Porto or Algarve: Northern City or Southern Sun?

Porto or Algarve
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis/The Surf Atlas
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Porto or Algarve, you ask? It’s a tricky one. Both of these destinations are pretty amazing. But they are also both pretty darn different. Yes, they might each be a gateway to the sun-kissed Portuguese coast, but one’s a full-on cityscape while the other’s a whole region, ranging from the Spanish border to the wave-smashed headland of Sagres in the Atlantic Ocean.

Thankfully, we’ve been to both. We’ve sipped frothy Super Bock beers while gazing at the sunset down the Douro River in Porto and surfed on the northern beaches that carve their way through the country. But we’ve also traveled the Algarve, casing out hidden waves and long stretches of sand that are baked by the southern sun.

Cue this guide. It should offer some insight to help you decide between Porto and the Algarve this year. It’ll take one aspect of each destination at a time, to weigh up where has the best beaches, which one offers the most happening nightlife, and what sort of hotels you can expect in both. So, will it be northern city or southern sun?

Porto or Algarve: The vibe & atmosphere

The center of Porto
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis/The Surf Atlas

There are some glaring differences between Porto and the Algarve. Porto, for one, is the second-largest city in Portugal. It’s home to 200,000 people and has all the things you’d expect of a proper urban destination in Europe – a cobbled old town, a traffic-clogged new town, railway stations, bars. On the flip side, the Algarve is an entire region. It covers the southern end of the country, going from the Spanish border to the Atlantic Ocean.

Naturally, there’s going to be big changes in the atmosphere and vibe simply because these places are sodifferent. Porto brings metropolitan grit and energy. It’s got roastery cafés, hip cocktail joints, soccer stadiums – you name it. The Algarve channels the rustic character of the Portuguese countryside, and then caps it off with some fine resorts where R&R and summertime holidaying take center stage.

Basically, the essence of the question here isn’t Porto or the Algarve. It’s city or country. That’s not to say that you can’t visit cities in the Algarve – Lagos and Faro are both immersive spots. And it’s not to say that you can’t hit the beaches or the outback from Porto – the Douro wine region and the Silver Coast are prime examples that you can. It’s just that there’s a fundamental divide that says Porto favors urban explorations and the Algarve is better for those who want to get away from it all.

Winner: Draw. These are different locations; neither is necessarily better

Porto or Algarve: Nightlife

Porto architecture
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis/The Surf Atlas

If you’re coming to Portugal to let your hair down, then you could do a lot worse than either of these two spots. They both boast a very lively nocturnal scene and either should present plenty of opportunities to crank up the hedonism.

The town that leads the way in the south is unquestionably Albufeira. Once a sleepy little fishing hamlet, it’s now a bumping party resort. There’s a dedicated strip there that gets positively crazy in the high-season months between May and August, when reps from northern Europe descend to hit the karaoke bars. The rest of the Algarve has a more chilled nightlife – think acoustic bands in surf bars and stuff like that.

Porto is an altogether different beast. We’ve heard it been called the Krakow of the Atlantic because it so many venues crammed into its center. You 100% have to know about neighborhoods like Vitória, a medley of tapas bars and cheap watering holes, and Poveiros, the place where the local student crowds gather on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays – scratch that, every night of the week! We’d personally recommend starting with sunset beers at the lookout point of Jardim do Morro (there’s a brilliant view of the Douro River and the old port cellars) before moving to Cais da Ribeira for the open-air bars.

Winner: Porto

Porto or Algarve: Weather

Algarve coast
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis/The Surf Atlas

Weather wise, there’s really not much competition. The Algarve counts a whopping 3,044 hours of sun per annum. That’s almost as much as Marrakesh! You’ll also be bathed in temperatures that basically never go below 60 F and can hit well over 105 F (40 C+) in the height of the summer months. It’s not for nothing that this part of Iberia is considered a true sun seeker’s destination.

Porto doesn’t have bad weather. It’s balmy and breezy throughout the summer, with mercury levels that tend to hover in the mid-20s for much of the main season between May and October. Sadly, winters in the north of Portugal can be wet. Couple that with the fact that many of the buildings don’t have proper heating and it can also be pretty cold on occasion. Those are our only complaints, though.

