Your Portugal itinerary: 4 road trip ideas to explore the country

updated 11/7/2020
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Portugal is having a real purple patch right now. It’s one of the safest and least expensive countries in Europe with a balmy year-round sunny climate. Your dilemma might be where to head for first, as there are regular low-cost flights to Porto in the north, Lisbon in the centre and the Algarve in the south. To help you decide, we suggest four road trip itineraries that allow you to see the best of what the country has to offer.

1. For urban exploration

Famed for its eponymous drink, the unique riverside cityscape of Porto has gained it UNESCO World Heritage status. Its elaborate stock exchange and warren of tall medieval houses facing the Douro date back to the time when it was a major trading centre, and no visit is complete without a trip to its historic port wine lodges.

From Porto it's an easy hop to Braga, Portugal’s surprisingly vibrant religious capital; and Guimarães, the country’s first ever capital whose ancient centre also has UNESCO World Heritage status. There’s a fast motorway south to Coimbra, which has one of Europe’s oldest universities: don’t miss the Biblioteca Joanina, its stunning eighteenth-century library.

It's a short drive on to Lisbon, Portugal’s alluring riverside capital whose rattling trams, vibrant nightlife and easy-going charm have made it one of Europe’s most popular city break destinations. Next, take the fast road inland to Évora, a handsome university town of white-washed houses and another UNESCO World Heritage site.

Finally, end on the south coast at the historic town of Lagos, from where you can walk to some of the Algarve’s prettiest cove beaches. Fly back from nearby Faro.

Bom Jesus do Monte Sanctuary, Braga, Portugal © LucVi/Shutterstock

2. For some serious beach time

Portugal has more than 1500km of coastline, and a fair proportion of that is made up of some of Europe’s most stunning beaches. Strike west out of Porto to the upmarket suburb of Foz do Douro for a taste of what the coast has to offer, then head south and you’ll soon encounter miles of sands pounded by Atlantic breakers.

Inland from Coimbra, the beaches round Figueira da Foz and south to Peniche attract some serious surf dudes: the resort of Nazaré offers some of the largest waves ever to have been surfed. But there are plenty of calmer beaches to enjoy.

The coast between historic Sintra and Lisbon has some of Portugal’s most fashionable resorts, including Cascais and Estoril, one-time hangout of Bond author Ian Fleming, who took inspiration from Estoril casino.

There are more great beaches for surfing all along the Alentejo coast south to Sagres, where Henry the Navigator once trained the country’s top sea captains to open up new routes to Asia.

Heading east you’ll find the safe sandy beaches of the Algarve, at their most alluring around Lagos and the bustling resort of Albufeira, from where it’s a short drive back to Faro.

Figueira da Foz, Portugal © John Copland/Shutterstock

3. For fine wines

Portugal has given its name to Madeira wine and Port, but its own reds and whites rightly have a growing reputation for excellence. A tour of its wine routes gives you the chance to sample some of its finest varieties and also take in some of the country’s most beautiful scenery.

Porto grew up on the back of the port wine trade, the produce being transported down the river from the wine estates of the dramatic Douro valley. It's a spectacular journey either by car, train or boat up the river valley to the wine town of Peso da Régua from where you can visit various wine quintas. North of here you can also tour the Palácio de Mateus, a sumptuous Baroque mansion that features on the labels of Mateus Rosé wine.

Another speciality of northern Portugal is vinho verde, a lightly sparkling young wine which is just right for a hot summer’s evening and can be found in any local bar. Though Douro labels are perhaps best known, other areas of Portugal also produce some excellent wines. Many rate those of the Alentejo district to be the best, and there are various producers that can be visited for tastings.

The headquarters of the Alentejo Wine Route is based in the historic town of Évora – a former home of the Portuguese court – which has the most impressive Roman temple in the country, the Temple of Diana. From Évora, it’s an easy drive back to Lisbon airport.

Wine barrels in Madeira, Portugal © Kristina Stasiuliene/Shutterstock

4. For the very best the country has to offer

For a taste of quintessential Portugal, it is worth heading a bit off the beaten track. Start at Sintra, a short drive from Lisbon airport. Once the hilltop retreat for Portuguese royalty, its ornate palaces and mansions are hardly undiscovered, but the surrounding Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais is a gorgeous area of little visited woodlands and hidden beaches. Don’t miss Cabo da Roca, a craggy headland that is officially the most westerly point of mainland Europe.

Head north up the motorway to Coimbra, seat of one of Europe’s oldest universities. Explore the nearby Conímbriga, Portugal’s most important Roman site, and continue to the Mata Nacional do Buçaco (or Bussaco). Like Sintra, this was once a summer retreat for royalty, with an ornate palace hidden in a huge walled forest studded with lakes and dazzling viewpoints.

Continue north towards Porto, taking time to explore the quaint town of Amarante, which sits on a tributary of the Douro river. Famed for its distinctive bridge, the handsome town of stone houses with wooden balconies is known for its sweets and pastries, and also has one of the country’s top restaurants, the Michelin-Starred Largo do Paço.

Heading north, don’t miss the fabulous Thursday market at the little town of Barcelos, little changed from medieval times. From Barcelos, it is a short drive back to Porto airport.

Pena Palace, Sintra © Tatiana Popova/Shutterstock

This feature contains affiliate links; you can find out more about why we’ve partnered with Insight Guides here. All recommendations remain editorially independent.

Top image: Ribeira Brava, Madeira © Tatiana Popova/Shutterstock

Travel advice for Portugal

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updated 11/7/2020
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