Portugal is not a large country and you can get almost everywhere easily and efficiently by train or bus. Regional trains are often cheaper and some lines very scenic, but it’s almost always quicker to go by bus – especially on shorter or less obvious routes. You’ll obviously have a great deal more flexibility if you drive, and you’ll be able to visit more out-of-the-way places in a short trip.
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Comboios de Portugal (CP; enquiries on 707 210 220) operates all trains. For the most part it’s an efficient network with modern rolling stock, while there are some highly picturesque lines in the north that are among the country’s best attractions, notably the Douro line from Porto to Pocinho. Be aware that rural train stations can sometimes be a fair way from the town or village they serve – Loulé station and town in the Algarve are 6km apart, for example. Timetables (horários) for all lines are available from stations and on the CP website, which has a good English-language version.
Most train services are designated Regionais (R) or Interregionais (IR), covering the country from Faro in the south to Valença do Minho in the north. Intercidades (IC) are faster and more expensive services, connecting Lisbon to the main regional centres; while the modern, high-speed Alfa Pendulares (AP) trains run from Lisbon to Faro, and from Lisbon to Braga via Santarém, Coimbra, Aveiro and Porto. Urban services (urbanos) in Lisbon (to Cascais, Sintra, Setúbal and Vila Franca de Xira) and Porto (to Aveiro, Braga and Guimarães) provide a useful commuter link to local towns, while both cities also have an underground metro system.
Most visitors simply buy a ticket every time they travel; first-class is primeira classe or conforto, second-class is segunda classe or turística. Always turn up at the station with time to spare since long queues often form at ticket offices. However, at unstaffed regional stations you can just pay the ticket inspector on board, while major stations have credit-card ticket machines for long-distance IC or AP tickets (on the day of travel or up to thirty days in advance); and you can also buy IC and AP tickets on the CP website.
Fares are extremely good value. A typical regional journey, across the Algarve from Faro to Vila Real de Santo António for example, only costs around €5.20; the Lisbon–Porto route costs around €25 second-class/€36 first-class by Intercidade, or around €32/43 on the fastest Alfa Pendular service. There are fifty-percent discounts for children under 13 (under-5s go free), and for over-65s (ID required; ask for a bilhete terceira idade), and 25 percent discounts for those under 25 (ID required). Seat reservations are obligatory on IC and AP trains, though they are included in the ticket price.
The major pan-European rail passes (InterRail and Eurail) are only worth considering if you’re visiting Portugal as part of a wider European tour. However, both schemes also have single-country Portugal passes, which might prove better value. The InterRail Portugal Pass (wraileurope.co.uk) is only available to European residents and allows three, four, six or eight days’ train travel within one month, with under-25, adult, family and senior plus second- and first-class versions available. Non-European residents can buy a Portugal rail pass with Eurail, typically offering three, four, five or eight days’ travel within a month, again in various classes. You can check current prices on the websites, but bear in mind that it often works out cheaper to buy individual tickets as you need them, rather than passes, and it’s certainly more convenient to be able to choose buses on some routes. All these passes also have to be bought before you leave home, and you might still be liable for supplements and seat reservations on long-distance and high-speed trains.
Buses connect almost all of the country’s towns and villages, with services operated by a wide array of private companies. It can be a little confusing at times: at some bus stations you may find two or more companies running services to the same towns; conversely, buses going to the same destination may leave from different terminals. However, there is a national network of express buses, with Rede Expressos offering a daily service to destinations across the country. Other key bus operators include Rodonorte in the north, Rodotejo in the Ribatejo, Rodoviária do Alentejo in the Alentejo and, in the Algarve, EVA and Frota Azul.
You can book tickets online or buy them at bus stations and ticket desks (often in cafés by the bus stop/station). Buying tickets in advance is a wise idea, but even in summer in tourist areas the day before is usually fine. Fares are good value: the Lisbon–Porto express route and Faro–Lisbon both cost around €20. Under-4s travel free, under-13s half-price, and there are discounts for under-29s and senior citizens over 65 with relevant identification.
Local and rural bus services go virtually everywhere you’re likely to want to go, with the notable exception of remote beaches and some of the natural parks, including much of the Serra da Estrela, Serra de Malcata and Montesinho. Note, however, that services are often restricted to one or two departures a day, or geared towards school dropoffs/pickups and market times – meaning early-morning weekday departures, sometimes only during term times. Many local services are reduced – or nonexistent – at weekends.
