Driving in Portugal – 12 Survival Tips

Driving in Portugal
Driving in Portugal

 I always cursed driving in the UK until I drove in Portugal.  My first experience and practice drive was round the roads of a holiday complex in Albufeira. Everything felt the wrong way round and back to front. For example when I instinctively reached for the seat belt on the right hand side I found myself just grasping at thin air. Whoops! It also felt strange changing gears with my right hand instead of left, plus every time a car approached from the other direction – I ducked. Not good for inspiring passenger confidence! Driving in Portugal, for me, was the equivalent of a white knuckle ride. I gripped the steering wheel so hard I physically shook with terror. Roundabouts were definitely a challenge as were junctions. The only time I felt remotely confident was driving in a straight line.   All this before I had to start worrying what everyone else around me was doing. I was a nervous wreck.

 That was then…

 I now feel more confident, and as I turn the key in the ignition my whole persona changes from relative calm to the devil incarnate. The survival tips I now share with you are a must for your sanity.

 Always work on the basis NEVER assume anything

  1. Concentrate on the road at all times. You will need psychic powers to survive.
  2.  If the driver in front of you is indicating to turn right, he may indeed turn left. Don’t assume he is going to turn in the direction indicated. He may just drive straight on.
  3. Constantly check in your rear view mirror for the maniac who will overtake a line of traffic and then carve you up as he nips in front of you at the last minute. Hand gestures will be exchanged when he ‘squeezes’ in narrowly missing the approaching articulated lorry as it hurtles past.  So be prepared to break or swerve – probably both.  More hand gestures and obscenities as he motors off at speed. You will learn to multitask – drive, curse and hand gestures. 
  4. Look out for lorries, cars, scooters, bicycles, burros and carts, pulling out from side turnings. Don’t assume they have seen you or they have even bothered to check for oncoming traffic.!!” You will learn to swerve instinctively to take evasive action.  
  5. Don’t forget whilst looking in your rear view mirror and observing side roads to look at the road in front. Hit the breaks! Drivers will screech to a halt without warning.  No signal. Maybe some break lights if you’re lucky. Pheww! Frogs are blessed with all round vision I believe, but we are not.  
  6. When you pull out gingerly to pass a stationary vehicle with said driver (see above) totally oblivious to the chaos behind – check your mirror as an impatient driver from six cars back will probably decide he does not want to wait his turn. You will learn to just sigh and accept their impatience 
  7. Approach the brow of a hill or blind bend with caution. Local drivers are notorious for over-taking on both. They were obviously born with X-ray vision. Who in their right mind would overtake when they can’t see oncoming traffic? If you are not blessed with 9 lives – buy some on Ebay –  you will need them. 
  8. Motorway driving also has its moments. For example, when you are in the outside lane overtaking a stream of traffic you may look in your rear view mirror and there will be a Mercedes an inch from your rear bumper frantically flashing his lights at you, to move out of the way. Inpatient he will expect you to evaporate into thin air. Don’t be intimated. 
  9. Beware of pedestrians. They present the most danger during the ‘Terrorist’ season. (This is the name we have bestowed on the tourists as they terrorize the locals). Many tourists come on holiday and leave their road sense at home, as they walk four abreast the road, or just step off the pavement without looking. Lean on the horn to wake them up. Hot tip – when you buy a car test the horn. Don’t buy one with a pathetic beep – you need a fog horn!
  10.   Roundabouts – remember they work anti clockwise not clockwise. Drivers don’t use lanes on roundabouts and they don’t signal. You will definitely need to develop all of your physic powers to guess which direction they are heading so you can take evasive action. 
  11. Parking is great fun. NOT. Your car will get scratched and scuffed resulting in colorful scars from other people’s paintwork. Hot tips – park between the best 2 cars you can find in the car park, if not avoid parking near cars that would look more at home in the scrap yard. 
  12. Finally, when you make a mistake – adopt the Portuguese shrug and a nice smile.

Boa Viagem!


31 thoughts on “Driving in Portugal – 12 Survival Tips

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  1. Well, I have just returned from a month spent near Olhao. We rented a car and drove everywhere. I found it a blissful experience. Virtually every other road user kept their distance, drove slowly, indicated correctly and showed much more consideration than I ever get in England. I was worried my hire car might get scratched while parked, but I never even got boxed in. There were occasional hiccups, and I agree with the need for a sixth sense, as sometimes people act bizarrely, but overall, I found driving far less stressful than in Sussex. I particularly liked the way drivers respected pedestrian crossings and I loved the traffic lights that seemed to be activated by speeding cars – usually mine, as everyone else was going so slow.

    We were visiting out of season, but the infamous N125 seemed tranquility itself to me. Free parking everywhere, short distances, okay road surfaces, clear signposting … a fabulous experience.


  2. I really enjoyed reading your driving tips. My wife and I are renting a car for a few weeks in Portugal and can hardly wait. We live in a small city in Canada and things move pretty slowly here but I’ve driven in Portsmouth UK, New York City, Washington DC and lots of other big cities. I’ve also done lots of “passengering” in Beijing (talk about crazy driving), Paris and elsewhere so after reading your tips feel quite prepared. Thank you!!


  3. yes i was about to make a car booking for my family and by reading this i am not – but than how would i go from lisbon airport to algarve???
    any advice


    1. Driving in Portugal is like driving anywhere in Europe as in you expect the unexpected. The route from Lisbon to the Algarve is straight forward and the motorway is rarely busy. You can catch the train but driving is your best option and will give you the freedom to explore the Algarve.


