As a leisure activity, hiking in Portugal has become much more popular in the last few years. When I first moved here, it was mainly foreigners who went for long walks just for fun. Nowadays, there are more Portuguese hikers out and about and lots of visitors are keen to get off the beaten track and enjoy the natural beauty of Portugal on foot.
Going for a walk in the countryside is one of my absolute favourite things to do so over the years I’ve been on countless hiking trails in Portugal.
These range from gentle riverside strolls and short yet remarkable levada walks in Madeira to epic multi-day hikes such as the Portuguese Camino de Santiago and week-long walking holidays in the Douro wine region, the Côa Valley Archaeological Park with it’s Paleolithic rock art, along the Atlantic Coast or through the mountainous Peneda-Gerês National Park.
Portuguese landscapes are varied and beautiful so whatever type of scenery and terrain appeals to you, you’ll find it here, either on the mainland or the Madeira or Azores islands.
To give you a sense of what I mean, there are stunning coastal trails, dramatic mountainous treks, volcanic craters, forest paths that lead to hidden villages, lake and riverside routes, ancient pilgrim trails, Roman roads, old thoroughfares between villages that predate the current road system and some award-winning wooden boardwalks that make some of the rugged places more accessible.
Assuming that I’ve whet your appetite, there are a few things to consider before you pack your hiking boots so this article is designed to help with the practicalities and realities of hiking in Portugal. My aim with this article is to give you a sense of the diversity of possible walks in Portugal and lots of practical information that will help you stay safe and get the most out of your experience.
Note: If you are looking for recommendations for guided or self-guided walking tours, let me know what you’re interested in and I will try to connect you with a suitable local specialist.
Click to read a specific section or scroll down to read the full article:
- Long distance trails
- Short hiking trails in Portugal
- How easy is it to follow marked hiking trails in Portugal?
- Guided walking tours in Portugal
- Self-guided walking holidays in Portugal
- What equipment do you need for hiking in Portugal?
- What’s the terrain like?
- When’s the best time of year for hiking in Portugal?
- Safety measures when hiking in Portugal
- Respectful behaviour when walking in Portugal
Types of marked walking trail in Portugal
As you’ll see below, Portugal has trails to suit all levels of ability and enthusiasm.
Long distance trails
There are several multi-day, long distance hiking trails in Portugal, some of which extend into Spain and beyond.
Pilgrim trails in Portugal
Perhaps the oldest of these is the Portuguese Camino de Santiago, which is a pilgrim trail leading to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, built to venerate Saint James. I’ve walked the Coastal and Central Camino routes north of Porto and loved them both.
Camino routes are usually identified by yellow arrows or scallop shells and are generally pretty easy to follow, unlike some of the other trails.
The most popular pilgrim destination for the Portuguese is the sanctuary in Fátima and you’ll see gaggles of people on the roads, wearing yellow hi-vis vests as they make their way there in May and October. Portuguese people don’t tend to follow the scenic routes on their way to Fátima. Their pilgrimage is not for leisure, it’s a show of devotion, so they take the most direct route on the roads and have support vehicles waiting at strategic points.
If you want to walk to Fátima, please follow the marked trails, identified by blue arrows or pretty symbols, and stay away from the traffic.
Grande Rota hiking trails in Portugal
Great Routes (Grande Rotas in Portuguese), abbreviated to GR and marked with red and white stripes, are long distance hiking trails that require several days to complete. Portugal has several of these, such as the Via Algarviana, which runs the breadth of the Algarve region.
Warning: The Grande Rotas (GRs) have not necessarily been designed with the optimal user experience in mind. The walking distances between potential lodgings are often considerably greater than I could comfortably walk in a day so you would probably need to carry a tent and camping equipment. This is not my idea of fun.
The politics involved in plotting out a GR, where no local municipality or parish wants to feel left out, or landowners refuse access, may mean that the trail makes an unecessary or dull detour in order to pass through a certain village instead of looking for practical or scenic options that might be more enjoyable to walk.
The GR 50 in the Peneda-Gerês National Park is a good example of such politics in practice, as I learned when working with a local tour operator to develop a more appealing and logistically sound route for their self-guided walking holiday.
Rota Vicentina hiking trails
The Rota Vicentina is a network of over 750 kilometres of walking trails in the Algarve and western Alentejo region and, to my knowledge, the blue and green signage is regularly maintained so they are relatively easy to follow compared to some of the other marked routes.
