Imagine a land of warm colors, of shimmering ceramics under the sun. Sweet as a bite to a cream and puff pastry, melancholic as the notes of a love ballad. For the traveller who discovers it for the first time, Portugal isn’t a country, but a state of mind.
In this article we’ll tell you about our 12-day road trip to Portugal, with lots of useful tips for organizing a similar itinerary. Ready to discover it with us?
Portugal, what to see in 12 days
When we started organizing our road trip to Portugal, we realised that 12 days would not be enough to cover the whole country. That’s why we decided to focus on northern Portugal and leave the rest for a future holiday.
Portugal on the road: from Porto to Lisbon
Our journey begins in Porto and ends in Lisbon, passing through historical cities and sunny wine-growing regions. Here are all the stops of our itinerary.
Day 1-2: Porto
We fly to Porto from Malpensa airport in Italy. From the airport, we reach our lovely apartment The Gallery Studios II in about 45 minutes by metro.
In the early afternoon the city is lined with azulejos, the colorful ceramic tiles typical of the Iberian Peninsula. A short walk is enough to realize that Porto is literally packed with them. We visit the Capela das Almas, the São Bento railway station and the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, three of the best spots to admire the azulejos.
On the way down to La Ribeira the love for Porto overwhelms us. The winding alleys and cracked facades of the houses, which until then had spoken to us of abandonment and neglect, are transformed into the Ribeira district in a blaze of colors and geometries. The decadence of Porto is clothed in poetry and whispers romantic stories as the river Douro flows slowly.
A heavy mist rises from the river, obscuring the port cellars on the other bank, on the opposite side of the Ponte de Dom Luís I, in Vila Nova de Gaia. It’s here that you go and taste the fortified wine that bears the name of the city, produced in the Douro region.
Igreja do Carmo and Livraria Lello
On the morning of the second day we visit the Igreja do Carmo, which has the most beautiful azulejos facades in town. A few steps from the church is the famous Livraria Lello, one of the oldest in Portugal. Its stained glass windows and magnificent staircase seem to have inspired the writer of Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, who lived in Porto for a few years.
Livraria Lello: opening times and tickets
- Tickets 5€, which can be deducted from a book’s purchase
- Open every day from 10 am to 7 pm
- Visiting outside peak hours might avoid you long queues
Port wine tasting at Cálem
In the afternoon we cross the Ponte de Dom Luís I, which marks the border between the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. Here we visit the cellars of Cálem and do a guided tasting of port wine: a very pleasant experience, which we recommend.
The view of Porto from the banks of Vila Nova is exceptional: the barcos rabelos, curious boats for wine transporting, float on the river, while the Ribeira offers its most colourful show.
- Guided tour in English and 2 wine tasting: 12€
- Timetables: open everyday from 10 am to 7 pm
Day 3: Douro Valley
On the morning of the third day we sadly say goodbye to Porto. At the airport we pick up our rental car and drive towards the Douro Valley.
This region of Portugal, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located on the banks of the Douro river. Here vineyards climb in orderly rows over gentle hills, through roads full of hairpin bends. It’s here that the port and many other Portuguese wines are produced.
We fill our eyes with this beauty from the terrace of the Quinta da Veiga. This farmhouse overlooking the river is a place out of time, where you can rediscover slow rhythms and authentic flavors.
The day passes quickly between a visit to the village of Pinhão and relaxing by the pool. The cherry on the cake? A traditional Quinta-style dinner, with typical dishes and countless glasses of wine.
Day 4: Lamego and Coimbra
On the fourth day we leave the Douro Valley and start heading south. Our first stop is Lamego, a beautiful town where we visit the Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. To reach it you have to climb a spectacular staircase of 686 steps, decorated with balconies, statues and azulejos.
To recover our strength, we enter the Pastelaria da Sé and taste the typical bolas, a thin flattened pasta stuffed with meat or fish.
In the afternoon we reach Coimbra, home of the best university in Portugal. The city is built on a series of hills and mirrors itself in the waters of the Rio Mondego. We stay in the Guest House Santa Clara, cheap but very nice, at the foot of the historic center.
We visit the University of Coimbra: the Joanina Library and the Capela de São Miguel leave us speechless. Later, we get lost in the narrow alleys of the upper city, among the student houses covered with graffiti. During summer holidays, students use to go home, but in the rest of the year they offer quite a picturesque show, with their black togas and cloaks.
After a few appetizing petiscos at Tapas Nas Costas, we descend to Café Santa Crux to watch a fado show. The fadists are singing in Praça 8 de Maio, filling the air with their melancholy music. Some say that you can breathe the most authentic Portugal in Coimbra: it’s easy to understand why.
Day 5: Coimbra and the Convento de Christo of Tomar
After a breakfast with pasteis de nata, we complete our visit of Coimbra with two final stops: the Science Museum and the Jardin Botânico. Then we drive towards Tomar to visit the spectacular Convento de Cristo.
The history of this fortress is linked to the Templar, who founded it in the 12th century. In Portugal the Knights Templar had incredible power and wealth: it was they who, under the name Order of Christ, financed the Portuguese geographical expeditions.
