14 days driving around Portugal, a dream come true!
When we picked our dates for our stay in Portugal we didn’t really plan much about our trip. All we booked was:
- a rental car to get there from Spain to Portugal
- a flight out from Lisbon to our next destination.
We wanted to see as much as possible of this beautiful country. Having the freedom to drive from south to north would give us this opportunity! Did we succeed? We did our best. However 14 days aren’t enough to truly enjoy it 100%. It gives you just a little taste so you can start planning your next trip back.
We decided to go at the beginning of Spring. Of course it is a great summer destination, but we were not looking for a beach vacation but the exploration of a new country. Spring gave us the chance to enjoy warm weather and still low season prices. It worked great for us! Of course in the summer prices do go up but you do get to enjoy the beaches much more!
Rent a car to travel around Portugal?
Considering the distances we traveled during our trip, renting a car was the easiest solution for us.
We entered Portugal by car. We arrived in Europe by boat from Morocco, landed in Algeciras (Spain), crossed the street from the port and went to the car rental office. We opted for Avis, due to its vicinity to the port and the great deal we got for a 2 week rental. What we like about Avis too is that by being a preferred costumer you get your car right away and for each rental you collect points that you will then be able to apply to future rentals. Definitely a win-win opportunity for us full time travelers!
The roads were great. We never had any issue. However there is one thing that you do have to keep in mind if you decide to travel mainly on the highways. You will find electronic tolls. Once we arrived into Portugal we drove through a few before realizing it and had no clue how to pay. The toll charges in Portugal vary with the length of the route. You can easily pay with a credit card by entering the card in a motorway service stations. This allows you to link the card with your registration number, so every time you enter the card into the toll payment booth, it will pay the toll for the given registration. However we opened for the alternative solution since we were not using the highway so frequently. We bought a pre-paid card, they offer different amounts. So you get the cost of tolls deducted from the card when using the toll machines.
This is our “unplanned” route, the extra stops along the way are in the description. The stops are based on where we slept each night. Most of the places we stayed at were booked one or two night before arrival.
Drive time and distance:
- Faro to Lagos: 1 hour – about 90 km
- Lagos to Evora: 2 hours 40 minutes- about 250 km
- Evora to Ponte de Sor: 1 hour 20 minutes – about 96 km
- Ponte de Sor to Tomar: 1 hour – 77 km
- Tomar to Coimbra: 1 hour – about 78 km
- Coimbra to Porto: 1 hour 17 minutes – about 122 km
- Porto to Sintra: 3 hours – about 332 km
- Sintra to Lisbon: 30 minutes – about 30 km
Here is our itinerary that took us around Portugal!
Our travels through Portugal started in the stunning Algarve region, first stop Faro.
What did we see?
We explored the Cidade Velha. You cannot miss taking a walk in the Old Town of Faro. The Arco da Vila is the grand entrance. A 19th-century portico of Moorish origin. As you walk along the cobbled pedestrian streets, you can smell the scent of the orange trees combines with the peacefulness of this area compared to the rest of the city. All the roads lead to Largo da Sé where Faro’s cathedral is.
We visited Faro’s Cathedral. We arrived just in time before closing time. They are very strict with their opening hours! When it is time to close they will not let you in for any reason! It is beautiful inside, but one of our favorite parts was going up to the bell tower and from the terrace we could admire the seascape.
We took a train ride. If you want to see Faro and don’t have much time to walk all around this can be your best option. The Comboio Turística departs from Jardim Manuel Bivar in front of the marina. It travels along the city’s most evocative landmarks. It takes around 45 minutes to complete the route and it goes in the Old Town as well as the modern Faro.
We visited Praia da Quinta do Lago beach. Our apartment was located very close to this beach so we could not miss it! It is part of the Ría Formosa Natural Park. This park is constituted by a dune cord parallel to the coast with five sandy islands (Barreta, Culatra, Armona, Tavira and Cabanas). This area is considered a humid zone international relevance as it’s an aquatic birds habitat as well as a protected reserve and protected zone.
