Have we been here before? San Francisco vs Lisbon

Posted on 28. Sep, 2011 by in Destinations, Portugal, San Francisco, Travel Reflections

On the look out for budget holidays, all we wanted was sun, sand and good wi-fi, but even though we ended up in Lisbon on a whim, we quickly discovered we had been there before…kind of.

The more we walked around and got our bearings, we realized that Lisbon has some pretty uncanny similarities with one of our other favorite cities in the world – San Francisco. Lisbon and San Francisco have so much in common, in fact, that it goes beyond the geography and infrastructure and extends to transportation, culture and lifestyle.

lisbon san francisco trams & bridges

Left: San Francisco; Right: Lisbon

Between a bay and the ocean

When we think of the ‘west coast’, California is what first pops into our minds, but Portugal rightfully markets itself as Europe’s West Coast and the images of sun, sand and beach inspired by that idea are spot on. Lisbon is primarily located on the Tagus River just as it empties into the Atlantic Ocean, which means the city is surrounded by so much water, it boasts long stretches of waterfront property and miles of sandy beaches just beyond the city limits.

view over lisbon and 25 de abril bridge

View over Lisbon and the 25 de Abril Bridge

Similarly, the San Francisco peninsula sits between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean on the U.S. West Coast. The city’s Ocean Beach is comparable to Lisbon’s Costa Caparica, which are both known for big waves and key surf spots. San Francisco, too, has miles of waterfront and beaches – although not quite the same relaxed beach culture as Lisbon.

san francisco bay view

San Francisco Bay View

Built upon seven hills

Lisbon and San Francisco are both built atop exactly seven steep hills and because both of us prefer to tour as pedestrians putting miles of pavement behind us on foot, we can attest to the quad-burning workout in both cities. Climbing those hills is worth it, however, as the seven peaks of Lisbon and San Francisco both offer incredible views out over the city and and the ocean.

lisbon hill & san francisco hill

Left: Lisbon; Right: San Francisco

Our favorite hill view in San Francisco was from the Telegraph Hill, and in Lisbon, we loved the views from the Colina de São Vicente, the hill on which the Alfama neighborhood is located.

Historic cable cars & street cars

When people think of San Francisco, a vision of the old-time yellow cable cars most certainly come to mind – and it turns out that Lisbon also has cable cars, and they are yellow. To get even more specific, both San Francisco and Lisbon have cable cars and street cars, all of which began to run in the early 19th century.  Cable cars can climb the hills, while street cars run best on flat terrain. In Lisbon, there are five working trams, called eléctricos (schedule here), which were imported from the U.S and originally called ‘americanos‘. While in Lisbon, these bright yellow electricos are still fully-integrated as a major part of the mass transit system, San Francisco now runs only two operating cable car lines (the oldest manually operated cable car system in the world) and one street car line which runs from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Castro.

lisbon san francisco street cars & trams

Top Left, Bottom Right: Lisbon Streetcar & Tram, Bottom Left, Top Right: San Fran Tram & Streetcar

A bright orange suspension bridge

Early on into our Lisbon residence we walked down to the shore and, upon looking to our right, spotted a bridge so out of place, we did a double take. Is that the Golden Gate Bridge in Lisbon? Although it is called the Ponte de 25 Abril, this Lisbon suspension bridge – the longest of its type in Europe – looks almost identical to San Francisco’s iconic symbol. The two bridges are even close in size, as well, with the Golden Gate Bridge spanning 2,737m in length and the Ponte de 25 Abril reaching 2,277m across the Tagus River. The twin city feeling deepens here, as the  Lisbon version was actually designed by the San Francisco architect who designed San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge has held the record for the tallest suspension towers as well as the longest suspension span for decades, and the Ponte de 25 Abril, which held the record for the longest suspension span in Continental Europe for years, still holds the record for the deepest bridge foundations.

golden gate bridge san francisco & lisbons 25 abril bridge

Top left, Bottom Right : Lisbon, Top Right, Bottom Left: San Francisco

A history of severe earthquakes

Both cities have been leveled by severe earthquakes. Lisbon was hit by several severe earthquakes throughout the centuries, but the worst one hit in 1755 and destroyed 85% of the city. Over 150 years later, in 1906, San Francisco was hit with its hardest earthquake almost completely destroying the city and leaving over 400,000 people homeless.

