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Visit Portugal: Road Trip Itinerary for Traveling North of Lisbon

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Anna resided in Lisbon, Portugal for two years, married a Lisbonite, and calls the picturesque city her second home (after NYC).

If you take a Lisbon road trip, see the Pena Palace in Sintra.

If you take a Lisbon road trip, see the Pena Palace in Sintra.

The Many Places to Visit in Portugal

Portugal is an ideal vacation destination. The country is full of gorgeous beaches along the rugged coastline, charming little towns seeped in history, grand churches, castles, and cathedrals making skylines, and there's even sunny weather nearly all year long!

Are you thinking of traveling to Portugal and wondering what are some of the top recommended cities to visit? Let me tell you, that is a very hard question to answer! Having lived in Portugal for the past year and a half, visiting the biggest cities, as well as the nearby charming little villages, I've become enchanted by the country. I've decided to put together this list to give some guidance to someone planning a trip to the magical country.

I recommend that you rent a car to explore beautiful Portugal on your own time and take in the surrounding. I've gone ahead and put together an itinerary for you to consider—one that will allow you to explore the best of the entire country. I've decided to split the itinerary between two regions of Portugal—north of Lisbon and south of Lisbon. This post is about planning a road up north.

Cheapest Car Rental for a Lisbon Road Trip

Having searched high and low for the cheapest car rental available in Lisbon, I found interRent to be the cheapest car rental in Lisbon, Portugal. Their rates start at just 6.99 € (roughly $9.30 USD using today's exchange rate) per day and they are very conveniently located right outside the Santa Apolonia metro and railway station. I was able to secure the 6.99 € daily rate each time I rented and got to drive a Fiat!

Top 5 Cities to Visit in Central and North Portugal

As you drive up north, you will need to take either Highway A1 or Highway A8. I prefer Highway A8 since that road winds its way right along the gorgeous coast. The major cities I recommend for you to visit on your road trip are:

  1. Lisbon: Lisbon, Lisboa in Portuguese, is where your trip will most likely begin. You will need a couple of days to explore Lisbon and nearby fabulous towns.
  2. Obidos: Make your way up north by driving one hour to the lovely walled city of Obidos.
  3. Coimbra: Next, travel north about one hour (70 miles) to the medieval town of Coimbra.
  4. Aveiro: Following Coimbra, drive just about 40 miles up north to Aveiro, the town nicknamed the "Venice of Portugal."
  5. Porto: Finish off your road trip in Porto, Oporto in Portuguese, Portugal's second largest city.

Lisbon: Days 1 - 4 (Suggest 4 days)

Any trip to Portugal needs to include the country's charming capital, Lisbon. The city is very walkable and to get to various attractions, you can either walk along the pretty cobble-stoned streets or take the iconic tram 28 to get to each attraction.

Start exploring Lisboa in the downtown area called Baixa. Make your way down to the Alfama neighborhood with its narrow, maze-like streets that will make you feel like you've taken a step back in time. As you walk, you will pass many attractions like the Elevator of Santa Justa, Se Cathedral, and the House of Spikes. There's a castle up on a hill that can be seen from many parts of the city—the Castle of Sao Jorge, which you should visit to get an amazing panoramic view of Lisbon and the Tejo river.

There are many beautiful old churches and cathedrals, including the remains of Carmo on top of a hill that was partly destroyed during the the devastating earthquake of 1755. There are a couple of miradouras, or viewpoints, which offer fabulous views from atop hills. And there's a fun a vibrant nightlife in the Bairro Alto area of Lisbon.

Annual festivals and events that you should not miss in Lisbon:

  • St. Anthony's birthday: On June 12 - 30, join the festivities with locals as they celebrate St. Anthony's birthday by partying out in the streets and eating lots of grilled sardines!
  • Bullfights in Campo Pequeno: Every Thursday night from June to September, you can watch bullfights here.
  • Feira de Outubro (October Fair): In October, check out Feira de Outubro in Vila Franca de Xira for some crafts and Portuguese style running of the bulls.

Make time to leave central Lisbon and visit Belém, which is an important district that has many famous monuments and museums. Also spend a day in magical Sintra, which has the beautiful Pena Palace, a Moorish castle whose wall you can walk along, and overall a great atmosphere. And you can't miss Cascais, a charming village just 40 minutes north of Lisbon that is best to explore either by foot or with a free bike rental that you can get at two locations. Also consider visiting the Cristo Rei statue for a unique view of Lisbon.

