A self drive Lisbon to Algarve road trip is the perfect way to explore the south of Portugal. You’ll start in one of Europe’s best city trip destinations, explore the Alentejo’s best attractions and end your Portugal road trip at the stunning Algarve coast.
We traveled around this area for about two months with our campervan and visited all the highlights and off the beaten track destinations between Lisbon and the Algarve. We created the perfect Lisbon to Algarve road trip itinerary, combining picturesque villages, impressive castles, beautiful nature reserves, impressive coastal hikes and picture-perfect sandy beaches.
Why a road trip is the best way to explore southern Portugal
Although there are plenty of towns in the Alentejo and Algarve that may be reached by public transportation, we advise that you explore the region in your own (rental) vehicle. It will be simpler to access the little villages that are a feature of Portugal’s south without having to constantly consult bus timetables.
This road trip itinerary connects the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and the main town of the Algarve, Porto. Both have international airports, so we suggest buying a ticket to the Lisbon international airport and leaving Portugal from the one in Porto.
You should pick up your rental vehicle at Lisbon’s airport, and make arrangements to return it to Faro. If you don’t return your rental car at the same airport as when you picked it up, you’ll usually pay a little more, but this is offset by the time you save not driving back to Lisbon.
This road trip itinerary brings you to the popular city of Lisbon, the stunning Alentejo region and the southern Algarve coast. If you’re on a tight schedule, two weeks should be enough for this roadtrip, but we recommend planning a three-week vacation to allow for enough time to enjoy each stop in both the Alentejo and Algarve.
Our Lisbon to Algarve itinerary on the map
A 3-week Lisbon to Faro road trip
You’ll start your trip in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. The city is famous for its yellow trams, pastel de nata pastries and historical buildings. Make sure to plan at least two full days to explore Lisbon. You’ll spend your Lisbon days mainly in the three central areas: the old town Alfama, the upcoming Bairro Alto and the city center in between. We recommend you look for a place to stay in Bairro Alto, where hotels are affordable and centrally located near all Lisbon highlights.
Read more: best areas to stay in Lisbon
Both Alfama and Bairro Alto are located on a hilltop, so you’ll probably climb up and down the steep stairs a few times. If you want to save your energy for some hikes later on during your trip, you’ll love the picturesque old yellow trams that can bring you up and down the hills. Also make sure to use the Elevador de Santo Justa, one of the most stunning elevators in Europe, operating between the city center and Bairro Alto.
Budget tip: buy the Lisbon Card for free use of the public transport system, including the trams and Santo Justa elevator, and for free entry to the main Lisbon attractions.
Highlights of Lisbon include the Belém district with the UNESCO-protected iconic Belém Tower and stunning Jerónimos Monastery, the many viewpoints on the Lisbon hills, the historic tram 28 in the Alfama district, the ruins of the Convento do Carmo and the large Praça do Comércio square with its triumphal arch. Make sure to visit the LX Factory, known for its markets, food stands, shops and exhibitions.
If you have enough time, you might want to make a day trip to the famous nearby city of Sintra as well. This small town is famous for its many castles and palaces, once built by Portuguese royalty and wealthy businessmen. The yellow and red National Palace of Sintra is the most famous and most-visited, but other palaces are well worth a visit. We especially loved the fairytale-like Quinta da Regaleira for its unique lush green gardens with wishing wells, tunnels, stairs and towers.
Sintra takes only 30 minutes by car But you might want to take the train from Lisbon to Sintra as parking in Sintra isn’t easy and there is a special bus connecting all the Sintra sights and the train station.
Parking in Lisbon: our hotel recommended this affordable and guarded parking lot near the Bairro Alto.
#2 Alentejo capital Évora
Évora might be one of our favourite destinations in Portugal and it’s only a 1,5-hour drive from Lisbon. It is the capital of the Alentejo, thus one of the bigger towns in this area.
Lined with white-and-yellow houses, tiny cobblestoned streets, historic monuments, wide vistas, and atmospheric squares, it is the most beautiful town in the Alentejo. The city has its UNESCO World Heritage status for a reason.
The ancient cathedral is the crowning glory of Évora. What makes it even more unique is that you can visit the rooftop of the cathedral for a stunning view of the city and surrounding area, as well as a closer look at its distinctive towers and dome.
The Capela dos Ossos bone chapel, the University of Évora glistening with azulejos tiles, the Roman temple that stands next to the cathedral, the city park with its fake ruins and the ancient aqueduct outside the city are some of Évora’s most iconic sights.
Take your time to see all of the attractions, but also walk aimlessly down the streets. The cobbled streets, white houses with yellow stripes, bright flowers, vistas and gates are beautiful. The street scene is actually Évora’s most beautiful attraction.
