Driving through a country is one of my favorite ways to get to know it, but planning the logistics of road trip abroad can be complicated and expensive if you aren’t aware of all the options. I recently found out about the Peugeot Open Europe Program through AutoFrance, and was able to conveniently and affordably lease a Peugeot 2008 for three weeks from their location in Madrid, and drop it off in Lisbon before flying back to the US.
Not only was my short-term lease with AutoFrance so much more convenient than a traditional car rental, it was also thousands of dollars less and included full comprehensive insurance, unlimited mileage, 24hr roadside assistance, and more. I wrote another blog post about my experience leasing an Open Europe Peugeot through AutoFrance that you can read by clicking here, and this post below will outline exactly where I traveled on my 2528km road trip through Spain and Portugal.
Starting the Road Trip in Madrid, Spain
After calling Madrid “home” for three months, it was time for me and my boyfriend to make our way to Lisbon, Portugal to celebrate his 30th birthday with his family and catch our flight home back to the US. We had three weeks of free time to spend exploring and four big, heavy suitcases to bring with us, so we chose a small SUV from AutoFrance to load up with our belongings and hit the road.
Where to Stay: Only You Hotel Barquillo
What to Do: Take a walk from the Palacio de Cristal at Parque del Retiro to the upstairs terrace at Casa Suecia and the shops along Gran Via
Toledo, Spain: Road Trip Stop #1
1 hour from Madrid
Toledo is one of Spain’s most historically fascinating cities. As soon as you arrive, you feel as if you have been transported back in time. The historic quarter contains some of the country’s oldest churches, mosques, and synagogues, all within walking distance. Because it’s set upon a hill and surrounded on three sides by the Tagus river, one of my favorite things about Toledo are the views. Having a car in Toledo is helpful if you want to get outside of the historic quarter and set your sights on the city from the other side of the river from one of the many viewpoints (like Mirador del Valle) or restaurants (like Restaurante La Ermita). Every corner of Toledo seems to exude an endless charm, and it’s no surprise why this city is a favorite among travelers from abroad and Spanish locals from Madrid.
Córdoba, Spain: Road Trip Stop #2
3 hours from Toledo
Though La Mezquita is the hallmark of the Andalusian city of Córdoba, its narrow streets, colorful garden courtyards, and scenic bridges give travelers plenty to do when visiting. Córdoba has an incredibly romantic energy, and my only regret was not spending more time there to get lost in its winding passageways, shop its tiled souvenirs, and admire the history in its regal palaces.
Where to Stay: Hotel Soho Boutique Capuchinos
What to Do: Visit the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral, take a walking tour of the Patios de San Basilio to see Córdoba’s famous garden courtyards, and schedule a rejuvenating spa service at Hammam al Andalus
Sevilla, Spain: Road Trip Stop #3
1.5 hours from Córdoba
Sevilla is easily one of my favorite cities in Spain, so much so that I visited a few times while living in Madrid. The city has a festive and colorful energy that lasts from the early morning all through the night. There always seems to be something to do at every hour of the day, and having witnessed partiers walking home at 7am on a Monday morning while I walked to the Plaza de España to take the below photo, I can assume there’s something to do at every hour of the night as well. One important tip for visiting Sevilla (at any time of year and especially during the Férias): it is a very formal city with the women always in dresses or skirts, and the men always with collared shirts, pants, and often even blazers and ties. The easiest way to blend in in Sevilla is to dress up, and it’s a tradition that I find to be quite fun.
Carvoeiro, Portugal: Road Trip Stop #4
2.5 hours from Sevilla
As a native San Diegan who started to feel a little landlocked while living in Madrid, approaching Carvoeiro and breathing the ocean air was a feeling so refreshing that I was immediately reminded of home. I would come to learn during the rest of my road trip that much of Portugal would remind me of California, from its seemingly endless amount of coastal towns, creative yet relaxed energy, and diverse landscape. Carvoeiro is just one of many gems along Portugal’s southern coast, and we were fortunate to choose it as our home base while exploring the Algarve.
Benagil Caves, Portugal: Road Trip Stop #5
20 minutes from Carvoeiro
In addition to its many options for accommodations and restaurants, we loved staying in Carvoeiro due to its proximity to the Benagil Caves which have been on my bucket list for years. Benagil beach is just a 20 minute drive from the Carvoeiro town, and to reach the caves you must rent a kayak or paddleboard at the beach. Taruga Benagil Tours seems to the be only rental company on the beach, and I suggest making your reservation ahead of time because we thought to arrive just as they were opening at 9am to beat the crowds, only to learn that all time slots were booked for the next hour. Swimming to the caves from the beach is another option, but I do NOT recommend it because the tides are quite rough, it’s dangerous with multiple motorized boats constantly entering and exiting the small openings of the cave, and the water is so cold that you will be shivering when you arrive and won’t enjoy it while inside. The caves are also accessible by some boats that leave from a number of ports along the Algarve coast. If you decide to go by boat, be sure to do your research and ask ahead before you make a reservation as not all boats are able to let you off inside the cave.
How I Got There: We rented a two-person paddle board for the less-than-10-minute journey into the cave. I recommend purchasing a dry-bag (available on Amazon) for your camera gear and mobile phone because there is always a risk of getting wet, especially if the waves are splashing as you reach the shore inside the cave.
The caves were starting to get busy around 10am, so ideally you should consider reserving your kayak or paddleboard ahead of time to make sure you are the first ones in.