Where did was stay? Vilar do Golf by Diamond Resorts. We had a spacious 2 bedroom house with kitchen, living room, a little backyard and free parking. It was lovely! Plus we were there in low season so we got a great deal!
Lagos was our one night stop to break the drive. We wanted to make sure we got to the most southwesterly extremity of Europe. However along the way there are so many lovely towns to see that we could not do it all in one day! Unfortunately we didn’t really have a chance to spend time here in Lagos. Our drive over was amazing, we saw some beautiful beach places!
What did we see?
Quick stop in Albufeira. This is the largest, liveliest and most energetic of all of the resort towns on the Algarve coastline. With its stunning beaches and great entertainment it is one of Algarve’s most popular holiday destination. We stopped for brunch and a run on one for the beaches on a glorious spring day!
Dinner in Portimão. This town was traditionally a centre for shipbuilding, sardine fishing and fish processing. Today, this is another highly touristic location. However, despite its considerable size Portimão has a more relaxed ambience compared to other beach towns on the coast. We spent our time enjoying Praia da Rocha, a huge beach with barely anyone there! WE did still manage to make new friends, play on the beach and have dinner with them. It was a memorable afternoon!
We visited the Fortaleza Sagres. This fort is located at the southern tip of the Sagres Peninsular. It was designed to protect the town from raiders from North African. It was from here that Henry the Navigator devised his 15th century expeditions to the uncharted seas around the western side of Africa. This was considered the golden era of Portugal exploration.
Bratwurst in Cabo de São Vicente! This is the most southwesterly extremity of Europe. The cliffs rise 60 meters high and Europe’s brightest lighthouse guards the busy shipping routes. The lighthouse was constructed on the old ruins of a Franciscan monastery. This monastery paid homage to Saint Vicente, whose bones was said were found in the cliffs. As you arrive to the parking lot you will find a little food truck called “Letzte Bratwurst for America” (last bratwurst before America). They are delicious, plus once you get to America they become hot dogs, so you don’t want to miss the chance of trying them!!!
Where did we stay? Boavista Golf & Spa Resort. Our house was amazing!!! We had two large bedrooms, a great kitchen and a beautiful living room. There was an common area in the back with a pool, unfortunately it was still a bit chilly so we couldn’t take advantage of that.
This was one of our longest drives of this trip but still a beautiful scenery all along the way!
What did we see?
We visited the Capela dos Ossos. When I read about this place I convinced my whole family that we had to see it. This chapel is attached to the Church of São Francisco. It’s an ossuary, with walls, arches and supporting pillars lined with bones and skulls. These are the remains of several thousand monks, recovered from several crypts and cemeteries in the 16th century. The idea was to remind worshippers of the transitory nature of life. In fact there’s an inscription at the entrance in Latin, reading ” We bones, that are here, for yours await”.
We walk around the historic centre. The entirety of the old town is within the city walls, up to the Cathedral and Roman Temple. So just walking around for a few hours will be an amazing experience, with so much to explore. If you follow the signs you will then arrive to the Évora Cathedral. This building sits at the highest point of the city and was completed in phases from the beginning of the 13th century. You can visit it inside and it is really worth it. We had the chance to go also on the terraced roof from where you can view the city. As you walk out of the Cathedral you will see Évora Roman Temple. This Corinthian temple would likely have been devoted to Diana. There is also a lovely garden in front of it with a view on the city.
Drive out to Almendres Cromlech. Once you are done walking around the historical center of Évora, drive shortly out of town to this famous Neolithic site. This is the largest megalithic complex in the Iberian Peninsula and among the largest on the entire continent. This archaeological site consists of several megalithic structures: cromlechs and menhir stones. There are 95 standing stones in all, forming two huge circles. Some of the mystique of this place is due also to the carvings on many of the stones.
Where did we stay? Parque de Campismo Orbitur Evora. This campground was in a great location, it is just a 6-minute drive from the central Praça do Giraldo. The accommodations include a living/dining room and a kitchenette. So you can prepare meals in the fully equipped kitchenettes.
