An Honest Routes Guide to the N2

An Honest Routes Guide to the N2

Portugal’s N2 (also known as the EN2 or Estrada Nacional 2) is a 739-kilometre (453-mile) road stretching from Chaves in the north of the country, close to the Spanish border, down to Faro in the south, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Motorways, bullet trains, and internal flights have their place in the travel world, especially if you’re time-constrained, but the N2 represents something completely different — this is the connoisseur’s route. It’s a meandering, historic pathway into the heart of the Portuguese landscape and national identity, often drawing comparisons to the USA’s legendary Route 66. The N2 is one of only three roadways in the world that stretches across an entire country from top to bottom and its expansiveness truly showcases the rich diversity of what Portugal has to offer: its beautiful natural landscapes, its storied past, extraordinary cuisine, stunning architecture, and, most importantly, the generosity and warmth of its people. The N2 is a winding route perfect for the endlessly curious and those travellers who endeavour to experience countries at their most authentic, the way locals know them. So, join us for our guide to this incredible journey and if our exploration of the N2 fires your sense of wanderlust, check out our Immersive Portugal Guided Tour on the N2.

Before Setting Off on the N2

Before embarking on your journey through Portugal, you need to do a spot of planning. The first question: how many days will I spend travelling the N2? Some people opt to explore the route over as few as three or four days, but this is a little like draining a glass of fine wine in one go. Your mantra here should be, slow travel. Portugal has a plethora of destinations perfect for those visiting the country for long weekends or wishing to base themselves in a single location for their stay: the major cities of Lisbon and Porto, beach holidays in the south, etc. The N2, however, takes in no less than four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, travels through mountains, vineyards, river valleys, and a range of historical towns — this is a route to be savoured. Bearing this in mind, we recommend taking around a week to explore the N2. Anywhere from a week to 2 weeks will allow you to visit key sites and get off the beaten track to make your own discoveries; it’s the diversity of experiences along the N2 that make it so memorable. For ease of reference, our guide will break the journey into six legs.

It is a good idea to plan your itinerary around areas that you don’t want to miss, but allowing time for wider exploration. The last thing you want when exploring the N2 is to feel that you have time restrictions looming over you, preventing you from examining the places where your curiosity leads you. Finally, decide how you will make your trip: your starting and finishing points. The N2 runs directly from Chaves in the north to Faro in the south, so either end can make a good place from which to set off depending on your other travel arrangements while in Portugal. Our own authentic N2 road trip picks guests up from Lisbon, makes a journey to the mysterious Convent of Christ in Tomar, a 12th-century Templar Knights stronghold and UNESCO World Heritage Site, before going to Chaves to begin the N2, winding a route north to south.

And don’t forget to collect an N2 passport from the tourist office in either Chaves or Faro. These yellow booklets will provide you with information on the 35 municipalities the route passes through, and you can collect stamps from each place as you make your journey (normally stamps are given in the tourist office or town hall).

First Leg: Chaves – Vidago – Vila Real

The northern city of Chaves, just 12 km from the Spanish border, is the official starting point of the N2 and the natural place to begin your journey. With its name meaning ‘’keys’’, this charming, riverside city was once of great strategic importance to the Romans and remains home to the beautiful 2,000-year-old Roman Bridge of Chaves, otherwise known as Trajan’s Bridge. The town was also famous for its thermal waters and guests today can indulge in this Roman-era tradition of bathing at one of the town’s luxury spas. Travellers should take a photo in front of  the 0 km milestone that represents the place where N2 adventures normally begin. Elsewhere in the city, history buffs will enjoy the 10th-century Castle of Chaves and the 17th-century Forte de São Neutel that sits on the city’s outskirts. Meanwhile, wine lovers should be sure to make the trip to Boticas, which sits to the west of Chaves. Here you will be able to sample Vinho dos Mortos, ‘the wine of the dead’ — begun during the Peninsular Wars to stop Napoleon’s forces from plundering all the local supplies of vinho, the wine here is aged while buried underground, giving the wine a unique flavour profile.

