Photographer and MatadorU faculty member Kate Siobhan Mulligan had the chance to drive the coast of Portugal from Lisbon to Lagos and back. She’s convinced it’s one of the best road trips in the world. Let her show you why.


It faces west.

This means Atlantic swells, sunsets, and a long, beautiful horizon. Apparently it also means rainbows—bonus. You can follow the highway along the coastline from top to bottom—so views like this can be had every. single. day. We rented this particular camper van from Indie Campers so that we'd have the freedom to go as we please—and never looked back.


The cities are full of life...all over the country.

In pretty much any city, you can turn a corner—like, literally any corner—and there's gorgeous light, historic buildings, and a smattering of little cafes all waiting to serve you cheap, delicious wine. I highly recommend the bubbly, bright vinho verde—wine that's consumed within a year of bottling, also known as "young wine."


History is everywhere.

All of Portugal had something I call texture. When it's decayed a bit but holding on, lived in but not run down, bearing the stains and stories of history but not ancient or untouchable—and when the right light hits, it's perfect. This is all a fancy way of saying Portugal has personality. And it has it in spades.



Portuguese tiles are known around the world for their detail and variety. Everywhere you look there's different patterns and colours, up and down walls, around windows, bordering doorways—churches, markets, people's homes. It starts to make wherever you call home look just a little bit drab.


You can visit castles.

Okay, so the Torre de Belem is actually a fortified tower, not a castle. But listen, between me and my imagination, and the cheap bottle of Douro red I enjoyed during sunset—it's a castle. For legit Castles, there's the famous Sintra castle (castle of the Moors), castle of Silves, Guimaraes Castle...I mean, there's enough castles to warrant a very long wikipedia entry. So.


You can ride a tram.

When not driving up and down the coastline, you can park your transport in Lisbon and hop on a good, old-fashioned tram. I mean, come on. The trams in Lisbon not only still work but are actually one of the best ways to get around many parts of the city, especially through Alfama and up some of the more major hills. I recommend late at night when the tourists have gone to bed and it's just you, the driver, the rocking and sway of the car, and the shimmering lights.


Art, everywhere

It would appear that if there's an empty wall, artists may fill it, and so long as it's colourful and lovely and embodies the spirit of the place, it can stay. It lends to the colour of almost every city in the country.


You can drive right to the scene of a shipwreck.

Portugal has seen it's fair share of pirates, of explorers, of seafarers. We found this little guy outside Vila Nova de Milefontes. No sign posts, no plaques. Just good old-fashioned word of mouth. Since we were traveling by camper van, we just trundled on over and explored all afternoon.


You can spend the night on empty beaches.

Be cautious and courteous of course, but if no one's around, you can stick around for the night. There are so many beaches, it's unlikely anyone will notice...unless you're in the Algarve and then you'll likely be in the company of many other roadtrippers and camper-vanners. In this case the beach was so quiet we were able to play with fire next to the shipwreck—one of the most fun nights of our whole trip. Whether you rent a car and tent, or a camper van like we did, hanging out under the stars on a beach like this is sure to make the roadtrip worthwhile.


You can camp out under some epic skies.

Get away from Lisbon and the skies just open up—some of the most brilliant and vibrant night skies I've seen in my travels. Our van, on the left, is literally parked on the edge of a cliff. We fell asleep to the sound of 15-foot waves crashing directly underneath us.


Surfing, so much surfing

The entire west and southern coastlines are really just a series of beaches begging for surf and body boards. Some are well known, some are completely empty. If you like to surf, get a car, hit the road, and you're bound to find your perfect beach along the way.


Surfing in the sunset.

Because Portugal faces west, you can carve it up as the sun goes down directly behind you. Because it's on the Atlantic, large swells are common, churned up by storms. And, storms often equal colorful sunsets. For this reason, there's nowhere else to be at sundown except on a beach. If you're not in the water, you'd better be sipping on that vinho verde I already mentioned.


You can explore the coastlines.

Portugal has some of the most intense coastlines I've traveled: behemoth cliffs, carved out grottos, charred black rocks, white sand, and everything in between. Without a car, you couldn't get to so many of these places—but with a car, the roads are good and the cell phone coverage is great, so you'll be sure to stay on the grid. If you want to, that is.


You can have some dramatic beaches all to yourself.

Sure, the Algarve in the south is totally chalk full of sunbathers and resort vacationers and truckfulls of surfers. Fair enough, the beaches there are lovely in the Algarve. But with a car, you can get way out of the way to score some epic landscapes all to yourself. It might just look unlike any other beach you've been to, to boot.


Did I mention having beach all to yourself?

This beach might look like the Algarve but as you can tell from the lack of crowds, it's not. It's just south of Setubal.


Fishermen and sunsets

There was something really fascinating about the fishermen in Portugal. They just looked like such hardworking, kind men (actually I did cross one fisherwoman, but only one). I can only assume they're thinking profound things while watching the sun go down, making a living through fishing like so many generations of Portuguese have. He's probably thinking about what's for dinner, but I deeply enjoyed watching the seeming thoughtful men at work none the less.


And more sunsets.

I mean, how many times can I say the country faces west? It's like every night there's a live performance. Pick a beach, any beach—or maybe a massive cliff? or while resting on your board, bobbing in the swell?—and take it in. Night after night. Nowhere else in the world I'd rather be.


The open road.

Between the wide network of roads, the good cell coverage, the perfect towns and lively large cities, the texture and colour, the cheap wine, the perfect surfing, the empty beaches, the starry skies, and the litany of sunsets every colour of the rainbow, Portugal has it all. Get in the car and drive.