Renting a car in Portugal--is it worth it?

I’d like to hear from anyone who’s travelled in Portugal and who can help settle a debate. My GF and I are planning to visit Portugal for one week in December. Our itinerary is still very open, but we’re planning on visiting the southern coast (we’ll probably fly into Faro with EasyJet), and then go up to Lisbon and maybe Coimbra, with daytrips to various sites in between.

My GF would like to rent a car for this time, arguing that it’s more convenient (for instance, for loading and unloading luggage) and that it saves time (not having to wait for public transportation, etc.). She also thinks it will be necessary to have a car to visit the countryside. She’s found a rate for about $200 for a 5-day rental, with unlimited mileage, that she’d like us to reserve.

I’d rather ride the train. It seems to me that the train fares are very reasonable in Portugal, and since it’s such a small country there aren’t many great distances that would require a car. I’m also not too keen on the idea of driving in a foreign country (although reading the road signs won’t be a problem since my GF’s Brazilian), and I don’t really like navigating the inner circle of big cities and having to deal with the stress of parking and traffic in general.

Has anyone here experienced either or both forms of transportation in Portugal? If so, what would you recommend in favor of renting a car as opposed to riding the train (or vice versa)? Would renting a car (with the kind of rate that she’s found) be more cost-effective than paying for two train fares? Or would the convenience of car travel make it more worthwhile?

I’ve tried to suggest a combination of train travel for most trips, and maybe renting a car for a couple of days (if there are some out-of-the-way sites that aren’t accessible by train) so that we can see the countryside at more leisure. But we haven’t come to a firm agreement yet.

Any advice?

I traveled to Portugal about a decade ago, and we drove everywhere that wasn’t right in town. My parents just went last year, and they found a lack of public transportation. I very much recommend renting a car. You won’t need it in Lisbon, though. Maybe you could just rent for a few days.

Guess what I did for my summer vacation this year…

Me and micilin and our spouses rented a car in Lisbon, drove to Seville in Spain, then across to the Algarve, then back to Lisbon. It was well worth it. Lisbon was a bit scary to drive in - the taxi drivers are maniacs - but the motorway system is excellent, and it’s really nice to have the freedom, and to be able to head right into wherever you’re going. The car was pretty cheap; we got a compact, and the cost was about €200 for 9 days, IIRC.


BTW, my boss also went to Portugal but he rode the train, north and south of Lisbon - the lines are a bit limited but the fares are astonishingly cheap. Our hotel in the Algarve was next to the local train line, which looked really primitive - like children’s toys - and they were very slow and infrequent. It may be better on the West coast.

Well, you really don’t need it in Lisbon. They have a good subway system, and cabs are dirt cheap. A 15-20 minute ride at 4 AM was 5 euros or something ridiculous like that.

I lived in Lisbon for two years. Lisbon has an excellent public transit system and the drivers are manic. A car for outside the city is a must. You’re going to want to take the side trips to the Roman ruins and other sights. I highly recommend seeing the castles around Lisbon. Take a drive to Obidos and Marvelho near Lisbon. A drive through the Serra de Estrela mountains is a must.

Try the goat cheeses, the bread, and the red wine. All excellent. Avoid the white wine. Try some 30-year old port. Try one of the salted cod (bacalhau) dishes, such as “bacalhau abras”. I didn’t like them much, but it’s sort of the national pastime to see how many ways they can prepare it. Go out to Belem to see the castle and try one of the local pastries there called “pasteis de Belem”.

By the way, try to stash your luggage and any valuables somewhere. Do NOT leave them in the trunk of the car. Thieves who prey on tourists abound.

And of course it’s “bacalhao”, not “bacalhau”. Sheesh.

Yep, I’ve done both. Fwiw, I think the main points for you are that you only have a week, want to cover as much ground as possible and it’s (kind of) off-season. If you were in ‘travelling mode’ (time too kill, unexpected experiences to be had, etc.), then I’d certainly say use the trains because I really enjoyed that . . . but you ain’t.

You’ve got less than seven days on the ground. Chilling in railways stations is fun if you have three months, in this situation it’s just a waste. IMHO.

I’d also wait to rent a car. No idea exactly when in December, but I’d have thought for the first and second weeks you should be able to get excellent deals.

Thanks, everyone. It looks like she was right (as usual!).

So, it looks like renting a car is the way to go, except in Lisbon. I rather like riding trains, but the added flexibility and comfort of the car does count for a lot.

I imagine that we’ll go without a car for the time we’re staying in Lisbon, since it seems like the subway and the suburban rail is efficient enough to get to places like Belem and Sintra. For everything else, though, we’ll rent a car.

I’m really looking forward to the trip–I love bacalhao, port, vinho verde, etc. and am very open to new culinary experiences. And I greatly enjoy sightseeing–from remote monasteries to crumbling Roman ruins, to grand Baroque cathedrals, to stunning natural scenery–you name it, I’ll enjoy visiting it.