Visiting the Convento de Cristo takes at least 2 hours: there are many rooms and courtyards, decorated in exceptional Manueline style. It’s a real journey back in time among walls whispering intrigues and mysteries.
Convento de Cristo
- Tickets 6€
- From October to May, 9 am – 5.30 pm
- From June to September, 9 am – 6.30 pm
Leaving Tomar behind us, we arrive in the evening at Óbidos, where we stay in the exquisitely domestic atmosphere of the Casa do Fontanário.
Day 6: Óbidos
Jump in time? In Óbidos we wake up in the Middle Ages. We couldn’t have come to the city at a better time, on the occasion of the Mercado Medieval, held every year in July for 2 weeks.
It’s a charming masquerade festival near the castle, with typical taverns, shows of acrobats and knights tournaments. It’s amazing to see how much the people of Óbidos have come down to the part!
We spend the whole day in this white town with red roofs, walking along the walls to photograph it from above and getting lost in its alleys covered with climbing plants. This is our heart’s place in Portugal.
In Óbidos we taste the ginja for the first time, a sour cherry wine often served in a copo, a a small chocolate glass. As it always goes with cherries, it’s impossibile not to drink one ginja after the other.
Day 7: Évora
We are now halfway through our road trip in Portugal. It’s time to move to the center of the country and spend two days between Évora and the Alentejo region. Here we stay at the Moov Hotel, a hotel chain of excellent value for money.
The city of Évora can be visited in a few hours, but it takes a few more hours to settle into its relaxed provincial atmosphere, between a tasting of Alentejo wines and the other. Visit the beautiful Sé Cathedral, the scay Capela dos Ossos and the remains of the Templo Romano.
Day 8: Alentejo and its white villages
On the second day in Évora, we begin touring around the Alentejo region. This area of Portugal is famous for its wine production along the Rota dos Vinhos and for its white villages, perched on scenic hills.
In the morning we visit the Cromoleque dos Almendres, a megalithic complex enclosed in cork trees. We continue along the “wine road” towards Monsaraz, a small white village just a few kilometers from the border with Spain, with a castle on top.
It’s a charming and quiet place, where you can walk through alleys full of bougainvillea flowers. A few kilometers from Monsaraz you can relax on the river beach of Alqueva.
Day 9-10: Lisbon
After two days of relax, it’s time to get back into the noise of civilization. We can assure you, in few cities there’s more noise than in Lisbon! After returning our car to the airport, we spend the last four days of our journey in the capital of Portugal.
In Lisbon we stay at Alegria Center Apartments, near the metro station Avenida: a great location halfway between Baixa and Bairro Alto districts.
In Lisbon we feel tired, hot and oppressed by the crowds of tourists. Perhaps picking it as the last stop of the holiday was not a great idea, especially in high season.
In Lisbon everything is exaggerated, almost oppressive. It’s a babel of azulejos, colours, rails, hanging clothes, alleys, noises, graffiti, rubbish, climbing plants, dust, ups and downs, sweets tempting us from shop windows… You turn the corner and don’t know where you ended up. It’s a special kind of beauty.
Baixa, Rossio and l’Alfama
On the same afternoon of our arrival, we explore the new districts of Baixa and Rossio, then we walk to the Arco de Rua Augusta and Praça do Comércio, which ends on the banks of river Tejo.
We follow yellow and clanking trams through the alleys of the Alfama and admire the view from two of its lookouts: the Miradouro de Santa Luzia and the Miradouro das Portas de Sol. We conclude the evening at Mercado da Ribeira, a food market with many different stalls.
On the second day in Lisbon we take a bus to Belém, a district 6-7 kilometers far from the center. Here you will find two of the main attractions of the city: the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Torre de Belém. We admire the first one only from the outside, while we spend a lot of time under the beautiful fortified tower, a symbol of the Portuguese geographical explorations.
Another of Portugal’s symbols was born in Belém: the pastel de nata or de belém, created according to tradition by the monks of the Mosteiro. The original and secret recipe is carried out by the Pastéis de Belém pastry shop, a few steps from the monastery.
In half an hour’s walk from Belém we reach the LX Factory, an artistic micro-district born from a converted industrial complex. LX Factory is now home to design shops, restaurants and galleries with a charming hipster atmosphere, much more European than the rest of Lisbon. There are beautiful street art, original food and the beautiful Livraria Ler Devagar.
Near LX Factory you can also admire the impressive 25 de Abril Bridge, inspired by San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Convento do Carmo
Between siesta and dinner we visit the Convento do Carmo, destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1755. We observe the sky between the standing walls and walk along the aisles. In the late afternoon it looks incredibly beautiful and quiet, an oasis of peace in the chaos of Lisbon.
Convento Do Carmo
- Tickets 4€
- Open from Monday to Saturday
- From October to May, 10 am – 6 pm; from June to September, 10 am – 7 pm
Day 11: Sintra and its palaces
The Palácio da Pena in Sintra is one of Portugal’s symbols, could we not have included it in our itinerary? The colourful castle, one of the residences of the Portuguese kings before the proclamation of the Republic, stands on top of a high hill in the city of Sintra.
