If you have at least five days or even a week in Portugal, you might like to skip south and explore two regions – the capital, Lisbon, and Lagos on the sunny Algarve coast. While you can zip between the city and this charming coastal town in under three hours, if you have the time there’s a handful of coastal gems, medieval villages, wineries and castles to explore.
When you drive from Lisbon to Lagos or other towns on the Algarve Coast you’ll cross through the Alentejo region. This vast and varied region is where scenic vistas of cork trees and olive groves seem frozen in time. Here castles stand guard with little threat and sleepy villages operate on their own laidback time. Pausing at various towns and villages in between Lisbon and Lagos will show you a totally different side of Portugal – with some of the best food around.
Here are some ideas on where to stop when driving from Lisbon to Lagos, or a Lagos to Lisbon road trip. I suggest rolling down the inland motorway, making a lunch stop at Alcacer do Sal or Ourique, then returning with a slow full-day adventure along the Alentejo Coast, pausing at Aljezur and Vila Nova de Milfontes.
What’s the best way to get from Lisbon to Lagos?
There’s no direct train to Lagos from Lisbon, so you have to change trains once at Tunes – that makes the travel time quite slow. If you’re wondering how to get from Lisbon to Lagos, the best way is to simply drive yourself. Alternatively, you could take a direct bus, or organise a private transfer.
Getting a rental car is the best way to travel from Lisbon to Lagos. Portugal has an incredible highway network that can zip you across the small country in a matter of hours. The only catch? Toll roads. The fastest road trip from Lisbon to Lagos takes you via the A2 highway but will sting with more or less €25 in tolls, one way. The distance is around 300 km (186 miles), and it’ll take you more or less three hours.
If you have the time (and hate to pay for roads) consider taking a more scenic road trip from Lisbon to Lagos along the coastline, taking you through the towns of Vila Nova de Milfontes, Odeceixe and Aljezur.
Where to stop on the way between Lisbon and Lagos, Algarve
Alcácer do Sal: Rice fields and a castle
Founded by the Phoenicians, and renamed Salacia by the Romans, the history of Alcácer do Sal stretches back thousands of years – yet this laidback Alentejo town remains largely off the radar. Set on the banks of the Sado River, historic Alcácer do Sal makes a great lunch stop on the way from Lisbon to Lagos, or viceversa. The riverfront town overlooks a wide valley plain of rice fields, which change colour throughout the year and stretch on seemingly forever.
The Romans made it an important city for salt production, fish curing, garum, wheat, olive oil and wine, while in the 8th century under Moorish rule it became capital of Al-Kassr province and a fortified castle was built. These days you can find well-preserved medieval architecture, cobbled streets, and a castle. Poke your head inside the Misericordia Church, consecrated in 1547, to find glorious hand-painted tiles from the 1600s, and a beautiful ceiling fresco by painter Francisco Flamengo in 1895.
For lunch, there are stacks of great dining options along the waterfront promenade. I’m a fan of Momento, which serves up modern petiscos. Next time I want to try Tasca do Barrocas. If you want to stay the night, you can sleep in the castle, or turn this stop into a weekender at nearby Cucumbi.
Curiously, Alcácer do Sal is one of the first places I visited in Portugal beyond Lisbon. After a family wedding, we found ourselves ambling through the rundown cobbled streets together look for a street named after the great grandfather of my partner.
Comporta: Boujee beach town
Just over an hour from Lisbon lie some of Portugal’s most beautiful beaches. Around Comporta the pine forests bump up against vast sand dunes, gorgeous beaches back onto fields of rice, and local fishermen stand alongside Europe’s jetsetting crowd.
I find the contrasts of Comporta a little odd. The whitewashed fishing village is set back from the beach, where locals walk through town carrying cabbages while international visitors with luxury designer handbags sit down to overpriced brunch. Nevertheless, it is a laidback coastal retreat that makes it easy to switch off.
It’s a bit of a detour to add Comporta to your Lisbon to Lagos road trip, so I’d suggest turning a visit into an overnight or long weekend as you drive between the capital and Algarve coast. Here there are some stunning hotels and special properties, such as the 5-star Quinta Da Comporta, which is a wellness retreat, the stunning AlmaLusa Comporta in the village, the sleek Independente Comporta, or the more affordable B. Hostel.
While here go horseback riding on the beach (I’ve done it, it’s incredible even in winter), lock in a reservation at Cavalariça, try the rice beer at Be Bar, drop by a beach bar for sunset cocktails, and do a wine tasting at Herdade de Comporta.
Vila Nova de Milfontes: Where the river meets the sea
The beauty of Vila Nova de Milfontes never escapes me. While the town itself is nothing too special on the eye, its location at the mouth of the River Mira is remarkable. I could perch on a bench at the lookout near Forte de São Clemente and watch the tides here forever. With the ebb and flow a little ferry shuffles passengers across to the far side, and people wander down the boardwalk in front. There’s no rush this far from the city.
This laidback beach town is located on the Alentejo coast, two hours south of Lisbon and 90 minutes from Lagos in the Algarve. If you’re looking for a midway road trip point to stay overnight, we stayed at a little old house called Casa Ocre in the centre of town, with a fireplace too.
Aljezur & Odeceixe: Two surf villages on the Costa Vicentina
These two whitewashed villages stand guard on the Costa Vicentina, the lower part of the wild Alentejo coastline. This patch of beachfront is beautifully quiet with wild beaches, small villages, unspoilt nature, great surf, and hiking trails.
