Let me take a wild guess: you’re planning to go backpacking in Portugal. Well, you have come to the right page!
Let me also make a wild prediction: I bet you’ll have an incredible trip.
You see, I think Portugal is easily one of the best backpacking destinations in Europe. I’ve been fortunate to travel every corner of this country — and after backpacking Portugal, I decided to live there!
Here, I’ve cherry-picked only the top backpacking destinations, leaving out places that are difficult to access or simply not as much fun to do on a backpacking trip.
For example, the interior of Portugal has some really interesting off-the-beaten-path places, but most backpackers will already have their hands full just covering the coast, which is also easiest to travel around by public transport.
So, I’ll cover here what I know to be a super fun backpacking circuit, which combines the best of the cities with the stunning Portuguese coastline.
Along the way, I’ll also give some survival tips for your trip to Portugal.
Why go backpacking Portugal
On a tight budget? Don’t stress. In Portugal, money won’t slip through your fingers nearly as quickly as it does elsewhere in Western Europe. It’s not as cheap as, say, Eastern Europe, but it’s still very cheap.
To give you an idea: a dorm bed in a hostel will cost about €15 per night. And a basic meal in a local restaurant costs about €7.
Although hipster cafés in Lisbon and such can cost a lot more, the local economy is very cheap compared to Western or Northern European countries.
The hostel scene
If you ask me, Portugal has some of the best hostels in Europe. The hostels here really just get what goes into creating a traveler-friendly atmosphere. They truly get the details right.
Keep an eye out for my hostel recommendations throughout this guide, because having an amazing backpacking experience is as much about where you’re staying as where you’re going!
Sun & surf
In my travels around the world, I’ve noticed surfers and backpackers often like the same places. In Portugal, this venn diagram also exists.
The surfer community in Portugal has given rise to a plethora of funky cafes, hostels, and surf schools in many towns by the sea, which also make them a haven for backpackers.
Of course, you don’t need to be a pro surfer to enjoy the waves. It can be simply an excuse to spend time in the water. I’ve taken lots of classes and can still barely get on the board — and when I do, I’m about as graceful as a dog on a skateboard — yet I still get excited every time I zip on that wetsuit.
In some other parts of Europe, backpacking is often all about the cities, but in Portugal it’s very much about the outdoors as well. Sometimes the vibe reminds me a little bit of backpacking in Asia or South America. Just with colder waters and in Europe!
If you just want to get shitfaced on cheap caipirinhas, this can also be done. The cities in Portugal are great for going out. Better yet, beers can be as cheap as €1, while some student bars serve caipirinhas for as little as €2,50.
The nightlife in Portugal is mostly social and bar- focused. Don’t necessarily go looking for a thumping bass in a dark basement techno club, as this isn’t Berlin. But Lisbon and Porto do have loads of fun bars and — thanks to the year-round great climate — the crowds often spill out into the streets.
In Lisbon, the entire district of Barrio Alto becomes essentially one big street party every night (in non-pandemic times). As the night wears on, the party moves to Cais do Sodré, once a red-light district and now a trendy nightlife area.
If you happen to be in Portugal in June, you have the chance to join the Popular Saints celebrations, which are spread out over many weeks. Each neighborhood will have a street party with colorful bunting, grilled fish, and lots of bad pimba (folksy uptempo music from rural areas). In Porto, these celebrations also involve hitting random people on the head with inflatable hammers.
Inflatable hammer brawls aside, you’re not likely to get into any hairy situations in Portugal. It’s truly one of the safest countries in the world, which makes traveling it a mostly worry-free affair — even if you’re backpacking solo or as a woman alone. By the way, the machismo that women often report when traveling in countries like Italy is not a thing in Portugal.
Do keep an eye on your belongings as tourists do become targets of theft sometimes, as anywhere in the world. In Lisbon, be sure to ignore any shady people offering you drugs on the squares; they are in fact scammers, and not worth talking to unless you are in dire need of some baking powder or oregano!
All things considered, Portugal’s low costs, its epic coastline, the great surfer and hostel scene, and a super fun nightlife make for a perfect backpacking destination.
