Poland Or Portugal? Should I Travel East Or West This Year?

Poland or Portugal
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
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If you’re considering Poland or Portugal for this year’s trip, then you’ve come to the right place. We’ve traveled both of these countries extensively and known them both like the proverbial back of our hand. Here, we’ll compare seven key aspects of the destinations to help you decide where’s better for you, the home of vodka and pierogi or salt cod and surf breaks…

Portugal and Poland are actually quite divergent places. For starters, one’s on the very western end of Europe while the other sits on the join between Central and Eastern Europe. One gets bathed in oodles of sun while the other gets balmy continental summers and winter snowdrifts. And that’s really just scratching the surface of the differences.

The truth is you’re going to have a very different trip depending on which you pick. From the food to the range of things there is to do, the weather and climate to the cost of travel you can expect to encounter, there’s loads of nuances between them. That means there’s some serious thinking to be done before you go and book…

Poland or Portugal for weather?

Poland mountains
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Poland has something of a reputation for being super cold. Only…that’s not really true. At least it’s not true for much of the year. May to August is positively humid and hot in these parts. The climate is heavily continental, meaning you get loads of days when the thermometers read well into the 80s without a cloud in the sky. Away from the coastline of the Baltic Sea, summers are filled with heavy thunderstorms that usually last 20 minutes and then pass. Winters can be very cold (we remember shivering in -13 in December one year) but that does mean snow and skiing! Autumn is lovely, when the trees change colors to yellow and gold and the national parks look simply stunning.

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Portugal boasts a longer summertime, there’s no doubt about that. Things usually get properly hot – like beach-worthy hot – around the middle of April in the Algarve. It takes longer for Porto and Lisbon to warm up, but they soon join the south with days of 80-90 degrees and cloudless skies. Things won’t cool again until around the end of September, though we’ve traveled to the Western Algarve in November and been sunning ourselves on the beach. We’d say skip Porto in winter because it can rain quite a bit.

Winner: Portugal thanks to the Algarve, but Poland’s four seasons can be lovely, especially when the snow comes!

Poland or Portugal for food?

Portugal drinks
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Foodies often head down Western Europe way in search of the famous seafood and traditional cuisine. Not too many think of Poland as a potential place to tuck into interesting dishes. But it’s got its own kitchen and it’s definitely one that’s worthy of remark.

But first…Portugal. Here, the Atlantic Ocean and the lush inland regions play a huge role in creating a hearty farm- or sea-to-table array of dishes. They include salt-cod bakes, stacked francesinha sandwiches made with sausages, steaks, and fried eggs, and caldo verde soup infused with smoky sausage and herbs. Portugal is also great at sweet things, with the pasteis de nata custard pies coming up trumps. Enjoy one of those in a Lisbon café with a strong coffee in the morning and you won’t regret it!

Poland showcases hearty, filling, carb-heavy Slavic food at its finest. There’s a long tradition of cooking here that’s given the world some top winter foods, including the packed dumplings of pierogi (served with braised onions and pork scratching) and sour żurek (a broth made with boiled eggs and blood sausage). Down south, the highlanders make gorgeous smoked cheeses called oscypek, best eaten off a BBQ grill with a dousing of cranberry. In the east, the hunters craft bigos stews over open fires. We’d say the whole smorgasbord is better eaten when the weather’s cold and the snow is falling. It’s not really light summer dining.

Winner: Draw.

Poland or Portugal for things to do?

Portugal surf
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

If we had to write a Portugal bucket list, we’d probably include wanders around the Alfama in Lisbon, a trip to Porto, breaks to interesting medieval towns like Coimbra and Aveiro, and a jaunt up to the mystical palaces of Sintra. At least that would be the cultural side of things. Then we’d throw in some adventure. That comes courtesy of the long coastline, which offers world-class surfing in Ericeira and Peniche and stunning beaches in the Algarve. We’d also say hike the Schist Villages if you have the time.