The Climate – minus the summer months

They say that Lisbon and San Francisco share a similar climate and when we arrived in early June, the weather was chilly and cloudy, like a typical San Fran June day. However, as the days and weeks moved on, Lisbon revealed itself to be a hot and sunny Iberian beach spot more similar to southern Spain than San Francisco. The summers are night and day, but  the winters in both cities are said to be similarly moist and chilly.

lisbon and san francisco

Left: Lisbon; Right: San Francisco

World Class Wine

This might seem obvious, but too important to forget. San Francisco is the gateway to the wine region of Napa Valley for an afternoon wine-tasting of the ultimate relaxing boozy weekend, and Portgual is not only known for its sweet Port wine from Porto, but also its delicious Vinho Verde, or ‘green wine’, which is really more like a very crisp, refreshing bottle of white. At $8 in restaurants and even less in stores, Portugal is a wine-lover and bargain-hunter’s dream when it comes to wine.

Coffee Shop Culture

Both Lisbon and San Francisco have a thriving coffee culture scene, but they truly are worlds apart.  Lisbon, like the rest of Portugal, is full of smaller coffee shops called ‘Pastelerias’, where locals dip in for a cheap 55 cent espresso and a sugary, creamy pastry all throughout the day. There are a couple of Starbucks locations downtown, but the Lisbonians head to their local pasteleria for a pick-me-up caffeine jolt, and spend ten or twenty minutes chatting away to the other regulars. San Francisco, and its neighboring Silicon Valley are both home to a well-developed cafe culture that couldn’t be more different to Lisbon. Here, locals frequent Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee and Tea, open their Macbooks and stick in their headphones for a day of location-independent teleworking.

West Coast Street Art

San Francisco, and especially its Mission District, are well known for its unique murals and street art graffiti. During our time in San Fran we spotted a fresh Banksy in fact! The world’s most creative street artists leave their mark here on the West Coast of the U.S., but not any people realize the incredible street art scene happening over on Europe’s West Coast! For street art junkies like ourselves, Lisbon boasts colorful social commentary across many of its buildings and public spaces. Take a stroll through the Bairro Alto, practically a public art museum with incredible graffiti.

street art lisbon & san francisco

Top left, Bottom Right: Lisbon, Top Right, Bottom Left: San Francisco

Have you been to both cities? Did you also feel such a resemblance? Did we miss any other similarities between the two cities? We’d love for you to let us know about anything we missed in the comments below!

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40 Responses to “Have we been here before? San Francisco vs Lisbon”

  1. Ekua

    28. Sep, 2011

    I spent a very brief time in Lisbon when I used to sing with a band. I hadn’t done any research about the city before we arrived so I was pretty shocked to see this hilly city with cable cars and a bridge that looked just like ours! I didn’t spend enough time there to get a feel for it though… what was the atmosphere of the city like compared to San Francisco?
    Ekua recently posted..Photo Essay: The Waters of Chiapas at the Sumidero Canyon

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    • jess

      29. Sep, 2011

      That’s a really tough question Ekua, because on the one hand there are so many similarities, obviously. On the other hand, though, Lisbon is like this old-world classically European place which, in some parts, reminded us of Central America and in others was so modern and luxurious, with high-tech art, modern creative bars and restaurants…then you have San Fran – the vibe is so different, and yet you have the Mission district which couldn’t be more similar to Latin America in many ways, you have the booming tech industry around the corner, modern art, creative bars and restaurants…yet in a completely different way. San Fran is American, and more specifically Californian, whereas Lisbon is European, more specifically classic old world (meets new world).

      Reply to this comment
  2. For 91 Days Travel Blog

    29. Sep, 2011

    This is incredible – awesome observation. We have been to San Francisco but knowing how similar they are Lisbon is now def. on the list.
    For 91 Days Travel Blog recently posted..Fried Food – Yet Another Sicilian Specialty

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    • jess

      29. Sep, 2011

      Yay! Yes you have to go! In fact, the uncanny similarities of Lisbon and San Fran are scarily similar to the uncanny similarities of you two and us two! Ha! Also – let us know if you ever decide to do 91 days in Lisbon. I honestly don’t think i could resist coming with you!

