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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.

6 Comments

  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,
    AG

    • 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.

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