Lisbon or Madeira? City or Island in Portugal?

Lisbon or Madeira
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If you’re having a hard time deciding between Lisbon or Madeira, then you’ve come to the right place. This guide will delve into a number of facets of each destination to help you decide which one’s for you this year. We’ll take a look at the cost of traveling there, the ease of arriving, the sort of hotels you can look forward to, and the vibe on the ground.

The thing is, this is a toss up between two very different places. One’s an isle out in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, bashed by waves and forged by mighty volcanos. The other is a bustling city, the capital of Portugal, where digital nomads inhabit the cafés and old Moorish castles crown the hills.

But you should also find some similarities, too. Both options offer a taste of that classic Portuguese character; laid-back, easy going. They each have fantastic cuisine and plenty of excellent places to stay. On top of that, they both reign as two of the most popular destinations in Western Europe. So, will it be Lisbon or Madeira this time around?

Lisbon or Madeira: The vibe & atmosphere

Lisbon streets
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Let’s be clear: These are two totally different sorts of places. It’s almost unfair to compare Lisbon and Madeira. One is a remote isle some 540 miles from the end of Portugal’s mainland, closer to Marrakesh than to the Algarve. The other is a sprawling city, the largest in the country, with buzzy bar districts and suburbs that roll on up the sides of the Tagus Estuary.

As far as the atmosphere in Madeira goes, the liveliest place is Funchal – the capital. It’s hardly a city that can compare to Lisbon, what with a mere 111,000 permanent residents. But it does have its fair share of cantinas and bars, not to mention a lovely cathedral built from volcanic stone and a museum dedicated to Cristiano Ronaldo, who was born here. The town isn’t why most people come to Madeira for a vacation, though. Most come for the laid-back atmosphere of the coastline that stretches away from the city, where spa hotels gaze at the Atlantic. Others come for the rugged inland, where the promise of hiking and MTB swirls through the lush peaks.

In Lisbon, there’s a palpable energy and a buzz everywhere you go. It’s an old place, with its roots in the Neolithic era. However, that’s not what you feel. Even in the historic Alfama area in the heart of the city, there are lively kiosk beer bars and cool taverns on every corner. Move to the Bairro Alto and things get positively hedonistic. Topping that off is a taste of surf culture and an all-new youthfulness that’s being brought in by Lisbon’s digital nomad crowd. It’s at once chilled and full of life.

Winner: Draw – this is really down to personal choice.

Lisbon or Madeira: Getting there

Lisbon tram
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Lisbon is the clear winner here. It’s the easiest place in Portugal to get to. Home to the main airport in the country, it hosts both short-haul and long-haul links, including many of the onward domestic connections to Portuguese island territories like Madeira and the Azores. Most travelers come in on one of the many low-cost flights that jet to Lisbon. Look for carriers like Ryanair and easyJet for those. They have loads of links in from major UK cities, and plenty from across Europe – Paris, Milan, Lyon. There are bus interchanges at Sete Rios and Rodoviário do Campo Grande that have coach arrivals from right across the country, too. And you have high-speed train arrivals from Spain and France coming into the Gare do Oriente on the outskirts of town. Basically, getting to Lisbon isn’t that hard at all. There are lots of options.

You might think that Madeira presents a bit of a challenge on the travel front. It is several hundred miles off the edge of mainland Europe, after all. But, so long as you don’t mind flying, that’s not actually true. The isle is such a major tourist favorite that it is now served by countless seasonal charter flights, which touchdown at the Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport. Flight links do take longer to here from most major European hubs, though (you’re looking at nearly four hours from London). Meanwhile, long-haul links from the US or Asia almost always involve a changeover, often in Lisbon or Porto.

Winner: Lisbon.

Lisbon or Madeira: Price

Madeira market
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Lisbon might be a capital city, but it isn’t a capital city in the same ilk as Paris or London when it comes to price. Nope, this one’s actually surprisingly cheap. We’ve noticed that the cost of accommodation has been creeping up in recent years, and you’ll now pay around €800-1,500 for a whole month’s flat rental in the city center. Beer remains affordable, at about €2,50-3 a pop, while eating out will probably set you back between €10-15 per person in a midrange Portuguese restaurant. Nothing is unreasonable, and a daily budget is estimated at €30-60 per day not including accommodation.

Down in Madeira, the main thing to remember is that this is an island. Lovers of sea-surrounded destinations probably already know that that simple fact can crank up prices, and you will pay about 15% more for things in Funchal than on the mainland of Portugal. A beer in a bar usually costs about €3 or so, while a coffee in a café is about €2-3. Eating out is estimated at about €17 euros a head. Hotels on Madeira are roughly in line with Lisbon, but rates can skyrocket in the popular summer months when the hordes of holidaymakers from northern Europe flock down.

Winner: Lisbon.

Lisbon or Madeira: Things to do

Lisbon skyline
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Lisbon and Madeira are hugely different places. That means there’s a hugely different array of things to do in both destinations.