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  3. Shivya

    29. Sep, 2011

    Wow. I haven’t been to either city, but your pictures say enough on the similarities. Amazing how two different parts of the world can have such a connection, like siblings parted at birth!
    Shivya recently posted..Travel tales from Bunaken: Friends, until proven otherwise.

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    • jess

      29. Sep, 2011

      Lisbon and San Fran separated at birth. Love it, Shivya! We’ll definitely be visiting both cities again in our lives, that’s for sure!

      Reply to this comment
  4. Jaime

    29. Sep, 2011

    Damn I have always wanted to go to San Fran & well I will be close to Lisbon very soon so I think I may stop by. The similarities are crazy!
    Jaime recently posted..How to get from Algeciras, Spain to Chefchaouen, Morocco.

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    • jess

      29. Sep, 2011

      Totally crazy similarities! You need to go to San Fran, number 1, and number 2 – if you do get the chance to stop by Lisbon you should, but also, after India, flights to Lisbon from Mumbai can be as low as $540 next spring and then you get the sunniest weather! #justsayin

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  5. Interesting comparison! I haven’t been to Lisbon (would love to go!) but San Fran was fantastic. I may have missed it in your article but which is your favorite?
    Cherina | Quiet Wanderings recently posted..Notes From North Pole, Alaska: Northern Lights

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    • jess

      29. Sep, 2011

      Hey Cherina, glad you liked the article – and you should definitely go to Lisbon. It’s actually really hard to choose between the two cities. I fell in love with Lisbon a bit more than Dani did, but we both genuinely adore the city, but the same goes for San Fran. The cities are SO similar, but also have very different vibes to them. Lame answer, but I choose both….

      Reply to this comment
  6. Wow! I live just a few towns North of San Francisco, but now I can’t wait to go to Lisbon to check out the similarities.
    Annette | Bucket List Journey recently posted..Vacationing with a Stranger…Strange?

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    • jess

      01. Oct, 2011

      Definitely get this one on your bucket list. We don’t mean to build it up too much, it’s just that Lisbon took us so much by surprise cheap and beautiful!

      Reply to this comment
  7. Andrea

    30. Sep, 2011

    I felt this way too when we visited Lisbon earlier this year – especially that bridge! We even met a guy from San Fran who moved to Lisbon because it was cheaper, yet similar.
    Andrea recently posted..Remembering the Victims of Fascism and Communism in Budapest

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    • jess

      01. Oct, 2011

      That’s a great story – it really is that similar, isn’t it! I wonder how many people actually have moved to Lisbon because it’s cheaper and sunnier? :-)

      Reply to this comment
  8. Suzy

    02. Oct, 2011

    I thought exactly the same thing when I first visited Lisbon. There are so many similarities between the two cities that it is almost creepy. I went to college out near San Francisco and while the two cities are so much alike, I prefer Lisbon’s snaking mosaic designs and tiled buildings. That is one aspect San Francisco lacks.
    Suzy recently posted..24 Hours of Ambling Around Asheville

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    • Dani

      02. Oct, 2011

      You are right – no tiled houses in San Fran!! We loved all the mosaics around Lisbon, but I think San Fran had the better murals :-)

      Reply to this comment
  9. Leslie

    02. Oct, 2011

    Interesting– had no idea San Fran and Lisbon had so much in common. Down to the 7 hills and street trolleys!
    Leslie recently posted..Shopping guide: The best Montreal vintage stores offer fashion, fur and art

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    • Dani

      02. Oct, 2011

      Exactly! :-) We can’t wait to go back to these two cities – two of our all time favorites!!

      Reply to this comment
  10. Alouise

    02. Oct, 2011

    My cousin just got from a trip to Portugal with her fiance. I was looking at her photos on Facebook and she had a photo of the Ponte de 25 Abril. For a second I almost thought they made a stopover in San Francisco.
    Alouise recently posted..The Restricted Travel Blues

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  11. Sabrina

    04. Oct, 2011

    That’s so crazy. I haven’t been to either city, but I’m pretty sure I’d mess up if you asked me to sort your pictures into piles of their origin cities :)
    Sabrina recently posted..Only in Texas: Kolaches

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  12. Jade Johnston

    04. Nov, 2011

    Amazing! I wouldn’t have guessed that they would have been so similar!
    Jade Johnston recently posted..The Best Of Colombia

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    • Dani

      06. Nov, 2011

      Thanks Jade! We had no idea that SF & Lisbon would be so similar – we were so surprised when we got there and discovered all these similarities.

