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Posted on Jul 19, 2016 in Blog, Portugal

Should You Rent a Car in Portugal?

Should You Rent a Car in Portugal?

From time to time people write me with questions about their upcoming trips to Portugal. A common question that I get is, “Should I rent a car?”

Avoid this. Walk or take public transportation.

Avoid this. Walk or take public transportation.

Several years ago I suggested a friend rent a car to travel to Évora, a town in the Alentejo region known for its Roman ruins and medieval palaces and churches. Last year, when we went there ourselves, we had no problem using public transportation. We saw the countryside from the window of our comfortable air-conditioned bus, and the town itself was quite walkable. We have traveled to a number of other cities and towns in Portugal via public transportation, including Sintra, Cascais, Óbidos (which is a bit of a pain because there is a bus transfer in Caldas das Rainhas (route to Leiria) and then a cab ride to the medieval castle that’s the town’s attraction), Tomar, Coimbra, Aveiro, and Porto. We know we can take short bus or train trips to other spots we have yet to visit — Nazaré on the Atlantic Coast (a popular surfing destination but also one known for the devoutly Catholic widows dressed in black), Setúbal, a city south of the Tejo about an hour from Lisbon, and Guimarães, a city east of Porto that served as the country’s capital in the early Middle Ages.

Richard and I don’t like to drive, and we’re willing to put up with the inconveniences of public transportation — being tied to a schedule, possible delays (mass transportation generally runs on time, unless there’s a strike or other rare circumstance), taking taxis from station to hotel or city center (relatively inexpensive in Portugal) , buying tickets (speaking Portuguese helps, though English is widely spoken throughout the country), and limited access to the countryside. Having Portuguese friends with cars means we’ve seen rural villages, though we’re pretty much city people anyway. But if you want to explore rural areas or the wine country on your own, without having to sign onto a tour, renting a car is a good idea. The same if you want to travel to the Algarve, the country’s principal resort area.

The Lisbon neighborhood of Mouraria has become popular with visitors. But do you want to drive in this?

The Lisbon neighborhood of Mouraria has become popular with visitors. But do you want to drive in this?

On the other hand, if you plan to spend all your time in Lisbon and/or Porto, I suggest you not rent a car. Parking is nearly impossible, streets (especially in Lisbon but also in older sections of Porto) are narrow, winding, poorly marked, and usually one way. They love traffic circles — do you? In Lisbon especially, a street will dead end, and the only way to get to the intersection marked on your map is via a staircase. And, no, cars are not allowed to go up and down staircases. Taxi drivers frequently get lost in their own city, which is not your city. Older sections of these (and other Portuguese cities) were not laid out by professional planners but by livestock centuries ago. If you’ve ever driven through Boston, you know what I mean. I know several travelers who needlessly complicated their vacation by renting a car in Lisbon.

On the other hand, public transportation in both Lisbon and Porto is excellent, and both cities are pedestrian-friendly compared with others throughout Europe (looking at you, Dublin!). If you get lost, there are plenty of friendly, English-speaking people to offer directions. The Lisbon metro runs more frequently than any similar metro or subway in the U.S., and the stations and trains are great places to find out about fun events for both locals and visitors. Since my insanely-popular feature, “Trendsetter and Hipster’s Guide to Enjoying Lisbon,” touchscreen kiosks have been installed in many metro stations to help you find concerts, museum exhibits, festivals, and more. In Lisbon, the 28 streetcar passes through many of the major tourist destinations, from the São Bento Palace that houses the Assembly of the Republic to the historic Alfama neighborhood. The only Lisbon destination where you may wish you had a car is the LX Factory, because the many bus lines that run there aren’t the most reliable. But, parking in that neighborhood is pretty close to impossible so you have a choice — wait for the bus, spend an equal amount of time cruising around for parking, or spring for a taxi. (We waited for the bus and took the first one that came to whatever metro station it dropped us off.)