Winner: The Algarve

Porto or Algarve: Beaches

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis/The Surf Atlas

Before we wax lyrical about the beauty of the Algarve beaches, let’s just touch on Porto. This city spreads from the base of the Douro Valley to the shores of northern Portugal. There are even beaches inside city limits, something you don’t get in Lisbon. They include the surf haven of Matosinhos and the bar-speckled reefs of Praia da Luz. However, to really make the most of Porto’s location by the shoreline, you need to go north or south. The first direction opens up what’s usually called the Costa Verde. It includes lesser-known towns with hardy surf breaks like Azurara. To the south, which is easily accessible on the train out of São Bento Station, you can visit the start of the Silver Coast, where beaches like Granja and Bocamar showcase golden sands and dunes.

But then you have the Algarve. It’s a sure winner here because the region is known around the globe for its beaches. They come in two types. On the south coast, places like Luz and Quarteira have perfectly golden strands that are dotted with sunning beds and beach bars. They come interspersed with wilder rock coves like Marinha Beach and Praia de Nossa Senhora da Rocha, where high rock stacks and caves abound. Secondly, there’s the west coast of the Algarve. It’s a beautiful place of lush hills rolling into the Atlantic, complete with epic surf bays like Arrifana and Bordeira.

Winner: The Algarve. There’s no way a city can compete with a region that offers some of the top beaches in Europe!

Porto or Algarve: Hotels

Douro Valley
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis/The Surf Atlas

You’d be hard pushed to find a region in Europe that has more hotel options than the Algarve. Booking.com lists over 11,000 choices. Yep, you read that right – 11,000! Everything from pool-ready family resorts with on-site entertainment programs to rustic farm stays in the olive-growing hills exists down there. To help you narrow it down, here are just a few of the top-rated options right now…

When it comes to Porto, there’s still a mega 2,700 accommodation choices to get through. Naturally, there’s a touch less variety because Porto only offers city stays, not a range of city, beach, and country stays. What we do love is the abundance of excellent aparthotels, budget-friendly backpacker hostels, and boutique urban B&Bs. Check out…

  • Laurear Guest House ($$) – A boutique lodging in a centuries-old building right in the heart of Porto.
  • Being Porto Hostel ($-$$) – A very stylishly done hostel just a few blocks back from the riverside in the historic core of Porto.
  • Santo da Casa / Sc apartments ($$) – Quirky design apartments that are great for those who value privacy and space.

Winner: The Algarve

Porto or Algarve: Things to do

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

Culture vultures will find stacks of things to do in Porto. The whole center is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Known as the Ribeira, it unfolds down the steep banks of the Douro River in a maze of postbox alleys and shadowy pathways. Get lost in there and you’ll wander and wander before suddenly emerging out to face stunning sights like the Ponte de Dom Luís I or the Porto Cathedral, a Romanesque masterpiece dating from 1110 AD! A visit to Porto also wouldn’t be complete without a taste of the local Port wine. That’s best done in either the cellars on the riverside, or with a day trip out into the stunning Douro Valley.

Down in the Algarve, it’s no secret that most travelers come to get the rest and relaxation into full flow. We’ve already shown how there are plenty of hotels with pools that can help you do that. The beaches can help, too – they’re sandy and cliff backed on the south coast but wild and wavy on the west. Talking of the western Algarve, that’s a haven for surfers. Yep, spots like Arrifana and Sagres are perfect if you fancy getting onto the swells. Seafood lovers should head for the Ria Formosa, where village taverns churn out the best fish in the country. Oh, and golfers can make for Vilamoura, a land of seemingly endless fairways and greens.

Winner: Porto

Porto or Algarve: Getting there

Algarve Views
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis/The Surf Atlas

It won’t be hard to get to either of these parts of Portugal. Porto is probably ever so slightly more accessible than the Algarve. That’s down to the fact that it’s host to the second-busiest air hub in the country (the Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport). Air links come into there on both short-haul and long-haul carriers. In fact, it’s one of the major PT arrival points for transatlantics originating in Toronto and New York. On top of that, Porto is very well connected to Lisbon – a direct train (3.5 hours) and loads of direct buses do the trip each day, opening up easy transfers from even-larger Lisbon Airport.

You could also get down to the Algarve from Lisbon. We recently did the drive and it’s rather nice if you go on the slightly slower N120 coast road as opposed to the main motorway (the whole thing is about three-four hours in all). That said, a flight into the Algarve Airport in Faro is a better choice. Most of them run seasonally, but you can pick from a medley of airlines, including budget fliers Ryanair and easyJet.

Winner: Porto

So, should I visit Porto or Algarve?

That’s really up to you. As this guide shows, they are totally different types of destinations. There are some similarities – both are in Portugal, for a start, and they both have beaches and loads of fantastic hotels. However, one is a major city rich in history, while the other is a region blessed by golden sands and surf. You just need to have a think about what sort of vacation you’re after this year.

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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.