Odeceixe sits on the Seixe River, the water that divides the Alentejo and Algarve regions. While the main town is further inland, you can find a tiny village overlooking Odeceixe Mar Beach, an expansive sandy beach. For a quick lunch, stop by Kiosk Agapito for a gourmet toasted sandwich and craft beer, which you can eat there or on the grass overlooking the sand.
Continue 18 minutes south and you’ll reach Aljezur. The main township is also inland, where a whitewashed village complete with a castle lies. Those keen on surf will be more interested in the beaches: Praia da Arrifana and Monte Clérgio are both popular. You book a surf lesson, go stand-up paddle boarding down the Amoreira River, or stand-up paddle down the Odeceixe River.
This area is a popular day trip from Lagos. You can find guides who will help you explore Aljezur, Sagres and the Algarve and lower Alentejo coastline in a day, like this Wild West Coast tour, or this this guided hiking experience.
Ourique: Black pork and hearty Alentejo food
I’m a massive fan of Alentejo cuisine. While there’s great food and traditional dishes found across Portugal, I find eating in the Alentejo is my favourite. Whether that’s grilled black pork straight off a charcoal grill, a simple bowl of sopa alentejana with a poached egg, or migas in any form. For a cheeky lunch stop on your Lisbon or Lagos road trip, consider pulling off the highway to Ourique.
This typical Alentejo town is a whitewashed beauty surrounded by vast plains, cork forests, and vineyards. For lunch, try Restaurante Adega do Monte Velho, Churrasqueira Belinha, or A Toca. After, wander around the Castle of Ourique, which dates back to the 12th century, before returning to the road.
Read next: 13 best things to do in Olhão
Silves: Red castle and orange trees
Once the ancient capital of the Arab Algarve kingdom, Silves is a charming inland city that’s topped by an impressive red-stone castle. It only adds 10 minutes to your total drive time to swing via the curious city on the way to Lisbon or from Lagos.
Between the 9th and 12th centuries, Silves was an important trading centre for the Moorish empire. Traces of this rich history are still visible, from the town-topping fortified castle to its Gothic cathedral built over a mosque. Once a year the town transforms for its medieval festival, which I’ve had the pleasure of attending and was quite frankly blown away at the attention to detail, entertainment and theming. Really good fun.
It’s popular to take a day trip to Silves or Monchique (mentioned below) while visiting the Algarve. If you don’t have a car (or don’t want to drive), you could consider this half-day wine tasting from Lagos, a full-day trip that ticks off both Silves and Monchique, or this relaxing boat ride up the Arade River to Silves.
Monchique: Algarve’s mountain town
For something entirely different, detour via the Serra de Monchique mountain range, where you’ll find a cosy inland town with gorgeous views. Monchique sits at 450 meters above sea level and is tucked between the Algarve’s two highest peaks. Up here you’ll enjoy expansive views of lush forests, there’s a thermal spa, and plenty of outdoor activity.
If you’ve tried a local spirit called medronho, an alcohol made from the strawberry tree, it was likely distilled in Monchique. This mountain town is also famous for its smoked pork sausages and hams – look for molho, morcela de farinha or farinheira and chouriça in restaurants. For lunch, you could try wild boar at the traditional A Charrette, or try Tasca do Petrol. Call to book ahead!
Read next: What to eat in the Algarve
Bonus stops between Lisbon and Lagos:
If you’ve driven the route between the Lagos or the Algarve and Lisbon a few times, maybe you’re looking for somewhere new to stop on your road trip. Here are a few more off-beat suggestions that go beyond the must-see classic stops between the two.
Messejana: peace deep in the Alentejo
The small whitewashed village of Messejana isn’t far from the highway. Pausing here for lunch lands you deep in the undulating landscapes of the Alentejo, in this tiny village with just 120 residents.
Luckily the Portuguese love to eat and even the smallest places have great restaurants. In Messejana you can count on Restaurante Bangula. After, wander up to the ruins of the Castle of Messejana for views across the village before returning to the road.
Sines: authentic and industrial coastal city
Sines isn’t exactly what you’d call a tourist destination, which is what makes it wonderful. This small coastal city is home to one of Portugal’s largest ports, making this industrial town more than just a place to lay down your towel. The city centre sits high above the expansive beach below, and within you’ll find charming streets filled with locals lazing about on café terraces and a huge castle.
Guia: The homeland of piri piri chicken
Every man and his dog visiting Portugal wants to try the real Nandos – better known as piri piri chicken. While you can find chicken grilled over charcoal and served with piri piri olive oil or hot sauce all over Portugal, true enthusiasts should stop at the source – a small Algarve town called Guia.
While it’s said restaurant Ramires, which dates back to 1964, was the inventor of the charcoal-grilled spicy chicken movement in Portugal, there are plenty of choices for grilled chicken spots in Guia. Most recently we dropped into O Teodósio, one of the early pioneers who helped cement the small town of Guia on the map.
The chicken? Fantastic. The queue? Long. We drove down after work one day, thinking arriving around 10pm would be okay to slip in for a table. No such luck – we waited for an hour. Thankfully, there is an outdoor bar serving beer and a loudspeaker letting you know when your table is up. Once inside, the ordering and delivery of food is almost instant – so long as you want the famous frango á Guia! Order it with fries and tomato salad, and ask for extra piri piri oil if you like it hot.
Did your road trip finally lead you Lisbon or Lagos? Keep reading…