We flew into Faro Airport (FAO) from London Gatwick (LGW) with our hand luggage and carry-ons only. The flight takes around 2hrs 30 min. We tend to pack light for trips less than a month so we don’t have to waste time sitting in the baggage reclamation area.
FAO is a tiny airport but by no means the smallest I’ve been in. This meant that your immigration control and customs process can either be pain-free or hellacious depending on whether you’re visiting during the high or low season.
We wheeled our packs around the airport and found we had to go to Car Park 4 to pick up the car we hired. If you rent a villa or stay in a hotel that’s very far from Faro, your best option is to either arrange a taxi (around 35 euro each way) or rent a car (around 7 euro per day).
It was a small car with an automatic transmission and did the job perfectly. With the car in hand we were ready to get going.
A road trip doesn’t mean not stopping to enjoy the sights of the towns, so the first thing we did was check out the Algarve. We arrived at our hotel in Albufeira and quickly checked in so we could get our stuff set down and get out as soon as possible. Albufeira is a town known as a sort of spring break destination for tourists but traveling in the off season means it’s a lot quieter.
The beaches and natural rock formations that comprise the coast of Albufeira make for a wonderful place to relax.
The water is chilly in March but if you are brave, it warms up quickly once you are in.
From the Alemães Beach you can see the white buildings in the distance making up Albufeira’s old town: an amalgamation of restaurants, bars, clubs and souvenir shops.
Old Town Albufeira is nice when it’s the off season. There are small groups of people and there are plenty of people day-drinking but for the most part you are left to explore the town which has plenty of alleys to lose yourself in and very high, scenic viewpoints.
You really only need a day to take this area in unless you have specific things you need or want to do. I was plenty happy with walking around the alleys, eating grilled sardines, drinking beer and walking to the tops of the high viewpoints.
Quinta do Lago
After several days exploring Albufeira, we decided to head east a bit and stay in a slightly more remote location. I use the word “remote” loosely but we weren’t out on the beach and the experience was more within the grounds of the area. We were at the Conrad Algarve which was an experience in itself.
This is your classic resort hotel and you could spend a holiday just relaxing within the grounds if you felt like just doing nothing for a while, which to be honest, is nice sometimes.
The hotel is home to several heated swimming pools, two of which are infinity pools. It can be 50 degrees outside and since the outdoor pool in the spa is heated you can still swim and enjoy the outdoors.
The restaurant serves great food and we had a chance to enjoy monkfish and a regional wine. This was the perfect spot to relax before heading out on a long journey.
En route to Lisbon we decided to make a stop by the town of Faro. Driving around Faro is confusing because most of the bumpy brick roads are one-ways and it’s a maze of roundabouts to get around.
I had read about the Bone Chapel in Faro and wanted to see it in person. The Bone Chapel is a chapel inside of Carmo Church comprised of the bones of more than 1000 monks. It costs 3 Euro per person to enter.
You’re welcomed with the message Stop here and consider, that you will reach this state too. It’s a creepy thought and forces you to think that each one of these people had their own thoughts, lives and purposes in this world. A very reflective spot worth checking out if you’re in the area.
I wish we had more time to explore some of the cafes and restaurants that line the narrow streets of Faro but this was primarily an en-route stop.
En Route to Lisbon
Leaving the Algarve for Lisbon you’ve got a couple of options. The tolled A2 or the alternative IC1. The A2 is a more typical highway with higher speed limits and will get you there much faster whereas the IC1 is a bit more windy, with slower speed limits (that nobody seems to pay attention to) but may be a bit more scenic and interesting a way to see the country if you’re not in a hurry.
Unbeknownst to me, I rented a car that had its GPS preprogrammed to avoid toll roads. This meant what could have been a relatively quick drive ended up taking hours! This is ended up being a decent option though as we passed through the distant towns, farmlands and villages that comprise central Portugal.
On your way to Lisbon, you’re treated to mountainous and rugged terrain adorning each side of the roads. Several towns with similar architecture styles are passed.
Arriving in Lisbon
After one stop at a petrol station and a break for lunch at a roadside “snack bar” we start edto see traffic pick up. In the distance there is a towering bridge spanning an incredible distance. Depending on your route into Lisbon you’re either crossing the 25 do Abril or Vasco de Gama bridge. The Vasco da Gama bridge is a little more out of the way, but I loved the experience of driving across it. At nearly 11 miles long, the Vasco da Gama Bridge is the longest bridge in Europe. Even without knowing it you realize how huge this bridge is.
Finally arriving into the city, it can be a bit overwhelming with the numerous roundabouts and stoplights, and sometimes a roundabout-stoplight combination. For minimum headache, I’d recommend parking in a garage and taking an Uber where you need. Currently, Uber in Portugal is a hotly debated topic but for now you can get all over the city for around 3 euro per ride.
One of the best ways to understand the vastness of the city is by heading to the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte. A scenic viewpoint that gives you views of the famous São Jorge Castle, the welcoming Christ statue on the 25 do Abril bridge and further west.
From this viewpoint you can walk down the streets further and head either to the Baixa (the modern downtown) or continue battling hills to get up close to the castle. The roads leading to the castle are confusing and you may end up backtracking several times but it’s still a fun experience.
Navigating the Baixa is a lot easier as it is gridlike and devoid of the circular windy roads that surround it.
The winding, hilly streets of Lisbon are very fun to explore but make sure you are well rested. Especially if you visit the Bairro Alto, a hilly portion of town with lots of restaurants and bars that offers additional vantage points.
Bakerys offering pastel de nata are all over Lisbon and they’re a must-try. They are little custard tarts that have a burnt top and taste delicious. I could throw back half a dozen of these things easily!
Another thing to try is Ginjinha which is a sour cherry liquor favored by locals and typically drank “neat”. The bartender at the hotel I was staying at happily served me a tourist-friendly version on request mixed with soda water and a little grenadine. Be warned that straight Ginjinha is very thick so if you want the taste without feeling like you’re drinking cough medicine, I’d suggest a soda water to thin it and possibly grenadine to boost flavor.
Lisbon is a very vegetarian/vegan friendly city. We found lots of options and specialty restaurants dotted all over the city and would highly recommend it as a destination for veg travelers as well.
Thoughts of Portugal
Portugal is a great country with friendly people. I speak Spanish and thought maybe that could be beneficial since I can sort of read some Portuguese. This did not help much! Everyone was really tolerant of our lack of Portuguese skills but we always made sure to greet and say obrigado and ask if people fala ingles before just talking in English. From the beaches and natural scenery of the Algarve, to the roadside cafes and random sites along the highways all the way to the busy, hilly city of Lisbon, Portugal has a lot to offer and makes for an excellent road trip holiday. Getting lost is a challenge if you don’t speak Portuguese but make sure you have a map, GPS and just know that the A2 will take you home. I would definitely come back and look forward to visiting Porto next.