Driving (and Parking) in Portugal

Do you need a car in Portugal? Not unless you’re spending a lot of time outside major city centers, but if you plan on driving (and parking) in Portugal, here are six things to expect.

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Much like people who wonder whether learning to speak Portuguese is “easy” or “hard” (to which I answer: neither, it’s all in your head), people often ask about driving in Portugal and whether driving is “easy” or “hard” and if drivers are “good” or “bad.” And the answer is: all of the above. 
If you are an American, you’ll find that the basic rules of the road in Portugal – driving on the right-hand side, passing on the left, mandatory auto insurance — are not very different here.  (However, you cannot turn right at a red light, as I painfully learned before a cacophony of angry honking early in my Portuguese driving days.)  I confess that some Portuguese drivers do seem a bit more aggressive to me than the average American driver, but not so much that I think you’ll notice unless you live here long enough and then go back to the States.   What is most different, though, is the feel of things, the various unspoken rules of the road in terms of what drivers expect (and tolerate) in other drivers, and what the police ticket (and tolerate) in terms of moving and parking violations.
I remember once driving about 8 miles over the limit on I-95 in Massachusetts, near a police car, at what seemed like the same speed as everyone else driving near me.  The cop pulled me over and gave me a $150 ticket.  In Portugal, police are not that nitpicky for the most part, though I still wouldn’t recommend blowing past them on the highway.  (There are speed radars set up in some high-traffic areas, but these are usually clearly marked.)  Furthermore, I have seen all manner of the most flagrant parking violations clogging up traffic with nary a police officer in sight.  My takeaway from a decade-plus of Portuguese driving is that your biggest concern here will probably be other drivers laying on the horn if you don’t know what the unspoken rules of the road are. 
Of course, whether you should be concerned about any of this depends upon whether you really need to explore the Brave New World of Driving in Portugal.  Here’s my advice: if you’re just here to visit Lisbon or Porto, don’t bother renting a car.  Public transportation is pretty good, taxis and Ubers are aplenty, and walking lets you get to your destination, sightsee, and burn off a few pasteis de natas at the same time.  On the other hand, if you’re thinking about beach hopping in the Algarve, or excursions longer than just a day trip – or if you’re thinking of moving here and won’t be living smack-dab in the center of a city – driving a car may be right for you.  Ask your doctor.  Then, check out the rest of this post for six things to expect when driving in Portugal.
Before I go any further: as an American, you can drive in Portugal with a foreign driver’s license for up to 185 days (about 6 months) without an international driving permit because we share a reciprocal agreement recognizing each other’s licenses.  However, if you plan on staying in Portugal beyond that, you can exchange your foreign license for a Portuguese one by submitting this online form, but beware: you will need your driving record notarized by the state that issued your license, and the US expediting companies you can pay to get government documents notarized may want the driving record to be notarized in person, which means if you are here in Portugal, you may end up skipping the license exchange and crossing your fingers that if a cop is ever looking at your US license, they don’t start asking any questions about how long you’ve lived here.  I mean, that’s what I’ve heard anyway…
(Section links below if you want to skip ahead.)

There Are a Lot of Unspoken Rules of the Road

Like most European cities, Lisbon and Porto, as well as other mid-sized Portuguese towns, were not originally designed for cars.  This means that the closer you are to the older, historic centers, the narrower and windier the streets become, and the farther out you go, the newer, wider, and more easily navigable the streets become.  As a consequence, traffic is worse in these downtown areas and unspoken rules of the road become more important.  Here are some things that Portuguese drivers do – in apparent unanimity, as far as I can tell – that will not be in your typical driving manual:
  • People will not always slow down for a traffic light that has turned yellow, and at least one car may blow through a red if traffic is light, two or three if traffic is heavy.  I’ve never seen anyone pulled over for this, although I’m sure it must have happened.  I can’t prove it, but I suspect that the lights are timed to change slowly to take people blowing through red lights into account (although the direction of causality could run the other way).
  • On a city street, if you leave more than two car lengths between you and the car in front of you, the person behind you may come out from behind, pass you up in the oncoming traffic lane, and cut in front of you.  Personally, I find this insane, especially during rush hour when you can’t get that far ahead anyway.  I don’t think I’m an especially slow driver, but this has happened to me more times than I can count.  No one seems bothered by this. 
  • When a lot of traffic is merging from one street into another, especially at rush hour, drivers usually follow an orderly system where each car that has priority lets exactly one car that doesn’t have priority to merge in front of them.  The person behind then follows suit.  If you do not continue with this protocol and yield for one car, be prepared for that car to nose its way in anyway.
  • If someone lets you merge or pull into traffic in any situation other than the one described above, briefly turn on your hazard lights to blink a “thank you” to them, especially if they can’t see you wave.  You should always wave or flash your hazards.
  • Slower traffic keep right: this is a rule in Portugal and the United States, but the Portuguese actually follow it.  Drivers on the highway, or any city street with more than two lanes, pay attention to who is behind them.  This means they either stay in the right-hand lane to go more slowly, or, when in the left-hand lane, immediately yield to faster cars coming up behind by switching into the right-hand lane when necessary.  If you, my American friend, are in no particular hurry, and are meandering down the highway at a cozy 53 miles per hour (85 kilometers per hour) in the left-hand lane, be prepared to have someone come up behind you and flash their high beams, or honk.  The maximum highway speed is technically 120 kilometers per hour (75 miles per hour), but honestly, I would watch my back at anything under 130 in the left-hand lane.  They come up fast. 

