The best independent guide to Lisbon
The best independent guide to Lisbon
Driving in Lisbon is both challenging and demanding, as it is one of Europe's most difficult cities to drive in. Many roads are narrow and congested, the expressway junctions are illogical, signage is almost non-existent, and parking is difficult to find. Added to this, Portuguese drivers are impatient and erratic, and pedestrians are suicidal on crossings.
Once outside of the city, driving becomes much more enjoyable; there are deserted beaches to discover, picturesque towns to visit and scenic routes to drive. Having a rental car provides much more flexibility for sightseeing around Lisbon, and gives you the opportunity to visit places few others can.
This article will provide a guide to the most scenic driving routes of the Lisbon region and the best sights that can only be reached with a car. The second part of the guide will discuss if it's a good idea to rent a car for your trip to Lisbon and provide practical advice for driving about the city.
Related articles: Lisbon’s best day trips – 1 week in Lisbon
The remote Praia da Ursa can only be reached by car, but is only a 35minute drive from central Lisbon
There are many scenic driving routes close to Lisbon, along with many great tourist attractions that can only be visited by car.
The interactive map below shows the best driving routes of the Lisbon region (marked in green) and the best sights that need a car to drive to.
Note: We have not included Sintra in this map as the roads are not suitable for the heavy tourist traffic and there is no parking. If going to Sintra, take the train.
The best driving routes of the Lisbon region 1) The N379 - through the Serra da Arribda 2) The N247 between Azóia and Cascais 3) The Ponte 25 de Abril bridge 4) The N6 to Cascais.
The best sights which need a car to visit 1) Praia das Maçãs (town) 2) Praia da Ursa (beach) 3) Cabo da Roca (headland) 4) Capela da Peninha (viewpoint) 5) Convento dos Capuchos (convent ruins) 6) Palácio de Queluz (Palace) 7) Cristo Rei (statue and viewpoint) 8) Fonte da Telha (beach) 9) Lagoa de Albufeira 10) Praia do Meco (beach) 11) Cabo Espichel (headland) 12) Castelo De Palmela (castle)
1) The N379 and Serra da Arribda
The N379 is the most spectacular road in the Lisbon region, and crosses the beautiful scenery of the Serra da Arrabida hills.
The road follows ancient trails and meanders through the hills, with one dramatic section crossing a high ridge and providing outstanding views both north and south. Along the route are many places to stop and admire the stunning views across the turquoise waters of the Sado Estuary and the paradise beaches of the Portinho da Arrábida.
A day trip along the N379 should also include visiting the charming resort town of Sesimbra and the Cabo Espichel headland, with its dinosaur footprints.
Related articles: Serra da Arrabida guide
The stunning Serra da Arrabida coastline contains some of Portugal's finest beaches. This view is from one of the pull-ins along the N379
2) The N247 between Azóia and Cascais
The N247 snakes along the rugged coastline north of Cascais, passes the vast surfing beach of Guincho before climbing into the hills of the Serra de Sintra. This road is quiet, scenic and offers many wonderful viewpoints, along with passing through many traditional Portuguese villages.
The driving tour could include the Cabo da Roca headland (the most westerly point of Europe), the viewpoint at Peninha, the stunning beach of Praia da Ursa and the charming seaside town of Praia das Maçãs. This is a very enjoyable driving day trip, which few foreign tourists know about.
Related articles: Praia das Maçãs guide – The Cabo da Roca
The Peninha viewpoint with Guincho beach in the far distance
3) Crossing the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge
There is no better entrance into Lisbon than crossing the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge. This majestic bridge towers above the city and spans the Tejo Estuary and the narrowest point. The bridge crossing is only 2km, but it will be one of your most memorable drives while in Lisbon.
On the southern side of the Tejo Estuary is the Cristo Rei monument with its views over Lisbon, and the A2 continues south to both the Serra da Arrabida and Costa da Caparica coastline.
Advice: The Ponte 25 de Abril suffers with horrendous rush hour traffic, especially when heading north due to the toll station; avoid crossing at the evening rush hour or at the weekends when everyone is returning from the beaches.
