Portugal is a fairyland of golden beaches and clifftop palaces—of wine and egg tarts and lively, soulful fado. Though there’s plenty to see and do if you stay put in one destination, renting a car gives you the freedom and flexibility to soak up all the highlights in a single trip.
As you prepare for your road trip of a lifetime, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. Firstly, Portugal is one of the few countries that requires all foreigners to have an international driver’s license. You will need to obtain this before you arrive, and your rental car company will expect to see the permit. You won’t need to adjust to driving on the other side of the road, but it’s always a good idea to prepare yourself for what’s ahead by reading up on rules and tips to navigating the country by car.
Now that the basics are in order, it’s time to plan out your route. Here are some of the highlights of a quintessential Portuguese road trip:
Your Road Trip Guide to Portugal
Most international flights go through Lisbon, so your best bet is to start your journey in this big west coast city. (You’re far more likely to get a rental car here, where the population exceeds 500,000, than in some rural outpost.) While in Lisbon, swing by the Sao Jorge Castle for your first Portuguese history lesson. These Moorish ruins date back to the 11th century and are only a few minutes’ drive from the city center.
Spend your first two days here in Lisbon so you can get your bearings before heading out. History buffs will love the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos—a massive UNESCO-listed monastery. Situated in the popular Belém district, the monastery houses the burial site of Vasco da Gama and offers a glimpse of Portugal’s Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Ample Portuguese food and wine tours are available throughout the city. Add this to your time in Lisbon, as these tours will give you a true taste of both culinary specialties and local culture.
After spending a few days in Lisbon, head to Porto. The drive is around 200 miles and will take you just over three hours. The second-largest city in the country, Porto is a bustling hub of events and activities. We recommend two to three nights here so you can take in as much of the city as possible. A top pick here is a wine tasting—after all, Porto is the birthplace of sweet, silky Port.
Now that you’ve explored Portugal’s two largest cities, it’s time to head south and away from the tourist attractions. Cruise along for about 75 miles, or an hour and a half, until you reach the city of Coimbra. Plan to spend at least two days here.
The city has roots in Roman times and has since become a major cultural center. As it is a university town, you may notice that Coimbra’s vibrant nightlife is geared toward college students. Several buildings are UNESCO sites, and the architectural highlights include São Sebastião Aqueduct and Garden Arches, and the Palace of Sub-Ripas.
Now that you’ve explored the major cities of Portugal, it’s time to veer off the well-worn course to explore the spa town of Évora. The drive here will be around 185 miles and take you close to three hours. This medieval walled city is renowned for its Gothic and baroque architecture, as well as its first-century Roman temple. Also noteworthy is its pink granite cathedral and the 16th-century Agua de Prata Aqueduct.
From Évora, it’ll take you less than an hour to drive the 50 miles to Beja—the hottest district capital in the country. Here, away from the crowds, you can explore at your own pace. Take in the view from the top of the Castelo de Beja or marvel at Iron Age artifacts through the glass floors of the Núcleo Museológico da Rua do Sembrano. You’re never short on history in Beja—chosen by Julius Caesar himself to be the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania in 48 BCE.
Finish off your road trip by heading beachside on the Algarve coast—about 95 miles (or a hour and 45 minutes) south of Beja. Your first stop? The Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park. Stretch your legs with a walk along the sand, or treat yourself to the vistas from Cape St. Vincent’s lighthouse and jagged cliffs.
From here you could spend the evening in the historic (albeit crowded) village of Salema, or toodle around the much quieter Tavira. This small town has fewer than 30,000 residents, nearly 40 churches, and a history dating back more than 3,000 years. Tavira is approximately 25 miles west of the Faro District, a more popular locale in the Algarve.
After your time in Algarve, climb in your car and head back north to Lisbon for your return flight to the US. You’ll drive 175 miles or about 3 hours, so you might want to spend one last night in Lisbon before your flight home.
Want some more insight or suggestions? Check out our Insider’s Guide to Portugal!
If you need ample time to explore Lisbon, consider our five-night Lisbon Enchantment package.