Let me just start by saying that road tripping is not my usual mode of travel. First of all, I really dislike long distance driving, highway driving and cliff-hugging, hairpin turn driving. Thankfully, my husband loves to drive and I am a Magellan-like navigator (ahem), so our arrangement works out pretty well.
Secondly, I’m not the lightest packer in the world, and a successful and enjoyable road trip requires one to be light on their toes and able to toss a bag in and out of the trunk with style and ease. The style and ease part not withstanding, I did manage to master the “roll your clothes and pack in sorted, plastic zipper bags” method of packing and I’ll say it really worked. I highly recommend it and will definitely aspire to pack that way from now on.
That said, I am convinced that the best way to see this amazing country is by car. We’ve wanted to see Portugal for a long time. We decided on a road trip because Portugal is a very compact and driveable country, and we love to keep a flexible itinerary. Indeed, we never drove more than 3 hours between destinations – a planning strategy that kept us from getting too tired and allowed lots of good lunching opportunities and unhurried poking around along the route.
There are so many different regions to see, and they all offer their own unique landscape, food and culture. We found surprises around every turn. Where possible, we stayed in Pousadas – historic buildings; castles, palaces and monasteries that were purchased by the state in the 1940’s and converted into hotels, now run by the Pestana Group. These historic and luxurious properties are stunning and are usually located in or near Unesco world heritage sites. And they’re more affordable than you’d think.
We settled on a 3 week loop around the country, starting in Lisbon, moving on to Sintra, with a quick stop in the giant wave capital of Nazaré. From there we drove on to beautiful Porto, then along the breathtaking, twisting Douro River into wine country. We then headed south to the Bussaco Forest and Coimbra, home to the oldest university in Europe, and then to the historic town of Évora and the Almendres Cromlech, megalithic stone circles of the interior. We drove through miles of cork forests, olive groves and agricultural land of the Alentejo, and into the windswept Algarve to a stunning resort in Albufeira. Our final leg brought us to the western most tip of the Iberian peninsula where Portugese explorers launched ships, then up the rugged cliff-hewn coast of western Portugal with it’s 400K of dizzying hiking trails, and finally, back to Lisbon, logging in at approximately 1,150 miles. And not a scratch on the rental, which is almost miraculous considering some of the tight squeezes we found ourselves in.
Portugal feels like an entire continent of culture and landscape packed into one small country. You’ll find sophisticated, chef-driven food in Lisbon, sardines and port in Porto, fruity olive oil and fine wine in the Douro, suckling pig and lamb in the Alentejo, and bacalhau and custard tarts everywhere. Friendly people, rustic as well as elegant food, ancient, Moorish influenced architecture, and breathtaking natural scenery won us over. I now consider myself Portugal’s unofficial ambassador. Click on the images below to see more of each region. And if you’re planning a trip (and you should..) check out the Pousadas of Portugal online.
Go in April – good weather and few crowds.
Get the toll transponder when renting your car to avoid multiple stops
Lisbon more photosBeautiful, sun-drenched Lisbon. Don’t miss: Exploring the old Alfama district – Views from Sao Jorge Castle – Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery – Terreiro do Paço – Shopping for handmade wool blankets – Time Out Market – Baxia neighborhood – Eat Pasteis de Nata
Sintra more photosBeautiful and a little eerie, there is much to see in Sintra. Don’t Miss: Pena Palace – Castle of the Moors – Palace of Sintra – Cork covered Convent of the Capuchos – Quinta da Regaleira, the Initiation Well – Monserrate Palace and especially the gardens – Palácio de Seteais, a pousada
Porto more photos
Charming Porto, the Venice of Portugal, is perched along the Douro River. Across the river is the city of Gaia, home to the great Port houses. Don’t Miss: Eating and drinking along the Cais da Ribeira – Exploring the alleys and hidden squares of the old town -Tile covered train station – Fish market – Late night Fado in a bar – Port house tasting and tours in Gaia – Dried fish sellers along Nazaré beach
Douro River Wine Country more photosThe breathtaking drive along the Douro River is not to be missed! Stay a night or two in wine country so you can taste some of the country’s best wines. Don’t Miss: Spectacular, twisting drive along the river on N222 – Quinta Nova Winery House – Village of Pinhao – Douro wine tasting – Hiking along terraced, hillside vineyards
Buçaco Forest more photos
Buçaco Forest is home to Buçaco Palace, an over the top palace pousada, extensive walled gardens and arboretum, a beautifully preserved Carmelite convent, and a network of ancient chapel ruins, half hidden in the forest over-growth. Don’t Miss: Hiking trails within the walled forest – network of Carmelite chapels and mounds – Buçaco Palace – Carmelite Monastery – Portas de Coimbra
Coimbra more photos
Elegant Coimbra, sited along the Mondego River is home to the oldest university in Europe. You’ll still see students walking the grounds in their long black robes. Don’t Miss: Coimbra University grounds and museums – Joanine Library – Monastery of Santa Cruz
Evora and the Alentejo more photos
The whitewashed, hill-top city of Évora is in the heart of the Alentejo. A maze of cobblestone streets wind their way up to an ancient Roman temple and a 12th century cathedral. Don’t Miss: Roman Temple of Diana – The Church of S. Francisco and the chapel of bones – Pousada Convento Évora. In the region around Évora you can find a network of neolithic standing stone circles. Go early in the morning so you can be the only ones there- very atmospheric. Don’t Miss: Almendres Cromlech
Algarve more photos
We were told that Portugal’s beachy southern coast was worth skipping; packed with high rise beach development and over-crowded, over-priced attractions. But there are pockets of remote, windswept beach still to be found, and it’s definitely worth a stop to simply climb among the rock formations at low tide. Don’t Miss: The beaches and rock formations around Albufeira – dining at Villa Joya
Cabo Da Roca more photos
Desolate and dizzying, the windswept point of Cabo da Roca is the westernmost point of continental Europe and was thought to be the edge of the earth, “where the land ends and the sea begins”. This was the last bit of land Prince Henry the Navigator and other explorers would have seen as they set sail. Don’t Miss: Lighthouse – cliff walks
Rota Vicentina more photos
The rugged western coast, south of Lisbon where cliffs plunge into the sea below and giant white storks nest in the rocks in the spring, is perhaps the most dramatic scenery in all of Portugal. 400K of hiking and biking trails traverse the cliffs and beaches, linking sleepy fishing villages and laid back surf towns. Don’t Miss: Hiking and biking along the cliff-side trails – Zambujeira do Mar