25 Tips for driving in Portugal

25 essential tips for driving in Portugal without losing your cool

When I first moved to Portugal, I was nervous about driving here. Portuguese drivers have a bad reputation plus I hadn’t driven for years and never on the right hand side of the road. Even so, I was determined to get a car so that I could travel around the country and quickly got used to the oddities of driving in Portugal.

If you’re considering buying or renting a car in Portugal, read on for practical driving tips that should prepare you for driving on Portuguese roads with confidence and patience.

Find out: How To Rent A Car In Portugal And Avoid Sneaky Extra Charges

Roundabout in Coimbra
A particularly tricky roundabout in Coimbra with exits in the arches and cars parked where they shouldn’t be.

Driving in Portugal Tips

1. Slip roads on and off dual carriageways are sometimes the wrong way around, which means that while you’re busy slowing down and indicating to pull off, new cars will be trying to enter the flow of traffic. I’m dumbfounded by the logic of this; any sane road designer would surely let existing drivers leave the road before adding more vehicles to the mix. This crazy situation isn’t standard but I’ve encountered it enough times to feel the need to warn you.

2. Slip roads are usually very short, meaning you need to slow down before you exit the main road to be able to negotiate the tight bends.

3. The use of indicators has never really caught on in Portugal so by all means use them as you would normally, just don’t expect anyone else to. Drivers will often stop in the middle of the road without warning so be prepared to slam on the brakes and wait for them to turn off.

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4. In rural areas, don’t be surprised to find a car stopped in the middle of the road and the occupants catching up with local gossip. They will usually wrap up their conversation and drive off when they see you, but may need a little encouragement in the form of a gentle beep.

5. Another rural practice, especially in villages with single track roads, is for people to stop the car in the middle of the road and leave it there while they visit friends or family, even if there is a proper space to park a bit further up the road. If your path is blocked by an abandoned car, honk loudly and someone will come out and move it so that you can pass then return it to its previous spot.

6. Just because you would normally wait for a gap in the traffic before pulling out, you can’t expect that from everyone else. It’s not uncommon to be forced to slow down because someone has pulled out in front of you rather than wait for you to pass.

7. Another symptom of impatient drivers in Portugal is the tendency to ride your bumper. There’s often little respect for safe stopping distances and some drivers seem to think that they can drive through you. I find it extremely stressful but the only thing you can do is to continue driving safely and try your best to ignore them.

8. If you have got a tail hugger, they won’t hang around for long. At the first dotted line in the road, they’ll be off like a shot, overtaking you and six other cars on a blind bend. It’s scary stuff so I usually pull back a little to a) give me extra stopping time if there is a crash or b) let them duck back in before they hit the oncoming truck.

9. Unbroken white lines are not to be crossed, especially not double ones, which means that if you want to turn left onto a road with double white lines, you can’t. You have to turn right into the direction of traffic and use the next roundabout to change direction. If you don’t, you will be strongly tutted at by local pedestrians or fined by the police.

10. A lot of white lines desperately need repainting and it’s difficult to work out where the middle of the road is when you’re driving in the dark, especially when it’s raining. Go slowly.

11. Some local authorities seem to invest lots of money on building unnecessary roundabouts and none on pavements, which means that pedestrians are often forced to walk in the road. Some do it through choice. Either way, as a driver, you should be on the look out for people in unexpected places, especially during the annual pilgrimage to Fatima when groups of walkers take to the highways.

12. Zebra crossings are often on junctions, which means that you have very little time to register their existence and react if someone is trying to cross the road.

13. Speed limits are frequently ignored, except when the speed traffic lights are working properly. They operate on a sensor which is usually a few metres in front of the traffic lights so if you see flashing orange lights, you should make sure you’re doing no more than the speed limit as you pass them otherwise the traffic lights will turn red. Even if you manage to slow down in time, the lights could be triggered by someone speeding behind you, in which case you’ll just have to resign yourself to the wait.

14. Despite appearances, it’s illegal to use a mobile phone while driving unless it’s hands free. Stopping your car in the middle of the road to take a call isn’t an option either, although many people don’t seem to realise this.

15. And although locals often use hazard lights as licence to double park, it’s not okay.

16. When you are parking in a street, your car must be parked facing the direction of travel.

17. Larger towns and cities are infested with self-appointed parking ‘helpers’ who will point out and wave you into available spaces, hoping for a tip. I get stressed out by parking in the public gaze so I drive by and try to find somewhere to park in private. If you do use their ‘services’, don’t feel obliged to give them money unless you feel it’s deserved.