  4. Curious where you live that people DON’T drive like that 😉 I live in the states (plus for me, already used to driving on the right hand side), but due to my Portuguese citizenship status (and my children being considered naturalized citizens) I’ve been working toward moving to Portugal. I’ve driven in various cities in the states (Sacramento, las Vegas, phoenix, Denver, NYC, Seattle to name a few). I’ve been nowhere (not even in the south that brags about hospitality) that I’m not run of the road because I’m not going 15 mph over the speed limit, have people come way to close to hitting me overtaking just to squeeze between me and the car holding up traffic (happened 8 times tonight on an 85 mile trip while behind a car that was doing considerably under the speed limit, but I didn’t feel comfortable overtaking in our inclement weather), have car dart out of a driveway / junction with a car WAY too close, nearly be hit by a car that is making a left out of a driveway even though I have the right of way to make a left into the driveway, lay on their horn because it takes me a whole two seconds to start moving when the traffic light changes, display hand gestures when I have to show down/stop for traffic (or a pedestrian crossing since I’m apparently one of the few in this country who yield to pedestrians like we’re supposed to). From you post, sounds like I’ll feel right at home on the road in Portugal.


      1. Please forgive me for being a little dense. If there is public transportation, why on earth would anyone choose to drive in such madness? I live in NYC and public transportation is my mode of travel of choice, so I’m a little baffled! [I’d insert the googly-eyed smiley face here if I knew how to do it!]


        1. No you are not being dense 🙂 Much of Portugal is rural and there is limited public transport. We could not personally survive without a car as the nearest bus stop I believe is about 7km away – a couple of hours walk. Our nearest train station is about 35mins drive away as is the main bus station. Trams are really only available in the cities such as Lisbon. Not sure about Faro, Porto or elsewhere. Taxis are expensive and to be honest seeing how taxi drivers drive, I’d rather walk! 🙂

          If you were visiting a place like Lisbon, or were staying in some of the major resorts you would not need a car.

          Hope this helps?


          1. Yes! And just brought my heart rate down to normal! LOL The thought of this type of driving reminds me of driving in LA, and THAT was definitely not fun!

            Thanks! While we’re not sure when we’ll make it over to Portugal, we look forward to following your adventures and experience in the meantime! 🙂


  5. Oh, this brings back memories! I lived in Portugal for 2 years and I started to measure distance in terms of how many times I had to gasp and say “Jesus!” before we got to our destination. And mind you, I was well prepared for driving in Portugal. My parents are both Portuguese (they came to the US in the late 50s – I was born and raised in the States) and my father was a mechanic who had some rally-driving experience. He taught me to drive the way he was used to driving in Portugal. Still, it was a different story when the whole country was driving like him!

    I look forward to exploring your blog more! It’s very nice and it certainly makes me nostalgic for living in Portugal (I was in Braga, my mother’s hometown).


    1. Hi Limr and welcome! Driving in Portugal is pretty crazy to say the least! Every time Mr Piglet gets behind the steering wheel we have a running commentary as to how dreadful the drivers here are. To be fair, it’s not always the Portuguese we have many tourists in the summer months from the UK and to be fair we are used to driving on the other side of the road. Poor things they are like lambs to the slaughter!

      I am not familiar with Braga yet, we live in the Algarve so it’s quite a trek.

      PS you can add a twitter button to your blog which people can then just press to direct them to twitter and your account 🙂


      1. If you ever get up to the Minho, it’ll be worth the trip. Gorgeous. And there are some nice beaches there (I noticed your Beaches category), very different from the ones in the Algarve.

        I’ve been wanting to add the Twitter button but all I could manage so far was displaying my Twitter feed, and I haven’t decided if I want to do that or not. Am I missing something?


  6. HI Piglet in Portugal . Just had a read of your tips. I was thinking of hiring a car in Portugal from Faro to Lisbon. I have never driven in Europe before, let alone on the right hand side… I’m a fairly confidant driver, but I can only drive automatic, not manual. I have an australian driver’s license, and have had it since i was 19. Im now 30! .. what do you suggest? will i be better off taking transport? almost all the reviews ive read have advised against driving in portugal. it seems to have a notorious reputation!


    1. Hi HL and welcome!
      Driving to Lisbon from Faro is pretty straight forward as there are motorways much of the way. However, parking your car once you arrive in Lisbon may prove problematic.
      If you do take the motorway do not drive through the toll booth with the green V.
      You will find some useful links re trains etc on The Useful Contacts page

      Hope this helps?

      Silly question but why are you not flying into Lisbon? Alternatively you can get an internal flight. Iif you do check out luggage allowance as I think this is less for an internal flight as opposed to an international.


  7. Since we’re discussing Driving in Portugal – 12 Survival Tips | Piglet in Portugal, Be aware that commercial sellers often park cars in driveways of homeowners who receive a “space” fee. They will place classified ads hoping that, when you arrive, you have the preconceived notion that the seller is the owner.


  8. LOL 🙂 This is so funny! I nearly peed myself reading it!

    I certainly don’t want to drive in Portugal after reading this as I don’t possess any psychic powers!

    I especially like tip number 7, I didn’t know you could buy more lives on e-bay!


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