Living in Lisbon vs Barcelona: Choosing Between Two Iberian Gems

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Last updated on June 14, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 6 minutes

Ah, the Iberian Peninsula! A land of sun-kissed beaches, rich history, and vibrant cultures. If you’re a prospective expat dreaming of a life in Southern Europe, chances are you’ve considered both Lisbon and Barcelona as potential new homes. Both cities offer a unique blend of old-world charm and modern amenities, but each has its own distinct flavour. Let’s dive into the heart of these two cities and see which might be the perfect fit for you.

Will it be Lisbon with its cobbled streets, iconic yellow trams, and historic neighbourhoods like Alfama and Bairro Alto? Or will it be Barcelona, a city where Gaudí’s architectural masterpieces meet the bustling La Rambla and the serene Mediterranean beaches?

Before we examine the two cities? Let’s look at which country (Portugal vs Spain) is better (or easier) to move to.

Portugal VS Spain: Visas, Taxes, and Everything Else

Those from the EU are lucky: they can move to either Spain or Portugal with very little trouble. But those from outside the EU (e.g. the UK, Argentina, or the USA) need to apply and be approved for a residency visa.

And this is where Portugal tends to do better than Spain. Portugal’s visas are often more attainable, which is why there has been such a rush of people moving to Portugal.

For example, Portugal’s D7 visa, which is aimed at retirees or those with a passive income, only requires you to have around €820 per month (as of 2024) from a pension, rental income, or other passive income sources. That’s an annual income of around €9,840 for an individual or €14,760 for a couple. Spain, in comparison, requires a retiree couple to have an annual income of €33,893 — almost double that of Portugal.

What about the digital nomad visas, which are aimed at those with remote jobs or freelance income? For Portugal, individual applicants need to have a monthly income of more than €3,280 to qualify for the D8 or digital nomad visa. Spain’s digital nomad visa works a little differently. To qualify, your income needs to equate to 200 percent of the country’s minimum wage. As of March 2023, this works out at €2,334 per month. This is quite a bit less than Portugal’s requirement, making this visa more attainable.

Tip: you can compare Spain and Portugal’s nomad visas here.

Taxes are another consideration. There isn’t always a hard and fast rule as to which country is better as two individuals could be taxed very differently depending on their income, wealth, and the types of assets they hold. Generally speaking, Portugal’s lack of a wealth tax is looked at very positively by prospective expats when choosing between the two countries.

The time to citizenship is another thing to consider. In Portugal, you can apply after just 5 years or residency. This is much less than Spain’s 10 years. And, just as importantly, Portugal recognises dual citizenship.

Okay, now we have all of that out of the way, let’s move onto comparing Lisbon and Barcelona.

Expat Community

Both Barcelona and Lisbon have large expat communities. A quick look at some of the large meetup groups in Barcelona and Lisbon both show a number of groups with tens of thousands of members.

Lisbon’s digital nomad group is probably the largest expat group. In fact, Lisbon is one of the largest and most popular cities for digital nomads worldwide. It’s up there with other cities like Chiang Mai and Medelin.

Regardless of which city you choose, you will find a large expat group. What about meeting locals? That’s more difficult to say and tends to vary based on personal experience.

Size

In terms of popular, Barcelona is much larger than Lisbon and has 3 times more inhabitants. It is a major European city with 1.6 million inhabitants, while Lisbon is a smaller city with 500,000 inhabitants.

Both cities are similar in physical size, with Barcelona occupying an area of 101 km² and Lisbon an area of 100 km².

Weather

The weather in Barcelona and Lisbon is similar with hot summers and mild winters. Barcelona will be that little bit cooler during the winter months than Lisbon due its location, which is quite a bit further north.

Language

English is widely spoken in both cities but overall, the Portuguese are far better at speaking English than the Spanish. If you want to learn the languages, however, most people tend to find Spanish easier and more appealing due to its use in multiple Latin American countries. If you move to Portugal, there are now lots of great resources for learning European Portuguese.

Safety

Although pickpocketing and break-ins are an issue in Lisbon, Lisbon beats Barcelona in this regard: Barcelona is well-known as a haven for pickpockets and violent crime seems to be more of an issue.

Cost of Living

There was a time, not too long ago, when Lisbon was considerably cheaper than Barcelona. Now, there isn’t a huge difference between the two.

According to Numbeo, the cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre of either city is roughly the same: €1,264.30 in Lisbon and €1,149.79 in Barcelona. Property purchase prices are similar, with Lisbon again more expensive than Barcelona, € 5,720.88 per metre squared in Lisbon and €5,115.89 per metre squared in Barcelona.

Other costs, whether clothing or a meal in an inexpensive restaurant, are relatively similar. Some things, like petrol and electricity, are cheaper in Spain, but overall, the prices are more or less the same. The big difference is probably wages: local salaries are considerably higher in Barcelona than they are in Lisbon.

Airports

Both Lisbon and Barcelona have large international airports. However, Barcelona tends to have cheaper long distance flights, particularly to places like the US or Asia, and also benefits from having two major airports: Barcelona Airport and Reus Airport.

Lisbon still has a very good number of international flights, but for some flights, you may have to get a connecting flight to another European airport, such as Barcelona, Madrid, Amsterdam, or one of the London airports, to take advantage of the best deals.

Access to the Beach

In terms of access to the beach, Barcelona is the winner: you can walk to the beach(es) from the city centre. That’s right: beaches. There are several beaches within a short walk of Barcelona City Centre including Barceloneta, San Sebastià, and Bogatell.

In Lisbon, you have to take a train or bus to the nearest beach, which is typically Carcavelos. This only takes 20 minutes from Cais do Sodré, but it’s slightly less accessible than Barcelona. For better beaches, such as those at Costa da Caparica or Guincho, you’ll need to take a bus or drive.

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James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.

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