Since moving here in 2016 I have had many opportunities to travel around Portugal. Plane, train, bus, boat, bicycle. I’ve tried most transport options but my favourite way to experience this wonderful country I choose to call home is by car. I’ve taken many road trips around Portugal and they account for some of my best memories of the past 7 years. There’s nothing quite like exploring with your own four wheels. It’s about time I shared my most memorable road trips around Portugal.
Why road trip in Portugal?
My answer is why not? Portugal is blessed with a diverse range of scenery that changes every few hours on the road. From remote golden beaches to undiscovered pottery villages there is SO MUCH TO SEE and the majority can only be seen with a car.
With exception to the biggest cities driving is the best way to travel around Portugal. The biggest benefit to driving around Portugal is the freedom it gives you to move at your own pace. Not having to deal with set transport times or visiting at the same time of day as everyone else. You can literally move how and when you wish.
If you rely solely on public transport in Portugal I promise you will miss out on almost all of the best bits of the country. The trip that made me realise this more than any other was my 10-day road trip around Alentejo. Alentejo is a perfect example of a region best visited by car.
Where do you need a car in Portugal?
Let’s start with where you DON’T need a car in Portugal which is both Lisbon and Porto. Both cities have a good transport system and hiring, driving and parking can be a real pain and unnecessary.
You also don’t need a car in Algarve but ONLY if you are staying in one town such as Lagos or Tavira for the entire trip.
Public transport isn’t great in Portugal. The train connecting Faro/ Lagos/ Lisbon/ Coimbra/ Porto is good so if you are dead set on a city break then you don’t need a car but otherwise getting a hire car is the way forward.
If you want to explore Algarve deeply, visit iconic towns like Nazaré, discover the real Portugal in Alentejo, see the vines and views in Douro Valley or scale Serra Estrella, then I strongly recommend hiring a car.
Here is a quick run down of places you do and don’t need a car in Portugal…
🇵🇹LISBON / PORTO – you don’t need one, most places can be easily reached by public transport. Parking is not particularly easy or fun in either city. It’s worth noting SINTRA is notoriously bad for driving and parking in busy seasons.
🇵🇹DOURO VALLEY – In my opinion the best way to see Douro Valley is by car. You get a completely different view and perspective of the vines from the roads compared to the river. Obviously drink driving is a no go so if you are visiting a few wineries then a taxi would be best between them. Alternatively you can hire a guide.
🇵🇹ALGARVE – If you are just staying in one place such as Lagos and don’t intend on exploring outside of that area then you can get away without a car, but otherwise I definitely recommend getting one. Algarve is a perfect example of why Portugal is best explored by car. There are so many hidden gems to find, not to mention remote beaches, yes, even in summer. The west coast between Sagres and Aljezur is great for driving!
🇵🇹ALENTEJO – Yes yes yes. Alentejo is the ultimate road trip destination. Public transport is poor with the exception of the train between Lisbon and Évora. Definitely recommend a car. There are so many amazing villages to explore in Alentejo, you can get a different perspective of the country. The roads in baxio Alentejo in particular are very quiet and peaceful. In the north i recommend driving around the São Mamede Natural Park.
🇵🇹MADEIRA – Yesssss. It’s almost impossible to see the island properly without a car. Madeira is an adventure island. As soon as you leave Funchal you’ll discover amazing roads, remote beaches, mountains, waterfalls, authentic restaurants, I could keep going…. Without a car you will need to rely on tour guides or private transfers. There is a road that runs through the middle of the island between Ponta do Sol and São Vincente which is breathtaking!
🇵🇹THE AZORES – Yes. Tourist infrastructure is slightly better here but just like Madeira you will miss out on the best bits of the island if you don’t have a car. Part of the joy of it is the freedom it gives you to explore away from the main sites and see what you find. Without a car you need to rely on tour guides or private transfers. If you going to São Miguel I recommend creating a circular route around the entire island (I did this in 6 days and saw so much).
Of course this is not to say you can’t enjoy these places if you don’t have a car, you absolutely can! You may just need to plan things more throughly. This is not intended to make people feel bad for choosing not to hire a car, it’s to empower those that were thinking of hiring to go ahead and do it.
A few tips for car hire:
- If you are on the mainland it is likely you will use toll roads for at least some of your trip so choose to add the Via Verde transponder for a few euros a day.
- We drive on the right hand side in Portugal.
- Outside of Lisbon and porto (and south coast Algarve in summer) the main roads are generally quiet.
- You can find both manual and automatic options easily.
- You will need a credit card to be able to book with most of not all companies.
Best Car Hire in Portugal
I’ve been living in Portugal since 2016 and I have had many terrible car rental stories. However a few years ago I reluctantly tried a broker service and I’ve never looked back since. When I found Zest the first thing that struck me was how user friendly the website is. It is easy to use and information is presented in a way you can actually read and understand. Next good thing is the fact that prices are shown upfront, there is no hidden surprised when you get to checkout. Not forgetting their amazing insurance policy. I’ve used them 6 or 7 or probably more times now (I’ve lost count) and had an excellent experience every time. I’ve used Zest to travel all over Portugal and will continue to use them for both short and long trips. Zest have been with me on most of my memorable road trips in Portugal. I highly recommend.