That said, I still managed to get lost near Odeceixe! You can read about that here.
Initially, the Rota Vicentina consisted mainly of two linear trails; the Fisherman’s Trail near the coast and the Historical Trail inland. In recent years, they have developed several circular routes which make it easier to use just one base, rather than organise luggage or taxi transfers between towns along a linear route.
If you wish to follow the linear trails, there are local tour operators who can help you with accommodation and luggage transfers for the Rota Vicentina and the official website has excellent information.
Short hiking trails in Portugal
When I say short, I mean anything that’s a day or less.
This type of trail is known as a Pequena Rota (PR), which literally means Small Route and they are marked by yellow and red stripes. If you see yellow, white and red stripes together, it means that the PR is sharing part of a GR trail.
PRs have numbers, just like the GRs, but each municipality starts from number 1 for their own PRs so you also need to know which municipality the trail is in if you’re trying to track down a leaflet or trail information.
Now that walking for pleasure has gained popularity in Portugal, there are an increasing number of PRs (walking trails) being developed. Some of them are wonderful and a joy to follow. Others can be frustrating, as you’ll see below.
Wooden boardwalks are becoming a ‘thing’, too. First made popular by the Paiva Walkway, the trend is spreading to other hard to reach places.
Ecovias are eco trails that are designed for walking and cycling. Some disused train tracks have been turned into ecovias and there are several ecovias in the north of Portugal, along the Costa Verde and around Ponte de Lima and Arcos de Valdevez.
Madeira Island is famous for its levada trails, also marked as PRs, in which you follow irrigation channels, sometimes through tunnels and waterfalls. See this article for walks in Madeira.
It is also possible (in theory, see below) to follow a short section of a GR if you only want to spend a day walking instead of doing the whole thing.
Bear in mind that a lot of these trails are linear so you’ll either have to factor in the return journey or arrange transport at the other end.
How easy is it to follow marked hiking trails in Portugal?
Madeira and the Azores islands have excellent trail maintenance and maps so you can go it alone there as long as you are adequately equipped and check the status of trails before setting off.
There are, of course, plenty of guided walks that you can do too. You’ll learn more about the places you’re going to and the guide will not have to stick to the official trail if they know a better way.
On mainland Portugal, you need to be more choosy about your route, flexible in the face of unexpected challenges, or use professionals for a smoother experience.
As I’ve mentioned above, some of the PRs and sections of the GRs in mainland Portugal are great, but others are not thought through with the aim of providing the best experience for the walker. Some are needlessly steep and boring in parts; they can spend too long on asphalt roads or places where your views are blocked by eucalyptus or mimosa trees.
One of the biggest issues, unfortunately, is that the maintenance of these trails is patchy in some areas. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to give up on a trail because I can’t manage to climb over all the fallen trees or beat my way through brambles and gorse.
I don’t mind a bit of adventure but I’ve also had to wade across rivers or struggle across streams because the wooden bridges got washed away or went rotten.
Poor signage can also be a real problem, especially if you get utterly lost and don’t have much water or daylight left!
Some signs disappear with fallen trees, others get knocked over by careless forestry or agricultural workers or track grading machines. Others are in bizarre places where you can’t see them. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to follow a full marked trail in the Douro!
I’ve seen brand new GR signposts pointing in the wrong direction so I am always a little wary, even when a route appears to be well marked. Sometimes, the signposts have been turned around on purpose, at other times, they may have fallen and been propped up incorrectly.
For these reasons, I usually recommend that visitors to mainland Portugal stick to well-maintained trails like the Rota Vicentina or use the services of a specialist walking tour operator. That way, you don’t have to worry about getting lost in foreign lands and having a bad experience during your precious holiday time.
If you live in Portugal or have the luxury of time and flexibility, as long as you are well-equipped for possible problems (see below) and prepared to turn back if necessary, by all means have a go on the marked trails. You can always pick another route on a different day if it doesn’t work out.
Another option, most relevant for residents, is to join one of the organised group hikes that are advertised on Facebook, as long as you don’t mind the inevitable noise produced by 20-odd people, or waiting for stragglers.
I’ve done a few of these and although it’s nice to meet some new people, practice my Portuguese, learn a bit about local history and not have to worry about looking for way markers, I prefer to be with fewer people when I’m hiking.
