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When you think of Portugal, your inner “road trip!” alarm probably doesn’t start ringing.
Perhaps your mind jumps to Portugal’s cities, the capital Lisbon or the lesser known (but increasingly popular) Porto. Maybe you think of the Algarve beaches along Portugal’s southern coast. Or perhaps your first thought is Portugal’s many castles, such as Pena Palace and Belém Tower.
Portugal packs a whole lot into its 92 squared kilometres. Yet, somehow, it’s one of those countries that sits almost silently, adored by everyone whose feet touch its soil but often overlooked by the rest.
So I’m going to throw my main takeaway from my week in Portugal out there: Portugal, and northern Portugal in particular, may just be one of the most underrated destinations in Europe – especially when it comes to European road trips.
Why you should road trip Portugal
Anyone who’s ever been on a road trip knows how magical they are.
But, er, what exactly makes Portugal so special? After all, with its varied landscapes and stunning coastlines, Europe is full of beautiful road trip destinations.
I’m not debating the road trip-ableness (I’m not even going to pretend that’s real word) of the Dalmatian Coast or Romania’s dramatic mountain roads. But I am going to back Portugal as the most underrated road trip destination in Europe today. Ready?
Portugal is made for road trips!
The thing about Portugal is that it has this kind of fairytale-like feel to it. It almost doesn’t feel real. It’s mystical. It’s magical. It’s impossible not to feel it – and it’s a feeling that’s almost as impossible to describe.
Pretty much anyone who visits Lisbon or Porto falls in love. I did too, but if you want to fall absolutely head over heels, get out of the city and into the more rural areas. Let’s call it the even-more-charming side of Portugal.
When you do, you’ll discover a land where rustic houses, striking churches and fairytale castles live side by side. You’re going to need your own wheels to get there, but you’ll have picturesque mountains and far-reaching viewpoints all to yourself when you arrive. And yes, there will be photo opportunities galore – so make sure you pack a spare SD card.
Does it sound dreamy enough yet?
Well, it gets even better… another thing you’ll notice about Portugal is just how quiet it is. We took our Portugal road trip at the start of summer, on a warm, sunny day. And we barely saw any other tourists. The fact that Portugal has so many things to see and next to nobody visiting, blows me away.
But perhaps that’s also why – there are simply so many cute spots and snap-worthy sights in Portugal, that people don’t congregate in a few famous guidebook-approved points. And, of course, a road trip is the best way to see all those sights and maybe even find some undiscovered ones.
Whether you’re looking for a new European road trip destination or a new excuse to visit Portugal, you know what I’m going to say: go on a Portugal road trip! Portugal isn’t the kind of place you visit only once – you’ll find yourself going back again and again. So why not make your next Portugal trip a road trip?
Where to go on your Portugal road trip
Even though Portugal is a small country, you’ll want to make your road trip the slow and steady kind. Portugal isn’t a country where you’ll see many people rushing – and you shouldn’t either. Take your time, soak up the sights and slip right into the Portuguese way of life.
If you have one week in Portugal, I suggest tackling the northern part of the country. This lesser-visited region is just as scenic as it is silent, meaning it’s perfect road trip territory.
The Portugal road trip itinerary below assumes you’ll be flying into Porto, but you could just as easily fly into Lisbon and drive all the way up – especially if you have at least two weeks in Portugal.
Either way, my advice is the same: whack on some tunes, take your time and enjoy the ride!
Day trips from Porto Portugal
The great thing about the below road trip is that you can choose to do it in one long stretch, or take several day-long road trips around the region. The itinerary follows a circuit, meaning you can stop in several places and take it at a leisurely pace.
If you prefer to stay in one place, all of the destinations are within a couple of hours’ drive from Porto. That means Porto is a perfect base for this road trip itinerary (and well worth exploring too!).
The choice is yours!
Lisbon to Porto road trip
If you have more time in Portugal, you may want to tag a road trip from Porto to Lisbon on to the end of this itinerary. I’ve added an optional 3 days in Lisbon to the end, but I’d recommend saving this for your next visit if you only have one week or less to explore.
Alternatively, if you find yourself with two weeks in Lisbon, I’d highly recommend spending a week of it taking a road trip to Porto, finding time to fit some of these northern towns in while you’re there.
Portugal road trip itinerary
Ready to explore northern Portugal (and feel really smug at having discovered a totally underrated road trip destination)? Good. Let’s buckle up and get going.
The Portugal road trip itinerary below includes a lot of optional bits. Portugal is a fairly compact country and the roads are usually fairly quiet, so it’s easy to chop and change your road trip itinerary a little as you go.
So, who’s ready to road trip Portugal?
Day 1: Spend some time in Porto.
If you only have one week in Porto (or less), I recommend spending at least a day or two getting to know this cute little city before setting off on your road trip.
Enjoy some time exploring Porto’s winding streets, enjoying the famous francesinha sandwich and realising just how easily you feel at home there. Charge your camera, pick up some snacks and get the car ready for the road trip ahead. It’s going to be a good one!
