Portugal or Malta? Which European Country Is Best For Me?

Portugal or Malta
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
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If you’re planning a Euro adventure this year but can’t decide between Portugal or Malta, then you’ve come to the right place. This guide will run through several of the main draws of both countries to outline which is better for nightlife, for beaches, for things to do, for history, and more. We hope you’ll finish with a better idea of the one that’s better for you and your travel crew.

We should say that we think both places are pretty darn incredible. They each have a truly unique vibe, loads of excellent hotels, shorelines that are guaranteed to dazzle, and POIs that demand the camera be fully charged!

But Portugal and Malta also have key differences. From the style of their historic buildings to the atmosphere in their cities, the nature of their beaches to the array of things there is to do, these are the aspects that should help you decide between them…

Portugal or Malta for ease of travel

Portugal or Malta

Portugal sees about 10 times the annual number of visitors as Malta. That’s to be expected because it’s a much larger country. But it also means that you’ll find a whole load more arrival points, flight options, and other modes of transport to get you in.

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The biggest airport in PT is Lisbon’s Humberto Delgado Airport, closely followed by Porto’s international airport in the north of the country. Together, those host long-haul flight arrivals from all over, including a few from New York and the US East Coast, and others from big EU hubs like Frankfurt. They’re also major arrival points for low-cost carriers like Ryanair and easyJet, who serve smaller regional airports (including Funchal in Madeira) on a seasonal basis, too. Basically, flights to Portugal are rarely hard to find and there are oodles of bargains on offer. You can also arrive into Lisbon and Porto on the train, which runs overnight from Madrid.

Malta, on the other hand, is an island, and the nearest ferry port is inconveniently placed right at the southern tip of Sicily (although there are boats from there that take about 90 minutes in total). That means that flying is really your only option. Thankfully, Malta International Airport is now the arrival point for plenty of budget carriers. The likes of Ryanair and Wizz have lots of connections between them, linking the islands with everywhere from Porto to Bologna, London to Athens. They are often seasonal, though, so it might be tricky to get onto the ground in December or January.

Winner: Portugal.

Portugal or Malta for nightlife

Portugal or Malta
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Portugal might be easy going by day, but it can be positively buzzing at night. Of course, we’re not talking about the sleepy hill towns. We’re talking about the lively resort areas and the cities. Albufeira should have a special mention here. It’s the premier 18-30s destination in the country, hosting a whole strip of bars that runs down to the beach that basically does not shut between May and September. Then you’ve got the wild Bairro Alto of Lisbon, a district that’s riddled with noir speakeasies, wine bars, cocktail bars – you name it. That’s mirrored up in Porto, which is the place with our favorite nightlife in Portugal – think underground jazz joints and open-air wine gardens that spill down the banks of the Douro River.

Malta’s nightlife revolves around two areas just north of the historic capital of Valletta: Paceville and Sliema. The latter is a sort of new town area (but still several centuries old) that has streets packed with shopping malls and retail precincts. There’s a long promenade walkway around the whole place that hosts some great taverns and bars for Maltese drinking and dining. Then comes Paceville, which begins with the uber-lively bay of St Julian’s. That is the place to party on the islands, with the strip of St George’s Road coming up trumps for late-night shindigs.

Winner: Portugal, but Malta is pretty fun after dark, too.

Portugal or Malta for beaches

Portugal or Malta
Photo by Mike Nahlii/Unsplash

No trip to southern Europe could possibly be complete without a day on the beach. Thankfully, both Malta and Portugal are rich in pretty fantastic coastline. Let’s begin with the islands in the Med…

Malta has just over 240km of coastline when combined with the neighboring island of Gozo. That might not seem like much, but it’s worth remembering that this island nation is smack dab in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. The upshot? There are some seriously stunning beaches. And Malta offers something you might not expect: Variety. Some of the absolute best locations for beach bums here are:

  • Armier Bay – A sandy bay with an adjoining beach cove that sums up the holiday vibes of northern Malta.
  • Ġnejna – A gorgeous beach hidden under high coast hills on the south side of Malta.
  • The Blue Lagoon – Not to be confused with its Icelandic namesake, this one’s just as blue but all salt water and snorkeling coves. 

When it comes to Portugal, you simply cannot miss the coast. The country caps off the very end of the Iberian Peninsula to offer over a thousand miles of uninterrupted shoreline. Up north, you get the Green Coast, a run of beaches backed by lush forests that comes off the Spanish border. Then there’s the Silver Coast, a mecca for surfers that joins Porto to Lisbon. Further south, the Alentejo and Algarve take over, offering gold-sand coves that you’re more likely to see on Portugal postcards. Our favorites would include:

  • Camilo Beach – In a crevice of the coast just outside of Lagos, this beach sums up the quality of the Algarve. It’s seriously beautiful.
  • Amado Beach – A wave-bashed bay where surfers go to chase the Atlantic waves, set deep in the lush Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina.
  • Guincho Beach – A beach close to Lisbon that sits in the shadow of the Sintra Mountains.