Parking in Évora: you can’t park your car in the old center of Évora, unless you have private parking at your hotel. But there is a big parking lot just outside the city walls at the aqueduct. We travelled with a campervan and parked it a bit further at this free parking.
#3 Marble villages Estremoz & Vila Viçosa
Did you know that Portugal is famous for its beautiful marble? The northeast of the Alentejo region is one of the biggest marble production areas in the world. Marble has been the main export product for the towns in this area for many years. With so much marble available, it is not difficult to guess what these towns now look like!
As marble was the easiest and cheapest building material in the area, locals used it for everything. Entire squares are covered with marble floor stones and entire buildings and palaces are constructed with marble of the highest quality.
The main villages in this marble region – Estremoz, Borba and Vila Viçosa – have used the marble for absolutely everything. From door frames and window frames to entire palaces and squares. We were told that the locals even ground the white marble to make paint to whiten their houses. That was cheaper and easier for the residents of this region than buying regular white paint.
Especially Estremoz and Vila Viçosa are worth a visit. Estremoz has the best-known and biggest marble quarries and Estremoz marble has been used all over Europe, especially in palaces and monumental buildings. You can see a marble quarry during your stay in Estremoz, but the town itself is also worth a visit.
The higher part of Estremoz has old streets and a beautiful white castle from the thirteenth century. It was built by the Portuguese king for his wife Isabel of Aragon and the high tower Torre das Tres Coroas is still one of the most emblematic buildings of the city. It is a hotel, Poussada de Rainha Santa Isabel, nowadays, but you can visit parts of it as a visitor. You can climb the tower for free, even without staying in the hotel as a guest.
You can visit an even more beautiful palace in Vila Viçosa. The town was once the royal seat of the Portuguese kings and that has left quite a few beautiful traces. Impressive is the huge Praça da Républica square with the Paço Ducal Palace, both made of marble.
The Dukes of Bragança built the marble palace in the sixteenth century, so even before they had the Portuguese throne and ruled Portugal for centuries. A visit to the Marble Palace gives you an insight into the Portuguese royal history, but above all shows you the splendor of that age.
Parking at Estremoz & Vila Viçosa: there are many parking opportunities in these towns, so it will be easy to find a good parking spot. We even parked our campervan right in front of the Estremoz Poussada de Rainha Santa Isabel and at the parking in front of the church inside the old castle of Vila Viçosa.
#4 The defensified city of Elvas
From above via Google Maps, you should first glimpse the defensified city of Elvas to appreciate what makes it so unique. In a star formation around the ancient center, the town is encircled by ramparts and fortifications. This is such an unusual structure that Elvas’ fortifications have earned UNESCO world heritage status. It’s the largest dry moat defense system in the world, according to UNESCO.
Given that Elvas was founded so close to the Spanish border, where it served as the first line of defense for Portugal’s kingdom, its defensive capabilities were probably not surprising. In addition to the star-shaped defensive walls, you may visit Forte de Santa Luzia and Forte da Graça, two massive fortresses.
The Forte de Santa Luzia is located outside of Elvas, while the Forte de Graça is at its center. You may also visit the ancient passages of the fortification and have a beautiful view of the city and its surroundings from there.
Nearby is the Castelo de Elvas, which, like the rest of the city, was clearly constructed to withstand storms. The Igreja das Domínicas, which is located within the city walls, is another highlight of Elvas. It’s a unique church in Moorish style with an octagonal form and was built during the Moors’ rule.
The magnificent and well-preserved aqueduct is another unique highlight of Elvas. This Amoreira aqueduct was constructed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to supply water from the Alcalá spring to the city. Take a look at this magnificent bridge from different angles so you may see how stunning the high rows of arches are. They are especially lovely during sunset, when the setting sun shines on the arches.
#5 Monsaraz at the Lago do Alqueva
Although Monsaraz is tiny, it is one of the most beautiful villages you’ll see in Portugal. Monsaraz has a walled old town with a medieval castle and a spectacular hilltop location that more than makes up for its lack of size. Consider the lovely location in a lake region, as well as the equally lovely views over it from Monsaraz, and you’ll see why you just can’t miss out on this little-known gem in Portugal.
The white village transports you to a bygone era. Monsaraz is a beautiful picture with its cobblestone streets, ancient castle, whitewashed homes, Stone Age stone circle, and stunning panoramic views of the surrounding region. Take a stroll down the road and tour the castle (for free) before stopping at the prehistoric stone circle near town.
If you go to the Alentejo in the summer, you’ll be pleased to discover that Monsaraz is located right next to Europe’s biggest reservoir. While a reservoir is frequently an unsightly, artificial lake full of water, the Lago do Alqueva is not like that. It’s a picturesque setting with bridges, islands, vegetation, and beaches.