After Chaves, you can drive a little further south to the village of Vidago if you’re still seeking rest and relaxation. This quaint town is also famous for its spa resorts and forms, along with Chaves, the ‘Thermal Route’. The town is a fine destination for those interested in health and well-being. You can drink the local mineral waters on tap at the Fonte do Povi in the old town, or visit the opulent Vidago Palace Hotel for spa treatments. After leaving Vidago you can head to the nearby city of Vila Real, voted as one of Portugal’s most liveable cities. About 30 minutes before reaching the city, stop and explore the impressive medieval ruins of Castelo de Pena de Aguiar. Once in Vila Real itself, enjoy the grand, historic architecture of buildings such as the Baroque Mateus Palace, the ornate 17th-century Capela Nova, or the Gothic Igreja de São Domingos. Vila Real is a large enough city to act as a good place to stay overnight; if you base yourself here, be sure to taste the excellent local cuisine, which is famous for its sweet dishes like Toucinho do Céu, a rich cake made with egg yolks and almonds, or Pitos de Santa Luzia, sweet pastries filled with candied fruits.

The Second Leg: Regua – Lamego

Upon leaving Vila Real, head to the village of Bisalhães, located about 5 km to the west of the city. Bisalhães is a village with UNESCO protected status on account of the distinctive black pottery that is produced here using methods stretching back to the 16th-century. The skill and unique beauty of this craftsmanship are not to be missed. Other detours in this area would be the Alvão Natural Park, where you can enjoy stunning views over the mountainous landscape and observe some magnificent wildlife, such as populations of mountain goats. Finally, those fascinated by Roman history should consider a visit to the Santuário de Panóias, an ancient Roman site where animals (and perhaps people!) were sacrificed to the gods. 

Moving further south along the N2 you will come to Peso da Régua, an excellent centre for wine and port production in the mesmerizingly scenic Douro Valley, a region with UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The wines of the Douro Valley are geographically protected and have been under some form of protection since the mid-18th-century. Those interested in wine should be sure to book some wine tastings or wine and food pairings when in Régua. Plenty of guided tours of the wineries are also available, some lasting a full day — well worth your consideration if wine, or food culture in general, is one of your passions. Between June and October, guests could take a ride on the Douro Historical Train, a steam-powered train that takes you upriver and into the hills to savour breathtaking views over the valley’s famous stepped vineyards. 

Another unmissable experience while in the Régua area is to get out onto the water for a boat trip. The waters of the Douro Valley are not only marvellous to look at, but they have played a central role in the culture of this region for thousands of years. Our own 8-day immersive tour on the N2 features an excursion on a private cruise ship in the Douro valley.

Back on the N2 route, you will reach Lamego, an enchanting medieval city famous for its evocative, narrow streets and impressive historic buildings — the Cathedral of Lamego and the city’s castle being just two of the highlights. Lamego’s location and ideal size make it a fine option for an overnight stay.

A final consideration for this stretch of the journey is an excursion to the Paiva Gorge. It’s a solid hour’s drive off the N2 each way, but the gorge is home to the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge — an exhilarating experience and the perfect spot for taking amazing photos. 

The Third Leg: Viseu – Tondela

Much like the magical city of Tomar which we visit on our own guided route of the N2, the city of Viseu is one of Portugal’s underrated gems! Anyone uncovering the best that the N2 has to offer should make a point of reserving ample time to enjoy Viseu. Set in the Dão region of the country, Viseu is a moderately sized city known for its classic Portuguese gastronomy and a diverse history involving Celts, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors. This is a marvellous place for soaking up the ancient atmosphere and admiring the beauty of the historic buildings, surrounded by authentic Portuguese life without having to jostle through the crowds you might find in the more widely known tourist centres like Porto and Lisbon. Art lovers should make time for the Grão Vasco Museum, dedicated to the work of ‘The Great Vasco’, one of Portugal’s leading Renaissance painters.

Next, we move into the town of Tondela, with the real reward here being the peaceful, restorative countryside all around you. Until around the 17th century, Tondela was an agglomeration of farmsteads rather than being a town in the truest sense. But it grew over the centuries and today we have a charming Baroque centre to explore. The town boasts a surprising range of museums and cultural sites for its size, but unless you have plenty of time, the walks out into the surrounding natural landscape should be your priority. The nearby schist range, Serra do Caramulo, offers a variety of pleasant walking trails that should suit hikers at most levels. As you explore you may come upon some of the schist villages this region is renowned for — a window into a way of life that hasn’t changed for centuries. This is the perfect territory to forget about the bustle of city life, 24-hour media, etc., and imbibe the calming power of the natural world. 

