Every year, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people drive from the UK to Portugal and back again.
It’s obviously cheaper to fly, but there are a lot of benefits to driving to Portugal. You save money on car hire, you can bring a lot of your possessions over, and it’s also a good way to bring the dog to Portugal. These benefits are even more useful to expats or to anyone who’s planning to spend several months living in Portugal.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a direct ferry between the UK and Portugal. This means that there are two ways that you can get from the UK to Portugal by car.
Option #1: Go through France
Take the channel tunnel or a ferry to France. The ferries between France and the UK are usually considerably cheaper than those between Spain and the UK, however, you do need to factor in the cost of driving through France: petrol, tolls, and maybe an overnight or two in a hotel.
Option #2: Take a ferry to Spain
This way you get to avoid a day or two driving through France, but you do miss out on eating all those lovely baguettes and other French delicacies.
Although the ferries between the UK and France often only take a couple of hours, these ferries take between 20 and 30 hours. You can sleep for 8 of those, but you need to keep yourself entertained for the rest.
The UK-Spain ferries are a lot smaller than the UK-France ferries, and don’t have the child-friendly facilities that some of the larger boats have. If you have kids, you’ll need to bring a lot of movies to keep them entertained.
Driving from Ireland to Portugal? Some people go via the UK, in which case you have the two choices above, but you can also take a ferry directly from Ireland to France. You can view an up-to-date list of Ireland-France ferry routes on directferries.ie.
Driving through France
Taking the ferry/chunnel to France
There are two ways to get to France, either via the Dover-Calais channel tunnel or via a ferry.
Option #1: Channel Tunnel (Eurotunnel)
Taking just 35 minutes, the channel tunnel is quicker than getting a ferry. If you live near Dover it could be a good option, but otherwise a ferry is probably a better option: Calais is very far over on the Eastern side of France, meaning a longer drive across the North of France than if you took a ferry.
Option #2: UK-France Ferry
There are numerous ferry routes between the UK and France, and the best one for you depends on a few factors like which UK ferry port is nearest to you, how long it takes, what time of day you arrive in France, and where in France you arrive.
DirectFerries.co.uk has a map of ferry routes between England and France, which will show you what options are available. It’s a great website for comparing ferry prices, as is aFerry.com. It’s worth using both Direct Ferries and aFerry when searching for ferries as one will sometimes have a cheaper price than the other.
Where you land in France makes a difference to how much driving you have to do through France. The following is an approximation of the amount of time it takes to drive from each ferry port to San Sebastián in Northern Spain.
St Malo – 7 hr 30 min
Caen – 8 hr
Le Harve – 8 hr 50 min
Cherbourg – 9 hr
Dieppe – 9 hr 10 min
Roscoff – 9 hr 15 min
Calais – 10 hr 40
Dunkirk – 11 hr
Driving from France to Spain
Depending on which ferry you took, you will now have arrived somewhere in Northern France like Dunkirk, Dieppe, St. Malo, or Cherbourg. Your route now will take you down through France, towards Bordeaux and Biarritz before crossing into Spain near San Sebastián.
It’s possible to drive from St. Malo to Northern Spain in a day, but for most routes you will want at least one overnight in France.
Most people stop somewhere between Niort in the Poitou-Charentes region of France and Bordeaux in the Aquitaine region. It’s usually best to stop at one of the towns or villages off the motorway, rather than going into a big city like Bordeaux as this always seems to add on extra time. Hotels in cities are also less likely to have car parking, where as hotels near small towns often have space for parking.
Some South-Western French towns to consider include:
- La Rochelle (off the route)
- Cognac (slightly offer the route)
- Bordeaux (involves going into a city)
- Saint Jean-de-Luz
Next: see the section on driving from Northern Spain to Portugal.
Going straight to Spain
Taking the ferry to Spain
The ferry routes between the UK and Spain change frequently, as operators take up new routes and drop old ones. Directferries.co.uk always has an up-to-date list of the ferries that go from England to Spain, and they’re good for comparing prices as well. I also use aFerry.com for price comparison, and recommend using both sites to see which offers the better deal.
Which is the best route? There are a couple of things to consider like cost, journey time, and what time you will arrive in Spain/England.
If you’re driving from Portugal to England, you may want an overnight in the Spanish port city. Of all the different port cities in Spain, Bilbao tends to be the most recommended.
Driving from Northern Spain to Portugal
If you’re driving to Lisbon, or anywhere in the Algarve, Google Maps will try to get you to do as much as your route in Spain. If you’re driving to the Algarve, it’ll probably encourage you to enter at the Spanish-Portuguese border near Faro.
Now there are a lot of reasons to drive through Spain instead of Portugal, not least because you get to avoid the Portuguese tolls, but doing this you miss out on seeing so many great places in Portugal.
Guimarães, Porto, Coimbra, Ericeira, Sintra, and Lisbon – these are all places that should be on your itinerary.
The distance from Bilbao to Chaves on the Portuguese border is a little over 5 hours, or 4 and-a-half from Santander. From San Sebastián, it’s a little over 5 and-a-half hours. You could skip Northern Spain entirely and either spend the night in Chaves or head onto Guimarães.
If you want to stop in Northern Spain however, some recommended places to stop include:
- Urederra park in Navarre
- Picos de Europa
And, if you’re willing to go out of your way:
- San Sebastian
- Santiago de Compostella (and anywhere in Galicia)
- La Rioja region
Otherwise, skip through to Portugal. Be sure to fill up your car in Spain first, though, as both petrol and diesel are typically cheaper there.
Driving through Portugal
The following are just a few places that you could consider stopping off in on your way through Portugal.
Guimarães is a small city and UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the first places that you’ll come to in Northern Portugal. It is considered the birthplace of Portugal, and is home to several important architectural sites including Guimarães Castle and the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza (Paço dos Duques de Bragança).
Porto is Portugal’s second city, and the favourite of the two cities amongst the Portuguese. It’s easy to spend a couple of days here viewing the sites and visiting the various different Port houses. The nearby Douro Valley is incredibly beautiful, and also worth spending time in.
Aveiro is a small town situated between Porto and Coimbra. It’s often referred to as the Venice of Portugal, and its beautiful canals and colourful boats are definitely worth stopping to get a picture of.
Coimbra is a small city, and it’s possible to see all of the main sights in a day. It’s much smaller than either Lisbon or Porto, and also a lot less touristy.
Sintra is just a short 30 minute drive from Lisbon, and most of the sites can be seen in a day. Most people stay in Lisbon, and then drive around Sintra for the day before coming back to Lisbon.
Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon, is a city that’s definitely worth spending at least one night in. There’s plenty to see and do here: from Castelo de São Jorge in the city centre, to attractions like the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Torre de Belém , and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos in Belém.
Then, it’s onto the Algarve or wherever your final destination is.
It’s definitely worth investing in a Sat Nav or downloading a Sat Nav app like Scout GPS for your smartphone. With Scout GPS, you pay for maps individually or you can download a bundle (e.g. European maps). You don’t need an internet connect to use this app on the road.
Now that roaming is more affordable, you could also use Google Maps on your phone or do things the old fashioned way and purchase a European road atlas.
Tips & rules for driving in Portugal
It’s a good idea to read up on the different rules for driving in Portugal, things that you should have in your car, and tips for staying safe and making the most of your time here.
Have you driven to Portugal from the UK, Ireland, or anywhere else? Do you have any tips for roads to take or hotels to stay in? Let us, and Portugalist readers, know in the comments below.