For independent visitors travelling under their own steam, there are several routes to the Portuguese capital from the Spanish frontier and other outlying areas of the country, each offering a wide variety of sightseeing opportunities along the way.
The following four routes cover the main entry points for people entering Portugal from neighbouring Spain; two in the north of Portugal, one in the eastern-central part of the country and another in the Algarve in the south.
Route 1 (from the north)
Entering via the northern border town of Valença brings you to the lush, green Minho region of northern Portugal, famous for its sparkling vinho verde wine. Here, the most important places to visit are Guimarães, the country’s first capital and Braga, Portugal’s ancient religious centre.
To the north-east of Braga lies the Peneda-Gerês National Park, which extends over 700 square-kilometres (270 square-miles) of wild mountain scenery. Taking a slight detour towards the coast brings you to Viana do Castelo, a bustling town which provided many of the ships and seafarers for the great maritime discoveries of the 16th century.
Further south stands Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city. In 1996, its historic centre – built along the hillsides overlooking the mouth of the River Douro – was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
An hour’s drive south along the A1 motorway lies Coimbra, home to Portugal’s oldest university. Nearby you can also visit the ruins of Conímbriga (indicated on the map below), the largest and most extensively excavated Roman site in Portugal.
90 km (56 miles) further south is the sanctuary of Fátima, where the Virgin Mary appeared several times to three shepherd children in 1917.
Route 2 (from the north-east)
The main entry point to the extreme north-eastern corner of Portugal is via the frontier towns of Vila Verde da Raia and Quintanilha. This region is known as Trás-os-Montes, which literally means ‘behind the mountains’.
The road from Vila Verde da Raia brings you to Chaves, a place renowned for its curative spa waters and delicious smoked hams. Alternatively, entering Portugal via Quintanilha means you’ll shortly arrive at Bragança, a town famous for its imposing 12th-century walled citadel.
Covering 70,000 hectares (175,000 acres) between Bragança and the Spanish border is the Montesinho Natural Park, one of the wildest areas in Europe.
Further south and well worth exploring is the Côa Valley Archaeological Park, considered one of the world’s most important sites of pre-historic rock art.
On the road to Porto you’ll come to the thriving town of Vila Real, from where we suggest a short detour south to the picturesque town of Lamego. From here you’ll have easy access to the Douro Valley, a region famous for its sprawling wine estates (quintas) and much-savoured Port wine. Arriving through both border towns eventually brings you to Vila Real after which you’ll join Route 1 from Porto to Lisbon.
Route 3 (from the east)
Entering Portugal via the border town of Vilar Formoso brings you to a region full of history and dotted with important attractions. Before reaching Guarda, it’s worth making a detour to the delightfully preserved villages of Almeida, Castelo Rodrigo and Castelo Mendo, all of which have many interesting monuments to see.
Standing at 1,056 metres (3,465 feet), Guarda is Portugal’s highest city and boasts a majestic cathedral dating back to 1390.
Also not to be missed in this region is the Serra da Estrela mountain range that rises to 1,993 metres (6,539 feet), the highest point on mainland Portugal. Visitors should also take time out to visit Viseu and the historic village of Piodão. From there, we suggest you pick up the A1 motorway at Coimbra and visit some of the places mentioned in Route 1.
Route 4 (from the south)
The most popular route between southern Spain and Lisbon is via the border town of Vila Real de Santo António in the Algarve. We suggest that your first stop should be at the pretty town of Tavira, which boasts 11 km of clean, sandy, offshore beaches reachable by ferry.
Faro, the region’s capital, is a large, bustling city and the Algarve’s main entry point for air travellers. It is also a city of immense cultural interest, with several museums and a grand 17th-century cathedral.
Visitors looking to stopover and enjoy a round or two of golf should head for Quinta do Lago and Vilamoura where some of Portugal’s best golf courses can be found.
Centrally located with its golden, sun-drenched beaches lies the popular resort town of Albufeira, a place busy with tourists right through the year.
Portimão to the west is a thriving commercial hub surrounded by championship golf courses and several long, sandy beaches, most notably Praia da Rocha.
Continuing along the coast, Lagos is a good base from which to explore the rugged promontory of Sagres, where Prince Henry the Navigator established his shipyard and school of navigation in the 15th century.
Visitors are also urged to explore the idyllic Alentejo Coast, a region blessed with deserted beaches and many interesting places like Sines (where the explorer Vasco da Gama was born) and Santiago do Cacém, before joining the A2 motorway north to Lisbon.
Need more sightseeing ideas for your next visit? Why not listen to or download the Portugal Travel Show, the podcast for people planning a trip to sunny Portugal…