Thinking of Portugal or Italy this year? Fantastico! We’re not going to lie – we’re pretty big fans of both these places. They offer up an endless array of mind-blowing art and architecture, buzzy nightlife scenes that are doused in wine (both Douro and Tuscan), and plenty of stunning nature that rolls from the high Alps to the wave-sloshed Atlantic coast. What’s not to like?
If, like us, you’re finding it tricky to decide between them, this guide can help. It’s a 101 on the differences and similarities of both places, outlining where is best for certain types of travelers. We’ll home in on key aspects of both Portugal and Italy, to give some insights into which has the finest beaches, where’s easier to travel to, what the food is like, and plenty more besides.
We’ll delve into the immersive history of Rome and skirt the Silver Coast for the surf breaks, range from the cobbled streets of Porto to the volcanos of Sicily, all with the aim of helping you pick the place that’s better for you this season. Ready? Let’s begin…
Portugal or Italy for things to do?
There’s surf all along Portugal’s Alentejo coastline and the Silver Coast, but Italy hosts arguably the world’s finest hiking and skiing mecca in the Dolomites. There’s the immersive duo of Porto and Lisbon in PT, but the home of pizza more than matches that with towns like Rome and Naples. You get the artistic wealth of places like Tavira and Sintra in one, while the other offers arguably Europe’s most art-filled destinations – think Florence, Pisa, Venice.
Basically, Portugal and Italy are well matched when it comes to things to do. Crucially, they are very different places. Italy excels in cultural pursuits and refined luxury travel. You can spend days touring the Amalfi Coast tasting limoncello, dropping into Tuscan vineyards for vine-to-bottle wines, and munching risotto overlooking the villas of Lake Como. It’s also probably better for history buffs (this is the home of the Eternal City, remember?), touting world-class museums like the Vatican and the Uffizi.
Portugal is better for rough-around-the-edges trips and backpacking, experiencing the raw power of the ocean and – of course – surf trips. That’s largely thanks to the boom in Vanlife culture currently going on around the Algarve, and the rustic villages of the Alentejo region, not to mention the abundance of fantastic waves that crash up and down the length of the country. Portugal also has a wilder nightlife scene in towns like Lisbon, Porto, and Albufeira, but more on that later.
Portugal or Italy for weather?
There’s a reason that these two countries are go-to destinations for those looking to top up the tan. Both get plenty of sunshine and see summertime temperatures that can soar well over 100 F. However, they don’t have the same climate. Italy is much more Mediterranean, meaning hot summers and mild winters are the norm. Portugal is Mediterranean but influenced heavily by the Atlantic Ocean, so there can be lots of rain and the heat is tempered by sea breezes (which is positively lovely in June, July, and August!).
It Italy, Sicily is the warmest region of the lot. It has measured over 113 F in July and August, but it’s more common for summer days to be between 70-80. The area also gets plenty of sun, while central Italy (the holiday regions of Tuscany and Umbria) are a touch cooler and get regular thunderstorms in the hotter months. The Alps are a whole different story, with changeable weather patterns and consistent rainfall on higher ground that turns to snow in the winter (hello skiing!).
Portugal is warm all year and has lots of sunshine. The winter can be chilly, though, especially in the northern city of Porto. There’s extra rain between November and March, but the Algarve still manages over 300 days of sunshine per annum, making it one of the sunniest places on the continent. That’s what helps PT win this one, however remember that there’s basically no snow for those on the hunt for winter sports like you get in the Italian mountains.
Portugal or Italy for ease of travel?
Getting to and from either Portugal or Italy won’t be hard, however we’d say arriving into Italy will probably be a touch easier…
That’s down to two reasons: The fact that Italy has more airports overall, and the fact that it’s linked to the rest of the continent by better road and rail networks. There are big aviation hubs in Rome (Fiumicino being the largest), Milan, Naples, and Turin. They host short- and long-haul connections that come in from all over Europe and beyond, including a number of flag-carrier links from major US cities like New York. On top of that, Italy is served by high-speed rail links from Paris, overnight trains from Vienna and Prague, and has excellent motorways linking it to France, Austria, and Germany.
Portugal’s main airport is in Lisbon. It’s the biggest of the three major mainland airports in the country, with the bulk of the long-haul traffic (so it’s probably where you’ll arrive if you’re coming from the USA). Porto has lots of low-cost carrier service thanks to easyJet and Ryanair, while Faro Airport is the gateway to the Algarve down south, though many of the flights there run seasonally (May-September). You can also get to Portugal by train from Spain, but it’s a slow nightly service that starts in Madrid.
Portugal or Italy for nightlife?
