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Driving in Lisbon
Driving in Lisbon is challenging, and is possibly one of Europe's most difficult cities to drive in. The roads are narrow and old, drivers are impatient and erratic, signage is almost non-existent and parking is difficult to find. Driving in Lisbon is not a fun or enjoyable experience and visitors should really consider if they need to drive while visiting the capital.
When to drive and not to Drive in Lisbon
If your holiday is to just to Lisbon then there is almost no need to drive, as public transport is excellent and taxis are inexpensive and safe. There is excellent public transport to the popular day trips from Lisbon, with direct trains to Cascais and Sintra and buses to Obidos, Mafra and Sesimbra.
A badly parked car blocking the Alfama tram, not an uncommon sight.....
A rental car is essential if you wish to explore the Alentejo region (east of Lisbon) or the Serra da Arrabida national park. Outside of Lisbon the roads are quiet and empty but Portuguese drivers do take unnecessary risks especially for overtaking. If your holiday is a tour of Portugal consider a rental car for only the second stage of your holiday, once outside of the capital.
Driving in Lisbon - Practical Details
Traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road and the national speed limit of Portugal is 90km/h. This is reduced to 50km/h for towns or built up areas and increases to 120km/h on freeways or expressways. Local speed restrictions are indicated by signage along the side of the roads. Portugal drivers will commonly break these limits and try to overtake slower traffic at any opportunity. This has unfortunately resulted in Portugal having the highest level of road accident deaths per capita of all European countries. Fortunately, in Lisbon the crammed and congested roads mean that high speeds rarely achieved.
While driving in Lisbon always carry all of your travel documents (driver’s license and insurance documents) as these can be requested by the police in the unlikely event of an incident. In Portugal seat belts are legal and must be worn by the driver and all passengers. Drinking limits are very tight so it is best not to drink and drive.
Lisbon Driving Difficulties for Tourists
The two issues which cause the most irritation for visitors is the lack of parking and the poor traffic flow management (random signs, vague road markings and hidden traffic lights). The other complexity for visitors arriving from the USA are roundabouts, and these roundabouts are filled with the unpredictable driving of the Portuguese!
Parking is almost non-existent in the historic central Lisbon, especially the districts of Baixa, Chiado and Alfama. Some top end hotels have spaces reserved but most budget to mid-range hotels have no parking available.
Central Lisbon has many one-way streets, which can have tourist going round and round in circles look for a car parking space. The center of Lisbon has high volumes of traffic and it is often easier to simply avoid and catch the metro or a taxi. Taxis in Lisbon are surprisingly cheap (just ensure the meter is used) and can often be the most convenient way to travel around Lisbon.
If collecting your car from Lisbon Airport
The car rental parks of Lisbon airport lead directly onto one of the busiest roundabouts, a sub-junction of the 2nd Circular ring road. Before leaving the car park, be sure you are familiar with your car before and your route is planned.
All car rental contracts in Portugal have massive excess amounts of around €1,000. This excess can be waived by paying an additional insurance (or hidden fee) of approximately €15 Euro per day which ca significantly increases the cost of a car rental.
Lisbon's Best Scenic Drive
The most scenic drive in the Lisbon region is through the Serra da Arrabida national park, along the Estrada de Escarpa (N379-1). The Serra da Arrabida is a series of steep hills which overlook the turquoise seas of the Sado estuary. The region is simply breath-taking, with green hills, massive cliffs and beautiful beaches. For a guide to the national park along with the Estrada de Escarpa route please see this web-page.
The ridge along the Estrada de Escarpa
More Lisbon Road Advice and Traffic Oddities
One of the quirks of Portuguese driving is that that traffic joining from the right has priority over traffic on the main road, this applies to all major city roads but not expressways. This surprises foreign drivers while traveling on major city roads as the traffic merging onto the dual carriage way has priority over the traffic on the main road.
One final point of advice if you directed to a car parking space by a vagrant person always give a tip, even if the help was questionable, as otherwise on your return to your car some mysterious damage will have occurred.