7 action-packed days driving through Portugal
Get to know the country’s old soul, one stop at a time.
Like an exquisite glass of port, I believe that Portugal’s old-world charm should be slowly savored. The country is best explored by strolling along cobblestone streets lined with colorful houses and cruising its rugged Iberian coastline past fairytale castles and quaint small towns. Plus, it's been untouched by both world wars, which means intrepid travelers can visit gorgeous, intact medieval buildings like the 16th-century Belem Tower and the imposing Guimarães Castle.
On my own adventure, I strayed down dozens of side streets, slurping up the best cuisine of each region—including an unexpectedly tender beef tongue stew in Caldas da Rainha—and zipping across the Iberian mainland to the northernmost tip. The result? A perfect seven-day road trip itinerary that starts in the romantic city of Porto and ends in vibrant Lisbon.
Total mileage: 0 miles
MORNING: The iconic bell tower and Harry-Potter bookstore
The secrets within Porto’s famous alleyways are best discovered on foot, so fuel up with a hearty brunch do norte—think smoked salmon, creamy avocado, scrambled eggs, salad, and more—at the rustic Do Norte Café. Then, it’s on to the Clérigos Tower, which soars above Porto’s red-tiled skyline. The 225 steps are well worth the climb, giving you a bird’s eye view into the city’s labyrinthine Historic Center, the Douro river that divides Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia, and several bridges like the iron double-decked Dom Luís I Bridge.
Even if you’re not a die-hard Harry Potter fan, reserve tickets online for the circa-1906 Lello Bookstore round the corner to skip the snaking queues. You might find an uncanny resemblance to the Flourish and Blotts bookshop in Diagon Alley and the grand staircase at Hogwarts behind its neo-gothic façade.
AFTERNOON: Wander through the heart of Porto to Ribeira
For lunch, grab a cheesy Portuguese meat sandwich at Francesinhas Al Forno da Baixa or snack on a modest plate of razor clams at Tapabento S.Bento. Spend the afternoon wandering, with stops for snacks at the circus-themed O Mundo Fantástico das Sardinhas Portuguesas to pick up a few artfully packaged tinned sardines, Fábrica da Nata for a crumbly egg tart, and the double-storied Mercado do Bolhão to browse local produce.
In the late afternoon, head toward Ribeira via the classic Muralha Primitiva do Porto stairway, the largest segment of the old city wall built by King Fernando. Instagrammable houses sit along the riverfront, where you can sit on the steps and watch traditional rabelo boats—once used to transport barrels of port—sail down the Douro river.
EVENING: Sunset at Miradouro da Vitória and bacalhau
As the setting sun paints the river golden, head up to Miradouro da Vitória to capture the twinkling lights of the city. Walk across the upper deck of the Dom Luis I bridge—which has even better views—to Mercado Beira-Rio food hall for dinner. You’ll be spoilt for choice here but make sure to order the crispy golden codfish fritter at Bacalhau do Porto.
Total mileage: 178 miles
MORNING: A hip cafe and the patron saint of São Gonçalo
Coffee connoisseurs will love Combi Coffee Roasters, where beans are roasted in-house and acai bowls are plentiful. After breakfast, hit the road. A trip to Portugal’s north is not complete without a visit to the world’s oldest wine-growing region, which also happens to be incredibly picturesque, with terraced vineyards that slope gently towards the Douro. To stretch your feet, stop by Amarante en route to the Douro Valley and spend an hour or so strolling across its storybook Ponte de São Gonçalo to the Igreja de São Gonçalo, the resting place of this town’s matchmaking patron saint. Nibble on some traditional sweets, such as papos de anjo or lérias, on the terrace of Confeitaria da Ponte, which overlooks the Tâmega river.
AFTERNOON: Port tasting in the Douro valley
Detour to the Miradouro São Leonardo de Galafura scenic overlook to admire sweeping views over the valley before entering Peso da Régua. Grab lunch at the chic Aneto & Table—I recommend pairing the tuna carpaccio starter and pistachio-crusted salmon main with their suggested wines. And be sure to save room for dessert. The decadent chocolate mousse is infused with salt, olive oil, and port wine.
Peso de Régua is home to one of the oldest vineyards in Douro valley—Quinta do Vallado—where a 75-minute tasting tour will get you up to speed on the region’s rich history and winemaking process. Once finished, take the scenic N222 highway to Quinta do Jalloto in Pinhão for a more intimate tour of this small family-run vineyard that produces olive oil and honey, too. (Be sure to make a res a day in advance for the busier Quinta do Vallado, but walk-ins are welcome at Quinta do Jalloto.)
EVENING: Secret pork dinner and Porto’s nightlife
Drop back down into the center of Pinhão for dinner at homey Veladouro, where their secretos de porco preto—perfectly seared slices of Iberico pork served with potatoes—is a hit. The drive back to Porto will take slightly under two hours, which means you’ll get there just as the night is kicking off. If you’ve got energy to spare, Galerias de Paris is where the action is. HD Bar to Be Wild plays rock music and offers delicious cocktails, but I found that La Bohème Bar and Tapas is better for intimate chats with friends over wine.