On the way up north we decided to stop to Fatima. This city is well-known because in the summer of 1917 the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three young shepherds. The place where they saw her is now an immense sanctuary and one of Christianity’s most important pilgrimage sites. There are two basilicas, a square where thousands of devotees can congregate and an itinerary of locations that hold a special meaning to the apparitions. For many Catholics being here is a lifetime ambition, however for everyone else it is still an amazing place to visit and learn more about. We were on a day when there weren’t many pilgrims, but when it is busy it must be magical to see.
On our way out from Fatima we saw the sign for caves, we had to go! The Grutas da Moeda, were discovered by accident in 1971 when two hunters chased a fox down a hole and found themselves there. There are ten individual chambers, each with calcareous rock shaped by running water over millions of years. You can take a tour inside, the guides are friendly and well prepared. It is easy to walk in, the whole route is paved and lit. There is also an interpretation centre which offers some geological background on the caves and has a display of minerals and Jurassic fossils. It is a fascinating tour inside the caves, easy and refreshing definitely for all ages!
Where did we stay? Quinta da Saudade. The property is in the beautiful Portuguese countryside. It is a farm with animals and crops. We had a 2 bedroom apartment with kitchen. We were welcomed with wine and fresh bread. In the morning the host baked fresh bread for our breakfast. It was amazing!
This was going to be a quick morning visit, we honestly thought there wasn’t going to be that much to see. We were wrong of course!
What did we see?
We took a short walk the Aqueduto dos Pegões. This 6 km aqueduct was constructed to bring the water from the four springs at Pegões to the Convent of the Order of Christ. This project was started in the 1590s and the work would continue for 21 years. We found the beginning of the aqueduct and took a few steps on it, we walked back right away to avoid falling off. As you drive by it, it is beautiful to see. As we followed it we arrived to the Convent of Christ. In the 12th century, King Afonso Henriques donated the region around Tomar to the Knights Templar. They founded a convent famed for its round church. This is one of the first round churches I have ever seen! This convent is on a promontory and defended by a castle and walls, separated by the from the city of Tomar. There is so much to see both inside the castle and convent as well as on the outside, you can easily spend a whole day inside!
Where did we stay? Casa da Zu. This was little house at just a short drive from the Convent. We had plenty of room and a fireplace that we enjoyed the whole evening.
Coimbra was another stop that for sure would have needed a few extra days to be truly enjoyed! Traveling with 3 kids sometimes means that you have to make some compromises. On the day we were there they needed something more kid friendly, so our tour of the city was adapted to them!
We found the Portugal dos Pequenitos. This is a kid-sized scale model of Coimbra and Portugal’s most famous monuments, as well as landmarks in the country’s former colonies in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. There’s a miniature train at the park, as well as a small museums for costume, furniture and the Portuguese Navy. This attraction was started in 1938 and was developed over the next 20 years. It was truly fascinating and we all enjoyed recognizing the different parts of Portugal that we had seen up to now. Once we finished our tour of the park we decided to have lunch in the downtown and walk around for a while. There are many beautiful churches that you can visit inside or simply walk around and enjoy the vibe of this city.
Where did we stay? Apartamento Coselhas. This apartment was very close to the downtown area, easy to park and plenty of room to relax some down time.
Originally our stay in Porto was going to be only for 2 nights. We thought we would walk around, see how much we could and then be on our way. We don’t love cities, so we didn’t want to spend too much time here. We were pleasantly surprised with a city that made us completely fall in love with it! We ventured out everyday with no real plan. We were surprised with the warmth and beauty at every corner. Luckily our airbnb was available so we prolonged our stay for a couple extra days, we wanted to enjoy this city vibe a bit more.
Here are some of the main places we visited although we saw much more by simply strolling around all day long. The best recommendation I can give is to just walk direction in the Duoro (the river here). You will find so much to see at every corner!
