infamous Aquarius. One of the largest on the beach, you can party here until 5am, courtesy of the best international and local DJs around.

Winner: Portugal, for the tried and tested clubbing scene.

Portugal or Croatia: Towns and cities

Rovinj, Croatia
Photo by Dimitry Anikin/Unsplash

We think Lisbon should be on everyone’s bucket list. The Portuguese capital is a truly enthralling spot, spread over seven hills on the Tagus Estuary, it sports fantastic Age of Discovery landmarks and moody Moorish castles. It’s also a digital nomad hotspot and buzzes with life when the sun dips. Same goes for Porto in the north, which has a bit more of a boho feel and offers the history of the port cellars along with urban beaches. In the south, you can hit Roman-era Tavira and the old town of Lagos for your fix of Algarvian style.

Croatia has some seriously amazing towns too. Split has to lead the way. Its center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built by the Roman emperor Diocletian nearly two millennia ago. Then there’s Dubrovnik in the south. That’s a striking mass off medieval walls and keeps that’s sure to keep the history buffs entertained. We also love the smaller Istrian towns of Rovinj and Pula, which stand on rocky coves above the northern Adriatic. Zagreb is more your classic Central European capital, what with Neoclassical architecture and a lively, student-driven nightlife.

Winner: Croatia wins this one.

Portugal or Croatia: History & culture

Castle in Guimaraes.
Image by Svetlanatravel via Pixabay

Steeped in history, Portugal has many claims to fame, such as being the birthplace to some of the world’s most prolific explorers and being one of the oldest nations in Europe. Over the centuries it has been occupied by the Celts, the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Moors. Much of their influence can be seen throughout the country, from the Roman Temple of Evora to the incredible Castle of the Moors. Guimaraes is thought to be the birthplace of Portugal, as it was where the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, was born. Here you will find a plethora of museums in which to learn all about Portugal’s rich history. The best museums are in Lisbon, though – including the Azulejo Museum (about tiles) and the Museum of Fado (about the national music).

Although not quite having the same range of historical sites, Croatia is still home to a fair few places for any history buff to enjoy. Having been colonized by the Greeks and Romans, many signs of them are prevalent throughout the country today – notably in Pula and Split. However, slightly different to Portugal, several of these remains have been turned into cultural hubs, featuring bars, restaurants, and concerts. For example, Diocletian’s Palace, built as the Roman Emperor’s retirement home, is now the heart of Split’s shopping scene and Pula Arena has hosted a string of famous opera singers and pop stars.

Winner: Portugal – the history is just a touch more palpable.

Portugal or Croatia: Conclusion

Look, we don’t think you can go wrong choosing either Portugal or Croatia. Both these countries are pretty darn fantastic. Overall, we’d say that Portugal is a solid choice for travelers who want breathtaking beaches that give both wild surf and stunning vistas. Croatia’s beaches aren’t quite as rugged and don’t have waves, making them better for yachters and sunbathers. City slickers simply can’t miss out on Lisbon and Porto, but nature buffs looking for alpine-stye peaks and forests should choose Croatia. Generally speaking, Croatia is also the more budget-friendly option, while Portugal is a bit more accessible, especially if you’re flying over from the states.

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