The original, independent guide to Lisbon
Driving in Lisbon is challenging, and is one of Europe's most difficult cities to drive in. The roads are narrow and old, drivers are impatient and erratic, signage is almost non-existent, and parking is difficult to find. Driving in Lisbon is not a fun or enjoyable experience, and visitors should really consider if they need to drive while visiting the capital. This guide will provide an introduction to driving in Lisbon along with advice for renting a car.
If your holiday is to just to Lisbon then there is almost no need to drive; public transport covers the entire city and taxis (and Uber) are safe and inexpensive. There is excellent public transport to the popular day trips from Lisbon, with direct trains to Cascais and Sintra and buses to Obidos, Mafra and Sesimbra.
A rental car is essential if you wish to explore the more remote of isolated areas of the central Portugal. These areas include the Alentejo, the Serra da Arrabida or the Serra de Sintra, but these areas are rarely visited on the first trip to Lisbon. If your holiday is a tour of Portugal consider a rental car for only the second stage of your holiday, once outside of the capital.
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 freeways or 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 for 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 tight, 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 possible fee if there is any damage to the car, can be waived with an additional payment of around €10-15 per day, thus doubling 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 organisation.
The most scenic drive in the Lisbon region is through the Serra da Arrabida national park, along the Estrada de Escarpa (N379-1). The Serra da Arrabida is a series of steep hills which overlook the turquoise seas of the Sado estuary. The region is simply breath-taking, with green hills, massive cliffs and beautiful beaches. For a guide to the national park along with the Estrada de Escarpa route please see this web-page.
The ridge along the Estrada de Escarpa
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.