Portugal is a small country with a lot to offer. From the historic towns of the north, to the glowing Algarve, via iconic cities, granite hard mountains and rolling vineyards, these historic and coastal road trips in Portugal will bring the country alive.
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Portugal is easily reached from the UK via the northern Spain ferry ports, which will have you in the country within four hours. Otherwise fly into Lisbon or Porto and grab a rental car, or even a campervan, for your road trip in Portugal.
Portugal Road Trip Resources
Information about driving in Portugal
Portuguese roads around cities and major towns are generally well maintained although this is not always the case in rural areas. Drivers in Portugal have a bad reputation, not always fairly so, although the proper use of roundabouts and indicators seems to elude most! Our Portugal driving and travel tips will help you stay safe on your road trip.
- You must carry photographic proof of ID and a reflective jacket (for the driver and all passengers) travelling Portugal by road.
- It is recommended that you carry a warning triangle.
- It is forbidden to use a dash cam or radar detector in Portugal.
- You will see Portuguese drivers using mobile phones at the wheel frequently but this this is actually illegal, despite appearances to the contrary.
- If you are driving in a large town or city, then ‘helpers’ will wave you to spaces or car-parks in the hopes of getting a tip. Clearly you do not have to tip them unless you feel it’s deserved. When you are hot and stressed and trying to park, having someone waving at you and ‘helping’ is not always that helpful!
- Portugal has one low emission zone (LEZ) in Lisbon, which was introduced in the inner city centre in 2011. In 2012, a large area was added to the LEZ, which now comprises two sub-zones and currently covers 33% of the whole city. Click here for more information.
- Toll roads in Portugal are complicated! There are a number of different companies requiring different systems, with options to pay electronically or pre-pay. It is often not possible to pay as you go. This site provides a good explanation of them all. Having spent quite a bit of time touring in Portugal, we think the Toll Card system is the best option. This is a pre-paid card you can order online in advance and it works with all electronic toll roads in Portugal (which the EasyToll system doesn’t), meaning you’re covered on those roads and can pay by cash or card at the barrier for non-electronic toll roads. Where possible, avoid the tolls and take the scenic route when driving around Portugal, you’ll have a much better experience!
An Historic Portuguese Road Trip
Rich in cultural and religious history, this small country has helped shape the world for the last 900 years. From the Age of Discoveries to the dubious honour of being the last dictatorship in western Europe, this ten day Portugal itinerary covers many of the major historic cities and sites in the country.
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Porto is everything you want a city to be – engaging, charming, intimate and packed with interesting stuff to do and hidden cobbled streets just perfect for exploring. One day in Porto will give you just enough time to see the best bits, and enjoy a glass of Port, the wine for which Porto is famous.
Ponte de Lima
No visit to Portugal is complete without a little wine tasting! Ponte de Lima and the surrounding area is also known for its wonderful Vinho Verde, a crisp and sharp ‘green wine’ which is a young wine from the DOC wine region of the Minho province, to the north of the country. Try Casa de Terra opposite the river, for a great Portuguese wine list and delicious local snacks to compliment your wine.
Often referred to as the ‘cradle of Portuguese nationality’, Guimaraes is an exceptionally well-preserved and authentic example of a medieval town, with its rich architecture showcasing Portuguese development from the 15th century.
The historic town, founded in the 4th century before becoming the 12th century capital of Portugal, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don’t miss the two anchors around which Guimaraes first grew, Castelo de Guimaraes and the monastic complex in the south. All around the historic town are fine medieval houses, cobbled squares and small streets, and there’s also a cable car to Penha Hill, with stunning views of the city and surrounding countryside.
Cross the breathtaking Douro Valley (any maybe stop for a vineyard visit to find out about how Port is made) before heading to Lamego, home to the pilgrimage site of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. The ornate church and shrine are fronted by an immense double flight of nearly 700 steps, lined with blue and white tiles, which were recently judged worthy of UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Cavao dos Conchos
The epicentre of Portuguese religious devotion, Fatima is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the Roman Catholic world. Founded on six supposed apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917, when three local children saw a flash of lightening followed by “a lady brighter than the sun” lounging in a nearby tree, Fatima has grown from a small village to a religious behemoth, home to a vast basilica that can hold over one million pilgrims.