18. It’s not unusual to find cars and coaches parked on roundabouts but please don’t join them; it’s not just stupid, it’s illegal.

19. Roundabouts may have lanes but don’t expect anyone to use them properly. If in doubt, do what everyone else does and stick to the outside lane until you find your exit. No one will indicate either so play it safe and only pull out when you are certain that there are no cars to your left. Even if you do see a flashing orange light, it’s best to ignore it and wait to see what the driver actually decides to do.

Update for 2014: It’s now illegal to use the outside lane of roundabouts unless you intend to leave at the next exit. In practice, this means you need to be extra careful. Always give way to drivers already on the roundabout, whichever lane they are in and don’t expect the lanes to merge into exits as they do in the UK. You have to actively switch lanes in Portugal otherwise you’ll just end up driving in circles!

20. No matter how hard you look for signs, you will probably find that they disappear on you just when you need them most. Or they will only become visible after you have passed the roundabout exit. Try to stay calm and be prepared to do full circles of roundabouts when in unfamiliar territory. Better still, use GPS!

21. If you are relying on road signs, be aware that at night, many of them don’t show up in the dark unless you shine full beam headlights on them.

22. Most of the motorways (‘A’ roads with blue signs) are now toll roads. If you haven’t got a special electronic device fitted to your car, make sure you don’t drive through the ‘Via Verde’ channel as you will be charged for the entire stretch of motorway when you leave because you won’t have a ticket to prove where you entered the toll road. It cost me €50 so don’t let it happen to you!

23. An increasing number of toll roads don’t have toll booths so you either need an electronic device or you’ll have to pay at the post office a few days later. Car rental companies have to offer you the chance to hire a device, which makes the whole thing much easier – more details here. I’d recommend buying your own (from Via Verde or the post office) if you’re moving to Portugal.

24. You need to carry your documents and certain safety equipment with you and there are rules and restrictions about driving with children so you should read up on all the legal requirements here. Update for 2014 for expats: If you haven’t got a Cartão de Cidadão, you’ll need to carry your Contribuinte card with you as well as your ID and the usual paperwork. More information about the 2014 changes can be found here.

Aixam
Aixam

25. Not all Portuguese drivers are speed freaks. If there is a line of impatient drivers in front of you on a country road, chances are they’re stuck behind an Aixam. These pesky little cars have the power of a quad bike so can’t go very fast. You don’t even need to pass your Highway Code exam to drive one. Personally, I think they’re a liability. Impatient drivers get fed up of crawling along at 40 kilometres per hour and take even more ridiculous risks in order to get past them and be on their way. If you are patiently waiting for a safe opportunity to pass an Aixam, keep an eye on the drivers behind you who might not wait their turn.

Don’t let this list put you off driving in Portugal! It can be frustrating but with patience and practice it soon becomes second nature and it’s worth it to be able to get to places where the buses simply don’t go, at least not at weekends!

Find out: How To Rent A Car In Portugal And Avoid Sneaky Extra Charges

If you need help planning your trip to Portugal, check out my itinerary support services.

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53 Comments

  1. Hi, is it illegal to reverse out of a driveway in portugal?

    1. Author

      Sorry, I don’t know.

  2. Never again we were involved in a horrendous crash, NOT our fault he was coming towards us at speed lost control and smashed into drivers side and back. Breathalyse tourists only , police listened to his stories shaking their hands!! Fortunately someone translated for us they were not interested in the truth.

    1. Author

      Sorry to hear about your horrific experience, Margaret. I hope you weren’t injured.

  3. I’m a former Californian but now a resident of the Pacific Northwest and Arizona. Started driving in Faro (Algrave) about a week ago and quickly adapted to the local style of driving. For the most part except for the tail gaters and speed demons, I find driving here pretty normal. Our interstate freeways have more cars per mile than theirs. Check out google streets to see how their traffic volume is and sometimes you’d find Portugal’s arterial roads with a lot less cars than what you’d see in the US.

    1. Author

      Hi Cris, the reduced volume of traffic is indeed something I appreciate here. It always comes as a shock when I go to the UK and am faced with cars everywhere 🙂

  4. I drove in Madeira (from California)and we are going back to Portugal this September. Madeira was fine, except for the short freeway exits to the round about, but you learned fast. 😉 I was wondering if I would be able to handle the main land?