Walk around Cais da Ribeira. This is the chaotic riverside area. Here you will find bars and restaurants around every corner. While you are here you will have the chance to take a Douro River Trip. The Douro travels almost 900 km from its source in Castile and León to reach the Atlantic at Porto. The hour-long cruises are offered for around €15, and will give you some insights about the different bridges that connect the two sides of the river. Once the river reaches Porto, it passes under six bridges before hitting the sea. The bridges are: Ponte da Arrábida (once boasted the widest concrete span in the world), the Ponte de Dom Luís I (the most prominent bridge in the city with an undercarriage for pedestrian traffic to Vila Nova de Gaia), Ponte do Infante (with the planet’s longest concrete arch), the Ponte Dona Maria Pia (designed by Gustave Eiffel and was once utilized for rail traffic), the Ponte de São João and finally Ponte do Freixo (Porto’s last bridge).
Take a tour at one of the Port Wine cellars. These are located on the south bank of the Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia. A few of the the Porto cellars have histories going back hundreds of years and the cellars come with museums documenting their story. The tour will tell you more of how the Porto wine is made. Usually at the end you will have a chance to do a tasting and of course purchase it. We really enjoyed the tour, it was very informative and the tasting was really good!
Praça da Liberdade: the first day as we were walking towards the center of town, we found ourselves in this beautiful square. Very spacious compared to all the narrow streets we had been through. The streets around are some of the poshest in the city, with imposing civic buildings, designer boutiques and the Belle Époque Majestic Café on Rua Santa Catarina.
We went for a walk in Jardins do Palácio de Cristal. From the boat tour we saw this beautiful garden overlooking the river. Our goal was to get there! This was the site of Porto’s Crystal Palace. The gardens were set up to complement that palace. There are fountains and allegorical sculptures to the seasons. The gardens are planted with gingko, pines, camellias, rhododendrons and beech trees, and you might meet a peacock or two, we did! At the centre of the park, the old palace was replaced by the semi-spherical Pavilhão Rosa Mota. This hosts exhibitions, but is now being renovated. As you reach the part overlooking the river you can enjoy a beautiful view, even more magical if at sunset.
Since we are so passionate of books and love used book stores we discovered Livraria Lello. The building goes back to 1906 and the shop is often considered as one of the best in the world. A lot of this is due to the unique architecture. It has an Art Nouveau design, with plenty of nods to the Gothic in its traceries, murals and pinnacles on the facade. The sinuous wooden staircase, ceiling piping and stained glass skylight inside are beautiful. Plus the fact that J.K. Rowling used to come here often when she lived in Porto as an English teacher makes it even more popular. This is probably why there is a ticket to go in. The cost will be deducted from your book purchase of course. Amazingly many don’t go there for the books but just to snap a selfie while they pretend they are reading! We were there for the books and thought it was pretty hilarious to witness! Silly but no surprise nowadays!
We went up the Clérigos Church and tower. In the previous days we could see the tower often as we walked around so in the end we decided that it would be a great place to admire the view of the city! This eighteenth century complex was commissioned by the Brotherhood of the Clérigos in the old town, on the “hill of the hanged men”, where the executed prisoners were buried. Clérigos Tower is the tallest campanile in Portugal. It stands 76 meters tall and climbing its 200 steps will give the most amazing view over the city and the river.
Where did we stay? URBAN VIEWS TOWNHOUSE ARRÁBIDA. This was without any doubt one of our favorite places to stay while visiting a city. We were close to the downtown, we had a garage and a terrace on the roof. Plus the house was beautifully furnished. It was so hard to leave!
During our drive from Porto to Sintra we decided to take a lunch break in Nazaré. This town is famous for being one of the finest beach resorts in Portugal. However there is another reason that makes this a very popular location: the great surfing opportunities. In fact the presence of the underwater Nazaré Canyon helps form very high breaking waves. As the canyon creates constructive interference between the incoming swell waves, it makes their heights much larger on this stretch of coast. Many surfing records have been set at Nazaré.
For our last night on the road we decided to stop in Sintra. This city is a very popular travel destination due to its picturesqueness and for its numerous historic palaces and castles. It is also very close to Lisbon (about 30 minutes away) so it easily accessible also for a day trip. We didn’t plan much, all I wanted to see was the Pena Palace. I have seen photos and have always been fascinated by it. However once we got there the line was so long, that it didn’t feel as appealing to us anymore. Our host had recommended instead to visit Monserrate Palace. It is a bit farther away from all the other palaces so not a very popular stop for tourists.