It can be reached in about 40 minutes by train from Lisbon. We find it wrapped in fog, suggestive… and crowded with tourists since the early morning.
Palácio da Pena
- Castle + park ticket 14€
- From Sintra station take bus n. 434
- For the outward journey it’s convenient to take the bus, while the return can be done on foot in about 30 minutes.
The Palácio da Pena isn’t the only castle in Sintra. We recommend to visit Quinta da Regaleira, a noble residence restored by an eccentric billionaire and built by the Italian architect Luigi Manini. Among its gardens and turrets, esoteric buildings such as the Poço Iniciático and Masonic symbols can be found.
Quinta da Regaleira
- Tickets 6€
- From 1st of April to 30th of September, 9.30 am – 8 pm
- From 1st of October to 31st of March, 9.30 am – 6 pm
Day 12: Lisbon
We spend the last day in Lisbon wandering through familiar streets. Having an extra day in the city is a great way to get more out of the wishlist. We would like to take a ride on tram no. 28, one of the most peculiar ways to visit the city. But the heat and the crowds of tourists make us give up.
In the evening we depart from Lisbon airport, headed back to Italy. We leave behind a country full of life, which has filled us for many days, to the point that we have almost forgotten where we started.
It was a long journey, as full-bodied as an Alentejo wine, as tasty as a polvo a lagareiro. A journey and a country that we will carry in our hearts and to which we hope to return soon.
Tips for organizing an on-the-road-trip to Portugal
Everyone could organise a road trip to Portugal, but you need to know where to start. It’s very important to prioritize the places you want to visit, without trying to overdo. In Portugal, the pace is slow, and your trip should consequently be slow too.
Where to sleep in Portugal? Here are our tips for accommodation (prices for a double room):
- 2 nights in Porto, The Gallery Studios II: 130€
- 1 night in Douro Valley, Quinta da Veiga: 70€
- 1 night in Coimbra, Guest House Santa Clara: 55€
- 2 nights in Óbidos, Casa do Fontanário: 134€
- 2 nights in Evora, Moov Hotel: 96€
- 3 nights in Lisbon, Alegria Center Apartments: 204€
The total for the accommodation was 344,50€ per person, about 31€ per night. Travelling by car, we have privileged the possibility of parking on site and a slightly decentralized location. If possibile, avoid climbing by car through the narrow streets of the Portuguese villages!
Renting a car in Portugal
Renting a car in Portugal is no different than in any other European country. We have compared the prices of various companies and Europcar was the cheapest at the time of our trip.
Out of 12 days of travel we have rented the car only for the 6 days of the journey from Porto to Lisbon. In both cities, moving by car isn’t necessary nor advisable. For the rental we spent 280€, plus 85€ for the diesel. In our case, the deposit retained on the credit card was 300€.
Choosing to pick up the car in Porto and return it to Lisbon added a surcharge to the rental, but it seemed to us the most reasonable solution for not losing days of travel. Obviously this meant flying over two different airports on the outward and return journey.
It isn’t impossible to find rental companies without a credit card, but in this case the cost for the car rises a lot, almost doubling. To travel on roads and motorways in Portugal we have also added toll to the rental, a sort of electronic pass that charges the cost of the toll on the credit card.
Flights to Portugal
There are a lots of airlines that operate flights to Portugal. We have chosen the Portuguese company TAP. It was the first time we had flown with them and we had a great time. In particular, we were impressed with the free onboard food and drink service, which was offered both on the outward and return journey.
For the flights we spent a total of 110€ per person, including one 23 kg suitcase and 2 hand luggages, with a return trip from Malpensa to Porto and from Lisbon to Malpensa. We booked the flights about 4 months in advance.
What to eat in Portugal
Portuguese gastronomy is a real pleasure. What were the most delicious dishes of our trip to Portugal? We’ll tell you about it in one of the next articles. Meanwhile, here are some instructions for eating in restaurants in Portugal.
First of all, almost everywhere you pay for the service (couvert), which usually consists of a basket of bread, salted butter and olives as appetizers. Waiters will usually ask if you like it, but if it arrives without you having ordered it you will find it in the bill. Tips, on the other hand, are welcome but not mandatory.
Not all places accept credit cards (sometimes they only accept Portuguese cards), so it’s better to make sure before entering a place without cash.
We never had any communication difficulties. Not all Portuguese people speak English: they often understand it well, but continue to speak in their own language. Despite the reserved and shady character of the Portuguese, we have always met kind and helpful people.
The best time to visit Portugal
When is the best time to visit Portugal? The climate here is characterized by hot summers and cold and rainy winters. If you’re interested in a few stops by the sea, keep in mind that the ocean’s waters are quite cold, so you’d better organize your trip in high season.
If you wish to follow our itinerary, we recommend that you consider the periods of May-June and September-October, when temperatures are milder and cities are less crowded with tourists.
So, are you planning your trip to Portugal? Check out these other articles about our road trip: