Campervan travel destination: Portugal
Discover a great destination where you can enjoy some winter sun (and maybe even a bit of surf) with your campervan.
Portugal in winter is popular with vanlife travellers attracted by the generous amounts of sunshine that hit its Atlantic coastline, perfect for sunbathing, surfing and city-hopping.
How to get to Portugal in your campervan
The quickest route from the UK is to catch the overnight ferry from Portsmouth or Plymouth straight to northern Spain (Santander or Bilbao).
The direct ferry from the UK to Spain is often busy, even though crossing the Bay of Biscay can be notoriously choppy at times. Book early to get a cabin for a good night’s sleep, especially if you want one that allows dogs.
If you’re arriving in Bilbao, culture vultures should check out the famous Guggenheim museum. Grab the opportunity to browse its art collections and admire the incredible building itself. And when you get hungry, go to the many bars and restaurants in Bilbao’s old town serving pintxos (Basque tapas). If you want to stay overnight, one of the closest camping areas for campervans is at the Bilbao Hostel.
If you have travelling time to spare (or really don’t like overnight ferries), the other option is to do the long haul drive through France. Allow at least three days to get to Portugal (and another three to get back). This makes an epic road trip – just think of the places you could stop at: Paris, Loire Valley, St Emilion and other wine villages in Bordeaux, then Biarritz and the Pyrenees – and that’s before you start touring Spain!
The drive to northern Portugal from either Spanish ferry port is a minimum of 400 to 450 miles. There’s a lot of motorway, so you can make good progress. If you’re a bit pushed for time, get going early to get there in one day. You’ll pass some beautiful scenery as the northern coast of Spain is green and lush, making it popular for hiking and biking.
What to see and do in Portugal
Next, decide if you’re on a mission to head south to the Algarve as quickly as possible, or would like to see some of Portugal’s cities, coastline and wineries along the way.
Porto: Culture and charm
A first opportunity to see some Portuguese history and culture could be the UNESCO World Heritage City of Porto. As Portugal’s second-largest city, it is easier to manage than the capital Lisbon. No prizes for guessing that port wine comes from Porto, which is where Portugal gets its name. Porto’s rich history means it has a legacy of magnificent buildings, ornate churches and architecture. Check out the ancient Ribeira district and the double decker iron Dom Luís I bridge across the Douro River carrying trains, traffic and pedestrians. It really is a charming city.
Where to stay
You can camp at Istas’ Garden, just 5 miles from Porto (and about 1 mile from the beach), or if you want something cheaper, check out the overnight parking locations (aires) in Porto on park4night. Arrive early to get a space as they’re notoriously busy and can’t be booked in advance.
If you prefer to avoid commercial campsites, there’s an interesting alternative for motorhomes and campervans in Portugal: Easy Camp. This sees landowners allow a limited number of campervans to stay overnight. You need to be self-sufficient (own water and toilet as a minimum) and Portugal’s Easy Camp asks visitors to buy a welcome pack of local produce from/by the owner. The local knowledge of the owners could help you find and see places you might have missed.
Aveiro and Nazaré: Sand, seafood and surf
After a city fix in Porto, you may want to take in some of the coastline and go to the beach. Heading south, we’d suggest a short (50-mile) hop to the seaside resort of Barra on the peninsula by the town of Aveiro, known as the Venice of Portugal.
If you want to see one of Portugal’s best beaches, or if you’re a very experienced surfer, you’ll definitely want to stop at Nazaré, about 90 miles south of Aveiro.
A recent TV series told the story of the giant waves created by the underwater Nazaré Canyon along this section of the coast and the man (Garret McNamara) who surfed into the Guinness Book of World records by surfing his biggest wave ever. These giant waves attract expert surfers (and spectators) to Nazaré from all over the world, particularly during the winter season (October to March) when the waves are at their biggest. There’s even a dedicated website to monitor the waves, which are definitely not for novices!
But Nazaré offers more than big waves and surf. It’s also a picturesque fishing village where you can buy the seafood fresh from fishermen on the beach, or try it at a wide variety of restaurants.
Where to stay
Nazaré has two large campsites to choose from. There is Orbitur Valado (open all year) and Ohai Nazaré. Both are set amid pine forests, offer plenty of facilities and are under 2 miles from the beaches.
Lisbon and Sintra: Bustling city, beautiful town
The next popular place to stop is vibrant Lisbon (about 150 miles south of Nazaré), Europe’s second oldest capital with more than 3,000 years under its belt. Packed with historic tourist attractions, restaurants, museums, galleries and bars, Lisbon has plenty to keep you entertained. Highlights include the Elevador de Santa Justa, an towering iron lift structure that offers amazing views over the city.
If you don’t have the time (or energy) to go into the city itself, you could try the relaxed and picturesque Sintra instead. The town and its surroundings are on the northwest outskirts of Lisbon. Visit the beautiful Pena Palace overlooking the settlement with views to the coast beyond.
Where to stay
Lisbon, Sintra (and nearby beaches at Cascais) can be easily reached from Camping Orbitur Guincho (open all year).
The Algarve: Laidback suntrap
When you finally reach the Algarve at the bottom of Portugal, most people can’t resist going to the small town of Sagres in its south west corner. The Cabo de São Vicente lighthouse on the rugged headland just outside Sagres is known as ‘the end of the world’, as the next stop from there is America.
Sagres is at the quiet end of the Algarve and attracts lots of surfers. In fact, it claims to be one of the best spots to surf in Portugal. Where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Sagres headland, there are plenty of waves to catch. And the other thing to catch is fish, but leave it to the local fishermen and eat out at any of Sagres’ fish restaurants.
The Algarve is very popular with winter sun tourists. It’s a bit more sheltered than Portugal’s Atlantic coast and has some of its best and biggest beaches. To cater for this demand, there are some large and luxurious campsites with hundreds of pitches, and you’ll usually find they have bars, restaurants and evening entertainment.
Where to stay
With a lot of people staying for extended periods in the ‘off-season’, you should probably reserve ahead if you want to stay for a few nights, rather than just turning up. Some may ask you to book a minimum of two or three nights.
The campsite Orbitur Sagres is open all year.
A great example of a campsite with high standards is the Yelloh! Village Turiscamp Algarve, a member of the Leading Campings of Europe. It’s just 3 miles from Lagos and has 202 pitches, including some with their own water and waste connections. It also has a gym and indoor swimming pool, sauna and an activities programme.
Further east, the other side of Faro, is Camping Ria Formosa with 240 touring pitches, a swimming pool, bar, restaurant and daytime and evening entertainment all season.
Prefer the quiet life? Try the simple Easy Camp option and stay a little bit inland at the vineyard Quinta Do Canhoto near Albufeira.
Start planning your Portuguese adventure
Hopefully, this whistle stop tour of Portugal has given you a great idea of the fun a campervan adventure here can bring. You might use your camper to easily get around Portugal and see as much as possible – or just go straight to some of the best surf and sandy beaches in Europe. Whatever you choose, we wish you a great trip – bom viagem!
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