Roundabouts, Motorcycles, and Pedestrians – Oh My!

Besides unspoken rules, there are a few things that are just plain-old non-existent on American roadways that you will encounter in Portugal.
The first is roundabouts.  If you’re British, you will have to adjust to driving on the right-hand side of the road in Portugal instead of the left-hand side back home, but at least you’ve got the mechanics of the roundabout, or traffic circle as it’s sometimes called in North America, down pat.  If you’re American, roundabouts, or rotundas as they are called in Portugal, may take some getting used to. 
The first thing to keep in mind is that whoever is in the rotunda has priority: you aren’t supposed to merge into the rotunda until you have a clear path.  The second thing is that if you are in the outermost ring of the rotunda (i.e., the farthest right lane), you must leave the rotunda at the next saída, or exit.  For example, if you enter the rotunda and you are exiting at the next saída, you should enter the rotunda in the outermost ring and stay there until you leave the rotunda.  If you enter the rotunda but are only exiting two exits from now, you should not enter the rotunda in the outermost ring but the innermost ring (i.e., the farthest left lane) and then only move back into the outermost ring right before your exit.  You are only supposed to exit a rotunda when you are in the outermost ring, unless there is signage indicating otherwise.
Of course, this is how it works in theory.  In practice, rotundas are easy enough to manage in low traffic areas, but in high traffic areas, I have been cut off, almost crashed into, and waited an eternity to merge while other people next to me didn’t follow these rules.  In short, people say that rotundas are a better solution to traffic management than traffic lights, but some rotundas in Portugal get so bad that they end up with their own traffic lights anyway, so it’s difficult for my American brain to appreciate their value.  Approach rotundas with caution.
Motorcycles.  Ah, motorcycles.  I do not ride motorcycles, so I cannot comment on the rules of the road they are supposed to follow, although I assume they are the same rules as for cars.  However, drivers of motos in Portugal do not appear to follow any rules that I can detect.  They drive in between cars, on the shoulder of the highway, cut across sidewalks, pull up besides you when you are about to turn right and then dart out in front of you mid-turn, and fly down bike lanes.  They are like flies trapped between a window and a screen, buzzing in frenetic zig zags. But at least they are wearing helmets?  Point being, keep your eye out for motorcycles. 
And just a note about pedestrians.  Like anywhere, drivers must yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.  Unlike other places, though, Portuguese pedestrians will frequently enter a crosswalk without stopping to check that oncoming traffic has seen them or can stop in time, armed, I suppose, with the knowledge of their ambulatory priority.  Since cars are often parked in crosswalks, and parked cars are generally overstuffing the street (see below), it can be difficult to see a pedestrian about to enter a crosswalk and right in front of your car.  And, of course, in Portugal (and, I’ll grant, lots of other places) crosswalks are merely a friendly suggestion of where to cross the street, so people often magically appear from between parked cars in all sorts of spots.  In sum, keep your eye out for pedestrians, too.

