Lisbon VS Porto: Where Should Expats Choose to Live?

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Last updated on June 14, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 10 minutes

If you’re looking to live in a large Portuguese city, there are really only two options, Lisbon and Porto. Both cities offer a unique blend of tradition and modernity but come with their own distinct characteristics. So which should you pick?

Lisbon, the larger of the two, is the political, economic, and cultural centre of Portugal. Situated along the Tagus River, it offers a mix of historic neighbourhoods and new developments, providing a broad range of living options. The city also has a more international community, thanks to its growing tech and start-up scene, attracting talent from across the world.

On the other hand, Porto has a more compact and intimate feel. The city is renowned for its port wine industry, historic architecture, and the picturesque Douro River. While Lisbon may have the edge in terms of job opportunities in certain sectors, Porto has a very strong job market and so shouldn’t be completely ignored. In fact, Northern Portugal is becoming a very popular destination for people moving to Portugal to work, particularly those coming from Brazil.

In the subsequent sections, we’ll delve deeper into the practicalities of living in each city, covering aspects such as housing, transportation, lifestyle, and overall costs. However, ultimately the right choice comes down to personal preference more than anything else.

Size

When considering a move, it’s essential to grasp the spatial aspects of your potential new home, from its overall footprint to how easy it is to navigate. Both Lisbon and Porto offer unique urban experiences based on their size and layout.

Lisbon: With a population of just over 500,000 in the city proper and more than 2.8 million in the wider Lisbon Metropolitan Area, Lisbon is the largest city in Portugal. While many areas in Lisbon are walkable, the city’s hilly terrain can be challenging. Neighbourhoods like Alfama are known for their steep streets and staircases. Lisbon boasts an extensive public transport network, including buses, trams, and a metro system. The iconic yellow trams, like Tram 28, not only serve as a mode of transport but also a tourist attraction.

Porto: Porto is smaller in terms of population, with around 240,000 residents in the city itself and over 1.7 million in the Greater Porto area. Porto’s central area, encompassing neighbourhoods like Ribeira, Sé, and Vitória, is more compact than Lisbon’s. This lends it an intimate feel, with many landmarks and sites easily accessible within a short distance. Porto is also hilly, much like Lisbon, but its compact nature means shorter distances between neighbourhoods. Porto’s public transport includes buses and a metro system. While it may not be as extensive as Lisbon’s, it’s well-suited to the city’s size. The metro, in particular, is modern and efficient, linking key parts of the city and extending to the suburbs.

Ultimately, Lisbon is the larger of the two. If you’re in search of somewhere with something of a city vibe, Lisbon is the right choice. It won’t compare to London or New York, or even Madrid or Barcelona, but it’s the largest city option you’ll find in Portugal. If, however, you aren’t concerned about city size, both Lisbon and Porto are viable options. There’s little that Lisbon has that you can’t find in Porto as well.

Weather

When it comes to weather, both Lisbon and Porto boast a southern European climate that promises plenty of sun-drenched days. However, if you dig a little deeper, there are notable differences between the two, particularly during the winter months.

Lisbon: The capital, being further south, generally experiences milder winters. Average temperatures in December, January, and February range from 8°C (46°F) in the early mornings to around 15°C (59°F) in the afternoons. Although it’s not unusual to get rainfall for a few weeks at a time, it’s often sporadic, and you can expect many bright and sunny days throughout the winter months. For those used to the harsher winters of northern Europe or the colder states in the US, Lisbon offers a pleasant reprieve.

Porto: Being situated in the north, Porto’s winters are noticeably cooler and wetter. While the temperature differences aren’t drastic, averaging between 5°C (41°F) and 13°C (55°F) during the winter months, what sets Porto apart is the increased rainfall and grey skies. The city receives more winter rain than Lisbon, leading to more overcast days and a damper atmosphere.

This might not be a significant deterrent for those from the UK or Germany, where damp winters are the norm, but it’s a crucial factor to consider the quality of housing. Although wet, grey winters are common in Porto, most properties lack central heating and often aren’t well-insulated. Some properties have AC units, which have a heat setting that can be used to heat the property.

If you’re buying a property, you can add a heating system (such as a pellet burner) and improve the property’s insulation but in the short term, and especially if you’re renting, you should expect a few cold winter nights.

Cost of Living

The one big advantage that Porto has over Lisbon is a lower cost of living. According to Numbeo, as of August 2023, rent prices are approximately 38.6% higher in Lisbon than they are in Porto. When it comes to buying, the price per square metre to buy an apartment in the city centre in Lisbon is double that in Porto.

Lisbon: As the capital and economic hub of Portugal, Lisbon unsurprisingly has a higher cost of living than most other parts of the country. While still reasonable compared to cities like London or Paris, the influx of tourists and expatriates in recent years has driven up costs, particularly in housing. On average, rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre is around €1,200 to €1,500 per month, while in the outskirts it hovers around €800 to €1,000. Dining out, entertainment, and general consumer goods are also slightly pricier here, reflecting the city’s status and demand.