If you’re looking for a destination that will let you party, party, and party some more, we’d probably say that Portugal just eases Italy out. That’s mainly down to the fact that it has a dedicated hedonism town in Albufeira that’s tailor-made for revelers keen on sipping beers and hitting the karaoke. On top of that, Portugal offers the nightlife of Lisbon, which carries on in the rollicking Bairro Alto area in boho bars and cocktail joints. Then there’s Porto, a jazzy mix of live music venues and riverside wineries that we absolutely love. More to the point, Portugal is noticeably more affordable for drinking than Italy, which really helps to keep the party going.
Italy isn’t without nightlife. There are vibrant areas to party in most major cities, from the cichetterie bars of the Dorsoduro in Venice to the local hangouts of Navigli in Milan to the clubs of Testaccio in Rome. However, there’s not a single party town made for travelers like you get in the Algarve (which could actually be better if you prefer meeting and mingling with the locals?). On top of that, many places in Italy run to a more chilled and refined rhythm, so expect no-holes-barred partying to be replaced with wine evenings and long trattoria meals in spots like the Amalfi Coast and the lakes of Veneto.
Portugal or Italy for beaches?
You might think that Italy would win hands down here. Just look at the map – The Boot runs for 7,500km through the Mediterranean Sea, linking the resort towns of the French Riviera to the olive-fringed shores of the Adriatic in the east. There are certainly some spectacular beaches between those two boundaries, especially if you focus in on the postcard-worthy strands of the Amalfi Coast, the grottoes of Capri, the cliff-backed Scala dei Turchi of Sicily, and the sands of Campania. However, there are also large parts of Italy’s coastline that are long, dreary runs of rough powder that aren’t that remarkable; places that simply cannot match up to the sheer beauty of Portugal.
Talking of the sheer beauty of Portugal…there’s nowhere that sums that up quite like the Algarve. Up there with the most beach-heavy regions in the world, it has everything from long runs at Tavira to gold-glinting bays near Lagos. The western part of the province faces the Atlantic Ocean and comes with wide, open bays where there’s epic surf – check out Arrifana and Carrapateira. Things don’t end there, either. The Estoril Coast near Lisbon merges with the Costa da Caparica to offer gorgeous sands on the doorstep of the city, while the Silver Coast is all about unbusy, uninterrupted lengths with perfect waves.
Portugal or Italy for food?
Portugal is a foodie nation, no doubt. The local kitchen has one foot in the sea and the other in the farmlands of the Iberian Peninsula. That gives meaty, fish-heavy dishes like the bacalhau, a salted and preserved codfish bake, or the caldo verde, a hearty mountain stew packed with fish, spicy farm sausage, and highland herbs. Portugal is also known for its pastéis de nata tarts, which are the go-to breakfast option basically anywhere (try them with a strong and bitter coffee).
But then there’s Italy. Ask anyone what’s the most famous food country in the world and it’s likely that this one will have a mention. The culinary joys are endless. From rustic porcini risottos in the taverns of Tuscan hill towns to Umbrian steaks doused in red-wine sauces, there’s loads on offer in the central regions. Then come the German-influenced schnitzels and potato bakes of the north, or the famous fresh pizza pies of the south (Naples is where the modern pizza was invented, you know?), topped off by deep-fried artichokes in Rome and saffron rice in Milan. This is the country you’re looking for if you’re a self-confessed gourmand.
Portugal or Italy for city breaks?
There are essentially two destinations we’d recommend having on the radar if you’re planning a city break to Portugal. The first is Lisbon. It’s the country’s capital and an absolute joy to explore. Areas like the old Alfama and refined Príncipe Real really burst with life, there are cafés and shops everywhere, and great monuments like the palaces and gateways of the Arco da Rua Augusta. You also have Porto. The second city of the north, it’s actually our favorite, what with a more bohemian attitude, great wine bars serving Douro reds, and surf beaches within city limits.
Italy has way more than just two choices, though. Rome’s the obvious one to hit up if you haven’t been here before. It’s a bucket-list adventure known for the rich Vatican Museum and the romantic area of La Trastevere. However, you could swap that out for Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance where Michelangelo’s David mingles with other artistic masterworks in the Uffizi Gallery. Or there’s Naples, a gritty and down-to-earth metropolis of purring scooters and pizzerias that sits under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Or there’s Milan, a hotspot for fashion lovers and food buffs. We could go on and on.
Portugal and Italy aren’t up there with Europe’s most famous holidaying destinations for nothing. They are incredible places with loads to see and do. Ideally, we’d recommend seeing both. If that’s not an option, then we’d say choose Italy for food and culture but go to Portugal for beaches and weather. Italy should also be the easier of the two to get to thanks to its abundance of airports and train links, but Portugal is cheaper overall.