Winding road through Serra da Arrábida

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 take road trips 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 calmly and confidently.

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

Compare car rental prices with Rentalcars.com
A particularly tricky roundabout in Coimbra with exits in the arches and cars parked where they shouldn't be.
A particularly tricky roundabout in Coimbra with exits in the arches and cars parked where they shouldn’t be.

Driving in Portugal Tips & Potential Hazards

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.

4. 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, whether that’s a satnav device you bring with you or rent with the car, or an app on your phone.

Note: Google Maps Navigation is usually pretty good but the GPS signal can and does cut out sometimes. I find it helpful to have a paper road mapas backup and to get the bigger picture when route planning.

The 2018 Spain and Portugal Michelin Road Map may be overkill for a short break but if you plan on doing a lot of driving in either of these countries, it’s the best map on the market.

If you are going to be driving in just one specific region of Portugal, look out for Turinta maps in BP petrol stations and Bertrand bookstores.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. If you have got a tail hugger, they won’t hang around for long. At the first dotted line in the road (see #11), 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 myself extra stopping time if there is a crash or b) let them duck back in before they hit the oncoming truck.

11. 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 ignore this rule and turn left, you will be strongly tutted at by local pedestrians or fined by the police.

12. A lot of white lines on secondary roads 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.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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.

16. 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.

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

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

19. 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.

20. 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.

21. Roundabouts may have lanes but don’t expect anyone to use them properly. 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!

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 as not everyone will obey the law.

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 and you are charged as you drive through a metal structure fitted with cameras. To pay these tolls you either need an electronic device or you’ll have to pay at the post office a few days later if you’re driving a Portuguese-registered vehicle. This is not practical if you are only here on holiday. 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 or renting one for extended stays.

If you’re driving a foreign-registered vehicle, you can register your credit card details at an Easytoll machine on any motorway coming into the country as you cross the border from Spain. Or buy a prepaid toll card and top it up if needed.

Get more information about these options and which roads are affected on the Portugal Tolls website.

24. You need to carry your documents and certain safety equipment with you such as a safety triangle and reflective jackets.

There are rules and restrictions about driving with children, e.g. needing a booster seat, so you should read up on all the legal requirements here.

Update for 2014 for immigrants: 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.

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.

Aixam car
Aixam car

Don’t let this list put you off driving in Portugal!

It can be frustrating at times 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!

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82 Comments

  1. Actually both, please let us know your thoughts as to driving in Alentejo , where to go and things to watch out.
    Thanks
    Vivian

  2. Hi Julie: Actually both. Thanks

  3. I just discovered your website today, and became a subscriber – so much helpful information!
    My husband and I are coming to the Algarve for 3 months, starting the end of this October, and we’ll be staying all over, from Lagos to Tavira, to truly explore and find a good fit for future stays. We were hoping to utilize public transportation as much as possible, but realize we’ll have to rent a car for at least part of the time. I believe Uber has been banned in Portugal, but was hoping to find out more about hiring a semi-regular driver, if we can afford it. Do you have any advice about that option? Thanks so much, Kathi

    1. As far as I’m aware, Uber is still operating in key areas in Portugal, i.e. Algarve, Lisbon and Porto. Otherwise, you might be better off talking to local taxi drivers once you’re there and finding one you like.

  4. Hello Julie: My husband and I will be visiting Lisbon and the Alentejo region on early October. We plan to rent a car at the airport on our last day in Lisbon and then return it from Estremoz (4 days in Alentejo) Do you have particular suggestions for driving on that area?
    Thanks!

    1. Do you mean as in where to go or what to watch out for?

  5. Hi Julie,

    Great post. Have decided to rent a car for one day in order to get Arrabida Iheard it’s a lovely drive. We want to avoid the worse traffic when leaving Lisbon, just wondered if you knew what time rush hour traffic gets busy? We were hoping if we left early enough we could miss the traffic.

    Many thanks,

    Stephen

    1. The absolute worst times for midweek traffic are 8-9 am and 6-7 pm and the best times are between 11 am and 3 pm. That said, most of the traffic will be heading in the opposite direction to you, assuming you’re staying in Lisbon.

  6. Dear Julie,

    It’s quite sad to see someone who chose Portugal to live in say so much crap about it. If the country where you came from is so much better, why did you came here in the first place? I am sure there are a lot of crappy drivers yes, but is it different from the country where you come from? is it really?… It’s also quite sad to hear your superior tone as if the Portuguese people were somehow inferior and less educated. If have seen British people behave in ways i have never seen Portuguese people do, (or the spanish, or the french or even the germans for that matter). English folks are the most obnoxious, unmannered and disrespectful people that visit Portugal, so it would be nice of you to refrain from speaking so much crap about the country you chose to live in. It’s quite rude. I have also chosen to live in Portugal, and love every little thing about it, the only thing i am not fond of is the huge amount of people invading this beautiful little country, that has the most good-hearted well intended people i have met in my entire life.

