Europe Travel: How to Plan a Portugal Road Trip from Lisbon to Porto
The views from Portugal’s coastal road may surprise you. Photo/Getty Images for the trip
Portugal’s roads are considered some of the best in the world, making it a wonderful destination for a driving holiday.
There’s no need to have a car while in Lisbon or Porto, as public transport is excellent and the hop-on hop-off bus is easy for sightseeing. But a leisurely road trip between these two ancient cities (about 5.5 hours by road) is the perfect way to discover the townships and sights along the Atlantic coast. Start in Lisbon and head north.
After spending time seeing the highlights of Lisbon (see below), take the metro back to the airport to pick up your rental car – there’s plenty to choose from and no need to navigate out of town town. Book in advance – the earlier the cheaper.
Getting out of the narrow exit lane of the rental parking lot requires caution and attention, especially with left-hand drive that’s likely manual – two things that may be unfamiliar. Don’t let that put you off. Take photos of all aspects of the car before jumping in, and again at the end of the trip before handing over the keys, as an indisputable record of the condition of the car.
Driving on Portuguese roads is safe and systematic. Most auto-estrada highways are multi-lane toll roads that get you from A to B quickly and easily – well worth paying for, although there are also free routes. Rent a transponder from the rental company and drive straight on the “Via Verde” lanes; tolls are automatically debited from your credit card. Waze GPS navigation app is worth downloading.
Here are the must-see highlights to add to your road trip itinerary.
With a long and rich history, prominent architecture and remarkable museums, Lisbon is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Portuguese mosaic pavements originated here and examples of decorative ceramic tiles are everywhere. Getting around the city is easy (metro, trams, trains, ferries). Buy a Lisboa Card to travel for free and access various tourist options.
Lisbon is a hilly city, built in a succession of terraces overlooking the coast. Resolutely modern while retaining a strong air of yesteryear, breathtaking panoramas are offered to you. For a small fee, lifts and funiculars transport those with tired legs up or down. Boats and seafood are plentiful, and the Vasco da Gama bridge spanning the Tagus is the longest in the European Union.
Visit the impressive Belém Tower, the Monastery of Jeronimos and the old quarter of Alfama featuring Roman and Moorish architecture amidst narrow streets.
Commerce Square sits proudly in the Baixa, the heart of the city. Rossio Square is bustling, with cafes, fountains and a wave-patterned sidewalk that is both striking and disorienting.
Bacalhoa Buddha Eden
One hour north of Lisbon, this oriental garden – the largest in Europe – was created in response to the destruction of the Banyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. It’s easy to spend a morning in peace and quiet strolling through the 35 hectares of gardens featuring Buddhas, pagodas, terracotta statues and sculptures. Open every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Drive 20 minutes north from the Buddha Eden Garden to Obidos, a charming medieval town with an imposing castle. Park by the aqueduct (pay and display) and take a short stroll to the walled old town which reveals narrow lanes draped in cascading color, faded-fronted shops and restaurants, and beautiful wood-panelled churches and exquisite tiles. Choose a cafe on a shady cobbled street and watch the world go by over cold beers and simple, tasty food. The enchanting 13th-century castle operates as a luxury hotel, so stay a night if your budget and time allow.
Head west to the Silver Coast, where a three-night stay is ideal at this surprisingly large maritime hub. Locals love to entertain and restaurants cook up fresh seafood in the outer lanes. Eat at Os Americano (refined cuisine and exceptional service); enjoy casual drinks at Tres As Bar (friendly and atmospheric with a vintage flavor); taste the pastries of the various bakeries (the embarrassment of the choice). Try to stay upwind of the big sardine factory!
Peniche has a history of bobbin lace. There is a small museum dedicated to this intricate craft and locals proudly demonstrate in the square. The fortress was once a political prison, renowned for two daring and successful escapes; an impressive setting that combines a slice of history with fabulous panoramic views.