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Obidos: Days 5 - 6 (Suggest 2 days)

Obidos is a walled medieval town that was once given as a wedding gift to Queen Isabel. Nowadays, the town is a gift to the eyes! Part of the town is within the castle walls and you can even walk the walls. As you approach Obidos on the highway, it's a beautiful sight up on top of a hill. Within the town, there's a clock tower, churches and a museum. You'll have to bring back some Obidos ginja with chocolate shot glasses as a souvenir for your friends and family missing out on your fabulous road trip!

Annual festivals and events that you should not miss out on in Obidos include:

  • Mercado Medieval Fair: A 10-day medieval festival in July.
  • Chocolate Festival: For two weeks in February.

Close to Obidos, there are other places worth visiting such as Óbidos Lagoon, Fatima, Alcobaça, Batalha, and Leiria with its famous medieval castle. I recommend driving to all four and since they're so close to each other, you can do it in just one day, but I recommend spreading the side-trips to three days.

Monastery of Batalha was built during the 14th Century to commemorate Portugal's victory over the Castilians at the battle of Aljubarrota. It is now a UNESCO site.

Monastery of Batalha was built during the 14th Century to commemorate Portugal's victory over the Castilians at the battle of Aljubarrota. It is now a UNESCO site.

Coimbra: Days 7 - 8 (Suggest 2 days)

Coimbra is the main city in Central Portugal and one that's immersed in student life. It's a very walkable city and most attractions are located in Baixa, or downtown. Some of the top things to do in this medieval town are: walking up to the top of University Hill from the Mondego river for a magnificent view of the surroundings; checking out the University of Coimbra, which is one of the oldest in Europe; seeing the botanical gardens and the multitude of churches and cathedrals; as well as stopping by a couple of museums. You will also have to listen to traditional fado music, which is sung by men in Coimbra (unlike in Lisbon, where it's performed mostly by women).

Student life is a big part of this town and there are two annual festivals that you have to check out if you're in Portugal when they're going on. During these festivals, students walk around in traditional clothing, sing songs, and there's a really festive air in Coimbra.

  • Festa das Latas (or Homecoming): An annual festival that takes place in July.
  • Queima das Fita or (Burning of the Ribbons): An annual festival that takes place in May.

Side trips from Coimbra include doing wine tasting in this Dão region, which is considered some of the best the country has to offer. En route, you also have Serra da Estrela, Portugal's highest mountain.

The Aveiro train station has to be one the prettiest in the world!

The Aveiro train station has to be one the prettiest in the world!

By endless autumn [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By endless autumn [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Aveiro: Days 9 - 10 (Suggest 2 days)

Aveiro is called the "Venice of Portugal" and you won't be surprised why. There are canals throughout the city, bridges, and colorful boats similar to gandolas in Venice, but here they're called moliceiros. There's a beautiful coast near Aveiro with gorgeous beaches such as Sao Jacinto, Barra and Costa Nova. Silver Coast is one of the most popular beaches in the area.

Church of Matriz de Massarelos

Church of Matriz de Massarelos

Porto: Days 12 - 14 (Suggest 3 days)

Porto, Oporto in Portuguese, is a fabulous city along the hills overlooking the Douro river. The historic center of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a good place to start exploring this area is in the Ribeira neighborhood. Things to do in Porto include taking a river cruise, taking a port wine tour in Vila Nova de Gaia (across the river), and just taking in the beautiful city and its many churches and old houses. Consider taking a day trip east to the Minho region of Portugal.

Festivals and events to check out in Porto include:

  • Festa de São João (St. John's Day): In June, the lively celebration where the locals celebrate with lots of dancing, partying, and jumping over flames.
  • Noites Ritual: A July rock festival where up-and-coming bands play live out in the streets.

As your road trip through Northern Portugal comes to an end, you can either drop off your rental car and take a train back to Lisbon or you can drive back, which will only take about three hours.

Quick poll about taking a road trip in Portugal

Questions & Answers

Question: Did you need an International Drivers permit (assuming you are from the US) to drive in Portugal?

Answer: No, I was able to use an American drivers license.

© 2012 Anna

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