Portugal is a relatively small country, about the size of Maine, and this makes road tripping a great way of exploring its history, culture, landscapes and cuisines. Making Lisbon your starting point, by driving only a few hours you can get anywhere from beautiful castles in the countryside, to pristine beaches tucked under imposing cliffs, or breathtaking views from the northern peaks.
And although Portuguese roads may look confusing on the map, they are fairly simple to navigate. When it comes to highways, or Autoestradas, all you need to know is that the A1 goes North, the A2 goes South, the A8 goes West and the A23 goes to the Beira Interior. You’ll frequently see signs to connecting highways and secondary roads, so you just need to pay attention to the city names that come up. Easy peasy.
The biggest challenge might be understanding the secondary roads, commonly referred to as Estradas Nacionais. These connect small towns and villages, mostly in a rural scenery, which makes the conditions of some roads less than ideal. Expect lots of traffic circles and occasional very narrow or steep roads. Keep in mind that most of the major highways in Portugal only started being developed in the 1960s, and in some places as late as the 1980s. So this the old school way.
This being said, you can plan a road trip in Portugal with varying degrees of comfort and budgets. For a comfortable and faster drive, take the highway but be prepared to pay tolls. For an adventure, take the secondary roads, save money on tolls and enjoy the longer scenic routes. However, sometimes the roads available to you will depend on your choice of vehicle, due to speed limits and minimums.
The most common way to road trip in Portugal is to rent a car and book accommodation along the way. Hotels, guesthouses, lodges, Air Bnb’s, you name it. Outside major cities you can find true hospitality gems, with an authentic feel and a warm staff that will make you feel at home. This is one of the most genuine Portuguese traits.
But there are more affordable alternatives. Renting campervans and RVs used to be almost exclusively a surfer thing, but it is becoming increasingly popular. Today there is a large offer of companies renting vans which have been transformed to have beds and accommodate your basic needs. The RV and motorhome rental segment remains solid, and there are also modern options such as rooftop tents for SUVs.
If you opt for these vehicles, you should park in the designated spaces such as campsites, rest areas, parking lots. There is usually a small fee involved but with a bit more planning and research you can find free options. And although the law is blurry, smaller vehicles – the ones not classified as a motorhome – should be okay to park anywhere off road, the rule of thumb being to be sensible and maintain safety.
As for itineraries, the world – in this case, Portugal – is your oyster. Speak with any Portuguese person and the first route they will recommend is driving down the Vicentine Coast in the Southwestern Alentejo. This is typically a coming of age summer road trip that young groups of friends embark on as soon as they’re allowed to drive. From São Torpes, in the Sines district about 2h South of Lisbon, to Cape St. Vincent in Sagres, Europe’s westernmost point, this route has 68 miles of beaches and nature to explore. From the top of the cliffs, the ocean views will take your breath away. And when hiking down you will reach preserved beaches with little to no crowds.
Also a beach route, you can drive along the West Coast, stopping in top surf hotspots like Eriçeira, Peniche or Nazaré. Located in the Centro region, this coastline is a short drive away of other great destinations like the forest and palace of Mafra, the medieval walled village Óbidos, Leiria - which also has a medieval castle houses Portugal’s largest pine forest, or Coimbra, home to Portugal’s oldest University. And the magic of road trips is that you can also discover other towns that aren’t touristy at all.
Another must-see road trip destination is the Alentejo. When driving around, you can truly make the most of the region’s richness in history – with several remains of Portugal’s Roman and Moorish past – and cuisine, as some of the best tasting Portuguese food can be found here. And the Alentejo is home to some of the finest wines, too. Stop in Redondo to admire the pottery, visit Évora to see some Roman treasures like the temple, or park by the Great Alqueva Lake and sleep under millions of stars. All roads are scenic here and the rolling plains landscape is so relaxing that it never gets old.
Going North is also worthwhile when exploring Portugal. Make Porto your base and visit Northern cities like Braga or Chaves, or drive along the Douro River into Spain. And if you’re looking to be in touch with nature, venture in to the mountains and explore Portugal’s only National Park, Peneda-Gerês. Here you’ll find paradise-like waterfalls, challenging hiking trails and rewarding views. The surrounding towns and villages are good options for a more comfortable night’s sleep. And another mountain destination is Serra da Estrela, in the northern countryside Beira Interior, which is also close to quaint villages like Piódão.
As you can see, the options are endless and when it comes to planning a road trip, Portugal doesn’t seem like a small country at all! Our advice is that you define a general route but leave some room to add stops, get lost, connect with locals and explore. No matter where you go, from North to South, you will come across beautiful natural landscapes, lots of historical sites and good food. Don’t be shy to ask for directions and remember to ask for recommendations too! Technology and mobile maps will be your ally, but it is smart to bring a physical map in case you’re driving through an area with limited cell service or mobile data.
And now that you know all this, pack your bags, grab a map and buckle up for your next Portuguese adventure.