    1. Author

      Hi Nicole, I reckon that if you can handle driving in Madeira, the mainland will be a breeze.

  5. Anyone know how long one can park a car or motor home on the side of a street?
    In Sweden it’s 24 hours.

    Rgs Johan

  6. Toll roads. If you live in Portugal you can pay for toll costs online on the portuguese post office site. http://www.ctt.pt. (portagens»metodos de pagamento»pagamento MB»referencia MB). This can also be translated into english). Tolls must be paid within 5 working days of the day of travel. Otherwise you can pay in any post office or Payshop.

  7. I posted my horrible experience in Portugal, but you didn’t even post it

    1. Author

      I’m sorry to hear about your awful experience and the resulting ongoing pain and difficulties. I do hope you make a full recovery and get due compensation soon. Your comment did get posted but I have now removed it because of the swear words and because although I can see and understand why you are so angry and anti Portugal, I don’t think it really helps my readers in any way.

  8. Are the street signs in Portugal in English or only in Portuguese?

    1. Author

      Just in Portuguese, I’m afraid. But place names are obvious enough.

  9. Graham D,. I would be a bit leery driving from my commuter 6000 lbs truck when physics works to my advantage to a 2500 lbs Volkswagen Polo. But that’s exactly what I will be doing, feel the fear!! 🙂 I’ll keep this thread updated once I’m done with the Portugal experience. Thanks for the input!

  10. Yes indeed I made sure parking is available at the hotel where we’re staying at. I figured, touristy areas always have this issue of limited parking spaces. I will be updating my post once the travel is completed. Thanks again Julie for your informative blog.

  11. The way I see it Cris being from the US you will already be at an advantage in that the you’re driving on the same side of the road. Feel the Fear and Do It Any Way I say.

  12. I have booked a trip to Portugal this coming May and one option I’m considering so I will be able to cover more grounds while I take my photo equipment with me is to rent a car from Faro then drive north to Lisbon, Porto, Sintra, etc.. But hearing all sorts of comments from various forums, even via Youtube and how Portugal has one of the highest accident incidences in Europe is a bit alarming to say the least. Even the US Consulate’s US Citizen’s Services circulates the same warning to potential US travelers. ‘Mind you I’m no slouch when it comes to driving having survived the Los Angeles freeways for 5 years, I still run Interstate 5 up and down from Seattle to LA and on to Phoenix a few times a year, race Interstate 17 occasionally from Flagstaff, AZ to the Phoenix Valley at 90mph + :-).. (all downhill from 7000 feet above sea level to 1000 feet ASL). I’m a multi state resident as you can tell. But it’s the type of driving I have grown accustomed to, the organized chaos of freeway driving.

    Reading your article or blog is very re-assuring and for the most part with the help of Google Earth, I can pretty much tell, Portugal’s road network except perhaps the inner cities has less automobile density per mile when compared to the US. My idea is to get a hotel outside of the city limits and use public transportation so I can avoid city driving. I’ll stay around the Lisbon area for 4 days and will be using Sintra as a base.

    A few responses here from other US drivers are also encouraging. Thanks for the heads up!

    1. Author

      Hi Cris, glad to be of some help. I totally agree with your decision to avoid the stress of inner city driving. Just make sure your Sintra accommodation has parking facilities as it can get quite crowded in the town centre, especially at weekends. The motorways are generally quiet and easy to use though. Have fun!

  13. Hi Julie,

    Am I correct in assuming the old rule of two warning triangles has been changed to mean one only ?

    Obrigado de Ernie

    1. Author

      I’m afraid I don’t know about that, Ernie.

  14. There are also some updates regarding 2014, besides the roundabouts rules: professional and novice drivers have a lower BAC limit of 0.2g/l (0.02%), vs. the 0.5g/l (0.05%) for “regular” drivers. Fines are heavy and, from 1.2g/l (0.12%) it’s considered a felony and you can face up to 1 year in prison. Also, if you are involved in an accident with BAC above legal limit, the insurance company has the legal right to make you refund the compensations.

    Road blocks for random alcohol testing are common, especially on roads with high accident rates, near night clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, etc.

    Also: most fines have to be paid on the spot, or you can have your license aprehended.This includes all moving violations (eg. alcohol, speeding) and some vehicle violations (e.g.: lack of insurance).

    1. Author

      Thanks for the extra information, Luís. Good to know, and while this article is in no way meant to be a comprehensive list of road rules and regulations, the alcohol issue is one I’ve been meaning to research and write about.