Worthy detours along the way
Total mileage: 70 miles
MORNING: Rewind time at an ancient Portuguese town
After a quick egg tart breakfast at the unpretentious O Molete, your first stop of the day is Ponte de Lima and its Ponte Romana e Medieva bridge, a testament to the town’s enduring heritage of almost a thousand years. Park just next to the bridge’s base and stroll across all of its 13 majestic granite arches to soak up views that have remained relatively unchanged all these centuries. The miniature-filled Museu do Brinquedo Português at the end will appeal to your inner child.
AFTERNOON: A specialty dish and sightseeing along Rio Lima
For lunch, settle into a warm bowl of arroz sarrabulho, a Minho specialty meat stew made with pig’s blood at the traditional O Brasão restaurant. Then, hop in the car for a short detour into Ponte de Barca for a look at another magnificent Roman bridge with a priceless view overlooking the town and its striking Igreja Matriz. Nearby, Castelo de Lindoso might be worth a look if it’s your first Portuguese castle, but I’d skip it for the austere-looking Espigueiros do Lindoso next door. Step right up for a closer look at these elevated, angular granaries supported by locally-sourced granite slabs—you might notice that some of them are still used to store grain and corn.
EVENING: Octopus fritters by the Vez River
Conclude the day with a brief, 10-minute drive north to the cozy Costa do Vez Grill in Arcos de Valdavez. Order the crisp, chewy octopus filets and wash it down with a shot of aguardente vínica, a local brandy. Post-meal, join local walkers along the Vez river, which offers a tranquil vantage point to the surrounding architecture. You might notice gaps between the historic buildings filled with modern ones—that’s due to a devastating fire in the 17th century, which also burnt down the 14th-century parish church.
Worthy detours along the way
Total mileage: 67 miles
MORNING: Discover Portugal’s rural landscapes along River Vez
Kick the day off with a corajosa—smoked salmon toast with gooey poached eggs on top—in the bright, airy Grão Natural café. You’ll need it—there’s a lot of walking today, starting with the relatively flat 6.5-mile trail from Vilela to Sistelo. It takes you over a wonderful series of wooden footbridges, past swimming holes, highland meadows, and little red-roofed farmhouses—a welcome break from the car.
AFTERNOON: The natural paradise of a national park
The walk leads you right to a juicy Cachena steak at Cantinho do Abade within the village of Sistelo itself, a cozy spot that’s been serving local fare for years. Once you’re sufficiently full, it’s an easy taxi back to Vilela to retrieve your car and head toward the higher mountains of Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês. Along the way, pull over at Miradouro de Vale do Mouro, which overlooks the picturesque villages of Cousso and Virtelo, for a photo op and then head to Santuario de Nossa Senhora da Peneda, a stunning church nestled in the forest beneath a gushing waterfall and the massive Meadinhas rock.
Continue on the M530 to Soajo, where its looming espigueiros—like those in Ponte da Barca—define this village from afar. You’re likely walked out for the day, so visit Soajo’s best-kept-secrets: its crystal-clear natural pools. The Poço das Mantas in town and Poço Negro are two faves.
EVENING: Stargazing at Porta do Mezio
For dinner in Soajo, chow down on a burger drenched in a unique combination of curry, goat cheese, and blueberry jam at Taberna Montanh'Arriba. Then, close the loop for the day by taking the EN202 to Porta do Mezio, one of six designated spots in the municipality of Arcos de Valdevez for stargazing. On special nights like the autumn equinox, you can join a guided tour to learn the names of constellations and celestial navigation through the lens of a professional telescope. Then it’s back to to your hotel for much-needed rest.
Total mileage: 159 miles
MORNING: Historic center of Arcos de Valdevez
For breakfast, pair a steaming cup of galão—the latte’s milder and milkier Portuguese cousin—with a Kinder Bueno pasteis de nata at Profiteroles. Stroll Arcos de Valdevez post-breakfast; interesting nearby landmarks include the oval-shaped Igreja da Lapa, which has an intricate stucco altarpiece, and Casa Das Artes, a public library with gorgeous painted 18th century ceilings. Then, it’s time to head west to the port of Viana do Castelo.
AFTERNOON: A gorgeous basilica and sumptuous seafood
Considered an architectural hotspot, Viana do Castelo is home to Manueline manors, soft sand beaches, and the dramatic, pearl-white Santuario de Santa Luzia. To see the latter, take the seven-minute funicular or brave the 30 minutes of stairs. (Depending on your fitness level, climbing might actually be faster, given the long waits for the ride.) Once at the Byzantine church, take more steps up the domed roof, which offers the most impressive panorama in the region.