To the Portuguese people, many of whom will make a pilgrimage here in their lifetimes, Fatima hold extraordinary significance. For everyone else, it can feel a little tacky and incredibly over-crowded as tour coaches and tourists on day trips flock here from Lisbon. For the true atmosphere of this place, visit during one of the annual pilgrimages that take place every year on May and October 12th and 13th, but book your accommodation early!
On your way to Obidos, stop at the huge Cistercian Monastery at Alcobaca, which oozes opulence and power. Once the home to 999 monks, the monastery has been empty since the dissolution in 1834, but remains one of the most impressive monuments in Portugal, along with the Belem Tower in Lisbon and and Batalha Monastery in Leiria.
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Known as “the wedding city”, Obidos was the traditional bridal gift from the kings of Portugal to their queens. A cuter than cute walled town, much of Obidos had to be rebuilt after the catastrophic earthquake in 1755. The town has a medieval feel, with narrow cobbled streets, crooked buildings and high ramparts, which can be climbed for amazing views.
To avoid the inevitable tourist crowds, get off the beaten path to the side streets and stairs that connect this town, for whitewashed houses, colourful bougainvillea climbing the walls and splashes of bright blue and yellow painted buildings. Even better, sit out the day tour coaches and spend the night, for a true insight into the “real” Obidos.
The Obidos DOC wine region is also an area of exceptional wine quality, and you’ll find many quintas in the lush green countryside of the area.
End your Portugal trip in Lisbon, the country’s vibrant and lively capital city. Central Lisbon is full of 18th century delights, elegant and open to the sea. Much of the Baixa, the lower town, was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1755, which caused fires started by Mass candles, to rage through the city before the whole was engulfed by a massive tidal wave.
Today, Lisbon is a joy to visit, with a city center full of open plazas, wide streets and fascinating architecture. The cobbled streets are steep, connected by stairs, lifts, trams, funiculars (some of which are public transport!), making this an exciting city to navigate, a bit like an urban funfair!
Portugal Road Trip Essentials
A Portugal Coast Road Trip
Portugal is a country dominated by the sea. From the great Portuguese discoveries of the late 15th and 16th centuries, such as the opening up of the sea route to India, the ocean has played a pivotal part in the development of the country. From Vigo in the north, via Porto to the Algarve, that heritage is reflected in fabulous sea food cuisine, pretty fishing villages that hug the long coastline, and the spectacular Atlantic and Algarve beaches, beloved of kids and their families, surfers and wind sports enthusiasts.
Thanks Google Maps!
Start your road trip itinerary in Porto, where port wine was traditionally held in vast bodegas before being shipped across oceans to reach the furthest corners of the world.
On the mouth of the mighty Douro river, Porto has some excellent beaches and a lots of interest to see and do. If you want the best view of the city and coast to the west, start your Porto day with a tour-led ascent of the landmark Arrabida Bridge, where you can take once-in-a-lifetime photos from the top of the iconic structure.
Don’t miss the antique tram which will take you to Foz do Douro, where you can enjoy the crashing waves as the river meets the sea.
Hit the Atlantic road which follows the Silver Coast between Porto and Lisbon, and head for Aveiro, your first stop. On the edge of a huge coastal lagoon, Aveiro is a handsome and energetic town. Sometimes called the Venice of Portugal, it is home to a small network of picturesque canals, which you can explore by colourful moliceiros, Portugal’s answer to the gondola.
Grab a free BUGA bike and take in the Art Nouveau buildings on the main street, then get off the beaten track for hidden architectural treasures. The speciality seafood here is eel, served casseroled or marinated. You’ll also see big barrels of ovos moles (soft eggs), a type of sweet made of eggs and sugar, that are emblematic of the city.
Take the short drive east to the coast proper and Praia Costa Nova, famous for its quirky and colourful striped houses, squashed onto a tiny strip of land between the beach and the lagoon.
Home to some of the largest waves in the world, thanks to the underwater Nazare Canyon, just off shore. Come in autumn to see the spectacle of world-famous surfers riding the huge rollers as they crash past the lighthouse onto Praia do Norte.
Nazare is a town of two halves – the old historic Nazare is perched on the cliff between Praia da Nazare and Praia do Norte. At the tip of the cliff is the Fortress Sao Miguel Arcanjo, a perfect spot for wave watching.
The new town of Nazare backs the beach at sea level and is more modern, with a promenade filled with ice-cream parlous, sea food restaurants and cool surf shops. Although this is the ‘new’ town, you’ll still see traditional fishing vessels and fishermen working, and in summer, late on Saturday afternoons, the fascinating “Arte Xavega” (Drag Nets) spectacle takes place. Nets laden with fish arrive from the sea and the women scream out their wares for sale.
