The Algarve or Lisbon? Capital or Coast in Portugal?

Photo by Joseph Francis/The Surf Atlas
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Portugal holidays quite often come down to a decision between the Algarve or Lisbon. The good news is that they don’t have to. You can hit both of these popular destinations in a single trip – they are only a couple of hours’ driving apart (and the road trip is pretty scenic) and there are lots of buses linking the two to boot.

But, just in case you don’t have time to add both to the itinerary this year, we’ve put together this guide. It runs through a bunch of the key aspects of each destination, from the sun-kissed sands at the southern end of Portugal to the buzzy bar districts in the capital. The aim? To give you an idea of which one suits what you want from your vacation the most.

Of course, one important thing to point out before we get stuck in is that the choice between Algarve or Lisbon isn’t just a choice between two places. In fact, they are hardly comparable – one’s a sprawling capital city, the other’s a whole province with beaches and hills. That, right there, might be enough for you to decide what you want. If not, let’s go…

The Algarve or Lisbon: General vibe

Lisbon vibes
Photo by Joseph Francis/The Surf Atlas

We’ll say it again: One of the most important points to make on this weigh-up between the Algarve or Lisbon is that one of these destinations is a city (Lisbon) and the other is a whole region (Algarve). Because of that basic fact, they’re going to be totally different in character and atmosphere. Yes, you can chase the feel of a town in the Algarve by heading to places like Lagos and Tavira, but there’s nowhere as bustling and buzzy as the Portuguese capital. The same goes up in Lisbon. Beaches await down the Estoril Coast if you want them, but this is an urban place at heart, so most of your time will be spent walking cobbled streets, riding trams, visiting museums – you get the idea.

One thing to point out is that Lisbon is widely considered to be one of Europe’s more chilled out capitals. And it’s true, the feel is super relaxed and easy going. People glug beers on public transport, there’s not too much traffic, and the city slickers always have time for a kiosk beer at the end of the day (or even during it!). The Algarve, meanwhile, is really a place of two halves. One: The tourist coast of the south, where big hotels and golf resorts abound. Two: The surf mecca of the Atlantic, which offers windswept bays and bohemian towns where the waves are the main draw.

Winner: Draw – this is all down to personal preference!

The Algarve or Lisbon: Beaches

Algarve beach
Photo by Joseph Francis/The Surf Atlas

Sorry but there can only be one winner here, because the Algarve is widely considered to have the crème-de-la-crème of the beaches in Western Europe. They really are something spectacular. But what we think takes them to another level is the sheer variety. In the east, close to the Spanish border, you find long barrier islands backed by brackish lagoons, with Faro Beach and the Praia do Barril rolling for miles past dunes and nesting flamingos. That changes between Quarteira and Sagres, into dramatic bays with honey-colored cliffs backing them – places like Praia de Nossa Senhora da Rocha and Marinha. Then you get the western Algarve. It’s fully exposed to the Atlantic Ocean, which means surf, but also windswept beaches with salt-sprayed cliffs and lookout points.

The thing is, Lisbon doesn’t lose out here because its beaches are bad. They really aren’t at all. There are two directions you can go in from the city center to enjoy fantastic sands. Head west and you’ll hit the Costa do Estoril. It’s also known as the Portuguese Riviera and hosts the urban surf spot of Carcavelos (just 20 minutes from Santos station) and the resort of Cascais (nearly an hour). The better beaches lie to the south. There, one of the longest runs of sand in Iberia is on offer at the Costa da Caparica, which also hosts river mouth surf breaks and relaxed out-of-city surf towns.

Winner: The Algarve – but don’t discount Lisbon’s beaches either!

The Algarve or Lisbon: Nightlife

Lisbon city
Photo by Joseph Francis/The Surf Atlas

It should hardly come as a surprise that the big city wins on the nightlife front. There’s just so much going on when the sun dips low between the seven hills of Lisbon. One of our favorite things to do is to head to a kiosk for a sunset beer. These are super cheap, open-air bars that sit in squares and parks. Two of the best are at the Miradouro da Graça (think fantastic views of the castle and the Tagus) and the Miradouro de Santa Catarina (for views mainly of the river). From there, head for the sleepless strip of bars down in R. Nova do Carvalho, before breaking north into the Bairro Alto, which is packed with all sorts of speakeasies, jazz bars, craft beer places – you name it.

There are one or two towns that stand out for nightlife in the Algarve. Sagres offers a low-key surfer vibe and there’s a smattering of very upscale cocktail venues in Vale do Lobo, for example. However, Albufeira is really where it’s at. Still, there’s nothing of the variation that Lisbon brings – it’s very much your usual 18-30s hotspot. The Old Town starts the night with its taverna bars on cobbled streets. Then people move slightly east to The Strip, where everything from McDonnell’s Irish Bar to the chic Libertos Club make their home.

Winner: Lisbon

The Algarve or Lisbon: Weather

Portugal view
Photo by Joseph Francis/The Surf Atlas

We’ve recently spent some months in both Lisbon and the Algarve during the low season and it was pretty clear to us that the story of the southern region being blessed with upwards of 3,000 hours of sun per year isn’t a myth at all. Nope, while the capital of Portugal got the occasional cloudy day and downpours of rain, getting wet in the Algarve was a much rarer occurrence. Temperatures do dip in the evenings, to around 48 F (9C) on average in both places. Lisbon got colder, though, and you have to also bear in mind that lots of Portuguese houses don’t have central heating, so it can be chilly between November and March.

