Portugal or Greece – it’s not a terribly bad decision to have to make when it comes to that next vacation in Europe, you know. These are two of the most sun-splashed, nature-rich, food-filled, culture-brimming countries out there. They offer everything from postcard-perfect beaches to immersive cityscapes to wild interiors riddled with hiking paths.
But Portugal and Greece are also indelibly different places. They might both be in southern Europe, but one’s in the calm waters of the Mediterranean, while the other spills into the wild Atlantic Ocean. On top of that, they have very different histories, cuisines, traditions, and ways to travel.
Cue this guide. It’s your 101 run-through of whether it should be Portugal or Greece this season. Will you go for the glinting surf beaches of the Algarve and Lisbon’s soaring Moorish castles? Or will it be the idyllic isles of the Aegean Sea and the great monuments of Athens? Let’s get to it…
Portugal or Greece for ease of traveling there?
Portugal and Greece are two of Europe’s most Popular travel destinations. Together they get millions (mhmm…millions!) of visitors every year. The upshot? Neither of these will be tricky to get to.
The main access point to Greece is via Athens. There, a huge international airport is served by long-haul connections (including a leg to the major Middle Eastern hubs) and stacks of short-haul links besides. But that’s just the beginning. You couldn’t count the number of smaller airports that exist on the Greek islands on a single hand. They get loads of flights with airlines like Ryanair and easyJet that often run seasonally (between May and October), taking you direct to awesome destinations like Crete, Rhodes, Corfu, and Kos. The more romantic way to arrive in Greece is by boat. Ferries come over from Italy in the west and Turkey in the east. They will take longer than flying but also offer an experience in its own right.
Portugal has two major airports. Lisbon is the biggest and the vast majority of transatlantic flights will go there. However, you might get some US-Euro connections into Porto, often going via the Azores. Faro Airport is the better gateway to the Algarve region, but it’s mainly served by low-cost carriers on a seasonal basis. Lisbon’s answer to the international ferries of Greece is a sleeper train connection with Spain, which means you get a nice eco-friendly way to arrive from cities like Paris and Madrid if you want to do it on the locomotive.
Greece or Portugal for getting around?
With the exception of Madeira and the Azores, Portugal is one contiguous country at the very cap of the Iberian Peninsula. That means you can travel the whole thing by road (and car rentals do tend to be pretty cheap in these parts) or train and visit many of the top highlights. Normal itineraries will take in the two main historic cities of Porto and Lisbon before finishing amid the beaches of the southern Algarve. The only flights or boats you’ll need to think about are the ones that take you out to the archipelagos in the Atlantic, but we’d say they deserve a whole holiday on their own.
Greece is much trickier to get around than Portugal. The country has a whopping 6,000 islands in all. Only a few of those are inhabited and they are served by a pretty comprehensive ferry network, but getting from A to B often means putting yourself at the mercy of public transport. Of course, chartering your own yacht will solve that, but expect to pay a pretty penny for the luxury of a 40-footer in the summer months. Mainland Greece has a relatively good road network but the geography – lots of mountains and peninsulas – means that travel times are often much longer than they are in Portugal.
Portugal or Greece for things to do?
If we had to put together a bucket list for Greece it would probably read something like: Island hopping, see the Santorini caldera, visit the Acropolis in Athens, uncover the ancient sites of Delphi and Mycenae, drive the mountains in Crete, and then finish with a raucous party night in Mykonos or Rhodes. Obviously, it might be hard to fit all that into a single trip, but the point is that Greece has oodles of things to do up its sleeve. We’d say it’s a fantastic option for a whole medley of travelers, from hiking buffs to sailors to foodies. Did we mention that this is one of the most popular places to visit in Europe? Easy to see why, eh?
Portugal also manages to be somewhere that offers loads for loads of different sorts of folks. In recent years it’s risen and risen to rival France as one of Europe’s major surf destinations (check out Peniche or Sagres for that). It’s rich in historical cities (more on those later). It’s blessed with eye-watering beaches, especially down in the Algarve. You can go fishing, hiking wild coast paths, exploring medieval monasteries and UNESCO sites in the mountains – it’s all pretty enticing. That said, we think that the sheer variety that’s offered by the Greek islands tips this one to the Mediterranean.
