Spain vs. Portugal from a traveler’s perspective 

By Stephen Addison
This item appears on page 12 of the December 2017 issue.

Cais da Ribeira waterfront in Porto, Portugal. Photos by Stephen Addison

Since Spain wraps around much of Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula, it’s easy to assume the two countries would be very much alike. My wife, Paula, and I have visited Spain twice, but we visited Portugal for the first time during our August 2017 trip to Spain, and we found the cultures and experiences to be quite different. 

Here are a few things you’ll find.

• The languages are surprisingly different. The written versions of the languages are more similar than the spoken versions. 

We found Portuguese to be more challenging to speak. Fortunately, most Portuguese, or, at least, those in younger generations, speak English — American English, not the British English you typically hear in Europe. The Portuguese do not like being spoken to in Spanish, so don’t make this mistake.

Other than workers in tourism-related professions, we encountered few English speakers in Spain. 

São Bento train station in Porto.

• The daily schedule in Portugal is more similar to the schedule we have in the US than is Spain’s. The siesta is still common in Spain, but this isn’t a practice in Portugal.

Mealtimes in Portugal are earlier than those in Spain but still later than those in the US. Restaurant schedules differ accordingly. While a considerable portion of restaurants in Portugal close from mid-afternoon to early evening, more appear to be open continuously from lunch through supper than in Spain. If you prefer an early supper, you’ll be much happier in Portugal.

Bedtimes are also earlier in Portugal. 

Be aware that Portugal is in the same time zone as the UK, while peninsular Spain is in the same time zone as Western Continental Europe. Specifically, most of Spain is one hour ahead of Portugal.

• The quality of the infrastructure in the two countries is similar, but in Portugal you’ll miss Spain’s outstanding high-speed trains.

View of Porto from just outside the Porto Cathedral — Portugal.

Your arrival experience when flying into Lisbon is likely to be inferior to your arrival flying into Madrid. Lisbon’s airport terminals are much older than, and can’t compare to, Madrid’s huge, new terminals 4 and 4S. On the other hand, Porto, Portugal, has an excellent new terminal.

• There don’t seem to be many places in Portugal that aren’t hilly, and the hills are often very steep. Spain offers a variety of terrains, but we’ve never encountered areas in Spain that were as hilly as Portugal. I’m a Tennessee hillbilly, but Portugal’s hills just about did me in.

• We found the Portuguese people we encountered to be somewhat more welcoming than the people we met in Spain.

• Finally, we were concerned that Portugal might still be suffering from its recent economic crisis, but we found it to be more prosperous and upbeat than expected.

Charlotte, NC