21 July 2020

Your Guide to Traveling Around Portugal with a Rental Car

Aleksandrs Buraks
Head of Growth at DiscoverCars.com

Why should you rent a car in Portugal?

Diverse, historic and picturesque, Portugal is one of the hottest travel destinations in Europe for a good reason — or rather, many of them. Some travelers come for the atmosphere and sophistication of its two largest cities, Lisbon and Porto. Others are attracted by the beautiful beaches of the Algarve or the majestic palaces of Sintra. Others yet come to surf Europe's most impressive waves in spots like Nazare and Peniche or enjoy the rural charms of Alentejo, a famous winemaking region.

Getting a rental car will let you explore and experience as many of these amazing things as you like. As much as travel in Portugal is about its impressive landmarks, it is even more about sleepy villages, hospitable people, home-made meals, and scenic road trips. Make your own adventure in this amazing country, and you're likely to want to return again and again.

When should you go to Portugal?

The tourist season in Lisbon lasts roughly from April to October — the warmer half of the year. The number of visitors is especially high from June to early-September. Although Lisbon's summers can be very hot, they are somewhat tempered by the city's location on the Atlantic coast. Lisbon can also be very nice to visit during the low season as the number of other tourists is smaller and the city has some of the mildest winters in Europe (albeit with some increases in the amount of rain, especially in November and December).

Porto's weather is comparable to that of Lisbon — the city is only about 300 km (185 miles) to the north — but with temperatures usually a couple of degrees lower. Porto also receives nearly twice as much rain every year, with the amount of precipitation highest from October all the way to early April. Consequently, the city is the nicest to visit from late spring to late September.

The southern region known as the Algarve is famous for its year-round good weather. Most travelers come from April until October, and the months of July and August are especially busy as that is when the ocean is the warmest and most Portuguese people take vacations coming down from Lisbon and the north. The Algarve has something of a rainy season every December and January, but overall the region's winters are exceptionally mild and some travelers from colder parts of Europe have even compared it to their summers.

It is possible to surf in Portugal at any time of the year, although some might find the ocean too cold from October to February. If you're visiting during the winter months, the Algarve might be your best bet, but during summer, even the northernmost part of the country is great for surfing. On the other hand, Nazare — which holds the global record as the place where the biggest wave ever surfed was — gets the most impressive waves during the winter months, so if you're more into watching the sea and less into getting wet yourself, this is the best time to go.

Now that you've decided when to travel to Portugal, check out our prices for the dates you have chosen!

Where should you pick up a car in Portugal?

Most visitors to Portugal prefer to pick up a rental car at the airport. There are three international airports in mainland Portugal: Porto Airport which mainly serves the north of the country, Lisbon Airport which serves the capital city region and Faro Airport which serves the south. Lisbon Airport is by far the largest of the three, providing flights to and from destinations in the rest of Europe, as well as in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. All three airports are served by a number of low-cost airlines like easyJet, Ryanair, Transavia, Wizz Air, and Vueling.

In addition to airports, it is also possible to pick up rental cars at different other locations like train stations and international hotels. Some rental car providers offer a meet-and-greet service. It is possible to pick up or drop off a rental car at locations in many Portuguese cities and towns that do not have an airport such as Coimbra, Aveiro, Albufeira, and Setubal.

Many car rental providers in Portugal provide one-way rentals which give travelers the opportunity to explore the country without the need to return to where they picked the rental car up. A trip between Lisbon and Porto is one of the most popular one-way rentals in Europe with thousands of tourists traveling the route every year. Most car rental companies charge a fee for one-way rentals. International one-way rentals are also possible, so it is not uncommon for tourists to travel in a rental car between Porto and Santiago de Compostela, Faro and Seville or even Lisbon and Madrid.

How easy is it to travel around Portugal independently?

Beautiful, accessible, and home to some of the friendliest people in the continent, Portugal is a great nation to explore on your own. Many travelers name it as their favorite destination in Europe, ahead of countries like France and Italy, mainly thanks to the country's pleasant atmosphere and relaxed pace of life.

The road network in Portugal, while perhaps not as great as in some other Western European countries, is in very decent shape, and traveling around the country is easy. The main highways are in great condition while secondary roads are catching up. Getting a GPS device for your vehicle is nonetheless advisable — it will help you to find your way both in more rural parts of the country and in Portugal's historic cities and towns which are well known for their narrow and complicated roads.

How safe is it to travel around Portugal in a rental car?

Overall, Portugal is a very safe country to travel - the crime rates are low and the police are trustworthy. The general emergency number in Portugal, like elsewhere in the European Union, is 112.

