If you’re backpacking Portugal, you’re in good company. In 2018, Portugal tourism broke records, as an increasing number of holidaymakers enjoyed its pristine beaches, Mediterranean cuisine and charming cities. But unlike other European destinations, it still feels like you’re stumbling across a secret, as you discover hidden island escapes and wander along winding cobbled lanes.
I’ve visited this country twice in the last two years, staying in six of the best places to visit in Portugal. Here is my Portugal backpackers guide and a handy itinerary for exploring this beautiful country.
Planning your backpacking Portugal travel itinerary
When booking holidays in Portugal, many people will head straight for the sunny southern beaches of the Algarve, arriving in Faro airport. If you’re backpacking Europe, you may cross the border from Spain into Portugal or maybe you’ll arrive in the capital city of Lisbon by plane or train. The city’s airport handles 26 million passengers a year, while its Estação do Oriente (Oriente station) is Portugal’s busiest transport interchange for bus, train and metro transport.
Summer in Portugal is sunny and warm, especially in the south, but the weather is usually fine any time from April to October. Avoiding the peak tourist season of July and August often means lower prices, so spring and autumn are good options for budget travel in Portugal. My first Portugal backpacking tour was from Faro to Lisbon from the last week of August to the first week of September. My second trip, from Lisbon to Porto was in June the following year.
So how much money will you need for a backpacking Portugal budget? I spent around €46 a day for food, transport and sightseeing expenses on my Portugal solo travel. My accommodation cost an average of €71 a day for rooms in guest houses, but you could easily spend less than half of that if you stay in hostels. Tipping in Portugal isn’t obligatory but it’s appreciated, so feel free to round up your bill in a café or restaurant.
I started my first trip by flying into Faro airport for some beach action, so I will begin this Portugal backpacking itinerary with the Algarve.
The Algarve, the naturally beautiful region along the south coast, has been one of the most popular places to go in Portugal for tourists since the 1960s, so it’s a must for your Portugal backpacking route. As well as its beaches and balmy weather, the Algarve is known for its colourful painted ceramic tiles, which adorn buildings across the region.
Since the Stone Age, the Algarve’s inhabitants have fallen under the control of invaders, including the Romans and the Moors, and their influences are still clear. Even the region’s name derives from its Moorish rulers. They named it Al-Gharb in Arabic, meaning ‘the West’, as Portugal is Europe’s westernmost point.
The pretty tiles are known as azulejos, named after the Arabic for ‘polished stone’ and inspired by Roman mosaics and Persian geometric patterns. The Portuguese adopted the Moorish tradition of using them to completely cover walls. These distinctively decorated houses are among the prettiest things to see in Portugal. Budget travel for backpackpers in the Algarve is easy thanks to the region’s affordable public train and bus services.
Let’s begin with the capital of the Algarve. In Faro, Portugal, things to do include exploring its Old Town, taking a boat trip to a secluded island and dining on the sensational local seafood. Many people arrive at Faro airport and immediately leave for one of the main Portugal destinations, but it’s worth catching the bus into town (€2.25 one way) and staying here for a night or two.
Faro is small but it has a historic centre. The archway leading to the old town, the neoclassical Arco da Vila, is on the site of an original Moorish gated wall. Storks perch in their giant nests on top.
Inside the old town is the 13th century Faro Cathedral and the Municipal Museum, a converted 16th-century convent, displaying historic artifacts and artworks, with insight into the area’s Moorish past.
Next to Faro old town is a small boat terminal called Porta Nova Pier. From here you can catch a regular daily ferry (€10 return) or a speed boat (€20 return) to Ilha da Barretta, which is known by locals as Ilha Deserta, meaning ‘deserted island’. About 7km (4.3 miles) long, this isolated island is continental Portugal’s southernmost point. A walk around this island is one of the most peaceful hiking trails in the Algarve (but make sure you bring sun protection and water).
The only place on the island that offers refreshments is a futuristic solar-powered restaurant called Estaminé. It serves organic meals, fresh seafood and local beers. It gets busy at meal times, so it’s best to book ahead.
Otherwise, you can simply lay back on one of the sunbeds to rent on its pristine sandy beaches.
