Throw together an Iberian soundtrack and you're all set to hit the open road in Portugal. Backcountry lanes will take you to places you simply couldn’t reach without a car, including wild cliff-backed beaches, remote mountain villages and lone promontories perfect for watching the sunset over the sea.
Portugal is an ideal destination for a scenic road trip. The roads are generally in good shape, and the nation’s relatively small size allows you to see a diverse array of attractions, even if you have only a few days to spare.
Where you go will depend on your interests – you can plan a trip focussing on beach-hopping, seeing Unesco World Heritage sites or drinking in the great views of the vineyard-covered Douro Valley. Here are seven of the best road trips you can take in Portugal.
Coastline of the Alentejo and the Algarve
Best road trip for beach lovers
Vila Nova de Milfontes–Vila Real de Santo António; 320km (199 miles)
Portugal’s southern coastline offers an almost Mediterranean idyll, with scents of pine, rosemary, wine and grilling fish drifting over some absolutely stunning beaches. However, since this is the Atlantic rather than that sheltered sea, you can also count on seriously surfable waves, important maritime history and some great wildlife-watching opportunities. This drive takes in some of the finest beaches in the region as well as intriguing towns with tightly-knit, North African-inspired street plans.
Highlights include the sandy paradise of Praia da Amoreira in Aljezur, the hulking and forbidding fortress of Fortaleza de Sagres and the vibrant, nightlife-loving town of Lagos. You can also ditch the car for the day and take a ferry ride to Ilha Deserta, a long, undeveloped island with a picture-perfect beachfront. The drive ends at the Portuguese border town of Vila Real de Santo António. If you’re not ready to quit, however, take a look around on the Spanish side. Seville is only 150km (93 miles) up the road.
The Central Coast
Best road trip for surfers and seafood fans
Praia do Guincho–Aveiro; 330km (205 miles)
If endless crashing surf sounds like your idea of heaven, you’ve come to the right country. Get ready to ride the big ones on Portugal’s wild, wave-lashed west coast. This Atlantic strip is an alluring mix of first-rate (and inexpensive) surf camps, gleaming white towns and villages with authentic seafood restaurants, golden beaches fringed by dunes and pines, and memorable sunsets.
Surfers and kitesurfers of all levels will be in their element in the sparkling Atlantic surf, while the small towns along the coast make great stops for seafood feasts and après-beach cocktails. Highlights include the popular beach town and surfer hotspot of Peniche, the gorgeous swoop of sandy beach in Foz do Arelho and the big-wave town of Nazaré.
You can also take a boat ride through the sparkling canals of Aveiro – Portugal’s answer to Venice – and look for wildlife in the dune-backed coastal wilderness of the Reserva Natural das Dunas de São Jacinto.
The Douro Valley
Best road trip for wine lovers
Porto–Miranda do Douro; 358km (222 miles)
The Douro is a little drop of heaven. This Unesco World Heritage-listed region offers some of Portugal’s most evocative landscapes, with mile after swoon-worthy mile of vineyards spooling along the contours of its namesake river and marching up its terraced hillsides. Along seemingly every road, fabulous food, sumptuous wines, medieval stone villages, palatial quintas (countryside villas) and postcard views beckon.
Stop by the picturesque terraced vineyards at Quinta do Crasto or sample the world’s best port wine amidst the rolling hills of Pinhão. Just 4.5km (2.8 miles) from Pinhão is the stunning Casal de Loivos and its fine miradouro (viewpoint). From here, the uplifting view presents the Douro in postcard format, taking in a full sweep of stone-walled terraced vineyards, stitched into the hillsides and fringing the sweeping contours of the valley, with the river scything through it all.
North of Lisbon
Best road trip for Unesco World Heritage sites
Lisbon–Tomar; 230km (143 miles)
This drive takes you from Lisbon, Portugal’s romantic capital, through landscapes softened by cork oaks and pines. Before leaving the capital, stop at Belém, where you can see two architectural icons (and Unesco listed sites) in one stop – the 16th-century Jéronimos Monastery and the equally majestic Tower of Belém, offering memorable views over the Tejo River. Be sure to pick up what could be the world’s best custard tart before leaving Belém. Next up is Sintra, a village with palaces, whimsical mansions and enchanting woodlands, plus some enticing places to stay for the night.