Why using a local tour operator is a good idea
Guided walking tours in Portugal
One of the things I love about going on a guided walk is being able to relax and let someone else lead the way. If it’s a paid experience, I expect them to have scoped out the walk in advance. I have, however, been on some of the group walks mentioned above that I found on Facebook where this hasn’t happened and there has been scrambling and back-tracking involved, as well as minor accidents.
When I recommend a specific walking tour to readers and clients, I refer you to tour operators that I know are responsible and safe, and who use carefully planned routes and practice sustainable tourism. Professionals know their trails and can often seemlesly adapt them if necessary to cater for different abilities and walking speeds.
These tour guides also know and love their local area and are happy to share the culture and history of the place and point out things that the untrained eye would miss.
Self-guided walking holidays in Portugal
The tour operator I work most closely with in the north of Portugal specialises in self-guided walking holidays. Because you do the walks on your own and don’t stick to marked trails, these work best when you’ve got detailed route notes to provide directions, important information about potential hazards, places to stop for refreshments and supplies as well as interesting details about the places you’ll be visiting.
My job is to take notes and create the written instructions for clients so I know first-hand how much work and care goes into developing their routes. I’ve also witnessed changes to the original planned route when the reality of it doesn’t live up to expectations, either from a safety perspective or in terms of views and points of interest.
This is why I am proud to recommend their tours, and those of companies with similar practices and standards.
Check out this brief selection of self-guided hiking vacations in Northern Portugal:
What equipment do you need for hiking in Portugal?
I’ve talked about the problems with poorly signposted and maintained trails. If you are attempting one of these independently, try to track down a trail leaflet, although they are often not very helpful. A good place to look is on the local câmara website. Search Google for “CM name of town percursos pedestres“.
A leaflet should at least give you an idea of overall distance, difficulty and elevation profile as well as points of reference. You may also be able to download the trail to use with an app.
It depends, of course, on when and where you will be walking, and for how long, but always wear appropriate footwear. I prefer hiking shoes to boots but if you like to have more ankle support on uneven terrain, by all means wear boots.
I’ve selected some of my favourite hiking supplies in my Amazon shop.
I do have some hiking sandals but I tend to only wear them for shortish walks near my home. Even then, I end up with bloody toes from sticks and brambles. If you don’t know the terrain, closed shoes will keep you safe from these and other nasties (see below).
On longer walks, or routes I don’t know, I like to carry walking poles with detachable rubber tips. These help to deal with steep, uneven tracks, overgrown sections or slippery bits and to distribute physical effort on more level sections. They also come in handy for warding off loose dogs.
Unless you know that the trail is well shaded or the weather is cloudy and certain to stay that way, take a hat and wear sun cream. Also be prepared for changes in the weather – bring layers and a water/windproof jacket.
If I’m hiking away from my home area, I always take a little first aid kit, plenty of water, whatever food I’ll need, a bag of nuts and raisins for emergencies, tissues and antiseptic wipes/gel.
During the pandemic, you will need to have a face mask with you for when you can’t keep 2 metres away from other people. You don’t have to wear it when there’s no one else around. See this article for more on current saftey measures.
I also like to carry a lightweight foam seat pad so I can sit on wet surfaces or stony ground.
Make sure your mobile phone is fully charged and perhaps carry a portable charger if you’re going to be making heavy use of it during the day, e.g. for following a trail on an app.
In Madeira, you might need a torch for tunnels and a waterproof poncho for walking past small waterfalls.
To find out what to pack for a multi-day hike in Portugal, see this article.
What’s the terrain like when hiking in Portugal?
Obviously this will vary but you can reasonably expect a mixture of cobbled or asphalt lanes, dirt tracks and paths, old stone roads (some of them dating back to Roman times), levadas (irrigation channels), and an increasing number of wooden boardwalks, both by the coast and inland. Some of the coastal routes involve some sandy sections, which are hard work.
Unless you are sticking to a path that is purely boardwalk and asphalt, or flat dirt without much gravel or stone, you’ll need decent footwear – see my gear tips above. You’re quite likely to encounter waterlogged sections unless walking in the summer months.
When’s the best time of year for hiking in Portugal?
To some extent, this depends on where you go. In general, the best times are spring and autumn, i.e. mid-March to mid-June and September to October or early November. Winter can be wet and cold and summer is way too hot for walking in inland areas unless you can do so really early in the morning or in the early evening.