You’ve come to the ideal location for a refreshing dip in the summer, because along many sections of the reservoir you will find beautiful sandy beaches. Monsaraz, where you’ll find the Praia Fluvial de Monsaraz, and historic Mourão are both lovely towns to visit on the lake. You can also rent a canoe and go out on the lake at many places.
Parking in Monsaraz: only local residents may enter the old narrow streets by car, but there are many parking spots just outside the city walls.
#6 Castle town Serpa
Your next stop on this road trip is the tiny town of Serpa, which is about 70 minutes by car from Monsaraz. As it is quite a small town, you might not spend the night here, but only pass through to your next road trip stop.
Between the rolling hills with vines and olive trees, Serpa is a charming medieval town with an impressive castle, whitewashed homes, and ancient aqueduct. It’s a lovely town to visit if you’re passing through Alentejo.
When you visit the city, it’s evident that Serpa has a long history. The old medieval town is still surrounded by a medieval city wall and the main entrance, the Porta de Beja, seems untouched by time. The Porta de Moura is the only remaining gate, but it’s significantly smaller and less impressive than the Porta de Beja.
The eleventh-century aqueduct and medieval castle are the two main attractions of Serpa. You can visit the castle and archaeological museum inside it for free. Climb the ancient castle walls for a stunning perspective of the city and valley below. You’ll be able to see the town of Serpa and the vast countryside with wineries and olive groves in front of you, all from the castle towers and walls.
Parking in Serpa: this small parking is closest to the Serpa tourist attractions.
#7 Mértola & the São Domingos mines
From Serpa, it’s a 50 minutes drive to the village of Mértola, located in the Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana. The São Domingos mines are just 20 minutes by car from Mértola, so we suggest visiting the mines when staying in Mértola.
The Moors had a big influence on the architecture of Mértola. After this village was recaptured from the Moors from North Africa and became part of what is now known as Portugal, its prosperity waned. This also meant there was no money to invest in replacing all the Moorish buildings, so they simply decided to reuse them.
The old mosque became a church without extensive alterations. There are still many remnants of the North African occupants visible in the village. To commemorate these Moorish roots, the Festival Islâmico de Mértola takes place every other year in May, transforming the town into an oriental market.
You can visit the highlights in Mértola for free. Both the church and the castle are free to visit (but closed on Mondays). There are also several archaeological digs that may educate you about the village during the Roman and Moor periods. Don’t miss out on the viewpoint adjacent to the city, which has a lovely view of the Guadiana River.
Not far from Mértola is one of the hidden gems of Portugal: the old copper mine Minas de São Domingos. What was once an important copper mine with a bustling mining village is now an abandoned place with ruins, old machinery and a poisonous red lake. Where the Romans once already searched for precious metals, a flourishing mining village emerged in later centuries, owned by an English company.
Mining sulfuric acid was ultimately not the best decision for the Minas de São Domingos. As a result, the soil became seriously polluted and more and more miners fell ill. The mine was eventually closed in the 1960s and the village fell into disrepair. That dilapidated village still stands and is now a sort of ghost town on the edge of a poisonous, red colored lake.
In the ghost town, you can still see the remains of old houses, a chimney, the loading platform of the station, the old offices and more ruins. There are information signs in Portuguese and English in various places to provide visitors with more background information about the metals in the ground and about the old mining village.
Parking in Mértola and at the mines: you can easily park your car at this big parking next to the old town of Mértola. The village at the mines has many parking spaces.
#8 Lagos in the Algarve
Our favorite location in the Algarve is Lagos, which is your next stop on this itinerary. It was here that Portugal’s illustrious voyages of discovery began, launching the Golden Age of Portugal. The old town of Lagos, where you may wander through a maze of charming streets, reflects this rich history.
As Lagos is one of the oldest cities in the Algarve, it is full of historical monuments, old churches and the streets are paved with cobblestones. The old city is it most beautiful part of Lagos and one of the best places to visit in Lagos. Wandering the old streets should definitely be on your Lagos to-do list.
A visit to the old town isn’t really about a specific monument or a well-known tourist attraction though. We just loved strolling down lively streets, admiring the beautiful street art and enjoying the picturesque architecture.
Lagos has a number of beaches within walking distance of the city center or a short drive away. The Praia da Batata is right in front of the city walls. Walk to Praia dos Estudantes, passing by a tunnel carved out of rock. The high bridge at this Praia dos Estudiantes beach is one of the most beautiful things to see in Lagos.
The famous icon of the Algarve is the Ponte da Piedade near Lagos. You simply can’t visit Lagos without seeing these rocks south of the city. This is a beautiful rock formation with golden yellow rocks that create lovely arches and pointed summits in an appealing blue sea. You may look down from the viewpoint, but going down the stairs gives you the best view of the Ponte da Piedade.