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  13. Geraldine Sims

    07. Dec, 2011

    I live just a few towns North of San Francisco, but now I can’t wait to go to Lisbon to check out the similarities. You need to go to San Fran, number 1, and number 2 – if you do get the chance to stop by Lisbon you should, but also, after India, flights to Lisbon from Mumbai can be as low as $540 next spring and then you get the sunniest weather!
    Geraldine Sims recently posted..Cancer Tattoos Tumblr

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  14. tiger shiok

    25. Dec, 2011

    i was in lisbon last month, was just touched by the terrain in the city center and straightly, my impression was, was i in san fran?
    the question : was there any historical tie between these two cities?

    Reply to this comment
    • jess

      27. Dec, 2011

      Great minds think alike :-) We are not entirely sure whether there is a strong historical link to the two cities – but we’re going to investigate and let you know if we find an answer. The similarities are just so strong between the two!

      Reply to this comment
  15. patricia

    25. Apr, 2012

    I was the first born American child (of my Portuguese immigrant parents) born & raised in Massachusetts but currently living in San Francisoco bay area. I just returned from my goddaughters HighSchool Travel Clubs trip to Portugal and Spain. I was blown away by my first view of the Ponte de 25 Bridge as we rode the train into Lisbon…I felt like I was in the twilight zone, never knowing this bridge existed…then to see the cable cars, the hills and to hear the history of earthquakes……NOW I understand why I immediatley fell in love with the bay area when I “temporarily” relocated out here and now “permanently” still here 5 years later…it’s in my DNA! I think life has no coincidences and it thrills me to have this insight to validate it!. Viva Lisboa!

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  16. Marta

    21. Jul, 2012

    It is quite funny to realize that most Americans don’t know about these similarities. However, being born and raised in Lisbon, it is easier for me (and most “alfacinhas” – a nickname for people of lisbon, meaning “little lettuces”) to access that kind of information, mostly because of american movies.
    I’ve wanted to visit San Francisco for quite some time now, but this desire is growing, mostly because of your article.
    I was very happy to find you liked Lisbon, and I hope you’ll like it even more when you return!
    You (and everybody who wishes to visit it) are certainly most welcome!

    Reply to this comment
  17. francisco

    01. Dec, 2012

    San Francisco is one of the cities that i want to visit in my trip to America !(along with Las Vegas, Miami and NY)
    I am from Lisbon (born and raised)and there are lots of coincidences between Lisbon and San Francisco.
    (the bridges, cable cars,the 7 hills, the earthquakes…)
    However the weather is not so simillar between both cities.
    Due to the Gulf Stream and the Azores Anticyclone we have a very hot summer here (and also thanks to the Urban Heat Island Effect…). Normally temperatures raises between June and Septemer between 30 celsius and sometimes near 40 celsius…
    Sometimes we have temperatures reaching 30 celsius in late march and mid October…
    But thank God we have a wind came from the Atlantic North called “Nortada” in summer that somehow “help” us to fight the heat.
    It´s also very rare raining in Lisbon during Summer (maybe 2 or 3 rainy days in 3 summer months…)
    I have the idea that San Francisco is also very foggy (also in summer). Lisbon is not as foggy as San Francisco.
    Maybe in Winter both cities are simillar. In Lisbon winters are mild (maximum temperatures between 12 celsius and 20 celsius) but sometimes with rainy and windy and sometimes severe storms from the Atlantic.

    Both cities are marvellous and amazing :)

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  18. the karin

    13. Feb, 2013

    Based on all the visual cues, these two cities are definitely similar. I’ve been to both and spend enough time in both to see it all. What I would say, though, is that they only LOOK the same. On the inside, the two have different personalities.

    I’ve been to many places and I usually gauge a city emotionally. What does it remind me of, what do whatever things I’m doing make me feel like. And what I felt and did in SF was in no way the same as what I did in Lisbon.