Overall, Portugal's driving culture is quite relaxed, and while Portugal, like most places, does have its share of reckless drivers, it's nothing that you should especially worry about. There are a few mountain ranges in Portugal where you'll find some steep and narrow roads where you have to be extra cautious, but the Portuguese mountains are considerably lower than, say, the Alps, Pyrenees, or the Sierra Nevada in Southern Spain, so even drivers with no prior experience with driving in the mountains usually manage it well. Furthermore, the highest elevation in Portugal can be found in the interior parts of the country, far from most of the tourist attractions. The highest point of continental Portugal, Torre of Serra de Estrela, stands at 1,993 m (6,539 ft).

Pickpocketing and other petty crimes occur in Lisbon, Porto, and elsewhere in the country, especially near popular tourist attractions. Keep your belongings close and do not hesitate to ask for help if you need it!

During the last decade, forest fires have become a serious issue in Portugal, particularly in the inland and southern parts of the country. Often starting at eucalyptus plantations which are highly prone to wildfire during the hottest months of the year, the fires have destroyed a significant amount of farmland and entire villages. Although there are many watchtowers and the response is usually swift, wildfires can spread at terrifying speed. If you're visiting Portugal any time from April to October and plan to travel away from cities and especially to inland areas, make sure to get the latest wildfire forecast and follow the news of the area that you are visiting.

What languages are spoken in Portugal?

The official and main language of Portugal is, of course, Portuguese. Portuguese spoken in Portugal differs quite significantly from the many dialects of Brazilian Portuguese — there are differences in accents and vocabulary; nonetheless both languages are definitely mutually intelligible. Creole languages largely based on Portuguese, such as Papiamento (spoken in the Caribbean), have more noticeable differences from standard Portuguese.

Although Portuguese and Spanish are both Romance languages and share many similarities, speakers of Spanish should not expect to understand Portuguese — the differences are quite pronounced. Usually, Portuguese speakers have an easier time understanding Spanish speakers than the other way around, although experiences vary. Galician, sometimes considered a separate language and spoken in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia that borders Northern Portugal, is sometimes considered the closest variant of Spanish to Portuguese. (Understandably, there are some Portuguese in Portugal who know Spanish because they have specifically learned the language).

The level of knowledge of English in Portugal varies considerably — it is quite high among the inhabitants of Lisbon and Porto and the younger generations, especially those working in the tourism and service industries, but can be almost nonexistent in some rural regions. Overall, the level of knowledge of English in Portugal is somewhat higher than in neighboring Spain. A small, but noticeable part of the Portuguese population also speak French or German.
Three underrated travel destinations in Portugal that you can reach by car:
Elvas. Located near the border with Spain, the frontier town of Elvas seems out of the way for most visitors to Portugal, but the remoteness only contributes to the town's uncompromising atmosphere. The historic fortifications of Elvas, a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes the impressive Amoreira Aqueduct, Castle of Elvas, and the old city center. A number of villages that have low populations but are impressive architecturally can also be found in the area. The best thing about Elvas is that the town is actually much closer than it seems — it's just a two-hour drive from Lisbon, three hours from Faro, four hours from Porto, and three hours from Seville in Spain. Badajoz, the largest city of the Spanish region of Extremadura, is just on the other side of the border and definitely worth a visit if your rental car provider permits it.

Faro. Although Faro is the largest city in Algarve and home to the region's only international airport, most visitors are in a rush to leave it for Lagos, Albufeira, or Sagres as soon as they land. More industrial, less picturesque, and with far fewer idyllic beaches, Faro just doesn't have the same appeal as those more scenic smaller places. But if you give this city a bit of your time — just a few hours, even — you might be pleasantly surprised! Faro's attractions include the chillingly impressive Bone Chapel; the small, but well-preserved historic center; Faro Jewish Heritage Center; and the nearby Ria Formosa Natural Park where you can go on a hike or kayak ride. The rest of Algarve will still be there and just a short ride away.

Peneda-Gerês National Park. Peneda-Gerês is the only legally-declared national park in Portugal - the other protected areas are 'nature parks' or 'reserves'. What makes this area in the far north of the country really special, however, is not its status, but the things you'll find located inside it. From megalithic tombs dating back to more than 5,000 years and roads used since Roman times to green forests and fascinating rock formations, the national park is home to a peaceful, timeless atmosphere. Walk quietly, and you might even get to spot a roe deer, an otter, or a Garrano, small wild relatives of a horse. Peneda-Gerês National Park is just an hour's drive north of Porto; about the same distance from Vigo in Galicia, Spain; about two hours from Santiago de Compostela, also in Spain; and about four hours from Lisbon.

Aleksandrs Buraks

Head of Growth at DiscoverCars.com
Aleksandrs has over 10 years of experience in marketing with a focus on creating stellar content that provides topical insights using data. Having taken five road trips across Europe and one in the U.S., he is passionate about traveling by car. His favorite countries to visit are Denmark and Thailand. You can find him on Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter.

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