You can either hire a car at Porto airport when you arrive or pick one up in downtown Porto.
Day 2: Porto to Braga
It’s time to road trip Portugal!
Braga is only a 45-minute drive from Porto, but there’s a much better route to take. Drive along the coast and you can enjoy some Mediterranean views and still get there in less than an hour. Warning: it might take you a little – or a lot – longer if you decide to stop and make the most of the many photo opportunities!
Arrive in Braga in time for lunch. Grab something small at one of the many cafés because you’ll want to save room for dinner! After lunch, check into your hotel for the next two nights.
Spend the afternoon wandering around the centre of Braga, soaking up the atmosphere before heading for dinner at Cozinha da Sé. This cosy restaurant is one of the best in Braga and the seafood in particular is some of the best. The food is incredible value for money, even with the slightly higher price you pay to eat at a top-rated restaurant.
Day 3: Exploring Braga
As you’d expect from Portugal’s oldest city, there are plenty of churches, cathedrals and museums to see. Therefore I recommend spending at least 24 hours in Braga.
Whatever your priorities, it’s probably worth purchasing a one-day pass for the local hop-on hop-off bus tour. For less than £10, you’ll be able to see the best churches, cathedrals and . You’ll also be able to ride on the Bom Jesus de Monte historic furnicular for free and enjoy the breathtaking views from the top of the sanctuary.
Having a car will come in handy here because you’ll be able to drive out to some of the best sights, but there are plenty of tours and other options if you want to just sit back and enjoy the ride (or a couple of glasses of Port).
The best things to do in Braga
Bom Jesus do Monte may just be one of the most beautiful churches in Europe – and not just because of the steps leading up to it.
You don’t have to be spiritual to enjoy reflecting in the grounds of the Sao Martinho de Tibaes monastery.
Fill up on local Portuguese food then walk it off in the Casa dos Biscainhos garden.
See the main sites and learn where the locals eat in this 4-hour Braga walking tour
Get out of the centre and see three lesser-known monuments in a tour of Braga’s outskirts
See the best and leave more time for solo exploration with an express tour of Braga’s best
Day 4: Day trip from Braga
Leave Braga for the day and head to three of northern Portugal’s more impressive towns: the picture-perfect Ponte de Lima, Viana de Castelo, which is famous for its monuments, and the fortress town of Valença do Minho.
You can drive there yourself, but this minibus tour will take you to everything if you fancy a drink or two. And since it includes a winery visit and tasting, wouldn’t it be rude not to?
Enjoy one last night in Braga before checking out tomorrow.
Day 5: Peneda-Gerês National Park
Get up early and drive to Peneda-Gerês National Park. The drive from Braga to Peneda-Gerês National Park takes just under two hours. It’s a scenic one, so be prepared to stop along the mountainous roads on the way.
There’s a lot to explore here so aim to be at the park by lunchtime. Spend the afternoon exploring (see below for some ideas!) before checking in to a hotel inside the park.
Day 6: Explore Peneda-Gerês National Park
I know I said this Portugal road trip itinerary was going to take things at an easy pace, but today’s the exception. There’s simply so much to do in Peneda-Gerês that I’d recommend packing as much into today as possible.
Things to do in Peneda-Gerês National Park
Can’t decide what to do? Try a little bit of everything with a tour that includes hiking, swimming and a 4×4 ride.
If you want to see as much of the park’s landscapes as possible, join a hiking tour for the day.
This horseback tour includes local food and plenty of time to bathe in the waterfalls and springs.
Foodies will love this berry picking tour, which includes jam- and liqueur-making along with the spectacular sights and views.
Day 7: Guimarães and Amarante
Get up early again and drive one hour down to the town Guimarães. This picturesque town is the birthplace of Portugal and is home to a medieval castle. It’s not the most impressive castle in Portugal (well, there are a lot!) but it’s worth the couple of Euros you’ll pay to get in.
After visiting the castle, head into town for some lunch. Deguste by Pedro Pinto is the place to go if you’re a fan of burgers – the selection is both vast and varied. Otherwise, choose one Deguste’s neighbours for lunch with a view of Guimarães’s most impressive sight: the Nossa Senhora da Consolacao e Santos Passos church and its beautiful zig-zag garden.
After lunch, head back to car because it’s time to drive to Amarante. This riverside town has beautiful bridges, impressive architecture and a traditional village feel. You’ll probably only need an hour or two to explore, but try to time your visit with dinner so you can try one of the local restaurants. And if you didn’t get to try francesinha in Porto, now’s your chance!
After dinner, it’s time to drive back to Porto. The good news is it should take less than an hour!
Day 8+: Optional road trip from Porto to Lisbon
If you have more than one week in Porto, now is your chance to tag a road trip to Lisbon (and try all the famous local foods!) onto the end if you like. Alternatively, you could choose to fly out of Lisbon and end your trip to Portugal with the drive down (or drive out at the start and fly out of Porto).
However long you have and whatever you decide to do, you can be sure that your Portugal road trip will be a trip that stays with you for a long time.