Lagos, Portugal: Road Trip Stop #6
40 minutes from Benagil
Lagos is a relatively large town compared to others on Portugal’s southern coast, but still features the most dramatic views from its rugged coastline. The Ponta de Piedade is dotted with dozens of viewpoints and hiking trails, and our favorite afternoon was spent hiking and climbing down to Praia da Balança. It’s a challenging, slippery, and dusty hike down a crevice in the cliffside, but once you make it to the beach, it’s definitely worth it. We were lucky enough to visit the beach during a relatively low tide, and were able to walk northeast along the rocky shore and found a secluded beach that we enjoyed by ourselves for several hours.
Beja, Portugal: Road Trip Stop #7
2 hours from Lagos
Late summer in Europe seems to be synonymous with sunflower blooms, and having driven past fields of dead sunflowers while driving through Spain, I was sad that I had just missed the season. I wasn’t ready to give up, and I thought I would try my luck again and at least research where to find sunflowers in Portugal. After reading “Beja” in the file name of a stock photo I found on Google Images, I scoured Instagram geo-tags to see if there were any recent posts of blooming sunflowers in the region. Sure enough, I came across a photo of a sunflower tagged in Cuba, Portugal, and set out to drive along the highway connecting Beja and Cuba. All the time I spent researching paid off, and we found fields and fields of bright-yellow sunflowers.
Beja and Cuba
Where to find sunflowers in Portugal: Drive along the highway connecting Beja and Cuba. We visited the fields in mid-July, and in addition to seeing sunflowers in full bloom, we also saw some fields in the same area that were past-bloom, and others that had yet to bloom. I would imagine that anytime in July would be a good time to see sunflowers in this region.
Porto, Portugal: Road Trip Stop #8
4 hours from Beja
After our successful detour in Beja, we headed north to Porto. Most memorable about the city were the immaculately tiled walls of its churches (Igreja do Carmo, Sé do Porto, Capela das Almas, Igreja de Santo Ildefonso) and train station (Estaçao São Bento). Also impressive were its many boutiques and concept stores around the city, which were tastefully curated and offered unique jewelry, accessories, and home decor. My absolute favorite shops were DOWNTOWN by MRJOIAS (Largo São Domingos 32) and PANAMAR Concept Store (R. de Mouzinho da Silveira 14). Be sure to wear comfortable shoes when visiting Porto, because you could easily spend hours and hours walking its streets, hills, and boardwalks.
Douro Valley, Portugal: Road Trip Stop #9
1.5 hours from Porto
The Douro Valley is a must-visit while driving through Portugal, because even though it’s only an hour-and-a-half by car, you will feel like you are worlds away. The vineyards are a lush green toward the end of summer (July and August), and while driving through the valley’s winding roads you are awarded with stunning views around every corner. We didn’t have a formal plan for visiting the Douro Valley, but while we were in Porto we made an impulsive decision to drive out there so we didn’t miss the opportunity. We luckily made a same-day reservation for our hotel and a same-day reservation to tour the vineyards at Quinta das Carvalhas, and everything happened serendipitously. The ease of visiting the Douro Valley in our own car only added to the magic we experienced while we tasted its wines and strolled through its vineyards.
Cascais and Sintra, Portugal: Road Trip Stop #10
4 hours from Douro Valley
After exploring Porto and the Douro Valley, we headed back down south toward Lisbon to meet our family that was joining us from the US. Cascais and Sintra were our first stops in the region, and having spent the entire morning walking around Cascais, we opted to take the grandparents on our own driving tour around hilly Sintra that proved to be much more comfortable on their knees. In my opinion, Cascais felt like a European San Diego and I could envision myself spending more time there in the future.
Azenhas do Mar, Portugal: Road Trip Stop #11
30 minutes from Cascais
In an effort to check off yet another Portuguese destination from my bucket list, we decided to drive 30 minutes north to Azenhas do Mar, the picturesque seaside village with an ocean-filled pool on its beach. The man-made retainer wall on the beach captures the salt water and it is warmed by the sun, making it much more enjoyable for swimming and bathing than the rough Atlantic. The amount of water in the pool depends on the tide and the season, but regardless the beach is always worth the visit for the views. There are several areas to park near the view point overlooking the beach, and the walk down is paved and easy. You can choose to rent chairs from the beach club or bring your own towels and lounge on the sand for free, but I definitely recommend enjoying the seafood at the beach’s restaurant and staying for sunset.
Ending the Road Trip in Lisbon, Portugal
40 minutes from Azenhas do Mar
Our final destination and the place where we spent the most time before heading back to the US was Lisbon. The city had everything: delicious food, impressive history, beautiful views, creative spaces, interesting artwork, and a lively nightlife scene. My favorite thing about the city were its many view points or miradouros, which signified to me that the city has always found importance in stopping and appreciating its own beauty as you explore its hilly neighborhoods. Lisbon’s people and its neighborhoods are diverse, colorful, and welcoming, and I look forward to visiting again soon.
Where to Stay: Olissippo Castelo Boutique Hotel
What to Do: Visit the miradouros view points all over the city (my favorite was Miradouro de Santa Luzia). Check if there are showings of the light projection show at the Museo Arqueologico do Carmo- Click here for the the Lisbon Under Stars schedule
Where to Drink: Pensão Amor on Pink Street
Had we not been driving our own car, it wouldn’t have been as easy to make any spontaneous plans during our road trip through Spain and Portugal, and for that we are thankful to have had our Peugeot lease from AutoFrance. Driving from place to place also sparked a sense of independence because we were able to depart and arrive whenever we wanted to, and also gave us more insight into every day life when passing in between. Are you planning a road trip through Spain and Portugal? Be sure to leave a comment below with any questions I can hopefully answer, and be sure to read my other post about why I chose a short-term lease instead of a traditional car rental for my road trip.
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