    1. Come on Adam, look at the topic of this article: Driving in Portugal Tips and Potential Hazards. The writer has to say it the way it is without sugar coating the actual conditions of driving in Portugal. For all intents and purposes, the article is very informative, it’s a personal perspective of the writer’s experiences when it comes to the driving realities in Portugal. Is it an intentional form of rendering negative judgment on the Portuguese driving habits or is it a repudiation of her current country of residence? I absolutely don’t think so. Even the US Embassy through their US Citizens Services randomly issues travel advisories about the hazards of driving in Portugal. The intention is by no means to put Portugal on the spot but a fair and honest assessment of what US drivers would expect while marching around the roads of Portugal. Let me quote one of these advisories:

      “Traffic enforcement is limited, but the use of speed cameras is on the rise. The police in continental Portugal have the authority to fine on-the-spot, and most of their vehicles have portable ATMs to facilitate immediate payment. Particularly problematic are failures to properly merge, yield, and safely change lanes and drivers disregarding traffic control signals. Motorists, especially motorcyclists, often drive excessively fast and violate traffic codes. Motorcyclists/scooters are permitted to drive between the lanes and go to the front of traffic at stoplights, all of which can be disconcerting for unexpected drivers.”

      And I strongly differ from your observation that the article espouses the superiority of the British folks. Where did this come from?

  7. I have been thinking about tour on portugal in very next time. You gave here some tips about driving on portugal. Hope so it will helping for me not only me but also every people who want to go portugal and thinking about driving on there. Thanks for your article and also for giving these useful tips.

  8. Hello Julie,
    I am driving to Portugal in my Renault which has no spare tyre yet legal requirements state I have to have a spare tyre? The car only comes with a repair kit?

    1. A lot of newer cars only have this repair kit – our Fiesta (purchased new from a Ford dealer in Portugal several years ago) was the same. We had a blowout on the motorway, for which the repair kit proved useless, and have since bought a spare tyre but that was no mean feat! I think the requirement must be that you have the means to repair a simple puncture otherwise all these cars that only come with a repair kit would be illegal.

  9. Just a thought: Flip the photo at the top of this page to show that you were driving on the right! 🙂

    A useful website, for which I’m very grateful.

  10. Thank you so mutch for all the tips – had a great laugh about the indicators – seems that portugal driving is the same as driving in South africa…..

  11. It’s a straight forward drive from Cascais to Algarve once you’re past the tricky part of navigating the connection from A5 to A2. The A2 Auto-Estrada (freeway) is lightly traveled and it should be a pleasant drive. If you’re already familiar with the toll system, well and good, but be prepared to spend at least 20 plus Euros to cover the distance between Lisbon and Algarve. If you’re able to get a transponder from the car rental company, it will make your life easy. A22 in Algarve has toll gantries all over and with a transponder at least you don’t have to make a special trip to the post office or pay shops to pay your tolls. I am a temporary transplant in the Algarve area and also a multi state resident of Washington and Arizona. I will be in Arizona last week of December, please feel free to message me if you’re interested to meet up. Don’t worry I’m no serial killer..LOL. But you can tell I cant make up my mind where to retire but at this point, I’m heavily leaning in favor of Portugal. I spend at least 180 days a year in Portugal which is my maximum limit based on Schengen rules. I might be in Portugal in June of 2018 and I sure will be happy to guide you around.

    1. Hi Cris,
      My husband and I are planning to visit Portugal in October 5-17 or 20. Can you give us advise on what are the must place to visit. So far, we are leaning on Lisbon, ALgarve and would like to take the cruise Duoro River. Any thoughts and any suggestions. We will be driving. Would like to discuss with you at some point. Perhaps we can email each other or even a phone call will be fantastic. Please let me know. Much thanks and appreciation

      1. Jennifer, I just came back from Portugal last March 11 and in fact I will be in Surprise, AZ middle of this month. Feel free to contact me via email: crisbaylon@comcast.net and I can give you my number later. Or you can leave me a message through Facebook, I go by the name Cris Bay. I would highly recommend driving if you want to cover a lot of grounds, especially the Algarve area where local mass transit is a bit of a challenge. The Douro River cruise would be fantastic from what I have heard although I have not experienced it myself. I’m an avid amateur photographer, so far I have crisscrossed Portugal from Porto all the way down to Algarve. There are a lot of good places to visit but to name a few other than Lisbon: Porto, Coimbra, Sintra, Aveiro, Batalha, Alcobaca, Obidos, Fatima, Evora, the whole Algarve, etc. Later Jen!