The local bus station – Rodoviária or Camionagem – is usually the best place to check services and routes. Most companies have timetables posted in the ticket-office window and copies to give away, though outside the Algarve it’s rare to find anyone who speaks English. Turismos often have bus timetables too.
A massive EU-funded construction programme has improved roads right across the country – particularly in previously remote areas such as Trás-os-Montes and central Portugal – and what appears to be a minor route on a map can turn out to be a beautifully engineered highway. But there are still plenty of winding, poorly maintained rural roads – and you can expect to encounter highway repairs, farm vehicles, roaming animals and locals laden with wood or produce on almost any countryside journey. Other than on city approaches and during rush hour, traffic is generally light, though as car ownership has increased dramatically in recent years so too has congestion. It’s worth noting, too, that Portugal’s accident statistics are some of the worst per capita in the EU, and drink-driving is not uncommon, despite the strict laws and advertising campaigns.
Most main roads are prefixed EN – Estrada Nacional – or just N, with the faster regional highways denoted as IP (Itinerário Principal) or IC (Itinerário Complementar). On the whole, they are two-lane roads, with passing lanes on hills, though stretches near some towns and cities are dual carriageway. You can pay by credit card at most petrol stations for fuel (gasolina) – unleaded is sem chumbo, diesel gasóleo.
Motorways and tolls
The motorway (auto-estrada) network (prefixed with “A”) comprises four- or six-lane toll roads (signposted “Portagem”) that link the Algarve with Lisbon, Porto, the main inland towns and the north. Most of the motorways have toll gates – take a ticket when you join the motorway, then hand it in at the next toll gate or when you leave, and you’ll be told what to pay. Don’t drive through the lane marked “Via Verde” (an automatic debit-payment lane), but use any lane with a green light above it – you pay in cash, or with Visa or MasterCard.
Many of the formerly formerly toll-free motorways now use number plate-recognition cameras to charge. If you have your own car, there are three somewhat complex ways to pay: full details are on portugaltolls.pt. Most car rental companies offer a transponder device which records any tolls used; you have to pay extra for these (typically around €20 a week), and the toll fees are settled by way of credit preloaded by the rental company, or by visiting a post office (as you would in a car without a transponder): just tell the post office your car registration number and they will tell you what you owe. However, you can currently only pay two to five days after you have used the road, which is not much good if you’re using the motorway to the airport for a flight home. In theory, you could be chased for the bill, but it is unlikely.
The tolls are considered expensive by the Portuguese, who tend to use the older routes where possible; driving from Lisbon to Porto or the Algarve costs around €22. However, it’s always much quicker by motorway and, with some sections virtually deserted, they are a pleasure to drive.
Rules of the road
Traffic drives on the right: speed limits are 50kph in towns and villages (often enforced by tripped “Velocidade Controlade” traffic lights), 90kph on normal roads, and 120kph on motorways and interregional highways. Unless there’s a sign to the contrary at road junctions (and there rarely is), vehicles coming from the right have right of way – it can be horribly confusing, but most drivers use common sense to interpret whose turn it is. Other road signage is also poor, particularly at roundabouts, city exits and highway access roads, where signs simply dry up for no reason; often, too, there’s little or no warning of turnings at slip-roads and junctions; or destinations may be signposted in one direction and not the other.
Many car insurance policies cover taking your car to Portugal; check with your own insurer. However, you’re advised to take out extra cover for motoring assistance in case your car breaks down: try motoring organizations like the RAC or the AA. Alternatively, you can get 24-hour assistance from the Automóvel Clube de Portugal, which has reciprocal arrangements with foreign automobile clubs.
Driving licences from most countries are accepted, so there’s no need to get an international one before you leave. If you’re stopped by the police in Portugal, they’ll want to see your personal ID or passport, driving licence, and papers for the car (including ownership papers if it’s your own car). By law, you should also have a red warning triangle and a fluorescent yellow jacket in the car (provided in rental cars). It pays to be patient and courteous since the police can – and do – levy on-the-spot fines for speeding, parking and other offences. Pleading ignorance won’t get you anywhere.
Many towns and beach resorts are now flooded with traffic, especially in summer, so you may find problems finding a central parking space. Some cities, such as Coimbra, have park-and-ride schemes, while in Porto there are huge car parks at suburban metro stations. When parking in cities, do as the locals do and use the empty spaces pointed out to you. A tip of €0.50 to the man doing the pointing will pay them for “looking after” your car. On-street parking is usually metered, even in the smallest towns. The price varies, but averages €0.80 an hour, though it’s generally free from 8pm until 8am the next morning on weekdays, on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday. Garage parking is always more expensive – up to €10 a day – but where available it's the most secure option.
