Like many other aspects of travel in the country, road trips in Portugal tend to be little-known and under-rated even though it’s easy to find routes that wind along beautiful, deserted coastline and beaches, through tiny whitewashed villages, and routes up to hills and mountains with stunning vistas over the nearby countryside.
Best of all, distances are short, and good food is rarely further away than the nearest little family-run restaurant. Sound appealing? Rent a car, and take in one of these great Portugal road trips.
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The World’s Best Driving Road
If you’re going to plan a road trip, how about doing it on the best driving road in the world? According to car rental company Avis, that’s a 17-mile stretch of the N222 in the UNESCO-listed Douro Valley east of Porto.
As well as apparently having a near-perfect ratio of tight corners to straight stretches, the road from Peso de Régua to Pinhão follows the contours of the picturesque Douro river as it overlooks the stunning vineyards below. It might be one of the best places in the world to drive, but you’ll likely spend as much time pulled over admiring the views as you do powering through another of the road’s nearly 100 bends.
Once you get to Pinhão, be sure to check out the azulejo tiles at Pinhão’s beautiful old train station and pick up a few bottles of the port wine that the region is famous for. If you can’t get enough of the great driving, extend your route a little further with the winding four-mile drive up to a panoramic viewpoint in the tiny village of Casal de Loivos.
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Around the Western Algarve
While the coastal Algarve is best-known for package holidaymakers and crowded beaches in summer, there’s plenty more to the region for those with a rental car. As with most other road trips in Portugal, distances are short, but with narrow, winding roads and plenty of reasons to stop along the way, you’ll often find time slipping away from you.
Start your route at Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape Saint Vincent), at the desolate southwestern tip of mainland Europe. There’s little there except cliffs, a lighthouse, and the endless wind, although if you need sustenance before starting your drive, the appropriately-named "Last Sausage before America" cafe is worth a look. From there, take the N268 to Sagres, and spend an hour exploring the remains of Fortaleza de Sagres, a large 15th-century fortress overlooking the ocean.
The N125 will lead you to the whitewashed church on the hill in the small town of Vila de Bispo, complete with Portugal’s famous blue azulejo tiles. There are also... several short hiking trails nearby if you feel the need to stretch your legs.
Back on the coast, take a walk along the pretty beach at Salema and grab a bite to eat from one of the local seafood restaurants, before returning to the N125 to take you through Lagos. Follow the signs for the N124 and N266 to Monchique, a small mountain town known for the quality of its furniture and other handicrafts and the delicious spicy sausages. Tip: park the car and explore the town on foot, as the narrow, winding streets are a challenge to drive.
The end of the route is at Fóia, the highest point on the Algarve. It’s possible to hike there and back from Monchique, but unless you really want the exercise, take the N266-3 to the viewpoint instead. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see all the way back to the Atlantic Ocean where you started your journey.
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Lisbon to Tomar
Looking for a good day trip from the capital, or a leisurely journey up to Porto? Head north out of Lisbon on the A8 to Obidos, a gorgeous walled medieval town. Wander along the ramparts, and be sure to try a shot of the classic ginjinha liqueur served in a chocolate shell. If you happen to be visiting in July or early August, take in the town’s annual medieval market, complete with wandering minstrels, jousting knights, and plenty more.
Half an hour up the road lies Alcobaça, with its UNESCO World Heritage-listed monastery. Founded in 1153, it was the first Gothic building in Portugal, and it's absolutely worth spending half an hour among the towering marble columns and royal tombs.
From there it’s time to head to the coast, and the famous fishing and surfing town of Nazaré. The winter surf is some of the largest on the planet, attracting world-class big-wave surfers. If you’re there in summer, check out the sheltered beach instead and grab lunch at one of the seafood restaurants... overlooking the ocean.
Finish the drive in Tomar, home to the spectacular Convento de Cristo. Built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century, it’s a UNESCO site and jaw-dropping both inside and out. The biggest highlight is the round church in the center, with floor to ceiling sculptures and paintings that’ll leave you wishing you had more space on your memory card.
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Around Sao Miguel in the Azores
There’s no need to restrict your driving to the Portuguese mainland. Out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the Azorean island of Sao Miguel has plenty to offer those with their own wheels. From steaming hot pools to stunning volcanic lakes, picturesque coastal villages, and secluded beaches, there’s enough to fill multiple days despite the island’s compact size.
Several companies rent both small cars and 125cc scooters. If you’re comfortable on a motorcycle, it’s a fun, inexpensive way to get around, but opt for a car if you’re unsure or are traveling with a larger group. Just remember that many rental cars in Europe have a manual transmission, so book an automatic in advance if you can’t drive stick.
Allow yourself plenty of time to get around, since even though there’s little traffic and short distances to cover, there’s a lot to see, and you won’t be driving fast on the island’s winding mountain roads.
Many people base themselves in Ponta Delgada, the capital and largest city, and... visit a different part of the island each day. A sensible itinerary is to visit the western, central, and eastern sections separately, with at least one spare day built in to allow for the notoriously changeable weather!
"Can't-miss" Sao Miguel road trip highlights include looking out over the multi-colored Lagoa das Sete Cidades (the Lagoon of the Seven Cities), soaking in the hot springs at Ponta da Ferraria, and eating the cozida nas caldeira (a meaty stew slow-cooked in the nearby volcano!) at Tony’s Restaurant in Furnas.
As with many road trips, though, the best parts will be the unexpected ones: stopping for a drink in a tiny village, hiking one of the dozens of trails across the island, or relaxing on a quiet sandy beach and watching the waves roll in.