If you do decide to rent a car in Portugal, here are some additional tips, beyond the usual for renting cars in any country:

  • Around 90% of rental cars are manual transmission. If you need a car with automatic transmission, you will have to reserve one in advance.
  • Most cars are compact. They need to be, to drive on roads built before cars existed.
  • Bridges and highways charge tolls. The easiest is to pay 10 euros for the transponder at the rental agency, and have your credit card billed. Otherwise, it gets complicated, involving a visit to a post office within 2-5 days where you may have to wait in line to pay.
  • Major highways and secondary roads are generally good, and our experience is that drivers in Portugal are no better or worse than most places (despite complaints you may have read on other sites). But the first rainy days of fall can be dangerous, much like the first snowy days in the northern United States. After three months of nonstop sunshine, people aren’t used to driving in rain.
  • Drunk driving laws are stricter than in the U.S. and taken very seriously. The legal limit is .05 BAC, so your wine tour will need a designated driver.
  • Driving is on the right side of the road, as in the U.S. In the Algarve, watch out for folks driving on the left. There, one-way streets may be everyone’s friend.
  • [added 5/17] Pedestrians in crosswalks have right-of-way. Please honor this rule, as one of those pedestrians may be me.

Feel free to contact me if you have additional questions, particularly about navigating public transportation. I’m a big fan of buses and trains, for worry-free travel and as a way of meeting people and getting to know the country in a way that most tourists do not.


  1. Hi there we are going to lisbon and planning to go to lagos. Would you recc we rent a car. we are there for seven days. We are also planning to go to porto on our own!

    Looking forward to your reply. thanks,

    • It’s good to have to have a car for any trip to the Algarve (where Lagos is). My suggestion, though, would be to rent the car at the airport, so you can just get on the highway and don’t have to drive through Lisbon’s streets, returning the car to the airport as well. If you spend time in Lisbon before or after leaving for Lagos, it’s really easy to get to and from the airport via the Metro. And if you take the train to Porto, which I recommend, the Oriente train station is three stops from the airport on the Metro or a short taxi ride. Have a great trip!

  2. How safe it is to drive a rental car in Portugal? What are road conditions and what are the traffic laws for foreigners?

    • Driving is generally safe in Portugal, with accident rates pretty much average for the EU. The main highways are good. Country roads are narrow and lack shoulders. Driving in Lisbon and the center of Porto is difficult because of narrow streets not on any particular grid, steep hills, and nowadays a lot of construction. I do not recommend renting a car to get around in either city. As far as traffic laws, driving is on the right as it is in most of Europe (exceptions are the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, and Malta) and most of the laws are standard. Signs are all monolingual in Portuguese.

  3. For a large family (8 people), do you recommend renting a car in Lisbon or would you recommend using public transportation? Are certain areas easier to get to within Lisbon with a car.

    • Once you go outside the area of the “7 Hills” (and its narrow streets and staircases) driving is more feasible. So Belém and points west, including Sintra and Cascais, are easy enough with a car, as are south across the river and east to the Oriente neighborhoods near the Parque das Naçōes, the aquarium, and the Vasco da Gama mall. With a family of 8, you would have to rent a van, which makes driving in the older parts of Lisbon even more challenging. The tourist areas of Alfama, Mouraria, Baixa, Chiado, Bairro Alto, and Principe Real are highly accessible by public transportation and a nightmare for driving. The LX factory in the Calvário neighborhood, which is worth a visit for the dining and shopping (including one of my favorite bookstores), is not well-served by public transportation but parking can be a problem at peak times.

      If you plan to drive a lot of places, it may be a good idea to book a hotel near the airport or Oriente train station, or else stay in a resort area in the suburbs like Cascais. You can get into the historic parts of Lisbon easily and the Metro and suburban rail both run late at night.

  4. Thank you for your post. We are a family of four, two teenage boys, me and my husband. Flying in and out of Lisbon in June. We don’t generally rent cars in Europe because of costs and find trains are easier. However, we are 13 days in Portugal and we are considering 5 days Lisbon then heading north and seeing Tomar , Coimbra and Obidos before landing in Porto for 4-5 days. We are active but love to visit cities too. I would love any suggestions. Maybe rent a car for three or four days? Did that in Italy. Any suggestions on places to stay appreciated. We generally vrbo so we have space during downtime but also like BnB type places. Hard to find family suites! Thank you in advance for any ideas, thoughts and suggestions!!