    So, same looks, but different personalities. And that’s what makes them both great :) Actually, I just posted a Lisbon review here: http://thekarin.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/35mm-in-lisbon/

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    • Dani

      15. Feb, 2013

      You are so right, the personalities are indeed very different!! There’s no way that these two cities feel the same. Loved your post on Lisbon, it brings back so many great memories of our time there!! Still one of our favorite cities in the world :)

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  19. Vasco

    22. Apr, 2013

    I ‘m from Lisbon and I’ve been living in the US for 6 months, just visited San Francisco and when I looked out of the bus window for a brief second I couldn’t tell if I was in Portugal or the US. It’s impressive, the views and the culture itself are extremely similar! The main difference would be that the Pier in SF are betetr than what there is close to the river in Portugal and also that the 7 hills are more easily distinguishable in Lisbon and a difference is more noticable between them. Also SF is more modern not only because of the 150 year gap between the earthquakes but also because some historical buildings like Lisbon’s castle still stand. The resemblance is impressive!!

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  20. cesar dias

    25. Apr, 2013

    I am Portuguese, and I’ve been many times in Lisbon. My uncle lived in California and he did say that San Francisco is like Lisbon but much much bigger

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  21. Viola

    14. May, 2013

    You missed one difference! Employment opportunities… Lisbon has none at the moment contrary to SF. A similarity that is worth taking note of is that both cities are bursting with an entrepreneurial spirit that I haven’t seen in other cities :)

    Reply to this comment
  22. Teresa

    13. Aug, 2013

    Hi! I really like your post! I am from Lisbon, born and raised there. I moved to San Francisco when I was 24, about 6 years ago! Even about the wether you were right: winters very similar, but summers are night and day!! We are about to go on vacation to Lisbon for 2 weeks, and it’s the first time we go during summer since we left! We’re very excited..and this was why I found your post..and I posted it on my fb page, hope that’s okay!

    Thanks,

    Teresa

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    • Dani

      29. Aug, 2013

      You are right about the summers, I guess :) If San Francisco had warmer summers, it would be the perfect city! Thanks for sharing our post on your FB, Teresa!! :)

      Reply to this comment
  23. Lucy

    11. May, 2014

    I was in San Fran last July and this July I will be in Lisbon! For me it will be San Fran all over again just better weather, the “pasteis de nata” and I’ll be with my other half so it will be much more romantic.

    San Franc was amazing, I did a whole tour on the west side: Cali, Nevada, Utah and so on and it was just breath taking! San Fran was great, just cold and pretty grey! (Compared to 40’C in Vegas!)

    I’m sure Lisbon is going to be just as amazing and I’m really excited to be visiting Lisbon “San Francisco again.” Except that Lisbon will have it’s own charm and differences just as similarities to San Francisco.

    But knowing me and from my past experience, I loved the USA when I went years ago to Florida… and I loved it even more when I went to California. Americans are just such warm hearted, kind people. Especially on the street, or in public transport. everyone is just so kind and chatty. You definitely don’t see that here in Europe! Everyone seems so arrogant and it’s all about themselves. That’s what I probably miss the most about USA…. and it’s amazing picturesque landscapes!

    Anyways I’ll stop blab-erring on and hope you enjoyed reading my little opinion/experience. I’m looking forward to Lisbon!!!

    Oh and one more thing: I still can’t believe that this is a coincidence, I’ve been searching the net for hours trying to find something to link the two cities. There must be something!! I’ll be searching more, or maybe I’ll ask an old Portuguese man, he might know a little story or two :)
    Lucy recently posted..#atouchofcolor001

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  24. Logan

    23. May, 2014

    Huh, interesting, i never knew. I have been living in SF for the last 20 years, still here. I am at that point again where i am wanting to move to europe for a year, barcelona, berlin or london, but you don’t give up your studio in SF because you always come back. I am visiting london in august and may need to visit a second country for a few days, thanks…now lisbon is on my list too!

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  25. Thomas

    05. Jun, 2014

    I’ve lived in both cities and the similarities are indeed striking, and I love them both! In fact, they are both in my Top 3 cities of where I am likely to “settle” for some time. Actually I will be staying in San Francisco for about 3 months again this fall and probably Lisbon again for some time a little later :) The tech industry is also improving in Lisbon, finally.
    Thomas recently posted..Watch the talks from Habit Summit for free

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