If you live or spend chunks of time in Portugal, you’ll likely know that there are periods of wonderful walking weather in the winter months, too. I’ve spent time in the Peneda-Gerês mountains in January and walked part of the Camino in February. I very rarely have a day when the weather is so bad that I can’t get out for a short walk near my home without getting drenched.
This is fine for excursions that don’t require much forward planning. However, if you are trying to work out when to book a week-long walking holiday, the safest bet for avoiding rain or high temperatures would be April to mid-June or mid-September to mid-October.
Of course with the erratic weather conditions we’ve been experiencing across the globe, there are no guarantees.
That said, some places are good for hiking all year round, barring storms etc., for example the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park.
Madeira and the Azores have a milder climate than mainland Portugal so again, except for extreme weather conditions, you can hike year round but always check trail conditions in advance if going without a guide.
Further reading: Best Time To Visit Portugal
Are the walking trails in Portugal busy?
Depending on which hiking trails you choose, and the time of year, you may be the only walker(s) around. Some of the Madeira trails, e.g. the 25 Fontes, get quite busy as the tour companies seem to take groups there on the same day of the week.
The Camino de Santiago is, pandemics aside, perhaps the busiest trail on the mainland but even though you will bump into other walkers at times, especially rest stops, you’ll have plenty of time to just be on your own in nature.
Because you may not encounter fellow walkers or local people on a hike, it’s best to be prepared for a range of eventualities before you set off, especially if you will be in remote areas, such as the Peneda-Gerês National Park.
Safety measures when hiking in Portugal
In addition to taking appropriate hiking gear, there are other things to bear in mind if you want to have a safe, enjoyable experience of walking in Portugal.
Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return, especially if you are hiking alone.
If your phone has GPS, keep this activated so that the emergency services can locate you if necessary.
The emergency number in Portugal is 112 and they have English-speaking operators.
Forest fires are a massive problem every summer so make sure you don’t inadvertently start one! That means no campfires or outdoor barbecues and properly extinguishing cigarettes and matches.
Water from public taps is not safe to drink if there is a sign saying água não potável or água não controlada. Always carry more than you think you’ll need and top up from safe sources.
During hunting season, roughly August to February, be especially wary in designated hunting zones, i.e. wherever you see red and white signs that say Zona de Caça Municipal, on Thursdays, Sundays and National Holidays. Stick to wide tracks and open spaces if possible and wear bright colours.
You are likely to encounter loose dogs near villages. They may appear threatening but will back off if you wave a walking stick in their direction or pick up a stone as if to throw it at them. Don’t actually throw the stone! If you do get bitten, you don’t need to worry about rabies but you should get the wound looked at at a local health centre.
Most snakes in Portugal are harmless and will quickly disappear upon your approach. However, it’s best to wear closed shoes in case you accidentally step on one! In case of a bite, take anti-histamine and seek medical attention immediately.
Ticks are another reason to wear long trousers and closed shoes, although they are only cause for concern if they attach themselves to you so check yourself at least daily to make sure you’ve got no hangers-on. If you do find that one has buried its way into your skin, be sure to remove the head when you pull it out.
In areas with pine trees, watch out for lines of hairy processionary caterpillars in spring, especially if you have dogs or children with you. The hairs carry toxins that are extremely harmful so keep well away!
Respectful behaviour when walking in Portugal
Respecting the environment
The Portuguese countryside is beautiful and interesting so it’s important to travel responsibly to keep it that way.
Take your litter with you. Although you may see litter on your walks – and feel free to pick it up and take it to the nearest bin – please don’t add to it.
Avoid leaving the marked trails, especially in protected natural areas.
Don’t uproot plants, pick flowers or collect seeds – they may be an invasive species that you would be unwittingly spreading. Similiarly, don’t damage or remove archaeological artefacts or other objects.
Respecting local communities
Greeting local people politely and showing an interest in their work is an important way of breaking down barriers between communities and visitors and making tourism sustainable.
Try to learn a few basic phrases in Portuguese – Practice Portuguese is a wonderful tool and also has a handy translation section that gives you way more appropriate language to use than Google Translate.
In the villages, you may see locals preparing for the next day’s fishing or tending vegetables, grape vines and livestock. Many villages have a café, although not all, it will benefit the local economy if you are able to buy something from a local shop or café.
Don’t take photos of people without their consent – imagine how you would feel if tourists started taking pictures of you doing your gardening or going about your daily business.
I hope this article has you fully prepared to get out and explore the wonders of Portugal on foot. I will write another article focusing on my favourite hikes soon.