Related articles: Cristo Rei guide
Crossing the Ponte 25 de Abril is always an amazing experience
4) The N6 to Cascais
The N6 follows the coastline west from Lisbon to Cascais. This route passes many gorgeous beaches (Carcavelos, Oeiras and Torre) and charming beach towns (Paço de Arcos, Estoril and Cascais). The N6 is a busy road, but there are many opportunities to turn off and see the sights.
Related articles: Cascais guide
The N6 as it passes through Caxias on the way to Cascais
Having a car allows you to visit more places during a day trip. Here is a selection of our suggestions for multi-stop day trips from Lisbon, which can only be done with a car.
Obidos, Foz do Arelho, Lagoa de Óbidos or Buddha Eden
Obidos is the quintessential Portuguese walled town, but it is only small and can be seen in less than 2 hours. A day trip to the Obidos region could be extended by visiting the traditional beach resort Foz do Arelho and the pristine Obidos Lagoon. An alternative sight is the Buddha Eden, a tranquil parkland that contains Europe's largest collection of Buddha statues.
Related articles: Obidos guide - Foz do Arelho & the Lagoa de Óbidos
Obidos is a very pretty town
Mafra and Ericeira
The colossal palace at Mafra is one of Portugal's most impressive royal buildings, but after visiting it (2hours), there is not much else to see in Mafra town. We suggest combining Mafra with the trendy surfing town of Ericeira. Ericeira has a pretty fishing harbour and a characterful fishing district, and there are impressive surfing beaches, either to surf or to watch the surfers.
Related articles: Mafra guide - Ericeira guide
The grand Palácio Nacional de Mafra
Evora is the historic capital of the Alentejo region, and has barely altered since its 16th-century heyday. There are cobbled streets lined with traditional houses, along with a Roman temple, a Gothic cathedral and a historic university complex. A full day could be spent sightseeing within Evora, but a trip could also visit the Neolithic stone formations of Cromeleque dos Almendres.
Related articles: Evora guide
The Roman temple in the centre of Evora
Tomar and Fatima
Tomar was the stronghold of the Knight's Templar in Portugal, and today is a very pretty town to visit. In Tomar is the Convento de Cristo, one of Portugal's finest religious building, while 15km to the south is the Castelo de Almourol, a Knight's Templar castle.
A day trip to Tomar could be combined with the important Pilgrimage destination of Fatima, where the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherds in 1917.
Related articles: Tomar guide - Fatima guide
The Convento de Cristo with it’s unique circular chapel
Nazaré, Batalha and Alcobaça
Nazaré is a delightful beach town, which is famed for its huge (30m+) surfing waves, that form between October and March. Nazaré has a pretty beachfront and a historic district at the top of the Sítio headland, which leads to the Praia do Norte surfing beach. The Nazaré day trip could be combined with the towns of Batalha and Alcobaça, each of which has its own impressive Gothic monasteries.
Related articles: Nazaré guide - Batalha guide
Don’t be expecting huge surfing waves at Nazare on a calm summer’s day
Setubal, Palmela castle and wine tasing in Azeitão
The port city of Setubal is a great place to experience authentic modern-day Portugal. This is a hardworking city that is rich in history and character, with a traditional fish market and a pretty harbour front. A day trip to Setubal could be combined with the hilltop castle of Palmela and wine tasting in the village of Azeitão.
Related articles: Setubal guide
If you're considering if to get a rental car for your trip to Lisbon, base it on this;
A car is not recommended if:
• This is your first trip to Lisbon
• It is a short trip of less than 4 days (and will be visiting the main sights)
• If you are under 25 (there are unfair and expensive surcharges for young drivers)
• If this your first time driving in Europe
• If you are not a confident driver
A rental car is recommended if:
• If you have longer stay in the Lisbon region (6+ days)
• If you are based outside of the city and away from main public transport links
• Enjoy discovering remote areas and non-tourist sites
Driving in Lisbon is not an enjoyable experience, and you should really consider if you need a car while in the capital. The roads in the historic centre are very narrow and always congested, while car parking is extremely limited.