      1. I have just returned from driving more than 3000 km in Portugal for 30 days (Beja to Braga) and found your tips to be useful advise. I loved driving there and feel that the Portuguese drivers have a bit of a bad rap. I feel that they are far better drivers than in the US, despite a couple of bad habits. They pay attention to their driving, they are predictable in their behavior on the road, they follow the right of way rules, and they use their turn signals. I always knew what other drivers were going to do and thus could easily deal with every situation safely. They do drive fast but with rare exceptions (fewer than I see in the US), I did not feel they were dangerous doing so. The one really bad habit they have is to tailgate, which is why their accident rate is high. My advise is to simply ignore them when they tailgate, but leave a little more distance to the car in front and pay attention to what is ahead to avoid panic stops, and I never had any trouble. Also on the plus side is that the roads are beautiful, lightly traveled, well marked, well maintained (except in the cities), and other than in the big cities and the Lisbon to Porto highway, not heavily policed. A good GPS program that provides turn by turn directions on a screen and vocally is essential. Otherwise, know the rules, be decisive, and pay attention.

        1. 100% agree with this, I found the same. Pleasant enough place to drive in with the exception of tail huggers.

          1. Author

            And people on mobile phones 🙂 One of my pet hates.

        2. Author

          Hi Peter, thanks for taking the time to share your very positive experience of driving in Portugal. It doesn’t quite match my observations but I’m sure it will be reassuring for people who are worried about driving to hear you found it relatively stress-free.

        3. Just concluded my trip to Portugal and Spain and I totally agree with Peter Davis’ observation. I think Portguese drivers are getting a bad rap but overall, the experience of driving around Portugal was pleasant and almost stress free. The motorways are lightly traveled and traveling distances were a breeze. My only issue is the electronic toll. I had to cross the border to Spain for an extended stay and then back to the Faro Airport on a Sunday while generating more toll fees along the way. There was very limited option to pay it.

  15. I most unfortunately do not live in Portugal, but here in the US when I have a tailgater — especially a lazy tailgater who has an open lane to pass me — I put the cruise control on the speed limit, then I tap it to decrease my speed about a mile per hour. Usually after two taps they’ve had enough of me and my tail. 😉

  16. This is a really stupid detail question, but which side of the car is the steering wheel on in Portugal? I could probably manage with an automatic transmission on either side, but I’m probably getting a manual when we visit in June so will be a lot harder.

    1. Author

      Hi Beth, If you’re hiring a car in Portugal, the steering wheel will be on the left.

    2. Steering is on the left-hand side. If you want automatic transmission, you specifically have to ask for it. It’s rare and more expensive to rent a car fitted with automatic transmission.

  17. Concerning bumper huggers, I (as portuguese) tend to opt for one of two solutions: sudden (but very light) breaking, once or twice, does the trick. They get upset, but back off a little.
    Second option: just slow down to 60 or 70. They will get upset as well, but will understand you are not to be bullied. Whenever they do this, I sometimes move to the right (outside the driving lane which is not exactly legal) to reward the newfound correct behaviour.

    1. Author

      Thanks for sharing your tips, João. I’ve tried both of those and find that slowing down works best.

  18. Here’s one for you.
    Early last year a friend came out of a supermarket car park turning left. There was a painted left arrow at the entrance which advised it was possible. The police stopped him and fined him for crossing a single white solid line. Arguing the point about the arrow was hopeless. Two days later that arrow was blacked out and repainted pointing right.

    Yesterday he received a registered letter which states that he must go to the local GNR within 15 days and he’ll be banned for driving for one month, because of this offence.

    Be warned that whilst you may have already have paid a fine you can still be inconvenienced in the future.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the warning, Sam. It reminds me of when my husband’s car got towed away in Coimbra. With the help of his Portuguese colleague who, luckily for him, was with him, he managed to find out that the police had removed it because it was parked illegally. There are no signs or painted lines in this street to indicate that parking is not allowed. When my husband pointed this out, the police officer shrugged and told him he had to imagine they were there!!!!

  19. Julie you arent the only one caught out by the Via Verde lane on toll roads.I was in that lane, and being a Brit,I assumed you had to stay in it. It was only when I reached the booth that I realised my mistake and of course it wa too late then. I thought I will get off at yhe next booth, explain what happened and pay for that stretch then rejoin, surely as a foreigner they will take pity on my unfamiliarity with the system. Nope, I chose the booth with a ,female bulldog attendant and she was having none of it. 37€ to travel about 10 kms and the rest of the journey still to pay for. When I told my more savvy, yet slightly dodgy friend, she said “what you shoud have done is keep going in the Via Verdes. The onus is then on them to find you! if you are a tourist, they have no chance!” Not exactly legal, but an interesting solution!.