So, the Serra de Estrela is a must-see, as are the castles around Lisbon. And we’ll be seeing the coastal towns in Algarve. Which other sites are must-sees? Evora sounds nice, although I can’t convince my GF to see the ossuary chapel–she’s not very comfortable around cemeteries and dead things.

A drive up the Douro valley is nice, but you have to go all the way up to Porto to do that. It’s acually prettier in the fall, but is a scenic drive any time through wine country. Bucaco Forest is another area I enjoyed, but then I much preferred the north of Portugal to the Algarve. Be sure to go out to the cliffs in the Algarve, though. It’s pretty dramatic terrain.

Evora is nice, if you can swing it. Obidos is a wonderful hilltop walled city built in about 300 B.C. by the Celts. Some great history there.

I really enjoyed the design museum in Lisbon (Belem?).

Yeah, we went to that. A bit small, but some really nice pieces. I just got my photos of Belem tower back, and it looks brilliant. Also, there’s a really nice area of restaurants and pubs down under the bridge (can’t remember what it’s called) that is a great place to go to at night.

When you are in the Algarve you will need a car if you want to see " The End of the World " ( Cape St. Vincent). This is an important site for people from the New World. It was here that Prince Henry founded his school of navigation , leading to the eventual discovery of the Americas. Another “must see” in the Algarve is Silves and its castle. This was the capital of Moorish south Portugal and , although just a shadow of its former glory remains , is still worth a visit.

Regarding the trains in the Algarve , even though we had a car we still made use of the trains to vist Lagos and Faro. They may look quaint but they more or less keep to the timetable , are comfortable and it is a good way to meet the locals. There is a lot money being spent on this line , with new passing places , a new sation in Lagos and I think that it is to be electrified very soon.

In Lisbon the best way to visit Sintra is by the local train. It takes about fifty minutes , is very cheap and the trains run about every half an hour. On disadvantage is that there is about a mile walk from the station to the palace , take your time and enjoy the view. it is worth it.

If you’re in the eastern Algarve and you have time, I do recommend a side-trip to Seville - amazing place. It’s about 2 hours from the border.

In the Algarve, we stayed in Tavira, which was a quaint though nothing special kind of town, but it wasn’t crammed with tourists.

Portugal looks small on the map, but the more I look at it, the bigger it seems to grow–I think we’ll have trouble narrowing down which sites to visit (or we’ll just have to extend our holiday)! The car will come in handy for seeing more things than the train would allow.

jjimm, it’s funny that you mention Tavira, because that was the Algarve town I was thinking about staying in, precisely because it seems less touristy than Albufeira and other places. Although I guess the Algarve shouldn’t be too crowded during December, anyway. We are thinking of heading to southern Spain for a week after our week in Portugal–I’ll have to start a new thread to talk about Seville and the Andalucia region (ever since I took Spanish classes way back in high school, I’ve been dying to see Cordoba and the Alhambra).

Rayne Man, I will follow your suggestion and drive out to Cape St. Vincent and Silves. As for Sintra, is it easy to get to Mafra from there? Or is there a special bus/train service I should know about?

Crusoe, we will also take a look at the design museum in Belem (Belem is up there at the top of my “must-see” list)–my GF used to major in design, so she should particularly enjoy the museum. If she gets to go there, though, I’m going to insist that I get to see the ossuary chapel at Evora (she can stay outside if the bones are too much for her)!

Chefguy, we will definitely take a drive out to Obidos. I’m also interested in Santarem–both towns look lovely. I’m not sure how far north we will get on this trip–although I’d love to see Braga’s Bom Jesus sanctuary. The Douro region looks very scenic, so hopefully we’ll find some time to get up there.

SmackFu and Mithril, thanks for your advice on car renting and Lisbon’s public transportation. And London_Calling, we will take your advice and wait a few more weeks before reserving the car.

Thanks again, everyone. I really appreciate all of your suggestions! Now I just need someone to convince my GF to lay off the Portuguese jokes (it’s a Brazilian thing)–oh, and to convince her that chapels with their interiors lined with human bones and skulls are cool, not morbid.

OK, maybe a little morbid…

You cannot travel from Sintra to Mafra by train because the train terminates at Sintra. There are trains between Lisbon and Mafra but on a different line. I have tried looking on the Portugese Railways web-site but it is not clear which route you take.

On the subject of public transport in Lisbon. Do not forget to take a trip on one of the trams ( streetcars ). Number 28 is the best line . This will take you through all the narrow streets of the old parts of Lisbon. Some of the streets are so narrow that you can see right inside people’s front rooms, as the tram passes inches from the house walls.

If she doesn’t stop with the jokes, tell her you’ll tell all her friends she’s actually a Nordestino. Unless she really is, in which case that would be a really bad thing to say. Nordestinos, or Northeasterners, are considered to be sort of the hillbillies of Brazil by those not from that part of the country.

Heh heh. That would* be a bad thing to say, since she was born in Bahia. She regards herself as more of a Paulistana, though, since she’s spent most of her life in Sao Paulo.

Her jokes are kind of cute, not all that malicious. And I find it interesting that Brazilians make fun of their former colonizers in that way. I’m just not sure how much the Portuguese would appreciate her humor.