Backpacker Faro accommodation includes a range of stylish Airbnb rooms (get up to €41 off your first stay here) and funky hostels. Try the top-rated WAX Hostel, for a relaxing beachside stay, or the fabulous Faroway Hostel, conveniently located in the centre of town.
For drinks, head to the O Castello bar, which has panoramic views over the sea. The best fresh seafood dinner can be found at Portas de São Pedro, but this tiny restaurant is popular so you usually need to reserve a table in advance.
Forty minutes east of Faro by train (€3.15 one way) lies Tavira, an ancient port town on the banks of the Gilão River, just 30km from the Spanish border. With a population of just over 26,000, this small, laid-back place doesn’t get overrun by tourists, even in the summer. No-one feels in a hurry so it’s easy to relax here.
An attractive, seven-arched ‘Roman Bridge’ connects the town across the river, though it was recently discovered that it in fact originates from a 12th-century Moorish bridge.
Indeed, the influence of Tavira’s Moorish occupation from the 8th to the 13th century is still evident in the town’s whitewashed buildings with Moorish-style details. The name Tavira comes from the Arabic Tabira, meaning ‘the hidden’.
It is a joy to simply stroll around Tavira’s cobbled streets and take in the colourful buildings decorated with flowers and azulejos, among the historic squares and churches.
Visit the remains of the medieval Castelo de Tavira (Tavira castle) for stunning views across the area.
At the nearby Torre Tavira (Tavira tower), you can discover the fascinating Camera Obscura. This 10th century invention uses a mirror and two lenses installed on the top of this old water tower to project a living, moving image of Tavira onto a large white bowl-shaped screen. Watch in amazement as the guide gives you a panoramic 360 degree tour of the town and zooms in on certain parts of the town, as people and cars go by, like a live video. I did this on my last day, but it would be an ideal way to get an introduction to Tavira when you arrive. Entrance is €4 per person.
Some of the Algarve’s finest beaches are near Tavira, making it one of the best places to go in Portugal for sun-worshipers. Ferry boats transport visitors to the idyllic sands of Ilha de Tavira (Tavira island) via the inlets and lagoons of the Ria Formosa Natural Park (€2 return).
This system of barrier islands, including Faro’s Ilha Deserta, has salt flats attract wading birds including flamingos and spoonbills. If you’re backpacking the Algarve, you can explore this protected natural reserve by kayak or via its hiking trails. At Tavira’s Praia do Barril, discover the Anchor Cemetery, where dozens of rusting anchors stand embedded in the sand dunes, in honour of the area’s former tuna fishing fleet.
If you simply want to sunbathe, arrive in the morning to reserve a VIP sun lounger area at the front of the beach, with an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf of Cádiz. You can grab refreshments from Xiri Beach Bar or buy a bolinha from the passing doughnut seller on the beach. Total indulgence.
There’s a great selection of rooms and hotels in Tavira – click here to browse and book your accommodation. I found it good to stay close to the centre, so it’s easy to cross the river if needed. For yoga classes in English, visit Áshrama Tavira, where Andreia runs beautiful rooftop and studio classes – highly recommended. Nearby is the Tavira Lounge, which is good for a relaxing evening drink.
If you’re feeling adventurous and looking for a unique dinner experience, track down a magical restaurant hidden in a secluded garden. A local Tavira resident told me about Jorge & Lia’s Secret Restaurant. It doesn’t have a website but you can find it on Google maps here. The best way to access it is through the orange trees between the buildings on Rua Manuel Virgínio Pires. Jorge and Lia have been running this restaurant for years and they are fantastic hosts. The food and wine is wonderful. It’s a treat to dine in such a tranquil setting. A special way to end a trip to Tavira.
Lagos is an unmissable stop on your backpacking Algarve trip, as it’s one of the best places to stay in Portugal. Returning from Tavira to Faro by train, it is an hour’s train journey from Faro to the west of the Algarve (€12.60 one way). I didn’t have time to stop along the way, but if I did I would have visited the beautiful Benagil Caves. Lagos is a larger and livelier town than Faro and Tavira. While it’s certainly busier, it has some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen.