Portugal or Greece for food?
Food is going to be a HUGE part of your holiday, no matter if you’re heading to Portugal or Greece. Seriously, these are two fantastically culinary nations…
Portugal is all about rustic, farm-to-table country cooking and Atlantic coast seafood. Those combine to offer hearty meals like salt-cod bakes, steaks in red-wine sauce, and stacked meat sandwiches in cheese dressings (a Porto specialty). Fish lovers will probably do best in the south, where the Algarve has countless little villages with family grill houses that serve cuts fresh off the BBQ. Wine buffs will undoubtedly prefer the north. That’s the province of the Douro Valley, where some of the continent’s very finest reds are made and bottled.
Enter Greece. The national cuisine here is a symphony of such simplicity and tastiness that it’s hard not to rush right in and award the winnings right away. Fried saganaki cheese served with fresh lemon, tzatziki with garlic, souvlaki skewers, fresh Greek salads with tomatoes the likes of which you’ve never sampled best, octopus off the coals – there’s a reason it’s legendary! Eating in Greece is done in traditional tavernas. There’s at least one in most villages, but we think the best are under the olive groves a few feet from the Aegean Sea.
Portugal or Greece for cities?
Portugal opens things with a duo of incredible cities: Porto, in the north, and Lisbon, the capital, roughly midway down the Atlantic coast. We actually think they trump Athens, perhaps not on history, but for pure depth of character. These are towns where you’ll sip cold Sagres beer while watching the sunset over the water, discover tile-fronted churches that ooze Instagram worthiness, and wander cobbled historic districts that never fail to enchant. And it doesn’t end there. Lagos is the Algarve’s jewel, touting an old castle above shimmering urban beaches, while Funchal in Madeira is the home of the Cristiano Ronaldo Museum (a must for footie buffs).
Greece’s cities certainly claim the history. They reign as some of the oldest on the planet, with Athens capping them off. The capital is certainly a bucket list must. It’s crowned by the Parthenon and hosts the ancient Athenian Agora where democracy itself was invented. Other cities worthy of note are Heraklion and Chania on Crete, which have charming old towns and exceptionally ancient history dating back over 3,000 years. Thessaloniki is the northern hub, where there’s an intriguing mix of Byzantine and Balkan character to experience.
Portugal or Greece for nightlife?
There’s pretty good nightlife in both of these destinations, catering to a whole range of different hedonistic travelers. Towns like Albufeira and Lagos in Portugal are the liveliest resort places in the country. They’re the 18-30s style summer party spots that can rival the big-name party towns of Greece (more on those just below). Each town has its very own strip of bars and bumping dance clubs, often populated with Scandinavian, British, and German youngsters between May and September. On top of that, you get the city nightlife of Lisbon and Porto. The first revolves around the buzzy Bairro Alto and the Baixa de Lisboa district, while Porto is all about the edgy coffee joints and beer bars of Vitória and the port cellars of Ribeira.
When it comes to nightlife in Greece, there are a few select destinations that really stand out from the crowd. Yep, the country has about five or six of the liveliest summertime locations in the Med, which is saying something – the Med is home to Aiya Napa and Ibiza, remember? There’s chic Mykonos, a major LGBTQ+ destination with beach bars that hit the EDM until the early hours. There’s Ios, the major Cycladean party island with its uber-raucous bars. Then you get Malia, in Crete, and Kavos, on Corfu, which are similar towns for 18-30s partiers based around a buzzy strip. We’d also say it’s worth considering Rhodes (for Faliraki) and Zante (for Laganas) – both are pretty wild.
Winner: Portugal. That’s more personal preference because we prefer parties in major cities to dedicated 18-30s resorts.
Portugal or Greece for beaches?
It’s hardly a secret that a vast proportion of the travelers who head to both Portugal and Greece each year will be going for one thing and one thing only: The beaches. These countries lay claim to some of the finest bays and coves in the whole of Europe. Nope, scratch that – the whole of the world!