The Fourth Leg: Coimbra – Abrantes

The next town on our tour of the N2 is Coimbra, the former capital city of Portugal. This destination is a detour off the main N2 route. However, if you haven’t visited Coimbra already, then you should plan your journey so you can explore this extraordinary city. Located about an hour southwest of Tondela, Coimbra has the depth of history and buzz of Lisbon or Porto without the throngs of visitors. Delve into the city’s coffee scene and watch the world go by in stylish cafes, or get your history hat on, stepping inside medieval buildings and marvelling at wonders in the city’s fantastic museums. Our top picks would be the medieval collections of the Museu de Machado de Castro and the sprawling Sé Velha cathedral, a historical record of the city frozen in architecture. 

Back onto the main course of the N2, we recommend basing yourself in Abrantes for an evening. This lovely town is another hidden treasure in Portugal’s box of trinkets — this is the magic of the N2, it introduces you to unforgettable places other tourists miss. In Abrantes, make your first stop at the 12th-century Castelo de Abrantes, a castle set up by the Knights Templar and one that came under siege from invading Moorish warriors. Within the castle walls, you can pay a visit to a 14th-century chapel that experts believe was built on the site of an earlier Roman temple. Consult the local tourist office and explore the town’s significant buildings on foot, before an evening spent eating the best food the town has to offer in a chilled-out ambience. 

The Fifth Leg: Évora

Now in the Alentejo region, travellers must ensure they do not miss the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the town of Évora. You’ll find plenty of guides that focus exclusively on Évora as it is one of Portugal’s stand-out destinations, and it has that reputation for good reason. Right in the centre of the city stands the magnificent Évora Roman Temple, a towering Roman monument. Sometimes erroneously referred to as a temple constructed to honour the goddess Diana, the temple was, in fact, built to honour the Roman emperor, August (who himself was deified and worshipped as a god upon his death in 14 AD). The city’s architecture is also said to be the best representation of the Portuguese Renaissance, given that Lisbon’s built environment was devastated by cataclysmic earthquake in 1755. Nearby you can explore the Gothic 13th-century city cathedral whose interior transports you back in time to when the building was constructed. And for those travellers who aren’t easily unnerved, there is the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), a charnel house with bones lining the walls from floor to ceiling, often arranged creatively, giving the place a solemn, strange kind of beauty. Évora has so much to offer that it’s a natural choice for a place to stay overnight. 

The Sixth Leg: Estoi and Faro

On the final leg of our journey, which will take us to the finish in Faro, we suggest stopping at Estoi, a town well-known for its striking architecture. The town of Estoi is home to the pastel-pink Pousada Palácio Estói, an 18th-century neoclassical palace. Elsewhere, there are some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in Portugal at the Roman Ruins of Milreu. Here, archaeologists have unearthed the extraordinary ruins of a Roman bathhouse, complete with sea-themed mosaics, and a mausoleum. It’s when exploring small towns like Estoi that the magnificence of Portugal’s history really shines. Estoi is not an all-day trip but can be visited within a few hours.

Then, coming to the end of our journey, we arrive at a destination that needs a little introduction: the Algarve’s main city and a fine place to relax at the end of your long journey. In Faro, you find the history and culture of some of the other destinations we’ve passed through, but with the added bonus of beaches and the sea. If time can be reserved, we strongly recommend that visitors get out and traverse the Ria Formosa, one of Portugal’s natural wonders. The Ria Formosa is a region of salt marshes and wetlands that is home to some of the most fascinating and diverse bird populations in all of Europe. Take a guided tour with local experts and they may even be able to show you flamingoes, a species fairly common in the region. Alongside this nature watching, you will have the option to go on boat tours, hop between white sandy islands, relax on immaculate beaches, or spend sophisticated hours chatting over drinks on the marina — Faro is a slice of paradise and the ideal place to finish a once in a lifetime tour.

This brings to an end our guide to Portugal’s N2 route. We hope we’ve inspired you to begin planning your next trip. If you have any questions about this blog or our tour, please get in touch

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