Tolls Are Expensive But Highways Are Generally in Good Shape

The highways around major urban areas in Portugal do not generally have toll roads, but once you get far enough away, they do.  (If you ever find yourself on a highway near Lisbon or Porto at rush hour, that next-level traffic will make you wish for a toll to clear it out.). In general, the quality of highway infrastructure is quite good, compared to the United States.  This is because the highways are newer, primarily built with European Union funding after Portugal became a member in 1985.  According to the World Economic Forum’s road quality indicator, Portugal is ranked number 4 for the quality of roads and the Portuguese give their own roads a fourth-place ranking as well.  By comparison, Americans’ own ranking of US roads puts us in twentieth place.  This strikes me as too generous.
In my experience, highway quality is quite good, but city street quality varies a lot, not even counting the number of streets that are still cobblestone, or, my personal favorite, a cobblestone-pavement mish-mash.  However, Portuguese highway tolls are expensive by American standards, though not for Europe.  The vast majority of Portuguese highways are maintained under concession by private companies, and though toll prices are regulated by the government, the largest of these companies recently petitioned the government to be allowed to raise tolls by another 10%
To put some numbers behind this, tolls from the city of Braga in northern Portugal to the city of Faro in the Algarve will cost you about 52 euros (around US $56) for a distance of roughly 600 kilometers (373 miles).   That’s about the distance from New York city to Charlotte, North Carolina, which, according to Toll Guru, would cost you about US $7. 
Typical highway rest stop beverage selection. Yep, those are full bottles of wine on the bottom shelf.
One of the consequence of these high costs is that many people in Portugal, which has one of the lowest average salary levels in the EU, avoid the highways, or autoestradas, with tolls in favor of an estrada nacional, or national highway, akin to the old Route 66 in the US, without tolls.  So, a tollway is usually a very fast way to get somewhere, whereas an estrada nacional is not only slower in terms of how fast you can go and how well the road is maintained, it can also get pretty backed up with traffic, since they usually have fewer lanes than a highway.  
Pro tip: if you’re planning on staying in Portugal for a while and driving a lot, get yourself a Via Verde, an electronic device like an E-ZPass that you attach to your car windshield and that can be read electronically at tolls, charging the fees directly to your credit or debit card.  If you have a Via Verde, look for the lanes marked with a green V that say reservada aderentes (reserved for subscribers).  You can pay in cash (euros only) at some tolls, but many you cannot.  If you do not have a Via Verde reader, and a cash option is not available, you can pay tolls online by looking up your license plate number.  The amount you owe is usually available 48 hours after you pass through a toll without paying and you generally have 5 days to pay the toll. It depends upon where the toll is located.  But just to save yourself the hassle, I strongly advise getting a Via Verde if you live here, or making sure your rental car has one.  
Via Verde also has an app that lets you pay for street parking, and many parking garages are also equipped for you to pay for parking using Via Verde.  You just press the green Via Verde button when you enter the garage instead of taking a ticket, and when you leave the garage, the gate at the exit will read your device and raise automatically.  No need to hang out your window trying to jam a ticket into a machine reader.  
PS: A note about highway exits: if you miss your exit on a Portuguese highway, especially farther afield from a major city, there most likely won’t be another exit right away that you can get off at and turn around.  Be prepared to tack on another 5 or 10 minutes to your trip.
PPS: A note about speeding: unlike some US motorways, there generally isn’t a cop hiding out behind a billboard every two miles trying to nab you for speeding.  You can still get pulled over, though, and some highways are now equipped with radars to detect speeding.   They are usually indicated with a bright, flashing sign that says radar (read: RADAR!) and the maximum speed at that point so everyone can dutifully slow down right before the radar and speed up again right after it.  Progress, such as it is.