From here, you’ll head to a trio of stunning architectural monuments – all Unesco World Heritage sites. At Alcobaça, you can wander the corridors of one of the finest monasteries in Iberia. About 30 minutes northeast, you can gape at the Gothic grandeur of Santa Maria da Vitória, yet another monastic masterpiece. The most mysterious site of all is in Tomar, home to the magnificent Convento de Cristo, built by the Knights Templar.
Best road trip for history lovers
Guimarães–Peneda; 217 km (135 miles)
Portugal’s northwestern corner was made for road-tripping, with splendid medieval cities, spirit-lifting pilgrimage sites and dune-flanked Atlantic beaches. Begin this road trip in Guimarães, where Afonso I, Portugal’s first king, was born in 1110. This Unesco World Heritage site hides one of the most exquisitely preserved medieval centers in the country. Just north of Guimarães, you can explore the ruins of Citânia de Briteiros, a Celtic settlement founded more than 2500 years ago.
The Minho’s biggest town is Braga, an important center of Portuguese spirituality – home to the country’s oldest cathedral as well as Roman ruins and flower-trimmed plazas dotted with outdoor cafes. The Costa Verde’s biggest stunner, Viana do Castelo offers a double shot for visitors in the form of medieval architecture and gorgeous beaches, while Ponte de Lima features the finest medieval bridge in all of Portugal – the 31-arched Ponte Romana. End the journey by taking walks amid the rocky hills and ancient stone villages of the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, Portugal’s most impressive wilderness reserve.
Best road trip for soulful, off-the-beaten-path adventures
Évora–Monsaraz; 360km (224 miles)
If you’re looking for the heart and soul of Portugal, head to the Alentejo, a region of clifftop castle towns, traditional villages and rolling plains covered in vineyards and olive groves. Start off in the beautifully preserved town of Évora. Here you can feel the centuries wind back while visiting medieval monuments, a chilling bone chapel and Portugal’s finest Roman temple. A short drive beyond the city gates, you can search for ancient symbols on the Cromeleque dos Almendres, Portugal’s most important megalithic site.
You’ll leave the crowds behind as you head to Estremoz and Vila Viçosa, two photogenic towns where everything seems to be made of marble (visit the quarry nearby to see why). Further north, you can explore Marvão, a clifftop village with sweeping views over the sun-baked countryside. You can go on some surprising adventures nearby, including taking a spin along an abandoned railway line with Rail Bike Marvão. Looping south, you’ll ascend to Monsaraz, yet another mesmerizing hilltop village with a medieval castle and more astonishing views.
The Portuguese Highlands
Best road trip for mountain adventures
Coimbra–Viseu 390km (242 miles)
This wide-ranging trip takes in many of Portugal's highlights, from a buzzing historic university town to stern borderland fortresses, intermingled with picturesque villages and the natural majesty of the Serra da Estrela mountains. The journey starts in Coimbra, a hilly city that’s home to one of Europe’s oldest universities. Grand views await in Monsanto, a stunning village that towers high above the surrounding plains; a stroll through its steep streets, lined with stone houses that seem to merge with the boulder-strewn landscape, is reason enough to make the drive.
Dramatic views come with every turn on the uphill drive into the Serra da Estrela, where you’ll find Portugal’s highest summit – 1993m (6539ft) Torre. Enjoying a spectacular natural setting cradled at the foot of the beautiful Vale do Zêzere, the lofty village of Manteigas is a great base for mountain walks. Here, craggy ridges and forest-draped slopes dominate the horizon in all directions.
End the road trip in the well-preserved center of Viseu. This historic city is a delight to explore with its cobbled streets, meandering alleys and leafy public gardens, and its central square graced with flowers and fountains.