Which roads to drive in Portugal
All of the best driving experiences I’ve had in Portugal have been when I switched off ‘motorways’ on GoogleMaps and took the road less traveled. I definitely suggest trying this for at least some of your trip. The backroads in Portugal are a delight (and some times a little bit bumpy). Take the small roads and you’ll find hidden coves, views and vineyards a plenty.
Toll roads in Portugal
Of course sometimes there will be times you can’t avoid the motorways but fear not. Apart from the outskirts of Lisbon or Porto motorway traffic is usually light and easy. Some occasions you may need to use one of Portugals toll roads especially if you are covering long distances. If this is the case I recommend adding the toll responder to your car hire agreement. It’s usually just a few euros a day and saves you having to work out how to pay it after. On the rare occasion you’re on a toll road that doesn’t fall under the transponder you can pay by card or cash. Some of the toll booths are fussy with certain debit cards. I recommend always carrying some cash.
What are the best road trips routes in Portugal?
Now to the good bit. I’ve been exploring Portugal deeply since 2016 and although I still have a lot to see I’ve been lucky enough to experience some truly amazing driving. Here are some of my most memorable drives in Portugal.
DOURO VALLEY ROAD TRIP
So many visitors choose train or boat to visit Douro Valley but to really witness the beauty of this wine region you need a car. Winding roads reveal breathtaking scenery at every corner. Drive slow and take it all in. If you’re here for multiple wine tastings (and I certainly hope you are) then leave your hire car at your hotel and grab a taxi. You’ll still get to experience those beautiful winding roads but safely! A few villages I absolutely recommend adding to your Douro road trip itinerary are Valença do Douro and Provesende.
Talking about wine…. BEST WINE EXPERIENCES IN DOURO VALLEY
WEST COAST ALGARVE ROAD TRIP
Yes, yes I know Algarve is no secret. A full blown holiday resort in some parts but I’ve said it more than once and I’ll continue to say it a thousand times; Algarve is home to some of the most authentic places in Portugal. And I would know because I lived there for 4 years. While it’s true that the south coast beaches can get pretty jammed in summer the west coast is a different ball game altogether. Head west and seek out the wild, windswept beaches of Cordoba and Bordeira or head off on your own discovery mission to find some hidden spots you won’t forget in a hurry. Please note…access to some of the more remote because on the west coast of Algarve are dirt tracks and you’ll need a 4×4 for these.
ALENTEJO ROAD TRIPS
Ah, my beloved Alentejo. My favourite region in Portugal is also home to the very best driving. Alentejo is a huge region so I’ve split it into two. If you’re up for a mega road trip do both!
BAIXO ALENTEJO ROAD TRIP
The warmth of the Algarve and the authenticity of Portugal’s most undiscovered region this lower portion of Alentejo is home to agriculture, pottery and some unique wine tasting experiences. This is a place to take your time driving around. Try not to rush through this region because although there are many beautiful vistas to set eyes on this place is more about how it makes you feel. The only way to know is to go. Make sure you tick off the following… Mértola, Alvito, Moura, Monsaraz and Vidigueira.
ALTO ALENTEJO ROAD TRIP
Still slow and warm but dramatic too. Expect towering medieval castles, vast vineyards and breathtaking scenery. My must-visits include Castelo de Vide, Marvão and Arraiolos. I particularly loved driving through Serra da Sao Mamede Natural Park.
SILVER COAST HIGHLIGHTS ROAD TRIP
I must admit I’m still relatively under-traveled when it comes to this section of Portugal but what I’ve seen so far continues to keep me coming back to discover more. The definition of which towns are included on the Silver Coast seem to vary depending on where you get your information but in my eyes it’s stretches from just below Peniche all the way up to Aveiro; if you want to be cheeky include Ericeira too. It doesn’t really matter, what matters is that if you’re driving between Lisbon and Porto you should spend at least some of the journey on the Silver Coast. Stop offs should include Nazaré and Baleal. Óbidos and Caldas da Rainha are both close by too.
For a real driving adventure fly yourself to Madeira pronto. This tropical paradise is full of dramatic peaks, tropical plants and some of the best roads I’ve ever driven! I recommend driving right through the middle of the island between Ponto do Sol and São Vicente.
São Miguel, The Azores. Drive the ring road!
São Miguel is the biggest of 9 islands in The Azores and the roads are so fun to drive. There is a road that basically follows the coast the whole way round the island and stop off’s include dramatic cliffs, remote beaches, gushing waterfalls and stunning national parks. Definitely add São Miguel to your road trip bucket list!
EN2 Road trip
Did you know the longest road in Europe is in Portugal? The E2 goes straight through the middle of the country and it’s one of the best ways to see and experience real Portugal. There are several fantastic itineraries and more info here.
HEADING TO SPAIN? >> ANDALUSIA, SPAIN | A ROAD TRIP TRAVEL GUIDE
More amazing road trips in Portugal…
I’m sure I’ve missed some so tell me, what are the most unforgettable road trips you’ve taken in Portugal?
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