The summer starts early in the Algarve. By May, you’re usually looking at temperatures that are regularly above 68 F (in the low-20s C). Midsummer can see those skyrocket to over 104 F (40 C) on occasion, so be sure to pack the sunscreen! It’s similar in Lisbon, but usually a tad cooler. What’s more, the oceanic winds that come up the Tagus Estuary can keep things breezy, just as they do on the west coast of the Algarve.

Generally speaking, both of these spots have a fantastically pleasant climate. You’re likely to enjoy lots of dry weather and warmth no matter when you go. However, the Algarve is just all-round better, mainly because it clocks up more hours of sun than the likes of Athens and Barcelona. AKA: A lot!

Winner: The Algarve

The Algarve or Lisbon: Food

Fisherman in the Algarve
Photo by Joseph Francis/The Surf Atlas

Ah, the Portuguese kitchen. Eating out is one of the true joys of this country at the end of the Iberian Peninsula (so long as you’re not a veggie, that is). Drawing on both Spain and from across the erstwhile Portuguese Empire – South America, India, southern Africa – the cuisine often mixes earthy farm cooking with lots of spice. The Algarve augments that even more with some excellent seafood. You won’t want to leave the region without sampling the conquilhas à algarvia, a fresh and zesty mix of calms and sausage in a white sauce, or the feijoada, a country stew of black beans and offal that showcases the Brazilian influence.

However good the food might be down south, Lisbon can match it. The reason? This city is home to people of all creeds and cultures. You can find an Algarvian tavern if you like (look for somewhere like Vamos ao Algarve). Or, you can hit up the Indian cookhouses of the Martim Moniz district, which give paneer curries and coconut dishes from the subcontinent and Goa. And that’s just a start, because the hipster side of Lisbon now hosts everything from Nepalese (try Sanskar Nepal) to Levant and Turkish grub (Tantura is a top choice, with tasty hummus and an open kitchen).

Winner: Lisbon

The Algarve or Lisbon: Hotels

Lisbon hotels
Photo by Joseph Francis/The Surf Atlas

There’s an ample supply of hotels in both of these Portuguese hotspots. Let’s go to the Algarve first. There, Booking.com reveals a whopping 11,200 properties. That’s more than Crete, just to put it into perspective. And there’s some fantastic variety. Families are sure to love places like the Hotel Alba. It’s just one example of the sort of three- and four-star options that dot the coast, offering pools and adjoining family suites. On the other end of the scale are the uber-lux Pousada Palacio de Estoi and the Hotel California Urban Beach, which is an adult’s only establishment in Albufeira.

Up in Lisbon the hotel offering is smaller. However, we think it edges things here because there are some excellent quality hotels and more aparthotels than you can shake a pastel de nata cake at. Take the Memmo Príncipe Real. It’s a very cool urban design hotel with a gorgeous view of the city, a spectacular pool, and noir cocktail bars. There are also quirky B&B guesthouses with curated rooms, like the Casa das Janelas com Vista. And you find stylish serviced rooms in lesser-known districts, like The Color up in Martim Moniz.

Winner: Lisbon

The Algarve or Lisbon: Things to do

Algarve surfer
Photo by Joseph Francis/The Surf Atlas

Lisbon is bursting with cultural pursuits. You can head down the shoreline to wonder at the grand Torre de Belém overlooking the Tagus, which explorers like da Gama would have seen on their way to India and whatnot. More history beckons in the maze-like Alfama district. The old heart of Lisbon, it spills down a hill, and you simply cannot help but get lost. Alternatively, ride Tram 28, which checks off most of the main neighborhoods in the center in a single ride. Soaring St George’s Castle is also worth a look in for the history buffs, while the Lisbon Oceanarium beckons the science heads. Then, of course, there are beaches on the Estoril coast and bars for the partiers.

Activity numero uno in the Algarve is beach hopping. We’ve already highlighted the best sand stretches in the region, so we won’t repeat. Suffice to say there are oodles, from glorious golden sunbathing spots to surf-washed bays for those with the board in tow. On top of that, the Algarve offers historic towns like Tavira (Roman, you know!) and Lagos (complete with a castle), along with water parks for the kiddies and rustic agri farms with field-to-table food for the gourmands.

Winner: Lisbon – it’s got the best of both worlds and is one of Europe’s most awesome captials

The Algarve or Lisbon – the conclusion

So, should you visit Algarve or Lisbon? Ideally, do both! It’s not that hard. A beautiful coast road links the two in about three hours (skip the motorway as it’s almost as long and not as pretty) and there are regular buses from the capital to Lagos and Faro.

If you don’t have time for that, then we’d say it comes down to a more basic choice between city and coast. The beaches of the Algarve are some of the most fantastic in Europe. You get gold-sand bays in the south but also wild, wavy ocean vistas in the west. Lisbon, meanwhile, reigns as one of the most immersive capitals on the continent, boasting more cafés, bars, and enthralling historical sights than you could possibly get through in a single trip.

The good news is that each destination can give you a taste of the other. For example, it’s just a 20-minute tram from Lisbon’s center to the surf beach of Carcavelos. Down in the Algarve, you can also drop into Lagos to feel the hubbub and energy of a city, complete with a striking castle and an enchanting medieval core.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.