Early morning sea fog often fills the waterfront, but once the sun is out, head to one of the excellent beaches for surfing, swimming, paddleboarding, and more. Beware, the Atlantic Ocean can be cold even in the height of summer.
Take a memorable day boat trip to Berlenga Island, a marine reserve of natural beauty and rich history. Walking trails, caves, a lighthouse, turquoise water and a spectacular fort that offers inimitable accommodation and a cafe. Even in perfect weather, be prepared for roller coaster sea swells – second nature for keen boaters and well worth the effort even if you’re a little nervous on the water, especially when there are dolphins.
Nazare – Cradle of Giant Surfing
An hour north is Nazare, the home of the giant surf. The old square is located at the top of the cliff; visit the charming 14th-century Church of the Sanctuary of Our Lady, then meander to the lighthouse on the promontory for fantastic views.
To the south is Praia de Nazare beach with its colorful beach shelters, terracotta roofs, sun worshipers and sunbathers. To the north is the golden stretch of Praia do Norte beach where huge waves of the Atlantic crash, giving experienced and intrepid surfers the waves of their dreams (October to March). Generated by an underwater canyon, the surf is legendary.
The old fort on the headland houses a beautifully curated surfing museum showcasing surfboards that have survived the big waves and featuring the stories of the daring surfers who have ridden them. Quirky gull sculptures that stand guard on the walls of the fort add a nice creative element.
Take the funicular down to the seaside for lunch and maybe stay a night or two.
In this bustling university town, described as “the Venice of Portugal”, merchant boats gently whisk tourists through a network of Venetian-style canals and bridges to the salt marsh lagoon. Once known as “white gold”, salt was mined in Roman times and still is today, although tourists have become the new white gold. Enjoy a G&T at a bar near the market followed by an unpretentious dinner at a local restaurant. Stay in a hotel with a view of the canal.
The neighboring town of Costa Nova is worth a visit. Known for its bold striped chalets and seafood restaurants, settle in for a languorous lunch. Walk from the quiet harbor to the rugged Atlantic beach where the waves crash and, far beyond the horizon, lies America. Locals roasting peppers in front of their house is a common sight.
Porto – A city like no other
Another hour drive north and you will arrive in Porto, a city like no other. Dating back to 300 BC, this fascinating city offers plenty to see and do. Six bridges span the Douro River and the fully integrated transport network ensures that traffic, trains, people and boats move easily from one side to the other. The inhabitants are happy and extremely proud of their city – “the most beautiful in all of Europe”, they say. It’s easy to agree.
The Art Nouveau interior of the iconic Majestic Cafe evokes the splendor of the Belle Époque. The Livraria Lello bookshop attracts tourists with its twisted wooden staircases, stained-glass ceiling and beautiful architectural elements, which are said to have inspired JK Rowling when she imagined Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter series. The shop has a touch of magic, but be prepared for crowds and an entrance fee.
The many port houses are located in Gaia, on the south side of the river. The terrain is steep and your drink will be well deserved. The white port is exceptionally good!
Continue north to spend time in Matosinhos, which is an unusual mix of traditional old town, modern architecture, and Atlantic resort town with an atmospheric industrial vibe. The beach has silky caramel sand, gentle waves, an esplanade, cafes, apartment buildings and ruins of ancient castles.
An eye-catching sculpture, inspired by fishing nets, looks stunning from any angle. The tiled buildings of the old town seem on the verge of collapse and it is an eerie sight to see the modern metro train going through history.
For lunch, head to Rua Herois de Franca, a street lined with authentic seafood restaurants, where smoke and steam billow from the grills while fresh catches are salted, sizzled, washed down, turned and served. Most of this is done outside on the street and whatever you order – octopus, prawns, sardines or turbot – it’s bound to be incredibly good.
The most direct route from Auckland to Lisbon or Porto is with Emirates via Dubai or Qatar Airways via Doha. Talk to your travel agent about car rental options.
For more things to see and do in Portugal, go to visitportugal.com