  12. Just found your wonderful site, absolutely fabulous! We are planning a trip to the Algarve (from Arizona) for a month or so in June. We plan to rent a rental car at the Lisbon Airport and drive to Cascais for a couple of days to unwind before heading to the Algarve. Is this a relatively straight forward drive? We have been to Lisbon before so we will bypass it,

  13. After driving again in Portugal and having our car rear ended by a tail hugger I can tell you I still like driving in Portugal. The accident was very annoying but the police and rental company were smooth enough to deal with and over the course of the week I found driving both a car and a moped to be an absolute pleasure. Only wish driving in the uk were so nice.

  14. Hi I just wanted to note that we looked into canceling the car and public transportation, but we have been advised that and only the regional trains go directly to Sintra and we can’t buy regional train tickets to Sintra from Porto ahead of time and it is subject to availability. We are going the end of July this year. Do you think it would be difficult to get the train tickets?
    Thank you

    1. Hi Lynn, trains run every 20 minutes or so from Lisbon’s Rossio statio to Sintra and the journey takes about 40 minutes. Worst case scenario is that if the train is full, you’ll have to wait for the next one but you should be fine. Allow time to buy your ticket unless you have a transport pass of some kind as there may be a queue.

      1. Sorry, reread your comment. You can book the intercity part ahead of time (i.e. Porto – Lisbon) if it makes you happier. These trains are strictly seated and they do get full. Earlier on the day of travel is usually okay though so don’t stress if you can’t book online.

  15. Hi, We have rented a car to go from Porto to Sintra and then to Lisbon. Do you have any suggestions on the easiest route to drive between these three places? My daughter and I are a bit nervous about leaving Porto and driving to the Lisbon airport. We noticed that for a sum we could get the car delivered and picked up. Would this extra cost be worth the stress relief?
    Thanks

  16. I just drove all over Portugal last September. There is no parking what so ever and I wouldnt trust to leave my car in a public lot etc. We stayed at the Pousada de Lisboa right in the center and they had parking but I knew ahead of time it was 27.00 euro a night versus the 50.00 a night if you did it on your own. It was off site but secured.

    1. Hi Nicole, Parking availability can be tricky in big cities and popular tourist destinations,especially in summer months, but to say there is no parking whatsoever is misleading. That said, if you are not comfortable with using public car parks, that makes things much more challenging 🙂

  17. Hi Simon, good point about the parking situation. In cities, don’t count on free street parking. There are long stay car parks but you need to check costs in advance. There are also private car parks, again with varying prices. Small hotels are unlikely to have parking but can tell you what the options are in the area. Another option would be to use airport parking in Lisbon and take the metro into the city.

  18. I don’t know whether you use online booking companies like Orbitz, Expedia, etc because most hotels provide information whether parking is available or not, or if it’s offsite. You might find it inconvenient to be traveling around major cities like Porto and Lisbon while driving and hunting for parking at every stop. Leave your car in a safe parking area and use public transportation. Taxi in Lisbon won’t cost you and arm and a leg and generally, drivers are honest.

    The drive from Faro to Lisbon is a breeze but just make sure you familiarize yourself with the way tolls work. It’s a challenge to some. Goodluck!

  19. Great list! I’m thinking about visiting Portugal in summer 2017 and I’m considering driving between some of the cities, e.g. Faro->Lisbon->Portugal. One thing that wasn’t covered in this post or comments was parking as a tourist, i.e. for extended amounts of time like a whole day or multiple days. E.g. if I drive to Lisbon, I won’t want to drive around town while I’m there, I would just want park the car at or near the hotel and leave it there the whole time I’m in town. Any advice? I guess two specific questions are 1) do smaller/ boutique hotels still tend to have parking, or only larger ones? and 2) if your hotel doesn’t have parking, what are your other options? Is there generally street parking where you can park for at least a whole day? Or are public garages a thing? Thanks!

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

    1. Author

      Sorry, I don’t know.

  21. 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.

  22. 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 🙂

  23. 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.

  24. 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

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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!

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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!

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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. 😉

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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!!!!

  38. 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 🙁

  39. 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. 😉

  40. 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!

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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!

  44. 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.

  45. 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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