Portugal backpacking route
There is enough to experience in Portugal to spend months on end and not get bored. But if you’re keen to capture some of the highlights from the north to the south, it’s ideal to have at least 2 or 3 weeks.
If you have just one week or so, consider covering a specific part of Portugal (for example: Lisbon plus the Algarve). Otherwise, you will spend too much time in transit and not enough time enjoying each place.
I think it makes some sense to start your journey in the north. There are some great cities in the north and the climate is a bit cooler here. You can then end your trip in the south at Portugal’s sunniest beaches.
Here are some of the top destinations, from north to south:
Discover the northern capital for 2 days
The second-biggest city in Portugal and de facto capital of the north has a unique vibe that’s not to miss.
Porto literally means port, and it’s in fact the dock areas of Cais da Ribeira, surrounded by hills and a double-decked iron bridge, that will surely leave a big impression.
They often say that the people of Porto are more open and sociable than the slightly more aloof Lisboners. I’ve certainly noticed this difference a few times.
Once, I was waiting for a rideshare at the Porto train station, when I found the driver still finishing his bifana (a meat sandwich) at a cafe. He urged me to sit down, bought me a beer, and we talked about travel until he was ready to drive me to the hostel. That’s classic Porto and you’ll probably find that people there can be quite randomly friendly.
There are many interesting things to do in Porto, though it’s a relatively small city, so 2 days is enough to get a good taste of it. One of the key things to do is to take a riverboat tour, letting you see the city from a different perspective, and taste some of the famed Port wine in one of its many wine cellars.
Stay in these Porto hostels!
A university city worth a day trip or one-night stay
Coimbra is Portugal’s main university city and is located about halfway between Porto and Lisbon. Thanks to its many student bars, it’s a fun place to go out if you’re staying (but if you’re in a rush, Coimbra can also be a day trip).
Coimbra is home to one of the world’s oldest universities, which now also functions as a museum. The old lecture halls with wooden benches may remind you of Hogwarts — in fact, it’s said that J.K. Rowling took inspiration for Harry Potter here while she lived in Portugal.
You may even see groups of students wearing black robes, which is their official uniform. If you’re visiting in September, they might well be performing strange rituals on the streets, as freshmen get initiated during the traditional Praxe. If you visit Coimbra in summer, the city might instead feel a bit dead, as everyone will have left for recess.
If you’re taking the train between Porto and Lisbon you can stop in Coimbra to see the top sights for a day (leave your backpack in storage at the station, or at a hostel that allows this). But it can also be fun to stay a night so you can explore without always looking at the time. The old town is like a mini version of old Lisbon, with its windy streets hugging the slopes of a hill on top of which the university is built.
I stayed in an Airbnb in Coimbra, but other travelers told me Hostel Se Velha is a good hostel which directly out on the old cathedral of Coimbra.
The town of Aveiro is often tipped as a day trip from Coimbra, but I don’t think it has all that much to offer. It’s mostly a modern city but with a handful of canals. If you have plenty of time, it may be worth an afternoon.
Otherwise, it’s better spent in one of Portugal’s great surf spots.
Ericeira and Peniche
Enjoy surfing + a great base for day trips
These two surfer towns are both delightful in their own way and you should at least one of them to your Portugal backpacking route. But if you have the time… well, as that meme goes, “why not both!”.
Ericeira (pronounced: e-ri-sigh-ra) is a picturesque town perched atop a cliff by the sea. What I love about Ericeira is that it’s very traditionally Portuguese, but it also feels very international thanks to its well-established surfer scene. This gives it truly the best of both worlds and makes it a backpacker favorite.
It has an old fisherman’s harbor, lots of typical white houses with blue- and yellow doors and windows, and many local Portuguese tascas (neighborhood restaurants) where you can have a set lunch for as little as 6 Euro. Equally, you’ll find in Ericeira plenty of trendy cafes, stylish surfer shops, yoga studios, and many hostels with a great vibe.
I stayed in Selina Boavista Ericeira, which is a little more expensive than other hostels Ericeira, but it has a fantastic deck with sea views, and includes its own surf school. A nice and cozy place to stay if you like something a bit more ‘premium’, though still with a kitchen and other communal facilities.