One of the best hikes at Lagos is walking along the rocky coast from the village of Luz to the Ponte da Piedade and then on to the old town of Lagos.
Parking in Lagos: Lagos has a free parking lot here, right next to the city walls.
#9 Ferragudo and Carvoeiro
Next on this Portugal trip are the small beach villages of Ferragudo and Carvoeiro. We preferred the picturesque Ferragudo over Carvoeiro. Yet, Carvoeiro is home to some of the most beautiful rocky coast of the Algarve. If you have enough time for this trip, you might want to visit both of them during your stay in the Algarve.
Ferragudo is the perfect destination to take in the peaceful Portuguese village life. Stroll around town and make sure you have your camera ready for its picturesque streets. The Ferragudo roads are paved with cobblestones and the village is made up of white homes with colorful doors and shutters. In every season, roses and other vibrant blooms adorn the streets, adding to Ferragudo’s attractiveness.
It is a postcard-pretty sight and you’ll soon understand why this is often called the most beautiful town in the Algarve. Ferragudo is also located on the shore with two beautiful sandy beaches and it is the starting point for the Trail of Headlands, one of the best hikes in the Algarve.
Read more: 8 best things to do in Ferragudo.
Carvoeiro is great for hiking and exploring the orange coastal cliffs as well. The Trail of Headlands ends not far from Carvoeiro and the famous Seven Hanging Valleys Trail starts nearby as well. But Carvoeiro’s best attraction is the Carvoeiro Boardwalk.
This mini walking path of only 600 meters is not about the wooden ‘boardwalks’ that run along the coast here, but about the spectacular vistas along the way. The wooden boardwalk in Carvoeiro leads along the most impressive cliffs of the Algarve. To get the best view of that coast, there are two places with stairs leading down the cliffs.
The village of Carvoeiro is tiny as well and in our opinion not as beautiful as Ferragudo. But it has the perfect location to explore the rocky coast and enjoy some beach time. The Boardwalk is its main attraction and the second one is its secluded Praia de Carvoeiro beach, surrounded by rocky cliffs and restaurants.
There are other great beaches close by like Praia do Paraisa and Praia de Vale dos Currais. It is also a great starting point for an excursion to the famous Benagil Caves, which can only be reached by water. A boat trip or canoe excursion is therefore the only way to see the caves, unless you are an extremely good swimmer and dare to swim from Praia de Benagil to the caves.
Parking in Ferragudo and Carvoeiro: we parked our campervan at this big parking area in Ferragudo and stayed there for a few nights. We learned that a few weeks later, wild camping was no longer allowed at this beautiful spot. Carvoeiro has parking spots here and we can recommend these parking spots close to the beach. We were also able to park here at the Boardwalk, but there are only a few spots.
#10 Faro and the Ria Formosa Nature Park
Your last stop is Faro where you can return your rental car and fly back home from the international airport. But not before you first explore the town of Faro and enjoy the beautiful Ria Formosa Nature Park.
Faro is the capital of the Algarve and a great destination in Portugal to finish your trip. The Cidade Velha is the old town in the heart of Faro. The historic center is almost completely walled with ancient city walls.
A visit to the historic part of the city thus always starts with an impressive entrance at a picturesque medieval city gate. The most beautiful gate is the monumental Arco do Repouso. Wander around the old streets, take in the beautiful historic buildings, go souvenir shopping in the shopping area, visit the 1200 skulls of the Bone Chapel of Faro and make a day trip to the Faro beach and Ria Formosa Nature Park.
Though Faro is located on the Algarve coast, it is not home to the sandy beaches you’ve enjoyed in Lagos, Ferragudo and Carvoeiro. The closest beaches are a short drive outside the city, located in the Ria Formosa lagoon with its maze of waterways, islands, swamps, dunes, mudflats and beaches.
You can take a ferry from the Faro city center to one of the Praia da Faro, located on one of the peninsulas in the lagoon. You could also go by car and park at this parking close to the beach – where we also spend three beautiful nights with our camper van.
If you go to the Praia da Faro beach, visit the beautiful Ria Formosa park the same day, as the best walking trail in the park is at the same location. The Ludo Trail is the most popular short hike in the park, visiting the swamps and salt water marshes. You’ll see a lot of water birds while trekking through this marshy and wetland environment.
We observed several flamingos on each of our two visits. The trail passes a salt production area with salt flats, pink lakes, and huge white salt mountains. It’s a very beautiful and special place in the nature park where you see fewer people than at the swamps.
Parking in Faro and at Ria Formosa: we recommend this large free parking next to the city walls of Faro. You can easily park your rental car – or even camper van – at this parking at Praia da Faro and the Ludo Trail at the Ria Formosa Nature Park.