After, make your way to the coast to Casa Primavera for a lunch of tasty seafood (think: grilled swordfish and mussels). Before getting back in the car, ship enthusiasts should pencil in time for O Navio Gil Eannes across the strait. This once-roving hospital served Portuguese cod fishing crews working far from home and now provides an in-depth look at how life was organized in that tiny space. Culture lovers should prioritize the Museu do Traje for its display of the region’s traditional attire and fine filigree gold jewelry. Whichever museum you choose, follow it up with some down time on the pristine Praia do Cabedelo, where you might see more than a dozen kite surfers on a sunny day.
EVENING: An atmospheric Arabic night within the old capital
Dinner awaits in Coimbra, about a 45-minute drive from the beach, where the cobbled streets are lit with fairy lights. Your destination? Arcada Comes e Bebes, which serves mouthwatering tapas, including an irresistible sardine boat, and a to-die-for key lime pie. After dinner, leave your car behind and venture across the vast Mondego river via the pedestrian Ponte Pedonal Pedro e Inês to get to Epicura Craft Beer House. Here you can sample from their rotating list of craft beers on tap—I recommend giving their APA and black IPA a shot.
Total mileage: 95 miles
MORNING: An ultra modern café and a classical university
Chow down on Salatina’s sinfully good lotus caramelized biscuit pancakes before touring Coimbra’s famous University of Coimbra. Bonus: the 30-minute walk from the restaurant passes through the lush Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Coimbra. Once you’ve made it to campus, take a one-hour guided tour with a former student to delve into the histories, traditions, and secrets of the university.
AFTERNOON: Europe's largest waves and a chocolate-y old town
Conquering the steep slopes of Coimbra will leave you fatigued, calling for a fulfilling, gravy-heavy feijoada de javali—a wild boar dish at Zé Manel dos Ossos. With walls plastered with penciled notes and drawings in a no-frills setting, eating here is quite the relaxed, familial affair.
The rest of the afternoon is decidedly more fast-paced. Watching surfers take on the record-breaking 80- to 90-foot waves at Praia do Norte is a must-do. Big wave season runs from October to March and the Farol da Nazaré lighthouse is the best place to catch views. (Note: Surfing these waves is best left to the professionals.)
EVENING: The serenity of Óbidos
Once you’ve had your fill of death-defying surfing, hop back in the car: Another 40 minutes of driving along the A8 leads you to stunning Óbidos. Head right into the heart of this walled city, stopping by Capinha d'Óbidos for a hot chocolate or trying the local liqueur at Ginjinha da Porta 7 before visiting Castelo de Óbidos. Pass beneath the entrance arch to access the city walls on the left, where you can easily spend an hour traversing the elevated and sometimes narrow pathway to take some of the best aerial shots of Óbidos without a drone.
For dinner, feast on some oceanic fare—the grilled squid, octopus and sardines are excellent—at Adega do Ramada, next to the Óbidos Chocolate House, where you just might be able to squeeze in some chocolate bonbons or an ice cream roll should you finish dinner early. And if you finish late, don’t worry: Bar Ibn Errik Rex is one of the few places open late for one last shot of sour cherry liqueur to complete the night.
Total mileage: 78 miles
MORNING: The most flamboyant Palace of Pena
Kickstart your final morning with a salmon wrap and acai smoothie from Avocado Coffee & Healthy Food. After, take the A8 south for an hour and skirt Lisbon on the A16 to find yourself in Sintra. Park in the lot near the Portela de Sintra train station, as rental cars are prohibited from entering the old town. Switch to an Uber, tuktuk, or tourist bus 434 to get to the Park and National Palace of Pena.
Both the opulent interiors and bold exteriors deserve your attention, but if I had to pick, it’d be the secret paths along the lakes and through the woods that take the cake. Remember to book your tickets well in advance online to avoid standing in a disappointingly long line outside the palace.
AFTERNOON: Secret tunnels and hidden pools
Taxi down to the elegant Incomum for a late lunch of scallops with passion fruit risotto, accompanied by a vegetable soup starter. Make a beeline back to Quinta da Regaleira, a gothic castle most popular for the mossy, 88-feet deep spiral down the Initiation Well. It’s easy to spend another two hours here getting lost in its enchanting gardens, secret tunnels, and ornate castle. Pro tip: I stumbled upon Leda’s cave underneath the Regaleira Tower and loved the waterfall of Lago da Cascata.
EVENING: A cliffhanger end to the Iberian peninsula
Return to your car and drive out to catch a spectacular sunset at Cabo da Roca, a huge cliff at the end of the world—or at least the Atlantic-facing European mainland. As the sun winks out below the horizon, head to Lisbon for dinner at the family-owned Grelha do Carmo. Close off the last evening with a glass of red at the aptly named The Little Wine Bar or the hauntingly soulful melodies of fado at Tasca do Chico.