Ericeira is my favorite surfer town in Portugal, but nearby Peniche is a close second or third. It has fewer hipster cafes or vegetarian restaurants, sticking a bit closer to a typical Portuguese town. It has two great beaches, a beautiful old fort, and there’s a short ferry ride to the Berlengas Islands, which is a protected marine reserve where you can hike, swim, or go for some stand-up paddling.
I stayed in Peniche Hostel Backpackers, which is a homely hostel run by locals. I recommend it especially if you’re traveling solo, as the shared breakfast table made it really easy to meet people there.
A must-do day trip from Peniche is the walled medieval town of Óbidos. Now, it’s 100% a tourist town, so I wouldn’t suggest staying there overnight. But it’s undeniably beautiful with many white houses adorned with colorful flowers everywhere and a wonderfully intact castle. Don’t miss your chance to have a few shots of ginjinha, a cherry liquor that’s from Óbidos and sold everywhere along the streets.
Chill surfer hostels in Ericeira
Spend at least 3 days in the gorgeous capital
Oh, Lisbon. Portugal’s capital stole my heart a few years ago and it’s the reason why I now live there!
The list of things to see in Lisbon is extensive and so I recommend staying at least 3 days. The pastel-colored buildings, antique yellow trams, the overload of panoramic vistas, and impressive castles, monasteries, and gardens make it easily the most gorgeous capital in all of Europe. (Yes, that’s a fact.)
Not only are there many sights to see, but the level to which Lisbon rewards random exploration is truly insane. Make sure you have plenty of time to make your own discoveries.
Lisbon is home to some of the best backpacker hostels; I compiled an overview of the best hostels in Lisbon. I’ve stayed in many over the years, so these are my personal recommendations. Whether you’re looking for a boutique hostel with a quiet atmosphere or a fun party hostel with a rooftop bar and pool, Lisbon has them all.
My fave hostels in Lisbon
While you’re in the capital, there are some cool nearby spots to check out. If you’re seeking a beach, Carcavelos is most easily reached (about 20 minutes by train), but it’s also worth crossing the river and going to the small resort town of Caparica.
Make sure you also leave at least 1 extra day to see the magical place of … Sintra!
Magical palaces worth a day trip or one night
Sintra is a town just 40 minutes by train from Lisbon. It’s surrounded by epic castles, palaces, and magical gardens that you shouldn’t miss. Located near the sea and along a mountain ridge, it has a microclimate that makes it particularly lush and green.
It used to be where the rich and royal would live, but today it’s become a major tourist attraction. If you’re there in the August high season, it might feel a bit too touristy. (In the busiest periods, feel free to skip the indoors area of Pena Palace; it’s not worth the epic queue!) However, a trip to Sintra is simply unmissable, and there is actually more to see there than you can capture in a single day.
The Quinta da Regaleira gardens, which are filled with secret tunnels, wells, and grottoes, are the must-see attraction. You can visit Sintra as a day trip from Lisbon, but it’s even better to stay a night or two. I stayed at Nice Way Sintra, a homely hostel with a garden for BBQs and a great communal breakfast area.
Staying in Sintra will let you experience this place in a more quiet way when all the day-trippers have already left. You also have the chance to hike around Sintra and enjoy its beautiful forests and many vistas. Don’t miss my guide to Sintra for more on how to get there and what to do in Sintra.
Don’t miss the queijadas, a local cinnamony treat from Sintra that looks a bit similar to the more famous pastel de nata egg tart, but which might just be even more delicious!
Hike, surf & chill in an unspoiled region of Portugal
Let me tell you a little secret: the wild and sparsely developed Costa Vicentina is one of the best bits of Portugal.
And it’s all yours to explore!
It’s not nearly as touristy as the Algarve coast further south, where Ryanair spews out throngs of sun-seeking families and party holidayers during summer. The protected Vicentine coastline has just miles and miles of stunning cliffs and wild beaches, sporadically punctuated with quaint seaside towns.
Because there are no large-scale hotels or resorts on the Costa Vicentina, it feels so much purer, and it’s made it a favorite mainly of backpackers, hikers, surfers, and campervanners.
Despite being just a smidge off the beaten track, the region has a good bus network letting you easily hop between towns. Many of these towns have at least one hostel, though you may not find them on Hostelworld (try Booking.com instead).