Poland’s must-do itinerary would be just as packed, though the activities would certainly be quite different. Instead of surfing frothing Atlantic waves, we’d direct you down to the powdery ski fields of Zakopane – skiing in Poland is among the most affordable in Europe, don’t you know? Instead of Porto and Lisbon, we’d raise the UNESCO sites of Krakow (the Wawel Castle, the Old Town) and Warsaw’s reconstructed heart. You might also want to visit Auschwitz to learn about the darker histories of Europe and pay your respects to the fallen. It’s one of the most fascinating and moving memorials in the world.

Winner: Draw.

Poland or Portugal for nightlife?

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Hedonists shouldn’t be disappointed with either of these destinations. Portugal, for example, has two big cities that really know how to party. Lisbon’s buzzy Bairro Alto is a mix of speakeasies and craft beer joints, while Porto has a whole district of port cellars and wine tasting rooms, backed up by Vitória, an area of gritty beatnik bars.

Then you get the out-and-out resort town of Albufeira. That’s angled way more towards holidaymaker partiers, what with its long strip of pumping rep clubs that open from May to September. You can also find low-key surf towns with more chilled nightlife options up and down the coast.

Then comes Poland. It comes in a haze of sloshing vodka shots and all-night shindigs. Krakow spreads its venues between the Old Town and Kazimierz to the south. Some simply do not close and you can easily drink and dance from 6pm to 6am without a break. It’s also the home of one of Europe’s original pub crawls, the Krawl Through Krakow (now a rite of passage for backpackers).

Warsaw matches that with some chicer cocktail joints and post-industrial hipster areas like Praga. But we also think secondary cities like Wroclaw and Zakopane are worth a mention. The first is a wild student town with a seemingly endless array of bars. The latter gets heavy in both summer and winter with hikers and skiers, offering some real cozy apres spots.

Winner: Poland.

Poland or Portugal for city breaks?

Krakow Main Square
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Portugal offers city breakers two real options. There’s Lisbon, the capital. And there’s Porto. Both are pretty fantastic. Lisbon buzzes with life and action. It’s got maritime museums that unravel the Age of Discovery, an old Moorish castle, the Bairro Alto nightlife, and ancient Alfama for cobbled alleys that lead to nowhere. Porto has a similarly awesome old town (a UNESCO site to boot), along with tile-fronted churches that are some of the most handsome on the continent, not to mention a sort of off-beat vibe that we can’t get enough of. It’s also the perfect size to explore in two or three days.

Poland matches that and then some. Old towns are everywhere here. Gdansk is a corker of a city in the north of the country, spreading along sandy beaches in Gdynia to an old town area that’s topped by a hulking great big church. Warsaw can be done in a single weekend, though it’s more modern and business orientated. The best option would certainly be Krakow. Another World Heritage Site, it’s walkable and downright lively, with roastery coffee shops in the hipster area of Kazimierz meeting glorious medieval sites in the Old Town. All of those are served by stacks of low-cost airlines, so planning a quick in-and-out jaunt shouldn’t be a chore.

Winner: Poland. It’s got more cities and more short-haul flight links.

Poland or Portugal for families?

Poland hiking
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Family travel can hardly get better than Portugal. Those chasing guaranteed summer sun, sand, and sea basically can’t go wrong here. We’d recommend picking the southern Algarve for that. It’s filled with tried-and-tested family resort destinations and activities specifically aimed at groups with the kids in tow – think aqua parks, boat trips, snorkeling outings. Meanwhile, the region around Lisbon, the Alentejo, and the Silver Coast come loaded with loads of family-sized villas with pools. Sounds perfect, eh?

Poland can do family holidays. It’s just that things are a bit more niche than over in Portugal. We can think of a few things that the little ones will love, including rafting down the Dunajec River Gorge and delving into the deep Wieliczka Salt Mines to see whole underground churches carved from…well, salt! You also get enchanting cities like Krakow and Warsaw (see above) that offer fairy-tale castles and old towns that are sure to enchant, no matter the age.

Winner: Portugal. Poland is more suited to culture buffs, couples, and backpackers.

Poland or Portugal for price?

Portugal views
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

We could be comparing just about any other western European nation to Poland and Poland would win hands down here. But it’s not quite so simple with Portugal, where prices remain pretty easy on the wallet. That said, we think Poland still manages to come in cheaper overall, despite some noticeable price hikes in recent years and a general uptrend in the cost of living since the country joined the EU back in 2004.

