Portugal has long been overshadowed by its Southern European neighbors. Places like Spain, France, and Italy are often the first choice for people looking for sun-drenched vacations. But, if you do not add Portugal to your list of must visit places, then you are really missing something special. From west facing beaches that capture every sunset to fairytale castles, fine food and wine, and a history that will keep you entranced for hours, Portugal really does have it all.
In addition to all the wonderful sights, sounds, smells, and things to do, Portugal also has some of the best driving roads and destinations in Europe. Here you can experience coastal roads that are set in cliffsides, winding country roads that travel through vineyards, and mountain roads that take in peaks and tunnels cut through the rock itself.
To help you decide which of these road trips you should take, or at least which should be on the top of your list, we have compiled a list of the seven best road trips in Portugal.
The Douro Valley is the home of the most popular wine region in Portugal. There is plenty to see on the drive from the vineyards down to the Douro River. The road trip is a great way to spend an entire day and can include enjoying traditional foods at a family-run restaurant and sampling amazing wines in Pinhão. Begin your journey in Porto and enjoy the breath-taking scenery as you wind your way through the changing countryside.
Tras os Montes
Tras-os-Montes is one of the least visited and wildest regions in Portugal. The trip to Tras-os-Montes can be on its own or linked onto the end of your Douro Valley trip. The drive is an opportunity to see the land after the mountains where some of the oldest Portuguese traditions are still practiced. Once you reach your destination, the mountains offer many hiking opportunities for those who want to stretch their legs. There is plenty to photograph along the way as well as at your destination. Don’t forget to spend some time talking with the very friendly locals and trying some local cuisine.
Serra da Estrela
If you are looking for a longer road trip with an overnight stay, or even two, then Serra da Estrela should be on your shortlist. One of the highest mountain ranges on mainland Portugal, Serra da Estrela is the perfect location for an adventure. Its changing landscape is great to see in spring, summer, and fall; however, the area can be precarious in winter as it is one of the few regions that actually experiences snowfall. One route that you should consider taking is from Seia to Guarda; taking time to stop at the major landmarks along the way, including castles, stunning viewpoints, and the bread and cheese museums.
The Atlantic Coast
If you are a keen surfer or just love the beach, then no visit to Portugal is complete without a road trip that takes in the major beaches along the Atlantic coast. Take time at each stop to enjoy the waves, explore the beaches, and of course, experience the fabled sunsets with nothing to block your view of the horizon. Key towns to visit along this route include Aveiro, Ericeira, Figueira da Foz, Lagos, Nazaré, and Peniche.
If you are based close to Lisbon and fancy a drive out to a real fairytale castle, then you need to go to Sintra. The town is more than just a fairytale castle, it boasts some of the most stunning architecture in the country, making it look like a fairytale town. There are palaces, manor estates, and of course, castles. However, the drive through the Sintra mountains is just as breathtakingly beautiful. You can add even more stunning scenery to your trip by taking the coastal road back to Lisbon and stopping at Cascais and Estoril on the way back.
If you are looking for a drive that will quite literally keep you on the edge of your set, then this is it. The drive around Madeira Island will take you on highways that curl around the sides of mountains and through tunnels that are cut into the rock itself. It also includes stunning coastal roads and narrow rural roads that will take all your skills to navigate, especially if you meet another traveler coming the other way. This is another great destination for those who like to hike as there is plenty to explore on foot in this region.
São Miguel is another stunning island drive, and, like Madeira Island, it can be driven around in just one day. However, if you want to really get to know the island, its people, and its amazing sights, you need to spend a couple of days there. The island consists of many changing landscapes from rolling farmland to glorious hills and mountains, and cozy little inlets and beaches. There really is something for everyone. Must see places on the island include Furnas village, Sete Cidades, and the farmland of Nordeste.
Taking a Road Trip in Portugal
Many of the road trips on our list take you well off the beaten path, meaning that it is easy to get lost. While this allows you to discover great new places on your own and to sample local culture and cuisine, it is important that you are safe and able to find your way to your destination and back to your accommodation again.
For this reason, we recommend that you always plot your route carefully before you leave and let someone know where you are going. Leave with both your GPS and a paper map; just in case you lose the GPS signal, or your cell phone runs out of battery. Additionally, take plenty of water and some snacks with you, just in case you get caught between villages. Remember getting lost isn’t the only issue you may have to contend with, even the best vehicles can run out of gas or suffer a breakdown. Being prepared is the best way to avoid your scenic road trip without incident.
Hiring a Car in Portugal
If you want to undertake any of the road trips on our list or create one of your own, you are going to need a vehicle. Now you could, of course, hire a motorbike or a scooter, particularly for the shorter trips. While this is a popular option, it is not necessarily the most practical or the safest. If you really want to enjoy your road trip and reach your destination safely, in comfort and style, then hire a car.
Renting a car in Portugal is a little more expensive than it is in many other Southern European countries. However, if you are organized and book early, you can find some great deals. If you are planning to drive to several different destinations during your vacation, then hiring the vehicle before your arrival in Portugal is probably the most cost-effective option.
To hire a vehicle in Portugal, you must be aged 18 or over and have held your full driving license for at least one year. If you are under 25, you may need to pay a young driver surcharge, so take this into account when budgeting for your car hire. Also, be aware that many of the main roads, particularly motorways, in Portugal are toll roads.
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Driving Safely in Portugal
To drive safely in Portugal, you need to be aware of the key road rules and regulations. The most important thing to remember is that in Portugal as in the US, you drive on the right-hand side of the road and overtake on the left. Using a mobile phone while driving is strictly forbidden; the only exception is if you are using a hands-free kit. Seat belt usage is mandatory for the driver and all their passengers.
Children under the age of 12 are not allowed to travel in the front passenger seat of the vehicle. When it comes to alcohol, the legal limit is 0.5mg/ml, which is low compared to some other European countries, including the UK. This is important to note as some alcohol served in Portugal is much stronger than you might expect. A good rule to abide by is if you need to get back behind the wheel that day, do not drink.
As well as the key rules and regulations, there are some local restrictions and rules that you may need to make yourself aware of if you intend to travel around the country. Being informed is the best way to avoid making a mistake that could cut short your vacation.
Once you are prepared and ready, head out and enjoy everything that Portugal has to offer and maybe find a couple of new routes that you can add to your own list of best road trips in Portugal.
- The Coolest and Most Scenic Road Trips to Take in Portugal – The Culture Trip
- The Best Road Trips to Take in Portugal – Trip Savvy