The best way to experience this coastal region is truly to hike. There are over 750 kilometers of hiking trails, snarling on two tracks running inland and along the stunning coast. You could truly hike here for weeks if you wanted, but it’s also easy to hike for just a day or two.
Want to see only the most scenic area on the coast? Then my favorite section is that between Almograve and Odeceixe. It’s simply stunning! It’s worth mentioning that if your backpack is too heavy to carry on a long hike, you can use a service to deliver it to the next town.
I hiked all along the Costa Vicentina and wrote a lot more about the hiking trails. The largest seaside town is Vila Nova de Milfontes — it’s really nice, you can kayak in the river, and it has access to some great beaches. But I’m personally very fond of the smaller towns, such as Almograve, Zambujeiro do Mar, and Odeceixe. Pick one or more and you’ll see for yourself why people rave about the Portuguese coast.
End your trip in Lagos, Faro, or Sagres
Of all the towns in the Algarve, I think Lagos (pronounced “lá-goosh”) is most easily reached and arguably the most worthwhile. It has a small old center that’s fun to walk around. It’s also a stone’s thrown from some of the Algarve’s signature cliffs and sea caves and Lagos has many great hostels to boot, such as the super homely Olive Hostel Lagos.
One downside to Lagos is that the beaches are quite cramped and often filled to the brim at the height of summer — especially when many Portuguese flood the area when they go on their local holidays. There just isn’t enough space between all the rocky cliffs to fit everyone! I loved Lagos when I was there in May and June, but thought a bit less of it in August.
Luckily, the Algarve coast is very long and the alternatives to Lagos are many. Some travelers prefer the small city of Faro, which feels a bit less touristy than Lagos even in high season. A short ferry from Faro will take you past the lagoon to the long and spacious beaches, stretching as far as the eye can see.
Far west from Lagos is also the town of Sagres, which is truly away from the main resorts of the Algarve. There aren’t tons to do here but it is a great hot spot for surfers and it has a cool on-a-cliff-at-the-end-of-the-world feel.
In Sagres, I stayed at the Lighthouse Hostel, a gorgeous villa with a great pool and outdoor bar. I completely forgot to pay my beer tab when I left there, so I hope that by linking to them now I’ll have repaid my dues! My indebtedness aside, I strongly recommend a stay at the Lighthouse as it’s the perfect spot to chill. I planned to stay only one day in Sagres but ended up staying four only because of the hostel.
Add-on: the Azores
Epic volcanic islands are a whole trip on their own
If you haven’t had your plate full with these destinations already, there is another epic one you could add to your trip. The Azores is an archipelago of nine islands deep in the Atlantic — they belong to Portugal, though they’re about a 2 ½ hour flight from the mainland.
Are the Azores amazing? YES.
You can go volcano climbing, caving, kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing, hiking, whale- and dolphin watching, and so much more. It’s one of the most exciting bits of Portugal. I love the Azores and you can easily tell by how much I’ve written about it.
BUT… should you just casually throw it into your itinerary? Well, there are a few asterisks to add here.
Frankly, the Azores islands are difficult (sometimes even impossible) to get around by public transport. It’s also expensive to hop between islands by ferry or plane if you want to see more than one island. These factors make it not so backpacking-friendly. But if you can work around this a little, then the Azores is definitely 100% amazing.
My advice is this: try to make some friends on the Portugal backpacking trail so you can join forces and rent a car together on the Azores. Trust me, you can have an unforgettable trip there! But it’s definitely easiest to discover the Azores on a mini road trip as a couple or group.
The last time I went to the Azores I spent €26 per day for a compact car rental, which was split 5-way between friends, which suddenly made things loads cheaper. Not to mention, having your own car is the ultimate way to explore the islands.
If you can’t do it by car, you could still find a cheap flight to the biggest island of Sao Miguel (they go for as little as €50 return with Ryanair) and then only stay in the capital of Ponta Delgada.
The local buses sadly aren’t going to be of much use there, but you can at least book organized minivan tours to see some of the highlights. It’s a somewhat limited way of experiencing Sao Miguel island — and not that cheap, as a day tour can easily cost €50 Euro — but it’s still a decent way.