As I’ve outlined, Portugal’s Algarve offers some great hiking opportunities around Ria Formosa National Park. Another Portugal highlight for hiking fans is Lagos, exploring the golden clifftops over its famous beaches and natural rock formations.
You can go hiking high up along the Lagos coastline from Praia da Batata (Batata beach) to the stunning Ponta da Piedade viewpoint.
It takes around an hour, as you will definitely want to stop and take in the views along the way or maybe take the steep steps down to the beaches. Be sure to bring water and sun protection.
Another way to discover this area is from the sea. You can take a small boat tour (around €20 per person) to enter the coves and caves, learning about the history and legends of the area as you go. You will see unusual rock formations including one that looks like an elephant.
Another option, for the most adventurous travellers is to explore the area by kayak, as part of an organised tour.
Lagos, Portugal backpackers accommodation includes the centrally located 17 Hostel, which has rave reviews and a sunny rooftop terrace. The popular Boutique Taghostel overlooks the marina and its staff are happy to organise a range of activities, including surf lessons, dolphin watching and bicycle tour.
I stayed at the stylish and comfortable Blue Moon Guest House, which is in the city’s lively restaurant area, as well as the nearby Lalitana, which is run by the fabulous Lita Santos. This guest house has an on-site vegetarian restaurant and yoga studio. Each of the rooms is beautifully styled in different colours, themed around the chakras. Perfect for a yoga lover like me.
One of my favourite places to eat in Lagos is the Mexican themed Beats & Burritos, while Café Odeon serves a hearty full English breakfast.
Next up in our backpacking Portugal itinerary is the capital city of Lisbon. This can be reached by bus or train from Lagos in around three hours (about €30 one way). Being the capital, there are plenty of things to do in Lisbon, including taking the iconic yellow tram to visit the various neighbourhoods and enjoying the views of this attractive city.
Tram 28 passes through Lisbon’s popular tourist districts of Graca, Alfama, Baixa and Estrela. There is one stop where there’s a long queue of tourists, but if you find another stop you may be able to jump on straight away. At various points on the journey you will see signs for miradouro which means a viewing point with panoramic views across the city. Sometimes there will be stalls selling glasses of wine for you to sip as you look out at Lisbon.
Another way to see Lisbon from above is from the Santa Justa Lift in the centre of the city, which was built at the turn of the 20th century. You can get to the viewing platform at the top via the elevator during the day or in the evening for a different perspective.
If you scale the steep hill to the medieval Castelo do Sao Jorge, you’ll be greeted by more spectacular vistas across the city, as well as the peacocks that roam the area.
Belém Tower is another medieval fortification, around 50 minutes by tram from the centre of Lisbon. Nearby you can taste Portugal’s famous pastel de nata from Pastéis de Belém, where there’s always a (fast-moving) queue to buy these custard tart treats.
On the way back to Lisbon city centre, you’ll no doubt spot the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries) proudly facing the river. It celebrates the Age of Exploration in the 15th and 16th century, when Portuguese adventurers such as Vasco da Gama traversed the world and traded with merchants from India and the Far East.
Lisbon backpackers will be pleased to know that there are plenty of accommodation options. Click here for an extensive list of the best hostels in Lisbon. I would recommend staying near the Bairro Alto, Baixa and Chiado neighbourhoods, as they are central and convenient for getting around. Check out Nicolau Lisboa on Rua São Nicolau in Chiado for the city’s best brunch.
For dinner, head to the Time Out food market, in the neighbouring Cais do Sodre, which offers a wide range of high quality dishes from different local chefs, all under one roof. I opted for a contemporary twist on the traditional Portuguese dish of bacalhau com natas (salted cod in cream sauce), washed down with a passion fruit soft drink from the Portuguese islands of Madeira.
Afterwards, head to Bairro Alto for port wine and cheese tasting at The Old Pharmacy, followed by a fado performance at Tasca Do Chico. Alternatively, if hip hop beats are more your style, track down the nearby secret rooftop bar called PARK on Calçada do Combro. You have to go through a grim looking parking lot, but when you reach the top you’ll find a beautiful garden terrace with gorgeous people and a DJ spinning the decks.
