Portugal may seem like a small country, but it is brimming beautiful roads that wind along rocky coasts, hidden beaches, through small whitewashed villages, and up hills and mountains. Depending on which part of Portugal you visit, you have a lot of choices when it comes to planning a road trip. The best part is that the distances between cities and landmarks are short and good local food is always nearby. And if it's your first time driving in Portugal, make sure you read up on the rules of the road before booking that rental car.
From Peso de Régua to Pinhão
In 2015, the car rental company Avis named this 17-mile stretch of Portugal's N222 highway the world's best driving road. Located east of Porto in the Duoro Valley, the road from Peso de Régua to Pinhão has the near-perfect ratio of tight corners to straight stretches. Following the contours of the Douro River, it overlooks the stunning vineyards and river valley below. As much fun as it is to drive around this road's nearly 100 bends, you'll probably spend just as much time pulling over to the side to take in the views.
Once you get to Pinhão, you can look forward to seeing the blue azulejo tiles at the town's old train station and picking up a few bottles of the port wine that the region is famous for. If you're not ready to turn back just yet, take the route further another four miles to drive up to the panoramic viewpoint in the tiny village of Casal de Loivos.
From Cabo de São Vicente to Foía
Portugal's southernmost region, the coastal Algarve is best-known for flocks of tourists enjoying a lazy holiday by the pool or beach. But if you have a craving for adventure, there's a lot more to see in the western part of the Algarve. Overall this trip will require about two hours of driving from start to finish and you'll only cover about 50 miles (80 kilometers). It's a short distance, but there's a lot to see along the way, so you should plan to be out for the whole day.
You can start your route at the very tip of the Algarve, Cabo de São Vicente (Cape Saint Vincent), which is also the most southwestern point of mainland Europe. With a lighthouse, some dramatic cliffs, and Europe's westernmost sausage stand that is appropriately-named "Last Sausage Before America," it's a nice place to start the day. Leaving the cape, take the N268 to Sagres, where you should spend at least an hour exploring the remains of Fortaleza de Sagres, a large 15th-century fortress that overlooks the ocean.
After the fortress, follow the N125 to the whitewashed church on the hill in the small town of Vila do Bispo, where you'll be able to find more azulejo tiles and several short hiking trails nearby. Get back on the coast to visit the beach of Salema, where you can grab a bite to eat at a local seafood restaurant. Then, get back on the N125 towards Lagos and follow the signs for N124 and N266 to Monchique, a small mountain town, in the Serra de Monchique mountain range, known for their quality handicrafts and spicy sausages. Here, you'll want to park the car and explore on foot, since the town's narrow roads can be difficult to drive through.
Finish your day in Foía, the highest point of the Algarve. If you're feeling ambitious, you can hike there and back from Monchique, but the N266-3 will also get you there. From the viewpoint, you'll be able to see all the way to the Atlantic Ocean on a clear day.
From Lisbon to Tomar
If you're looking for a good day trip from Lisbon, or some sights to see on your way to Porto, consider driving through some of the medieval towns between and taking a detour to see one of the world's largest waves. From Lisbon, you can take the A8 north to Obidos, a walled medieval town with colorful streets. Wander along the ramparts, and be sure to try a shot of ginjinha liqueur, which is traditionally served in a chocolate shell. If you happen to be visiting in July or early August, you'll get to experience the annual medieval market, complete with wandering minstrels and jousting knights. The whole trip will take about three hours to cover 125 miles (200 kilometers) from Lisbon to Obidos.
From Obidos, 30 minutes up the road lies Alcobaça, home to a UNESCO World Heritage-listed monastery. Founded in 1153, it was the first Gothic building in Portugal, and here, you can spend at least a half-hour wandering among the towering marble columns and royal tombs before heading up the coast to see the famous fishing and surfing town of Nazaré. In the winter, the record-breaking waves attract surfers from around the world. They aren't quite as big in the summer, but you can still visit the sheltered beach and grab lunch at a seafood shack nearby.
Your last stop will be the city of Tomar, home to the spectacular Convento de Cristo. Built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century, this convent another UNESCO site. The highlight is the round church in the center, which is covered floor to ceiling in sculptures and paintings.
Around the Island of São Miguel
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. Allow yourself plenty of time to get around because even though there’s little traffic and it's a short distance to cover, there’s a lot to see. Besides, you won’t want to drive too fast on the island’s winding mountain roads.
If you base yourself in Ponta Delgada, the largest city on the island, you can visit the western, central, and eastern sections of São Miguel separately or in one day. Driving around the whole island can take anywhere between four and eight hours, depending on how many side trips and detours you make. Just make sure you don't miss the main highlights, which includes the lookout over the multicolored Lagoa das Sete Cidades (Lake of Seven Cities), soaking in the hot springs at Ponta da Ferraria, and eating the Cozido na Caldeira (a meaty stew slow-cooked over a hot spring) at Tony’s Restaurant in Furnas. You should also make time to stop for a drink in the small villages throughout the island or hike some of the dozens of trails.