Once you navigate to the expressways, the roads do not get much better. Some of the road surfaces are very poor and many of the junctions are very confusing, with poor signage. The expressways get better once you understand them, but the first few times is nerve-wracking, and it is very easy to get lost.
Advice: Always have a decent sat nav or navigation software on your phone
Public transport in Lisbon is excellent, and taxis/Ubers are inexpensive - while just visiting Lisbon there is no need for a car. There is very good public transport to the popular day trips, such as Sintra, Cascais or the beaches of the Estoril coastline.
Traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road and the national speed limit of Portugal is 90km/h. This is reduced to 50km/h for towns or built-up areas and increases to 120km/h on expressways. Local speed restrictions are indicated by signage along the side of the roads.
Portuguese drivers will commonly break these limits and do take unnecessary risks especially when overtaking slower traffic. This has unfortunately resulted in Portugal having the highest level of road accident deaths per capita of all European countries. Fortunately, in Lisbon the crammed and congested roads mean that high speeds rarely achieved.
While driving in Lisbon always carry all of your travel documents (driver's license and insurance documents) as these can be requested by the police in the unlikely event of an incident. In Portugal seat belts are legal and must be worn by the driver and all passengers. Drinking limits are very low, so it is best not to drink and drive.
The two issues which cause the most irritation for visitors is the lack of parking and the poor traffic flow management (random signs, vague road markings and hidden traffic lights). The other complexity for visitors arriving from the USA are roundabouts, and these roundabouts are filled with the unpredictable driving of the Portuguese!
Parking is almost non-existent in the historic central Lisbon, especially the districts of Baixa, Chiado and Alfama. Some top end hotels have spaces reserved, but most budget to mid-range hotels have no parking available. Central Lisbon has many one-way streets, which can have tourist going around in circles looking for a car parking space.
The historic centre of Lisbon has high volumes of traffic, and it is often easier to simply avoid and catch the metro or a taxi. Taxis and Uber in Lisbon are surprisingly cheap (just ensure the meter is used) and can often be the most convenient way to travel around Lisbon.
Car rentals in Portugal often have many hidden costs, trying to extract the most out of tourists. The biggest complaint from most tourists regards the collision damage waiver (CDW), or more commonly known as the insurance excess.
All car rentals have compulsory insurance included in the rental price, but the excess is routinely set at €1,000. This amount will be charged to a credit card and taken in the case of any damage.
The excess can be waived with an additional payment of around €10-15 per day, which often doubles the price of a cheap rental. There is a high risk of minor damage in Lisbon, and we would always advise paying for the waiver.
If you choose not to waive the excess, the amount (€1,000) will be charged (but not taken) to a credit/debit card at the time of collection of the car. If you do not have sufficient credit on the card to cover the excess, the rental will be refused or the CDW insurance must be taken.
The CDW is a local cost and is on top of any insurance which the rental company (if multinational) states on their website. All Portuguese rental companies will do this and is not specific to one company.
Many of the main expressways in Portugal have tolls and many of the toll gates are automatic. If you are planning to drive on these roads discuss with your rental company on collection of the car, as paying afterwards is very difficult. The toll system is overly complex; the official Portugal toll websites describes all the different options:
The best method is the use of the Via Verde but will require an additional rental fee of 2-3 Euro per day. This system is great as the car can pass through the Via Verde green lanes and not stop or queue.
The car rental parks of Lisbon airport lead directly onto one of the busiest roundabouts, a sub-junction of the 2nd Circular ring road. Before leaving the car park, be sure you are familiar with your car before, and your route is planned.
One of the quirks of Portuguese driving is that that traffic joining from the right has priority over traffic on the main road, this applies to all major city roads but not expressways. This surprises foreign drivers while travelling on major city roads as the traffic merging onto the dual carriage way has priority over the traffic on the main road.
One final point of advice if you directed to a car parking space by a vagrant person always give a tip, even if the help was questionable, as otherwise on your return to your car some mysterious damage will have occurred.
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