Foz do Arelho
Continue south, stopping at Sao Martinho do Porto to admire the perfect semi-circular bay and beautiful beach, with it’s tiny entrance to the sea.
The big feature at Foz do Arelho is the enormous Lagoa de Obidos, a huge salt-water lagoon stretching into the interior. Sheltered by a sand spit and lined with massive beaches, the lagoon is perfect for wind-surfing, kayaking and stand up paddle, and you can take lessons here in the summer months.
There are a handful of good hotels and some nice eateries on the northern shore of the lagoon, which makes it an ideal place to spend a few days. From here, you can easily explore the walled town of Obidos and the local vineyards, and the incredible rock formations and stacks of Peniche, the peninsula which was once an island.
Once a sleepy fishing village on the Estoril coast, Cascais is now one of Portugal’s premier resort towns. The trio of golden bays, a charming old town and shiny modern marina attract holidaymakers from all over Europe.
The old town is pedestrianised and crossed with winding lanes lined with independent boutiques, lush gardens and al fresco fish restaurants. There’s also great surfing at Praia do Guincho, 9km northwest, reached via a cycle path which hugs the shoreline and passes the Boca do Inferno, or Hells Mouth, a deep chasm under the low cliffs.
From Cascais, make sure to visit Cabo de Roca, the most westerly point of mainland Europe. The Cape itself is not much to write home about, but head north on foot for cliff paths that lead to fantastic rock formations and secret coves, perfect for sun-worshippers.
Vila Nova de Milfontes
Cross the Tagus south of Lisbon on the stunning Ponte Vasco da Gama for amazing views of the city and estuary. The Lisbon to Algarve drive is one of our favourites in Portugal, with gorgeous stops and incredible beaches all the way south. After you leave Lisbon, stop at Porto Covo, a beautiful archetypal traditional Portuguese fishing village – the name actually means port of the fishing net!
Then head for the charming town of Vila Nova de Milfontes, the most popular seaside resort on the Costa Vicentina. With wonderful beaches on each shore of the Mira river where it meets the sea, and access to the Rota Vicentina coastal path, it’s no surprise that Vila Nova gets busy in the summer.
The whole of this coast, from Porto Covo to Burgau on the Algarve, forms the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park. Over 100km long, the park is home to beautiful natural habitats and helps to protect the cultural heritage of this spectacular coastline.
Zambujeira do Mar
Popular with Portuguese holidaymakers, Zambujeira do Mar is a sleepy coastal village towards the southern end of the Alentejo coast. A huddle of whitewashed buildings with terracotta roofs and a very pretty chapel overlook the fantastic beach from the cliff top.
This is a large sandy beach with a Blue Flag award and a seasonal lifeguard service. Zambujeira is also a popular surf spot and attracts surfers traveling Portugal, who stop off en-route to Vila Nova de Milfontes up the coast.
There are a handful of family owned fish restaurants in the village, including our favourite, i Cervejaria, where the catch is fresh that day and on your plate within a few hours.
Pass through the small, but unremarkable, town of Aljezur and continue south. Set your sat nav for Praia da Bordeira and follow the road up from the beach to the headland. From here, you can access probably the most spectacular part of the Rota Vicentina, the long Fisherman’s Path which snakes up the whole coast. With wooden board-walks and look out points to protect the eroding coastline, you can watch the waves of the mighty Atlantic meet the land with brutal force.
Walk south as far as Prainha beach for a good 6km hike, which will take around two hours (there and back). You’ll find excellent chiringuitos (beach restaurants) on both beaches to slake your thirst on a hot day, or enjoy a long lazy shellfish lunch.
The road south takes you to Sagres, with the whole of the incredible Algarve to road trip to the east. Gentler than the western coast, and known for it’s lively resorts, beautiful beaches, golf courses and year round climate, the Algarve has so many things to do with kids, it’s a perfect family destination.
Albufeira is a perfect place to start a shorter one week Portugal trip. Stand out spots in the region are are the resort town of Lagos, with its atmospheric narrow streets, Loule for its entertaining Saturday morning market, and the wonderful old town of Faro. Don’t miss the fabulous Benagil cave and beach and the gorgeous Praia da Marinha for its incredible turquoise waters.