Let’s start with Portugal. The southern Algarve probably takes the biscuit here. It’s a land fringed from tip to toe in stunning inlets. In the west they are wide, open stretches of perfectly taupe powder backed by wiggling rivers (check out Praia da Amoreira, for example). The coast changes direction at the rock-spotted beaches of Sagres (a surfer’s mecca) and then runs east to the Spanish border, passing some of the most spectacular beaches of all as it goes: Praia das Furnas, Praia da Boca do Rio, Praia de Dona Ana.
These are the famous golden bays of Portugal, backed by high cliffs and beset by azure seas, but they also aren’t the only places to explore on the coast. We also love the Silver Coast, a long run of beaches that go between Lisbon and Portugal for miles and miles, and the Green Coast, the northern end of the country just before the Galician border.
Still, for all the breathtaking beauty of Portugal, there’s simply no getting around the fact that Greece holds the cards here. Some estimations have it that there are over 6,000 islets in the country. They combine with thousands of miles of mainland coastline to offer more beaches than you could possibly get through in a single trip – or a lifetime, for that matter!
There’s simply no space to list all of the standouts, but we’ll namedrop a few of the ones that have taken our breath away: Elafonisi and Sweet Water Beach on Crete, Shipwreck Bay on Zante (seriously, wow!), the north coast of Milos, pine-dotted Fiskardo Bay on Kefalonia. That should stoke the wanderlust a little. There really is so much to get through, and you’re never more than a few hours from a cracking beach in Greece, even up in the soaring mountains of the north.
Portugal or Greece for nature?
Portugal has a lot more inland than many tourists ever know. That’s because the bulk of people who travel here stick to the coastline. We think the north of the country is especially wonderful. It’s the home of the wonderful Peneda-Gerês National Park, the only national park in Portugal. Head in to find crumpled mountains and crystal-clear kettle lakes where you can wild swim. A touch further south come the Serra da Estrela, where rustic schist villages crown the summits and there are hiking paths around wooded river valleys. The south has gems like Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, which is rugged coastline hemmed in by wildflower meadows and heather heath.
Greece is drama from beginning to end on the nature front. Soaring mountains that top out at 2,917-meter-high Mount Olympus dominate the mainland, while islands like Corfu and Lefkas have their own mighty ridges that loom above a shimmering Ionian Sea. The Peloponnese is about scrub-dressed highlands, there are Saronic isles covered in pine woods, and then comes Crete, with it’s UNESCO-tagged Samaria Gorge. We really don’t think there’s any beating it…
Portugal or Greece for weather?
There’s not much in it when it comes to weather. Both Portugal and Greece follow a four-season pattern with a long summer (read: tourist) season in the middle. Things start to heat up in both places around late March, with summer temperature highs easily hitting over 100 F in the hottest months of June, July, and August. It’s also common to see hardly a drop of rain at that time, especially in the southernmost islands of Greece and in the Algarve in Portugal.
Basically, we’d say don’t worry one iota about the weather in either of these places if you’re planning a trip in the summer. However, there are some things we’d say be wary of. Number one: Greece can get strong fall storms known as Medicanes. They usually pull across the Ionian Sea and the central Aegean in early October, so the eastern isles of the Dodecanese could be a better pick at that time. Greece also has strong north-blowing winds in the summer, which are rarely so bad they’ll impact a trip but can be annoying on islands like Crete where most of the hotel resorts are on the windward shore.
When it comes to Portugal, bear in mind that the climate is heavily influenced by the Atlantic Ocean. Crisp, cold days and lots of mist aren’t uncommon in the winter months. What’s more, the time from November to March can be positively cold up in Porto and the northern regions. Portugal also gets considerably more rain than Greece, but that can be avoided by holidaying at peak times (though that will cost a little more).
Winner: Draw. The weather in both of these places is stunning.
We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a holiday to either Portugal or Greece. Both places are, simply, gorgeous. They’re both super warm, have plenty of sunshine to go around, and offer unique history and culture. Generally, Greece is probably better for those who want to laze on the beach or sail the seas, while Portugal has more enthralling cities, better surf, and wilder coastal reaches.