Porto: Porto offers a more economical alternative to Lisbon, making it an attractive option for many expats. A one-bedroom apartment in the city centre averages €800 to €1,000, with cheaper options available further from the heart of the city. Additionally, everyday expenses like groceries, local transport, and entertainment tend to be 10-15% cheaper than in Lisbon. It’s worth noting that while wages in Porto might be somewhat lower than in the capital, the reduced cost of living often balances this out, particularly for retirees, remote workers, or those in professions that aren’t tied to a specific location.

Airports

Air connectivity is a key consideration for many expats, whether for business travel, visiting family back home, or just indulging in the wanderlust that Europe’s close proximities can tantalise with. Both Lisbon and Porto offer international airports, but there are distinct differences between the two in terms of size, connectivity, and amenities.

It’s worth noting that although both airports offer a good range of European flights, for flights to destinations further afield (such as Asia or North America), the best deals are often found by flying from other European airports like Madrid, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Paris, or London.

Lisbon Airport (Lisbon Humberto Delgado Airport): As the primary international gateway to Portugal, Lisbon’s airport is considerably larger and busier than its counterpart in Porto.

  • Connectivity: Lisbon serves as a hub for TAP Air Portugal, the country’s flag carrier. This results in a wide variety of direct flights not just within Europe, but also to North and South America, Africa, and Asia.
  • Facilities: Given its size and traffic, the airport boasts a plethora of amenities, from an expansive duty-free shopping area to a variety of dining options and lounges.
  • Location: Conveniently, it’s located relatively close to the city centre. A short metro or taxi ride will swiftly take you to or from your destination in Lisbon.

Porto Airport (Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport): While smaller than Lisbon’s airport, Porto’s airport is modern, efficient, and consistently receives accolades for its service quality.

  • Connectivity: While Porto might not have the extensive range of long-haul flights that Lisbon offers, it’s well-connected within Europe. Many major European carriers, as well as budget airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet, operate regular flights, making city breaks across the continent very accessible.
  • Facilities: The airport offers a good range of shops, eateries, and lounges. It might not be as expansive as Lisbon’s, but it more than covers the basics with ease.
  • Location: Porto’s airport is located close to the city centre but not as close as Lisbon Airport. It takes around 40 minutes to get to Porto-Campanhã train station on the train whereas Lisbon’s Oriente train station is just a few metro stops away.

Access to the Beach

While neither Lisbon or Porto have beaches in the city centre, Both Lisbon and Porto boast proximity to stunning coastlines, offering locals and expats alike the chance to indulge in sun, sand, and surf.

Lisbon – Carcavelos Beach: Carcavelos, located to the west of Lisbon, is one of the most popular beaches among Lisboetas and is revered for its vast sandy expanses and the iconic São Julião da Barra fort that overlooks it. Carcavelos can be accessed via a short train ride from Lisbon’s city centre, making it a popular choice for day-trippers.

Porto – Matosinhos Beach: Matosinhos, situated to the west of Porto, is an urban beach known for its wide sandy stretches and invigorating Atlantic waves. One of its primary advantages is its proximity to Porto’s city centre. Easily reachable via metro, it makes spontaneous beach trips a breeze.

Best for Expats

The decision between Lisbon and Porto for expats can hinge on several factors, from professional opportunities to lifestyle preferences. Both cities have their unique offerings, and understanding these can aid in making a well-informed choice. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

  • International Community: Lisbon’s larger size and cosmopolitan nature mean a bigger expat community. This can be advantageous for networking and forming connections when first moving to a new country. It’s also home to one of the largest digital nomad communities — not just in Portugal or even Europe, but in the entire world. There are plenty of expats in Porto too, but nowhere near as many as in Lisbon as well as surrounding areas like Cascais, Sintra, and Costa da Caparica.
  • Job Opportunities: Being the capital city, Lisbon offers a broader range of job opportunities, particularly in sectors like tech, finance, and international business. The city has seen a rise in start-ups and is often the chosen headquarters for international companies in the country. There are job opportunities too and with a lower cost of living, particularly when it comes to rent, Porto may make sense for many people.
  • Language Learning: Due to its international character, you might find more English speakers in Lisbon, which can be both a boon (for easy settling) and a bane (if you’re trying to immerse yourself fully in learning Portuguese). English is widely spoken in Porto too, but you may find it slightly easier to practice your Portuguese here.
  • Affordability: Generally speaking, Porto offers a lower cost of living compared to Lisbon. This can be particularly appealing to retirees, freelancers, or remote workers who aren’t tied to a specific job market. However, as mentioned, the majority of expats, particularly digital nomads, choose Lisbon despite the higher costs.
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