    • Thank you for your question! It sounds like you have a fun trip planned, and June is a good month — not too hot, probably, and a little before high season. As far as your question about the car, Tomar and Coimbra are quite accessible by train, though you will have to take a short taxi ride from the Coimbra-B station into the city. Obidos is not on a rail line, though the Rodovaria de Tejo bus ( does go there, from the Campo Grande station in Lisbon, and takes about an hour. This line started up the year after we went to Obidos by bus, and in those days (2012), the trip involved a transfer or a long taxi ride from Caldas das Rainhas.

      I also recommend a trip to Evora, which you can also do by bus if you don’t want to drive. It has a Chapel of Bones and Roman ruins that are worth seeing, as well as a cool little university area. Here’s my blog piece on Evora:

      In general, if you don’t want to rent a car to get to these places, you don’t have to. Having a car for the days that you visit places outside Lisbon and Porto is certainly a convenience, and with four people, you might not be paying more than the train or bus would cost. (It would also depend on whether they would charge you more for renting the car in Lisbon and dropping it off in Porto.) In any case, I would not recommend driving a car in either Lisbon (because of the hills and narrow streets) or Porto (because it’s impossible to park). Rent and drop off at the airport, then take the metro into either city.

      As far as places to stay, we usually stay at university housing or with friends, but Obidos, and I believe Tomar too, have medieval castles that have been turned into inns. They’re a bit of a splurge, but your boys will enjoy them. The same for Quinta das Lágrimas in Coimbra, but it has an interesting history that involves ghosts.

      If you locate an AirBnB in Lisbon and would like more information about the neighborhood where it’s located, please let me know here or via the contact form.

  5. Great article! I am travelling to Portugal with 5 of my friends in July 2018 and we are renting a car because we have booked a villa in the countryside near Sintra. Do you have any recommendations on an area that we could get a rental and somewhat avoid the crazy traffic (Sintra, Cascais, etc.)? I have heard horror stories about driving from Lisbon to Sintra so if we could travel to a smaller town by train or bus and rent a car there, that would be ideal. THANKS!

    • Thank you! Glad I could help! If you’re flying into Lisbon, whatever traffic you hit between the airport and Sintra if you rent your car at the airport is still going to be less hassle than carrying your bags to the train station, on the train, and to the rental car office when you arrive in the town. There are two ways you can go from the airport directly into Sintra. Both are on major highways — one the Eixo (ring highway) E1 and A37, the other, the E1 and IC/A 16 (which has tolls, but the rental cars should be equipped with a way of paying those tolls electronically). Yes, there will be traffic, but you will bypass most of the city. In other words, you will not be driving through the streets of Lisbon, which is far more difficult than sitting in a traffic jam on a highway. Also, July is high season, and the sooner you book your car, the less expensive it will be.

      Once you’ve rented your car and settled into your villa, you’ll probably want to find the nearest suburban train station with parking and take that commuter train into Lisbon for sightseeing, shopping, and dining.

  6. Hello. Thank you for your wonderful suggestions. Me and 12 friends are going to Portugal for the first time this July 2018. We rented a house in Algarves. I do believe we all will be flying into Lisbon.

    A friend suggested we maybe hire a shuttle driver to take us to Algarves, which if i’m not mistaken is about 3 hours from Lisbon? Would you recommend any services that provide this? If not, should I just rent a car at the airport for a few friends and I and take the trip to Algarves from Lisbon? Although I am a bit apprehensive in driving in another country, I believe once I get adjusted it should be pretty straight forward on the roads.

    I guess our main focus to alleviate any headaches or confusion on transporting us all to Algarves. Being that this is the first time we all are visiting Portugal we want to make the transport to Algarves as smooth as possible.

    We will be in Algarves for 6 days/nights and will stay in Lisbon for 2 nights before heading back to the United States.

    Thank you in advance for any suggestions.

    • Hi, Eddie! Thank you for your question! One alternative you should consider is booking a flight to Faro, the main city in the Algarve, which will eliminate the need to drive or take the train for three hours each way. TAP Portugal is currently running a special in which you can fly to Faro, stopping over in Lisbon (because there are no direct flights from the US to Faro) and staying a day or two to sightsee in Lisbon at no extra charge. Otherwise, the cost for renting a 12-15 passenger van (or 3 cars) from the Lisbon airport for a week is close to $1000 in July because it’s high season — and that doesn’t even take gas and tolls into account. Public transportation from Lisbon to any of the cities in the Algarve is cheaper, even for 12 people. A round trip bus to Lagos, for instance, is 36 euros per person, which comes to 432 euros. One problem with trains and buses in high season is that you need to book in advance because seats sell out.

