Getting around in Portugal - Lonely Planet

You wont want to miss getting around Lisbon in its famously photogenic trams © RossHelen / Shutterstock

How to get around Portugal (without looking like a lost tourist)

Anchoring the southwest corner of Europe,Portugalis a relatively easy country to navigate. Youll find a good train network and buses to get you to places where the rails dont reach. Speedy toll roads can carry you quickly between major cities, though you can also take the slow, scenic (and free) back roads to get you from point A to point B.

Whats the best way to get around Portugal? All that depends largely on your own travel plans. Sticking to the main cities? Go for the train. Heading to the beach? The Vamus Algarve bus network has you covered. Exploring remote parks and nature reserves? Youre going to need a car. Below, youll find a run-down of the best ways to get around Portugal, along with some (admittedly subjective) guidance on transport experiences you shouldnt miss.

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Intercity trains connect most population centers in Portugal, including pretty Porto © Mapics / Shutterstock

Enjoy the scenic journey aboard the train

Portugal has a decent railway network that connects major cities and towns across the country. Although trains dont go everywhere, journeys on board are affordable, comfortable, convenient, and often the most scenic way to travel. Trains connect popular tourist hotspots includingLisbonFaroLagosPorto, andCoimbra.

The countrys rail network is headed by CP (Comboios de Portugal), which has handyrail network mapsonline. They run four main types of long-distance service:

slow trains that stop almost everywhere;

faster services that skip the smallest stations;

express trains that tend to stop only at big cities;

marginally faster than express trains and much pricier.

Note that in 2021 most international services were discontinued. Only two lines to Spain currently operate: theCelta, a train that runs daily between Porto andVigo, and a line from Lisbon toBadajoz, where you can change to onward services toMadrid.

Lisbon and Porto have their ownurbano(suburban) train networks. Lisbons network extends toSintraCascaisSetbaland up the lower Tejo valley. Portos network takes the definition of suburban to new lengths: its network extends as far asBragaGuimarães, andAveiro.Urbanoservices also travel betweenCoimbraand Figueira da Foz.

Trains can be booked online via theofficial CP website, via theCP Portugal app, or at stations throughout the country. You can reserve Intercidade and Alfa Pendular tickets up to 30 days ahead, though youll usually have little trouble booking a seat for the next or even the same day. Other services can only be booked 24 hours in advance.

Take note that children under age four travel free, and those ages four to 12 go for half price. Additionally, travelers aged 65 and over can get 50% off any service with a valid ID. Travelers aged 25 and under also receive a 25% discount.

Slower and often cheaper than trains, buses are great for visiting smaller towns and villages (particularly away from the coast) not served by the rail network.

A host of small private bus operators, most amalgamated into regional companies, run a dense network of services across the country. Among the largest areRede ExpressosandRodonorte. Southern Portugal has a brand new bus network calledVamus Algarve, with service reaching just about every part of the Algarve.

Bus services fall into three main categories:

marked CR, these are slow services, stopping at every crossroads.

Comfortable, fast buses. The former tends to run between major cities, the latter around specific regions. These tend to be the most popular with tourists.

A fast, deluxe category offered by some companies.

Even in summer, youll have little problem booking an expresso ticket for the next or same day. By contrast, local services can thin out to almost nothing on weekends, especially in summer when school is out. For accurate timetable and fare information, visit a ticket desk at the bus station, which youll find in bigger towns.

Roads are in generally excellent condition throughout Portugal, even in the remote mountains of Madeira © Castro Cicero / Shutterstock

Explore the backroads of Portugal by car or motorbike

Exploring Portugal with your own vehicle allows you to roam freely without being bound to the public-transport schedule. The countrys network ofestradas(highways) is continually being upgraded and expanded, with main roads paved and in generally good condition. Driving can, however, be tricky in Portugals small walled towns, where roads may taper to donkey-cart size before you know it, and fiendish one-way systems can force you out of your way.

Renting a car in Portugal is relatively straightforward, with rental outfits found in major towns, cities, and larger airports like Lisbon, Porto, and Faro.

Scooters can be rented in larger cities and all over the coastal Algarve. Prices run around €40 per day, though you can get big discounts for multi-day rentals.  There are also a few motorcycle rental outfits; prices start at €70 per day.

Flights within mainland Portugal are expensive and, for the short distances involved, not really worth considering. Nonetheless,TAPhas multiple daily LisbonPorto and LisbonFaro flights year-round, all less than an hour. For Porto to Faro, change in Lisbon.

Cycling is popular throughout Portugal, even if officially designated bike paths are few and far between © Enrique Daz / 7cero / Getty Images

Pedal through stunning Portuguese landscapes by bicycle

Even though there are few dedicated bicycle paths, cycling is popular in Portugal. Possible itineraries are numerous in the mountainous national and natural parks of the north (especiallyParque Nacional da Peneda-Gers), along the coast, or across theAlentejoplains. Coastal trips are easiest starting from the north and heading south, following the prevailing winds. More demanding is theSerra da Estrela(which serves as the mountain run for the Volta a Portugal, a multi-stage road bicycle race). You could also try the Serra do Marão between Amarante and Vila Real.

Be aware that cycling conditions arent perfect everywhere, with cobbled streets in some old-town centers liable to jar your teeth loose if your tires arent fat enough; city cyclists should have wheels at least 38mm in diameter.

Hopping aboard one of Portugals old-school trams is a must-do experience. These vintage relics rumble through the narrow streets of Lisbon and Porto, offering a charming, inexpensive sightseeing tour of either city. Trams are often packed by mid-day so opt for an early morning journey to secure your seat.

Unfortunately, Portugal is not a user-friendly country for travelers with disabilities. Some train stations have ramps, others do not. Some trains also have interior steps making access difficult. In general, Porto is the best city for getting around if you have a wheelchair. Nearly all metro stations are fully accessible with ramps, elevators, and dedicated spaces for wheelchair users onboard metro trains. Lisbon has fewer elevators, and they are often out of service.

Note that before flying to Portugal, be sure to request MyWay service through your airline up to 48 hours before your departure time. MyWay provides service getting you through the airport and sometimes off the plane (as not all planes connect to the jetway, requiring access via stairs).

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Theres nothing quite like the excitement of boarding a train and pulling into a city that youve never visited. I still remember the first time I arrived in Porto on a rail journey from Lisbon. As I exited the train amid the hubbub of the crowd, I was struck by the grand entrance hall ofSão Bento station, every inch of its walls covered inazulejos(ceramic tiles) depicting scenes from Portugals history. From there, it was a stones throw to the citys grandAvenida dos Aliados, and an easy downhill stroll to Portos atmosphericRibeiradistrict. It seemed the most elegant way to enter a city.

Some train routes offer incredible scenery, like the coastal ride from Lisbon toCascais, or my favorite, the trip betweenPinhãoandPocinhoin Portugals north. Here the train hugs the Douro as it winds past vineyard-covered hillsides rising steeply above the riverbanks. Each bend reveals yet another breathtaking perspective across a lush landscape. Its one of the most scenic train rides on the Iberian peninsula.

This article was first published May 2021 and updated August 2022

Lonely Planets Experience Portugal is your guide to unforgettable experiences and local surprises. Listen to authentic fado in Lisbon, explore the colourful palaces of Sintra, feast on the freshest seafood in the Algarve all guided by local experts with fresh perspectives.

Lonely Planets Experience Portugal is your guide to unforgettable experiences and local surprises. Listen to authentic fado in Lisbon, explore the colourful palaces of Sintra, feast on the freshest seafood in the Algarve all guided by local experts with fresh perspectives.

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