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Getting Around Portugal Safely

Portugal is one of the most beautiful places to visit and for good reason. Breathtaking landscapes, pristine beaches, incredible architecture and delectable cuisine make it one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

With so much to do and see, one of the most important things for visitors to do once they arrive is figure out the best way to get around. Whether you choose to rent a vehicle, use public transportation or see the sights on foot, here are a few tips to help you get around Portugal safely.

Driving

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There are plenty of places to rent a vehicle in Portugal (we recommend Economy Car Hire) and it’s quite commonplace to do so. But if you chose to go this route there are several things to take note of in order to ensure that your driving adventures are uneventful.

First and foremost, drive defensively. Unfortunately, when it comes to road safety, Portugal has one of the worst records in all of Europe. There are lots of windy, narrow roads, and many are poorly kept. But you can stay safe with some prior knowledge of what to expect, and some simple precautions:

  • Watch for huge potholes and, of course, oncoming traffic (often in the middle of the road, to avoid the huge potholes!).
  • Some roads are poorly lit, and many (especially country roads) don’t have any white lines, so take special care when driving at night.
  • Be sure to get good directions to avoid getting lost. GPS is not all that reliable in Portugal, and if you have a postcode for your destination then it will be the postcode for the village/town and not a specific street. Get a map for Portugal only (not Spain and Portugal) or your destination (especially if a small village) may not be shown on the map.
  • If you’ve seen your destination signposted, but at the next junction / roundabout there’s no sign, you can usually assume that you need to carry on straight ahead (“sempre em frente”) – why put a sign if you don’t need to turn off?
  •  Portuguese drivers often follow extremely close and overtake dangerously, even around bends and up hills where visibility of oncoming traffic is slim to none.
  • Parked cars can also be a problem, as some people will leave their vehicles parked haphazardly in the road (or just stop for a chat if they see a friend driving or walking along the street!). This can be particularly challenging when you’re coming around a corner, so again be alert (and ready to swerve) at all times.
  • Be prepared for the possibility of pedestrians in the road. A lot of streets don’t have pavements so it’s not uncommon to see people walking, sometimes four deep, in the road.
  • Also look out for cyclists, especially at weekends – it’s a very popular sport. If you’re in some of the more rural areas, you are also likely to come across livestock on the road – in all rural areas there are flocks of sheep and goats being led out by their shepherds, and in the Peneda-Gerês National Park in the north of Portugal, cattle and horses roam freely. Be cautious when coming around bends and be prepared to stop quickly if necessary.

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  • Watch your speed when you’re driving in Portugal (the limits are pretty well posted). Police are vigilant and will issue a fine (payable on the spot) if they catch you driving too fast. The same goes for driving while using a mobile phone. It’s an on-the-spot finable offense.
  • Drinking and driving is also something you want to stay away from. The legal limit in Portugal is lower than many other countries – anything over 0.5 mg/ml and you could end up with a hefty fine, the loss of your license, or jail time.

On Foot or by Bicycle

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Portugal offers some of the most scenic landscapes in the world, with vineyards, valleys and endless coastline to explore.

One of the best ways to truly experience all of the beauty that Portugal has to offer is by exploring it on foot or by bicycle. There are countless tours available, both guided and self-guided, which allow visitors to see Portugal the old fashioned way. And chances are, even if you also plan to rent a car or take public transportation, you’ll still find yourself doing a great deal of sightseeing on foot during your stay. So there are a few safety tips to take note of beforehand.

  • Pedestrians and cyclists should be extremely careful when traveling on roads that don’t have pavements.
  • If you combine the aggressiveness of native drivers with tourists who are not necessarily familiar with the conditions or the area in which they are operating a vehicle, you end up with a potentially dangerous situation for anyone walking or riding on or near the road. Be particularly cautious when traveling on roads that are narrow and winding. If you’re traveling in a group, try to stay single file rather than side by side.
  • Another danger for those getting around on foot or by bike is the condition of the streets. Many of them are made of cobblestones (and there are even still examples of paved roman roads in use, many of them are on marked walking/hiking routes) which are beautiful but can be challenging terrain. They can also get extremely slippery when they are wet. The best advice for trekking over these stones is to wear sturdy footwear and watch where you are going very carefully.

Public Transportation

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Portugal has a very reliable and inexpensive public transportation system. There is a wide variety of options for tourists to get them from here to there across and throughout the country. Trams, trains, buses and ferries are all available to provide fast and affordable transport. But as with any public transportation, users must exercise common sense and appropriate safety precautions – particularly in the big cities / popular tourist spots – while aboard to avoid becoming a victim of crime.

Travel Insurance

However you plan to get around, take out travel insurance to cover any eventuality – we recommend World Nomads, not least because of their “Footprints” program (see video below).

This blog post adapted from the original article by Phil Sylvester, Travel Insights Editor for World Nomads

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