      One more question: Where are you staying in the Algarve? Closer to Faro, the flight or the train are better. And once you get to the Algarve, you’ll probably want to have at least one car to explore the area.

  7. I am visiting Portugal in March, and renting a car. Can you tell me what insurance coverage is required/recommend? Typical costs? Can you buy deductible down to $0.00? Recommended car rentals?

    • Hi, Pat! Thank you for writing in! If you have car rental insurance as a benefit of your credit card, it will work in Portugal. Otherwise, the rental companies offer a basic Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) and a super CDW. Both of them are pricey if you have other alternatives, but the super CDW will give you a zero deductible. But check with your credit card company first because you don’t want to pay if you don’t have to.

  8. What will a car rental cost from Sintra (April 28/2018 at10:00am pickup) and leave the car in Faro May 05/2018) around 5:00pm Faro airport?

    • The best thing to do is book online ASAP because rates change. The end of April and beginning of May is not high season, so the rental will cost less than in the summer. My quick check landed a price range for an economy car from $179 USD to $500 USD, renting the car from the Lisbon airport. While there are car rental options in Sintra, they are fewer and less likely to offer a one-way rental.

  9. Hi Lyn, thanks a million for the very informative blog on driving in Portugal! So much information & yet so many questions! We are planning on a trip to Portugal for early to mid October 2019! There will be 4 adults and an infant (will be age 2 by October 2019). We plan for about 12-15 days there–places to visit have not been finalized but will likely be: Lisbon–probably staying first 2 days and last 2-3 days of our trip (flying in/out of here from JFK/New York U.S.A); Porto, Obidos, Douro, Sintra, Evora, Averio, & Lagos/Algarve (not in this particular order. Not sure if this is jam packed for 2 weeks. Open to suggestions or any additional places we should to look into). Main question would be: Should we rent/hire a car? If so, should we do it from the beginning, or only for a portion of our trip? Thank you so much for your advice and looking forward to hearing from you!!

    • Thank you for writing in, Ethan! It sounds like you have a fun trip planned! You can visit all these places in 15 days; 12 days is too short for everything you want to see on this list because you’re basically going from one end of the country to the other. As far as additional places to look into, Coimbra would be at the top of my list, with the university, the library, the cathedrals, and the music, but it’s not for everyone. Read the two posts I have on Coimbra ( and and decide for yourselves. As far as renting a car, you definitely should not have one during the time you’re in Lisbon — and that would include traveling to Sintra, because it’s accessible by suburban train — but it would be a convenience if you want to stop in Obidos and Aveiro (and maybe Coimbra) on your way to or from Porto and drive through the Douro Valley when you’re there. The Algarve is the area of Portugal where you definitely need a car, but it would also save you time and give you flexibility when you go to Obidos, the Douro Valley, and Evora.

      • Thanks Lyn for the quick and informative response!! By now, I’ve notice that you have been strongly advising others not to rent a car/drive while in Lisbon!! So with that said, you would recommend we rent a car at Lisbon only after we stay our initial 1st two days in the beginning of our trip: Preliminary idea is: JFK->Lisbon (rent car for going to)–>Sangres–>Lagos/Algarve–>Evora–>Douro Valley–>Porto–>Averio–>Lisbon (return car) & take public transport to–>Sintra–>car service or public transportation to Lisbon airport. Would this work? It’s tough when we are flying in/out of Lisbon but are advised not to car while in Lisbon. Thanks again for your input!

        • Yes, this is what I’d advise. However, some people have found another solution by staying in Sintra rather than Lisbon, a choice that I think is especially good for families with young children and in the high season when things are loud and crowded. If you stay in Sintra, you could rent the car upon your arrival at the airport and return it when you leave, and take the commuter train into Lisbon for the day to sightsee.

          • Interesting. That’s something we’ll definitely look into! Is the commuter train from/to Sintra/Lisbon reliable and runs often?

          • Yes, there are also buses, and if you rent the car when you arrive, you still have the option of driving. 🙂


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