People often group Spain and Portugal together. After all, they share the same land mass, right? In fact, they’re quite different. I’ve traveled a lot in Spain, but choose to live in Portugal. With the disclaimer that the following is purely my personal take on it, here’s why.
Portugal is “doable.” Just 35,000 square miles in size, you can drive its length from cosmopolitan north to beachy south in five and a half hours. Spain, six times that land area, has three major and a couple of minor climate zones.
Perhaps because of the larger population base, Spain does provide more purchasing variety. Amazon.es (for España) offers free shipping within the country for Prime members. There is no Amazon.pt. I think there’s no better shopping than Spain’s marvelous department store chain, El Corte Inglés, but they’re in Portugal too.
The Spanish operate on a different clock than the Portuguese. Lunchtime shop closings are longer, and restaurants rarely open before 8:30 p.m., while you can generally grab dinner at 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. in Portugal.
Spain’s Moorish influence is palpable, with the Alhambra in Granada a lovely example. The feel of Portugal, however, is more like Mediterranean Western Europe—my preference—compared to Spain’s combo of South America and North Africa.
Spain’s cuisine is more complex than that of Portugal. The Valencian rice dish of paella can contain meats, seafood, vegetables, and even beans. Portugal’s arroz com pato is simple, a dish of white rice with crisped duck. Spain’s appetizers, tapas, come in wide variety, many scrumptious. Sadly, it’s not common to find tapas bars in Portugal. I do believe, however, that they have it all over Spain in the dessert arena—a most important one. The national dessert is pastel de nata, a custard tarte that looks like a mini-quiche, but for my money, they make the finest rice pudding I’ve ever had. Here it’s called arroz doce, literally “sweet rice,” and indeed it is.
In Spain, plan on one dinner per diner. In Portugal, my husband and I usually share a main course. The Portuguese tend to fill not only your plate, but your cup, liking to see their glass more than half full. And it’s more affordable: a six-ounce pour of house wine in a higher-end restaurant runs about $5 here, about $8.50 in Spain.
The Portuguese are quiet, courteous, and helpful. In a packed restaurant, you can not only easily hear your dinner partner, but you won’t hear anyone else’s conversation, no matter how close the tables are. Pedestrians frequently nod “thank you” to cars stopping at crosswalks. More than once someone has deferred to us on a contested parking space. The Portuguese are eager to understand you, and go to great lengths to give directions when asked.
Having said all this, we’ve had some great times in Spain, especially in the charming northern Spanish city of Burgos. I guess you’ll just have to check it out yourself.