If there is one piece of advice I can give you for exploring Portugal, it is to do it with a rental car. I was there in April for a week and had never been to Portugal before. We wanted to see all of the coast that we could, and we also needed to fly in and out of Porto, because that’s where we could get the cheap Ryanair flights to and from Barcelona.
Our main question was if seeing the entire coast would be possible in the course of a week. The answer is yes, on two conditions: that we rent a car and move quickly. We were on board with both of those things. We didn’t want to have to count on public transportation or waste time with the logistics of it, and we found out that we could rent a car for about $150 for the entire week. That’s only $75 per person, plus gas and toll fees. I imagine that’s cheaper (and much more convenient) in the end than public transportation anyway (win-win).
When renting a car in Europe, it’s a good idea to stick with a company you’ve heard of. There are several no-name companies that come with cheap bids, but they also have the worst reviews. We rented with Enterprise and had great service, honest prices, and no issues whatsoever. When it comes to your peace of mind, paying a little extra is worth it in my opinion.
Two more pieces of advice for the rental car: 1) Pay for the mobile WiFi device (best decision of the week). With the mobile WiFi, we were able to use our map apps for navigation, hotel booking apps to figure out accommodations, and of course I was able to work whenever, wherever. 2) Avoid the main highways and thus, tolls. Take the smaller roads as much as possible; yes, they take longer, but they are much prettier and best of all, they’re free!
Related Post: Renting a Car in Europe: 3 Things You Need to Know
Our Rental Car Route Through Portugal:
Porto – Nazaré – Óbidos – Sintra – Lisbon – Lagos – Porto
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to give Porto the attention that I hear it deserves. We were in and out in about 12 hours and heading south, destination unplanned, and ended up in Nazaré.
Nazaré is a small surf town known for its crazy, record-breaking waves. In fact, the largest waves ever ridden have been surfed right here in Nazaré, just looking at the photos makes my stomach flip! This place is definitely not for amateurs. We stayed at Hotel Miramar Sul, which we got for about $55 on a late deal (thanks to our mobile WiFi in the car) on Booking.com. It’s a 4-star hotel overlooking Nazaré, includes breakfast, and was very comfortable. Late deals are the best!
After soaking up Nazaré for a day, we took the backroads (no tolls) toward Óbidos, a touristy, walled city, where we enjoyed some brandy, coffee, and cherry liqueur in chocolate cups. The brandy is famous there, so be sure to try some, and the cherry liqueur is sold on every street corner; you won’t make it through Portugal without trying it at least once. Óbidos was certainly worth the stop on the way to Sintra, which put us close to Lisbon.
We found several places to stop and enjoy the countryside and coastline before we arrived to Sintra, which is a beautiful little town known for its castles in the hills above Lisbon. Although quite touristy, you can avoid the crowds if you stay in the right place and explore the surrounding area. We didn’t have the right weather or enough time to do that, so we spent our time exploring the streets and indulging in the cuisine. They do seafood paella for two just right in Portugal, where it’s called “Arroz de Marisco” (seafood rice).
In Sintra we stayed at Oh Casa Sintra, yet another late deal thanks to Booking.com. It’s a quaint and beautiful bed and breakfast with secure parking (something else to pay attention to when you rent a car), just far enough out of the center to avoid the crowds, but still within walking distance. The staff was wonderful, the breakfast was delicious, and I definitely recommend it.
Before heading into Lisbon, we drive out the to coast to visit Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in continental Europe, a must do in a rental car.
Our goal was to visit Lisbon for one day, but sleep outside the city because we didn’t want to deal with high prices and busy streets (that’s intimidating for us small town folk). We chose Hotel Praia do Sol across the bridge to the south of Lisbon on a stretch of beach called Caparica. Apparently it is a hot spot in summertime, but we were there in April, so the tourists from Lisbon hadn’t arrived yet. It turned out to be a lovely, quiet spot to spend the night without city prices or crowds.
Although Caparica is connected to Lisbon by bus, we opted to drive into the city and park at a parking garage that we found directions to ahead of time. It’s under Praça Restauradores, right next to the metro, and if you pre-pay when you first get there, you can get 24 hours for the price of 6 (15 euros). From there we walked and explored Lisbon, visiting a beer museum, having coffee and tapas in the rain, and being satisfied after about 6 hours. I had high hopes for Lisbon, and I think I need to give it another chance, especially after reading Night Train to Lisbon, which I highly recommend for the history-loving, philosophical traveler’s mind.
After Lisbon we headed to Lagos, my absolute favorite place in Portugal, by far. The Algarve region of Portugal is something to be seen and experienced personally. I can describe it to you as a dramatic, cliff coastline dotted with towns and kayaks, but to be the one in the kayak dipping in and out of the caves is a completely invigorating experience that you must do for yourself. We ended up staying three nights in Lagos, right up until the very end, because we loved it that much.
We stayed at Tamar Guest House, which is an apartment turned into a hostel with secure parking, private rooms, and the most accommodating staff you could ask for. It only cost us $20 a night for a private room, but we had the whole apartment to ourselves most of the time.
While you’re in Lagos, go cave kayaking!
Give yourself ample time to explore Lagos and the adventures it has to offer. With a rental car you can also drive out to the “End of the World,” which is the south-westernmost point in continental Europe, where they used to believe the sun sank into the sea.
Finally, we spent about 5 hours on the last day driving from Lagos back up to Porto via the main highway. Yes, we paid tolls, but we figured it was worth it to have the extra time in Lagos. Our flight out was for that evening, and we made it in perfect timing to return the car at the airport. The total for the rental car including gas, tolls, and the mobile WiFi ($6.95 per day), came to about $315.
Portugal is an incredible place. I think of it as Tuscany meets California Highway 1, and I look forward to spending some more quality time there. The prices are some of the cheapest in Europe, the food is absolutely delicious, and the proud Portuguese people are some of the kindest you will meet. I can’t recommend this country enough as a travel destination, and I can’t wait to go back.