    1. Author

      I wish I’d thought of that! When I tried to plead ‘stupid foreigner’, the best they could offer was a form to complete to register my complaint. I duly filled it in and sent it off but never received a reply, let alone a refund for my 50 euros 🙁

  20. bumper huggers can be discouraged by turning on your hazard warning lights

    1. Author

      Good idea, Gill! I’d never thought of that but will try it out next time I get one.

      1. I always found swerving erratically does the trick but some may consider that a bit OTT 😉

        1. Author

          I’ve tried braking but sometimes that gets them angry, even though they are in the wrong. 😉

  21. Hello Julie, nice to meet you! I just discovered your blog when I was looking for ‘understanding road signs in Portugal’. I am looking forward to reading more of your information! Do you know how I would find out the ‘phonetic spelling’ of Portuguese words, for instance, Saturday, — sabado — saa-baa-doo; actually I am most interested in learning how to pronounce the names of the towns, cities….ie Baxia, Cascais, Huelva, etc…..thank you!! I am 58, my husband is 70 and we will be touring Portugal/Spain from Sept 4 to Oct 3, we do not have an itinerary planned yet, arriving in Lisbon. We will be renting a car, after spending the first 2-3 days in Lisbon. We are from Ontario, Canada; we have been to other parts of Europe, this is our first time to Portugal/Spain. Thanks again!

  22. God knows how you’d cope in Geneva! Apart from the tail riding I found driving in Portugal very pleasant.

    1. Author

      Good to know that you found it easy enough to drive in Portugal. It’s definitely not the worst country I’ve ever driven in although I’m continually amazed by the stupidity of road planners and some drivers. Will bear your comments in mind if I visit Geneva and pack extra patience!

      1. Bear in mind I was in Portimao, maybe its more chilled out there. I found the roads quieter than the UK and people pretty polite. We did get a few tail huggers as the rented car we had was weedy and with the aircon on and at one point carrying 5 people it could barely drag itself up hills.

        Plus points for me were the almost empty toll roads, very relaxing. They do pull out on you from those short slipways, but with forward planning that’s not a problem.

        Italy in general is madness. You pretty much have to go with the flow and somehow it works out, especially regards mopeds which circle your vehicle like flies. That said, I was in Verona and it was really OK driving – the people there are a lot more polite and less stressed out than the average Italians.

        They do the zebra crossings on junctions things there too and it is really strange. A colleagues wife was killed in Italy after having been run over on one of these crossings where it appears stopping is optional, so I would advise extreme caution as both a driver and a pedestrian in Italy. You have to assume everyone is out to hit you and you’ll be OK.

  23. Your experiences in Portugal reminds me of lot of mine, which I experienced living in Italy. If you thought motoring in Portugal was not good then my humble suggestion is to try Italy and you will fall in love with Portugal.

  24. Many of the points on this list apply to driving in Canada too. I soon discovered that the British capacity to follow rules and regulations is not shared universally. In fact, not shared at all! Blimey, no wonder everyone thinks we’re uptight…

    1. Author

      When people stop their cars in the middle of the road, on a bend, to chat on their mobile phones, making me have to brake hard to avoid crashing into then, I think I have a right to be uptight 😉 This has happened twice since I published this post!

  25. Great tips Julie. Because I lived mainly in the countryside I didn´t feel intimidated with driving. But I was always wary of driving in Lisbon for example. When I visited Portugal in June I actually drove again and was amazed at the risks people take and at how many people I saw talking on mobiles while driving, and the bumper to bumper traffic!! I find drivers in Perth a lot more relaxed and considerate and we leave a distance between cars. And here we can actually cross a continuous double white line if you need to turn there, you do it.

  26. That’s a good list that could work in a lot of other countries as well – Croatia springs to mind! Actually, I drove several times in Portugal but never felt intimidated or unsafe. Good tip about the motorway tolls, I’ll remember that one for sure! Happy Driving!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Andrew. I’m not trying to put people off driving in Portugal completely, merely to point out some of the unexpected things that could confuse, irritate or lead to problems. I’m sure there are plenty of other countries where the roads are just as bad, if not worse.

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