With castles in the sky, set in steep pine-covered hills overlooking a chocolate-box historic town, Sintra is one of the most magical places to visit in Portugal. Just over an hour by train from Lisbon (€5 one way), it’s like entering a fairy-tale.
The Palácio da Pena (Pena Palace) is the most colourful castle I’ve ever seen. Completed in the 19th century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the world’s most important buildings dedicated to the period’s artistic and intellectual Romanticism movement. Like Lisbon’s Belém Tower (above), Pena Palace is one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
The best way to reach Pena Palace is to catch bus number 434 outside Sintra train station (€6.90 per person). This bus also goes to the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors). The Moors completed the construction of this medieval castle in the 9th century, as a strategic defensive point against the Christian forces, who ultimately overpowered them. The castle is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the views from here are spectacular, though it requires a certain level of physical fitness and ability to scale the steps.
If you’re feeling adventurous, there are a number of hiking trails in Sintra that take you up the hills to Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors. You can find more information here. Some of the best hiking in Portugal can also be experienced in the nearby Sintra-Cascais Natural Park.
My heart was stolen by Sintra’s Quinta da Regaleira. Completed at the start of the 20th century, it is a sprawling rural estate with a romantic palace and chapel surrounded with gardens you can get lost in. Entry is priced at €6 per person.
Winding pathways lead to grottoes, wells and Roman, Gothic and Renaissance style architecture, all built to meet the vision of the property’s former owner. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Sintra’s most popular attractions. Allow at least an hour to make the most of your time in this bewildering and inspiring place.
For the Sintra part of our trip backpacking through Portugal, we stayed at the Lanui Guest House. With rooms named after some of Sintra’s best loved landmarks, it is just a five minute walk from Sintra train station. Accommodation in this historic house set in attractive gardens starts at €20 per night. There are a handful of hostels in Sintra – try the Moon Hill Hostel, which is centrally located, with stylish decorations and an excellent breakfast. There are many restaurants around, as well as pastry shops selling the area’s traditional sweet treats, queijadas de Sintra.
Porto is one of the main cities in Portugal, second only to Lisbon in size and significance. It’s just under three hours north of Lisbon by train (around €27 one way). Situated on the Douro River, it was an outpost of the Roman Empire. Its most famous export is port, a fortified wine named after the city.
It’s a great city to simply wander around, as there are many beautiful buildings and squares. Head to the historical centre, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There you’ll find Porto Cathedral, one of the city’s oldest monuments, dating back to the 12th century.
For lunch, why not try typical Portuguese sardinhas assadas – freshly grilled sardines – from a street food stand. Summer is the most popular time to eat this snack, as July and August is sardines season, with festivities across the country.
Head to the river and cross the impressive Ponte de Dom Luís I (Luis I bridge) to Vila Nova de Gaia in the south, the hub of the port wine industry. Along the lively waterfront, you’ll find restaurants, bars and port cellars offering tastings and tours. We visited the cellar of the internationally renowned Sandeman port, which dates back to 1790. Here, we learned about its history and production and tasted three different types of their deep, rich port.
Head back towards the bridge and you’ll find the Garden of Morro, where people gather in this relaxed environment, sipping mojitos, listening to music and watching the sun set over the Douro river. The perfect way to end your backpacking Porto experience in this marvellous city.
If you’re looking for a backpacker hostel, Porto offers plenty of excellent accommodation. Try the beautiful and sociable CATS Porto Hostel or the So Cool Hostel Porto, a modern refit of a 19th-century building with a garden. Both backpacker Porto hostels have rave reviews and are conveniently located in the centre of the city.
Why backpacking in Portugal is the best
From idyllic beaches to romantic castles, and adventures from kayaking to hiking, there are so many things to do in Portugal for backpackers. The Portugal tourist attractions are wonderful, but so is simply walking around and soaking up the culture, or sipping a local beer under the sunshine on a café terrace. With stylish guest houses and hostels Portugal has plenty of affordable accommodation for backpackers. Cheap travel via Portugal’s well-priced public transport helps to keep costs down too. Whether you’re down south in the Algarve or in the north in Porto, for the backpacker Portugal offers something for everyone. Maybe, like me, you’ll find it so irresistible that you’re compelled to return.