Car and motorbike rental
Car rental is relatively inexpensive and usually cheapest of all arranged in advance through one of the large multinational chains. Check websites for special offers. Otherwise, rental agencies (including local firms) are found in all the major towns and at the airports in Lisbon, Porto and Faro. Local rates start at €150 a week with unlimited mileage, theft cover and collision damage waivers; you’ll also pay extra for a toll-road transponder (see above). Minimum age for rental is 21, though up to and including the age of 25 you’ll have to pay a supplement. Note also that when renting a car, UK drivers will need to show a driving licence and provide a licence code, which allows the rental company to check if you have any penalty points. The code should be obtained before you travel via gov.uk/government/news/hiring-a-vehicle.
Collision insurance is vital, since without it you’ll be liable for costs should the vehicle be damaged – and this includes even minor scratches, easily acquired down unmade tracks or in crowded car parks. Ensure that all visible damage on a car you’re picking up is duly marked on the rental sheet. It’s definitely worth considering paying the extra charge to reduce the “excess” payment levied for any damage, but these waiver charges (by the day) soon add up. However, you can avoid all excess charges in the event of damage by taking out an annual insurance policy with Insurance4carhire.com, which also covers windscreen and tyre damage.
You can also rent mopeds, scooters and low-powered (80cc) motorbikes in many resorts, with costs starting at around €30–60 a day. You need to be at least 18 (and over 23 for bikes over 125cc) and to have held a full licence for at least a year. Rental should include helmet and locks along with third-party insurance. Helmet use is obligatory.
Car rental companies
Travelling by taxi in Portugal is relatively cheap by European standards, and meters are used in towns and cities – an average journey across Lisbon or Porto costs around €10–13. Additional charges are made for carrying luggage, travelling at weekends or between 10pm and 6am (twenty percent more), and for calling a cab by phone – these charges are all posted inside the cab. You may have to rely on taxis more than you expect, since bus and railway stations are often some way removed from town centres, while in rural areas there may be no other way to reach your next destination. Outside town limits, the journey is usually charged by the kilometre – the driver should be able to quote you a figure for the trip.
Cycling is increasingly popular in Portugal, both as a sport and a way to get from A to B, despite the hilly terrain of the interior. In addition, dedicated cycle paths are beginning to appear in major cities, such as Lisbon and Porto, as are long-distance paths along former railways lines, such as the Ecopista do Dão near Coimbra and the Ecopista da Linha do Tâmega near Amarante and the Ecopista near Évora. Specialist outlets, plus hotels, campsites and youth hostels, rent bikes from €10–20 a day. A collective of bike-friendly hotels throughout the country, which have repair stations and local cycling routes, is listed at bikotels.com.
Portugal’s woeful road-accident statistics mean that defensive riding is essential – reflective and fluorescent clothing (or sashes) at night is recommended. In general, it’s best to assume that drivers will not obey road signs or regulations – just be prepared. Minor country roads have far less traffic to contend with, but locals know them backwards and so speeding – even around blind corners – is the norm. For more information on cycling abroad, contact the UK’s national cycling organization, the CTC, though you’ll have to join to access their tours and notes on cycling in Portugal.
Collapsible bikes can be taken for free on regional and interregional trains (ie, the slow ones), so long as they’re dismantled and stowed in a bag or other cover. Otherwise, bikes can be taken on the Lisbon and Porto urban lines and regional trains from Coimbra – there’s usually a small charge during the week, free at weekends. The CP website has the latest details.
Portugal’s top five drives
- From Entre-os-Rios, the N222 heads high above the south bank of the Douro, before hugging the water as far as pretty Pinhão.
- Drive across the highest mountains in Portugal, from Seia to Covilhã on the N339.
- The trans-Trás-os-Montes N103 snakes around northern Portugal’s wildest terrain, skirting the Parque Natural de Montesinho.
- The vertiginous N379-1 crosses the Serra de Arrábida mountains high above the Baia de Setúbal, providing stunning coastal views.
- The N265 from Serpa to Mértola is a bucolic back-route through the Alentejo’s stunning Parque Natural do Vale do Guardiana.