Winner: Portugal.

Portugal or Malta for things to do

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Portugal is a real chameleon of a destination. Visitors of all stripes come here for different sorts of holidays. There are some headline acts: Trips spent lazing on a beach in the Algarve, hopping whitewashed surf towns in Alentejo, and enjoying the sun-kissed sands of the Silver Coast.

But there’s also way more than that. You can whiz in for a simple, two-day city break if you like. Porto and Lisbon are perfect for that, as relatively bite-sized towns replete with maritime museums, Age of Discovery monuments, and Moorish-era castles. Alternatively, go for the highlands and see the Schist Villages of the Serra da Estrela. Or hit up Ericeira and Sagres for surf and yoga camps. There’s also endless hiking in Madeira and the Azores, along with whale watching and yachting possibilities out in the Atlantic.

Malta is much more your classic Mediterranean destination. That means it’s probably better for relaxed vacations on the beach, taking the family for a hit of sun and sea, and for sailing. The capital of Valletta is also a fantastic city-break location, packing in UNESCO castles and moody art and architecture that dates backs to the age of the Templar Knights. The thing is, Malta is much smaller than Portugal. That means there’s not the same variety of things to do, so PT steals this one on that basis alone.

Winner: Portugal.

Portugal or Malta for history and culture

Portugal or Malta
Photo by Micaela Parente/Unsplash

Portugal certainly isn’t short on enthralling history. This town is a jewel for those who love the Age of Discovery, for example. The capital of Lisbon positively booms with monuments to that time of European daring. You can go to see the Belem Tower that Vasco da Gama would have seen as he sailed out to find India. You can delve into the Museu de Marinha to wonder at the achievements of Portuguese sailors over the centuries. Porto, meanwhile, is like a living museum. The old town Ribeira is a symphony of tile-fronted churches that’s hardly changed in 200 years (save for the addition of some pretty cool bars). Then there are the Roman ruins of Evora, the palaces of Sintra, the charming canals of Aveiro – it all adds up.

However, we don’t think Portugal can quite match the majesty of Valletta. That’s the prime historic spot in Malta and the capital to boot. Tagged by UNESCO, it’s crowned by a huge, fortified citadel that was once a crusader bastion on the edge of Europe. The piece de resistance within is St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a glorious church with gold-leafed interiors that culminates with the magnum opus of one Caravaggio, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, widely considered to be one of the masterworks of European art. But it’s not all in Valletta. The town of Mdina is also pretty enchanting, what with its Baroque churches and maze-like center, and so is Victoria on Gozo, complete with old prisons and 16th-cenutry buildings.

Winner: Maybe Malta, but only just!

Portugal or Malta for hotels

Portugal or Malta
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

There’s no dearth of places to stay in either of these countries. They are vacation meccas, both. Malta is probably best for beach-side family hotels. It’s got plenty of those, particularly around the popular resort areas of Bugibba and Salina Bay on the north coast. Stray to the south and the inland of the island and you’ll find some excellent villa rentals and homestays, while Valletta offers unique apartments and B&Bs in historic buildings. Our top picks would include:

Portugal has thousands of places to stay. From rustic farmhouse conversions in the Alentejo hills to R&R pool resorts in Madeira to surf shacks right by the waves, you’ll be spoiled for choice in the land of salt cod and Douro port wine. The Algarve has by far the biggest range of accommodation options. They’re mainly family and retiree hotspots close to the beaches and golf courses. Some of our very favorite places to stay in Portugal would be:

Winner: Portugal – it’s bigger, which means more hotels.

Portugal or Malta for cities and towns

Portugal or Malta
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

There’s only really one big city in Malta. That’s Valletta. We’ve already shown how it’s a true masterpiece of historic architecture, thanks mainly to the soaring citadel of the Grandmaster Palace. But it’s also no simple museum piece. This is a town where you’ll get lost under the gaze of honey-hued ramparts and sip coffees on plazas before beautiful 16th-century houses built by crusader knights. Life is lived in and around the heritage structures, which really adds to the charm of it all. We also think Mdina is worthy of a special mention, as it offers a glimpse at the older history of the islands and the age of Moorish rule here.

Lisbon is the first city in Portugal and boy is it a fun one! You can check off the culture by hitting the Castelo de S. Jorge and then dive into the maze of the Alfama district to sample sizzling sardines in old BBQ taverns. Or head to the newer town area to shop through Baixa and party the night away in the Bairro Alto. Porto is the country’s second-largest city and we simply LOVE it. It’s steeped in real atmosphere and is the steppingstone into the Douro River wine region. Then you get Lagos, an Algarvian city with its own castle, and Aveiro, which is hailed as the Venice of Portugal. And that’s really just scratching the surface.

Winner: Portugal.

The verdict

To be honest, both of these European countries would make it onto our bucket list. Portugal is the one for surfers and beach lovers, but Malta brings a raw and rich history with plenty of art and architecture into the mix. What’s more, both enjoy great weather and boast stunning coastlines, so you really can’t go wrong!

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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.