It was lovely! Definitely a great reccomandation! The Monserrate Palace is a 19th-century mansion with Anglo-Saxon, Indian and Arab architectural influences. The delightful hallways inside are elaborately decorated and highlight gothic arches in unusual light colours. The estate contains also a botanical garden, which we truly enjoyed exploring!
Where did we stay? Sintra Pérola VH’s. This little apartment was in the heart of town. It was all new and beautifully furnished, plus the host was really friendly and helpful.
Final part of our travels around Portugal brought us to its capital: Lisbon. We also had a special stay here because Massy’s parents joined us. We had the chance to explore the city with two extra adventurers! Just like Porto we used the same approach, walk out in the morning and head towards the downtown area. Here are a few of the places we went to see!
First of all we wanted to admire the city from a higher perspective, so we headed to the São Jorge Castle. This is one of the oldest and most recognizable structures in the city. The castle stands on top of the tallest hill and the views over the Baixa district and the Tegus River are stunning. The eleven castle towers, the lookouts, and the garden make it worth a visit. Plus if you are lucky you will also see some peacocks!
Take a ride on tram 28. If you look at photos of Lisbon you always see at least one photo of the yellow tram! This is for sure one of the most touristy things to do, although you will see also locals riding this same tram.
Visit some of the oldest neighborhoods of Lisbon. Alfama, this is the oldest part of the city. It has narrow roads, filled with souvenir shops and tiny bars or cafés. Here you will have a chance to enjoy authentic Portuguese meals while listening to the country’s favorite genre of soul music, fado. Baixa: most of it was ruined during Lisbon’s earthquake of 1755, but after being rebuilt it has become a trendy part of the city, with its cafés and restaurants. Bairro Alto: is Lisbon’s artistic and bohemian neighborhood filled with some of the best bars, clubs and restaurants. It’s also one of the best places to enjoy Lisbon’s urban street art scene.
As you head towards the river you will find a huge riverfront square, Praça do Comércio. All around you will see cafe’s where you can sit down and relax. If you walk to the river you will also find a tiny beach where often different types of sand castles are being created. When we were there they were making a giant turtle and it was colored too!
While visiting the Baixa we stopped at Carmo Convent. This was one of the buildings partially destroyed during the Earthquake of 1755. You can wander the open nave, overshadowed by the surviving arches that bow upwards into the sky. You will also see many ceramics on display, a collection of tombs, mosaics, and statues. Once you leave the Convent if you don’t feel like walking down you can can take the Elevador de Santa Justa. This antique elevator was built in 1901 as a means of connecting the Baixa with the Largo do Carmo in the Bairro Alto neighborhood.
If you have another full day, you cannot miss visiting the Belém Tower. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to its role in protecting Portugal’s coast during the Age of Discoveries and later. Just a short walk away is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, which is a tribute to the Age of Discovery. This is an enormous monolith that leans over the River Tagus to resemble the prow of a caravel, the type of ship commanded by the Portuguese navigators in the 15th century to chart unexplored oceans and discover new lands. Sunk into the esplanade below is a huge pavement compass, a giant mosaic map of the world that charts the locations and dates each new land was discovered.
As you are walking back to the bus you will find Jerónimos Monastery. Built to honor Vasco da Gama’s epic 1498 voyage to India. It was built over the course of 100 years, mostly during the 16th century. Vasco da Gama’s tomb lies just inside the entrance to Santa Maria church. Just before leaving Belem, you must make a stop at the famous bakery Pastéis de Belém, that serves all day the famous pastel de nata. These little custard tart were created by Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem.
Where did we stay? B’HAPPY INN Lisbon! This was a very spacious apartment with a view on São Jorge Castle. We could easily take a bus or walk to the downtown area, so it was a great location for us!
This drive through Portugal was a dream come true. It was beautiful to spend some time in the bigger cities like Porto and Lisbon and enjoy just wondering around. It was also lovely to drive thorough the different areas, and although time wasn’t on our side, still get to experience a bit of it.
If you want to see more of the beautiful scenery that we witnessed during our long drive check out our gallery!