The Azores can be an epic add-on to your trip, but know the limitations you may face as a backpacker. If it’s not for this trip, keep it on the list for another time. If you’ve got your crew to share an Airbnb and car rental with, it’s the perfect way to see the Azores. Just the island of Sao Miguel island can already keep you busy for a whole week, especially if you like nature and hiking.
Portugal backpacking tips
How to get around
There is no need to fly domestically unless you go to the Azores islands. The main national railway line connects Porto, Coimbra, Lisbon, and the Algarve. Going the full length north to south by train would take about 6 hours non-stop, but you can do it all in segments of no more than 1,5 hours each.
Wherever you can’t get by train, the Rede Expresso bus network will help you out. They have good international connections to Spain if you’re heading there next. Use the site Rome2Rio to quickly find your options for getting around.
Should you book ahead?
When you’re backpacking in Portugal, especially in summer, I think it makes sense to pre-book at least some of your accommodation.
I once started this blog writing mainly about Southeast Asia, where everything is dirt cheap and backpackers usually go for at least several months, which makes the natural inclination to 100% wing it and be ultra spontaneous with everything.
Since I love backpacking in Asia my first reflex is often to recommend this travel style, but in Europe it can honestly be helpful to plan just a little bit more sometimes.
Especially in the July/August high season, hostels in Portugal can sometimes become fully booked out. I once ended up in Porto in August without a booking and struggled to find a bed… luckily, a kind hostel owner improvised a bed for me using a spare mattress on the floor next to the toilets. Sometimes on the weekends or during a major festival, the hostels can be full too, or at least the ones you most want to stay. I had this happen in Lisbon where my favorite pick (Lisbon Home Hostel) was booked out.
Booking hostels at least a couple of days ahead makes sense, while still giving you the freedom to change your plans later. If you’re in Portugal for two or three weeks, it helps to have a rough plan for the places you most want to visit and adjust your lengths of stay depending on how you feel during the trip.
If you use Hostelworld to make your bookings, you can still have to flexibility to cancel within 24 hours before arrival.
Solo backpacking in Portugal
Portugal is a perfect destination for a solo backpacking trip! The key, as often, is to stay in backpacker hostels where it’s easy to meet people. If you haven’t stayed in hostels before, you should read about how hostels work.
My number one tip for you is to stay in hostels that have shared family-style meals. These work like wonders in getting everyone off their phones and talking to each other. There are at least several hostels in Lisbon that do this. (I once stayed as a solo traveler at Home Hostel Lisbon where the mother of the owner cooks everyone a big dinner every day. I got to know everyone super quickly and had a blast!)
The other great way to meet people is to sign up for activities. Try a surfing class, some stand-up paddle (SUP), or maybe social events at your hostel if they are organizing any.
Finally, try using the Couchsurfing app to meet people in town. Fewer people use Couchsurfing itself these days anymore, but the app is still alive and kicking.
There are also meetups with Couchsurfing or “Hospitality Exchange” in their name, which aren’t linked directly to the platform, but are good spots to meet other travelers or locals. For example, there is a nice CS meetup (only indirectly associated with the site) in Lisbon every Wednesday.
Traveling on a budget in Portugal
If you’re on a tight budget, you can reduce some of your costs by cooking your own meals in hostel kitchens. If you prefer to eat out, look for some local tascas, which are neighborhood cafe/restaurants that sell cheap meals. You can often get some meat/fish with rice and salad for 7 – 8 Eur or so, less in rural places. Consider making lunch your main meal, as many tascas offer a prato do dia, or daily set meal that is extra cheap.
For an inexpensive breakfast, look for local pastelerias (bakery / cake shop). Just the other day I had a coffee with a small croissant and cheese toastie for 2,20 Euro. Not bad!
To further cut costs, embrace the offseason. Don’t travel in August like seemingly every family in Europe! As a backpacker, you may have a bit more flexibility when you can travel, and if this is the case don’t go in August. This is when the prices are highest and tourist spots are the most crowded.
Portugal is great all year round, though from about April to the end of October is the ideal period when the weather is concerned.
Have questions about backpacking Portugal? Don’t hesitate to drop a comment below and I’ll do my best to help!
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