We’ll start with Madeira, where loads of people come for simple R&R. That’s not on the beaches – Madeira famously has pretty rubbish beaches – but more in the charming hotels and by the poolside of the villas. However, more recently, the island has emerged as something of an adventure tourist mecca. There are vertigo-inducing hikes known as levada walks that can whisk you to the summit of Pico Ruivo above the clouds. Others delve through the laurel woods to the Risco waterfall. On top of that, you can look forward to things like whale watching and wine tasting.

It’s hard to know quite where to begin with Lisbon. History and culture abounds in the capital. From the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (one for the tile lovers) to the once-Moorish structures of the Castelo de S. Jorge, you’ll be able to trace the traditions of Portugal back through the centuries. But there’s also loads for those who simply love to soak up the atmosphere. Take the Alfama area, where the winding lanes weave between old cottages. Or, go to the Bairro Alto, for cocktails on the cobbles and a night in the sleepless Lisbon bars. Lisbon also sits near the Estoril Coast. There are trains that link there in 20-50 minutes, so you can escape for a surf in Carcavelos or a party in Cascais whenever you like.

Winner: Draw. Again, this really depends on what you want out of your trip.

Lisbon or Madeira: Hotels

Green Madeira
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There are over 2,000 individual properties for holidaymakers in Madeira. They run the gamut from mountain eco lodges to chic five-star resorts where you’ll be pampered from check-in to check out. If we had to pick one sort of hotel that Madeira does to the T, it would be the upper-to-mid-range R&R hotspot. Take the four-star Pestana Churchill Bay as an example, or the Calheta Place on its perch just above one of the few sand beaches on the island. For true luxury, consider forking out for the superbly rated Quintinha Sao Joao Hotel & Spa, where indoor and outdoor pools spill into sub-tropical gardens. For budget stays, consider the Jaca Hostel Porto da Cruz – cool, quirky, and won’t break the bank.

Of course, Lisbon has no shortage of hotels either. There are some seriously lovely boutique B&Bs, like the Indy House, which is part aparthotel and part proper hotel, offering bohemian styles on the north side of the city center. Lisbon also has some excellent self-contained properties for those who’d like to have their own home away from home. Check out Chiado Emenda or Campos, both of which are run by Lisbon Serviced Apartments. For luxury, choose somewhere like The Vintage Hotel & Spa, a mashup of retro styles and opulence that’s a little different to your run-of-the-mill urban resort.

Winner: Draw. Different hotels for different places.

Lisbon or Madeira: Nightlife

Lisbon nightlife
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We’ll be straight with any hedonists thinking of Madeira this year: No one hits up this Portuguese island to party. There are some nightlife spots and clubs in Funchal. However, the general vibe is very chilled. It’s more a hiker’s and retiree’s escape, so don’t expect pumping dance parties in the style of Ibiza or Mykonos. You’ll probably spend most evenings watching the sunset over the Atlantic Ocean, sipping fine Madeiran wines, and devouring world-class seafood.

Lisbon, on the other hand, manages something truly off the hook. Certain districts trump the lot. We like to start with a kiosk beer at one of the panoramic terraces – the Miradouro da Graça and the Jardim do Torel are both favorites. Then, move down to Alfama, where you can get cold beers on the Miradouro das Portas do Sol. Finally, hop in an Uber and whiz across to the Bairro Alto. That’s the place where most parties carry on. R. Nova do Carvalho starts things off, with ramshackle beer bars spilling onto its painted roads. Then head up past Rue do Loreto to find venues and craft bars that stay open until later.  

Winner: Lisbon.

Lisbon or Madeira: Weather

Madeira coast
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This is Portugal and that means constant sun, right? Wrong. Actually, Lisbon is far enough north to get some pretty chilly days in the winter. We’ve been wrapped up in thermals with a coat on in November there before, with temperatures in the 40s. Thankfully, there’s not so much rain in the capital as in the northern city of Porto, but you will need waterproofs in the wetter months (December-March). Summers tend to be hot and dry, and it can actually get stifling if you’re stuck in town in August when the crowds are there too.

Madeira doesn’t undergo the same temperature fluctuations as Lisbon. It’s so southerly that it manages average temperatures in the 60s all year round, with peaks in the summer months clocking to over 101. There is rain, but it dips considerably between May and August, with only November to March counting more than 10 days of precipitation each month. Generally speaking, Madeira is famous for its pleasant climate. It comes with oodles of sunshine and balmy temperatures, along with the tempering effect of the trade winds rolling over the Atlantic. Lovely.

Winner: Madeira

The conclusion

You might think that there could only be one winner in this debate between Lisbon or Madeira. After all, we’ve put the Portuguese capital down as the winner on everything from nightlife to cost of living. However, it’s important to stress that these destinations are fundamentally different places. Lisbon can’t give that great escape to nature that you’ll find in the verdant mountains of Madeira. But it can offer raucous bars and rich history, more than anything the islands can muster.

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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.