Parking Is a Free-For-All

As a longtime cultural observer in Portugal, I still haven’t quite figured out if the sorts of flagrant parking violations you are likely to come across, with considerable regularity, in any Portuguese city are just a negative consequence of lax enforcement, or if they have a positive element as a kind of social oil that helps old cities meet new vehicular realities, or both. 
A brief tour through what I’ve seen over the last 15 years here: parking in crosswalks; double parking on busy streets that blocks up an entire lane; parking directly under a sign that says no parking; parking in front of a garage; cars facing the wrong way on the street; cars forming a new row in an open area that is not technically a parking spot; cars lining up against a wall to form a new row that is not technically a parking spot.  Usually, the worst cases fall under the “it’s just five minutes” rule and the police, as far as I can tell, rarely ticket these cars, or else, I suppose, no one would do this.  However, the overall situation must be dire enough that in 2017 an enterprising coder designed an app called Denúncia de Estacionamento (Parking Complaint) where citizens can electronically file complaints about parking violations that are sent directly to the police for investigation. This is to say nothing of the apparent impunity with which many Portuguese will crumple up a parking ticket and never look at it again – although the national highway authority recently began allowing the company with a concession to manage parking meters in the city of Porto to assess fines for failure to pay
Illegal parking in Portuguese garage
Cars parked along the walkway of a mall parking garage. Not technically a parking spot and can make it tight for you to back out from your legitimate parking spot.
turn lane
No parking in a turn lane? No problem! Just park there anyway.
If you are planning on driving in Portuguese cities, you’ll see plenty of this.  Hopefully, you will dutifully ignore these practices and park (and pay to park) where you are supposed to.  Most major city streets, especially in Lisbon and Porto, are paid parking only.  You can buy a ticket at the street meters indicated by a large sign with a capital-letter P above it.  Often enough, they don’t work, are hard to read, and may be finicky about correct change.  (See the section above on using the Via Verde parking app instead.)  Parking on side streets may also require payment if they are close to urban centers, or may be zoned for resident parking only so keep an eye out for them. 
I would be remiss if I did not also talk about flanelinhas as part of the urban landscape.  In Portuguese, flanela means flannel and a flanelinha is a pejorative term that roughly translates to “little piece of flannel” in reference to people, usually men, who will stick around (like flannel lint) in a public parking area with a lot of activity “helping” drivers by directing them to an available parking space, usually one that is already clearly visible to the driver.  (The term flanelinha is also widely used in Brazil, and some Portuguese will give flanelinhas a job promotion by using the more honorific arrumador de carros, or parking valet.) Sometimes flanelinhas will provide additional services such as flagging drivers they think are looking for street parking and pointing out open spots to them, or helping drivers squeeze into a tight spot.  In return, flanelinhas are looking for money, as much as you are willing to give, but mostly spare change. 
There are two schools of thought about paying flanelinhas.  The first is to ignore them and walk away when they come around to your car door with their hand out.  Their activity is illegal, and in any event, they are generally not providing a useful service.  The second school of thought is to pay them, either because people are afraid of retaliation if they don’t pay in the form of having their car keyed, or because these are often men with substance abuse issues living in poverty.  Personally, I do not find myself in very many parking situations where flanelinhas are likely to appear because I usually try to park in a garage rather than trying my hand at parallel parking on a cramped side street.  Plus, parking garages are relatively inexpensive by American standards.  However, if I am forced into street parking and a flanelinha appears, I usually give him a euro.  If his life is bad enough to resort to pointing out a parking spot that I can see, too, I’ll part with a dollar.

You Usually Can’t Pay for Gas At the Pump

For the life of me, I do not understand why it is not standard to have a credit card reader installed in all gas pumps in Portugal, but it is not.  In fact, I cannot even recall ever being able to pay for gas directly at the pump, although theoretically it must be possible. Since most gas stations require pre-payment, you will either have to go inside knowing how many liters you need to fill the tank and roughly how much that will cost – a number I have steadfastly refused to learn – or, while standing with the non-working gas nozzle in your hand, catch the eye of the cashier inside so that person can calculate your likelihood of driving away without paying and turn on the pump remotely for you.  Or…not.
(Update: for the first time ever, in August 2023, I paid for gas directly at the pump with a newly installed car reader at a Galp station on the drive north from Lisbon. Sure, it had 17 screens of questions, but at least I didn’t have to underestimate how much gas 50 euros pre-paid would yield.)
Drivers leaving without paying for gas is a serious problem in Portugal, so much so that BP has installed license-plate-reading technology at its pumps for cashiers to know if that license plate is associated with previously unpaid-for gas. (This system was not in practice at a busy BP in Vilamoura where I dramatically underestimated how much gas 50 euros pre-paid would yield.)  I do not know how widespread this technology is, but it seems obvious to me that the most convenient solution would be for everyone to pre-pay at the pump with a credit or debit card.  And yet here we are. 
I have been told that motorcycle drivers in particular are being targeted here, since motorcycle drivers are supposedly the ones most frequently driving away without paying – I cannot confirm or deny the veracity of this claim – and that cashiers are only really paying attention to who’s at the pump overnight, when this is most likely to occur.  If that’s true, and tourists looking like tourists, I wouldn’t expect you to have any issue using the old “Hey, I’m legit! Please turn on the pump!” hand wave to a cashier inside while you’re standing outside, but be advised that you may have to go inside to pay first.

Book Way Ahead for Rental Cars

As everywhere, renting a car is more expensive and harder to find during peak travel season (May to October, plus Christmas and New Year’s), so book ahead.  Like, a lot ahead.  If you have any inkling that may want a rental car, book it when you book your flights.  It’s easier to cancel than reserve last minute.
Manual transmission is very common in Portugal (and Europe in general) so be advised that you may have to pay more for automatic transmission.  As is the case in many places around the globe, there is currently a shortage of cars available for renting in Portugal, since many car rental companies sold off their fleet during the height of the pandemic when tourism came to a standstill, meaning you should be prepared for higher prices and fewer options. 

The Verdict

I tried so you don’t have to!
Normally, I hope you do try most things in Portugal, but my recommendation would be to only try driving (and parking) here if you’re planning on long road trips or staying awhile. There’s so many other more wonderful things to see and do!
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