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The 3 Best Drives from Lisbon to the Algarve

To get from Portugal’s vibrant capital to the Algarve takes about 3 hours by highway - on the modern but isolated E1. But it does not have to be that way, it is an opportunity to spend a few days in the Alentejo. The Alentejo, stretching from the banks of the River Tejo to the mountains just north of the Algarve, is the heartland of Portugal. The perfect drive can take you to plains and mountains, blue rivers, pristine Atlantic beaches, and walled villages painted in white and blue and yellow. And, the sunlight is warm and unique, all just 1 hour from Lisbon.

The ‘montados’ are the cork forests of the Alentejo, home to rare species of plants and animals, and largest forests in Southern Europe. The cork tree, or sobreiro, is the soul of the Alentejo, a living landscape that includes olive groves and vineyards. The cork trees extend for miles and each tree plays an essential role in this ecosystem. 

EN120 following the Costa Vincentina

The Alentejo is home to Portugal’s most protected Atlantic coastline with miles of wild and often secluded beaches carved into the cliffs, broken up by sandy beaches and fishing villages. The Southwest Alentejo and Vicentina Coast Natural Park covers 60 miles of protected land and shore, stretching from São Torpes near Sines to Cape São Vincente, Europe’s most south westerly point. This protected area has 35 certified habitats housing more than 100 rare species of plants, and the cliffs hide nests of white storks. Driving between Lisbon and the Algarve takes about 3 hours and you can make stops along the way to discover open beaches, taste delicious fresh fish and admire the natural silhouette of the cliffs. See small beach towns like Porto Covo and Milfontes, and you might not want to leave.

EN2: Portugal’s Route 66

In 1945 a world war had just ended, and Portugal launched a new road project to connect Chaves in the north to Faro in the Algarve with what would become one of the world’s classic drives: Estrada Nacional #2. The EN2 crosses a wide range of landscapes from mountains to plains — making it one of the most scenic drives in Europe, hence the comparisons to Route 66. The EN2 was bypassed by modern highways, but still runs some 460 miles. Once the longest road in Portugal - its 2 lands still run through small towns and the charming countryside until it reaches Faro. In 2003, the Alentejo section between Almodôvar and São Brás de Alportel was repaved and classified as a "Heritage Road.” In 2016, the National Route 2 Municipalities Association was founded, with the 33 towns that are crossed by the old EN2 on its original route. Look for old school cement road signs painted black and white and clean stretches of a winding 2 lane road. Plus, lots of great eateries, visitor’s info points and things to see and do.

The EN2 today attracts bikers and classic cars, as well as motor touring fans. The best place to join it from Lisbon is the fortified city of Montemor-o-Novo. It then runs south to Alcaçovas, with its famous palace. It then meanders Torrão to Ferreira do Alentejo and on to Castro Verde.

Following the Guadiana - the River Route

Flowing along the border with Spain the Guadiana is a wild and scenic river valley. It is just east of Castro Verde, classified by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve set in the heart of the "White Plains” (Campo Branco), which is the name given to the extension of land that takes on a white-ish color during the summer and hosts a variety of bird species. Closer to the Spanish border is Noudar Nature Park, where the medieval Castle of Noudar sits on a hilltop surrounded by a protected cork forest. Not far from there is the Guadiana Valley Natural Park, for centuries the border between the two countries. Enjoy the beautiful landscape of cork trees and look for the hundreds of protected species like the black stork or the Iberian lynx. 

A lot of places in the park allow you to cool down from the dry Alentejo heat by swimming in the Guadiana River. Just west of the Guadiana Valley Natural Park is the Alqueva Great Lake, one of Europe’s largest artificial lakes and Portugal’s prime stargazing hotspot known as the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve. During the day you can enjoy water and lakeside fun like kayaking, boating or merely sitting under the sun sipping on a glass of wine. At night, sit back and enjoy the show as the sky lights up and reveals countless shining stars. The quietness of the plains at night and the darkness that results from having no light pollution feels like an open-air planetarium. 

Look for stops in the pottery town of Corval, and the historic towns of Serpa, Moura, Monsaraz and Métola.

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