In Portugal, you can expect to pay in the region of €15-20 ($17-$23) for a night in a backpacker hostel. That can dip to just €10 ($12) per night in Poland, especially if you don’t mind skipping the nifty new “posh-tel” stays. The cost of hotels in popular regions like the Algarve in Portugal can hit well over €150 per night, which would be in line with the most expensive hotel in a Polish resort like Zakopane.

Then you’ve got the cost of food and drink. The latter is infamously cheap in both these destinations. We pay around 10 PLN ($2.50) for a 500-mil beer in most bars in Poland but know of some establishments where happy-hour deals can take that down to less than $1 a pop. It’s similar in Portugal if you hit up the kiosk bars but probably a little more in proper craft beer bars and whatnot. The same goes for food, which is generally a little cheaper in Poland (think $10-15 a head in a good restaurant).

Winner: Poland. For us it’s still one of the cheapest places to travel in Europe.

Poland or Portugal for ease of travel?

Photo by Yuri Gokoryan/Unsplash

The abundance of low-cost airlines now linking both Portugal and Poland to the rest of Europe means that it should be a cinch to get to both these places if you’re already on the continent. The major carriers to know about are easyJet, Ryanair, and Wizz. They run regular connections into Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve, and stacks over to key cities in Poland – from Krakow in the south to Gdansk up north.

Portugal probably wins out when it comes to long-haul connections to and from the USA. Just look at where it is – the country sits on the cusp of Western Europe, the last port of call before the great Atlantic blue. The national flag carrier TAP offer frequent flights over to NYC and other east coast cities that can also be ridden in the other direction.

Poland is better linked to Central European countries like Germany, Austria, and Slovakia by rail and bus. It also has decent links to the US and Asia thanks to its national airline LOT, which operate mainly out of the bigger airports in Warsaw.

To sum all that up: It’s rarely hard to plan a trip to either of these spots, no matter if you need to jet in from far afield or are just looking to hitch a train connection from a neighboring country.

Winner: Draw – both are very well connected these days.

Poland or Portugal for nature?

Photo by Dani Aláez/Unsplash

Portugal is famed for its nigh on 1,200 miles of coastline. It’s amazing stuff, running the gamut from the broad, sweeping sand bays of the Silver Coast to the rugged volcanic shores of the Azores and Madeira. Most agree that the overall highlight is the Algarve, which has idyllic bays backed by golden cliffs on one side and rugged surf beaches on the other.

There are some mountains in Portugal, too. On the mainland, they stretch all down the edges of the border with Spain into the rustic reaches of the Serra da Estrela Natural Park. That’s a fantastic place to hit the trails, hopping between stone-built villages and wooded valleys. Further north, the country’s sole national park – the Peneda-Gerês National Park – has wild swimming gorges. Then there’s Madeira, which is a veritable hiker’s mecca.

The focus for outdoorsy types in Poland is often on the Tatra National Park in the deep south of the country. It encompasses a clutch of the Carpathian Mountains around the town of Zakopane and it really is wonderful – think 2,000-meter-high peaks that gather snow plumes in the winter and offer hundreds of miles of hiking paths in the summer.

Outside of the Tatras, Poland can offer some surprising little pockets of truly off-radar nature. Check out the Ojcow park near Krakow, where big stone turrets poke straight out of the ground. Or, hit the dense Białowieża Forest on the Belarus border, where you might just encounter members of the last herd of European bison around!

Winner: Draw. Poland has better mountains but Portugal wins on coastline.

The verdict

It’s almost impossible to compare these two European countries. They lie at different sides of the continent and offer totally different things. Poland definitely still lends itself to bargain travel, with prices that can match up to virtually anywhere in the EU and even in Asia. It’s also fantastic for city breaks and history. Portugal is the one you want if you’re looking to laze on stunning beaches, surf, and soak up the sun. We’d probably just about give Poland the edge when it comes to mountain explorations because of the lovely Tatras in the south. That said, Portugal has amazing peaks in Madeira, and loads to explore in its inland sierras near Spain. Finally, both countries should be really easy to get to – they are served by many a long-haul and short-haul flight and have train and road links galore.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.