Portugal lies in the far south west corner of Europe. It’s roughly rectangular in shape – bordered by the Atlantic on its southern and western sides and Spain on the north and east.
Area, population and main towns
Portugal covers just over 92,000 square kilometres (nearly 36,00 square miles). This makes it slightly over two-thirds the size of England and about the same size as the US state of Indiana (or Maine if you include lakes etc).
It has a population of around 10.5 million – giving a population density of 115 people per square kilometre. This is roughly midway between the figures for Pennsylvania and Florida — but almost a quarter of England’s figure of 407 people per square kilometre.
Around 2.8 million people live in the Lisbon area and 1.7 million in the Porto area. Other large cities include Braga, Aveiro, Faro and Coimbra.
With the exception of Faro and the southern coast of the Algarve, all Portugal’s main urban centres in the northern half of the country and close to the coast.
Add the population of these areas together and they account for roughly 63% of the country’s population — which will give you an idea how sparse the population is in the rest of Portugal.
But despite the lack of people, the eastern and southern areas of Portugal are awash with history – from ancient stone circles to Moorish castles and mediaeval palaces.
Many towns have centres still largely unspoilt by modern development and supposedly ‘main’ roads are as quiet as country lanes back home. All of which makes for some great cycling experiences!
Portugal is not flat. Most of the country is quite rugged – particularly north of the river Tejo (or Tagus), which roughly divides the country in two.
Although there are coastal plains in the north, the landscape soon rises into hills divided by deep river valleys and higher mountain plateaus. The highest point of mainland Portugal is the Serra Estrela, which rises to nearly 2,000m (6,500ft) and is regularly snow-capped throughout the winter.
The southern half of Portugal is comprised of two regions. The Alentejo is mostly a rolling agricultural landscape, while the Algarve is a mixture of coastal tourist development, with more traditional towns inland.
Several ranges of hills – some quite rugged – lie between the two regions, rising in places to around 900m (3,000ft).
Most of Portugal has a Mediterranean climate and it’s one of the warmest European countries. Summer temperatures in the south can be above 40C for long periods, often topping 45C (113F).
However, it’s also got a long Atlantic coast and high mountains that have an effect on its climate.
In winter, the north east can be bitterly cold, with snow any time between October and May in mountain areas, while Atlantic weather often brings rain to the coast, particularly in the north.
By contrast, the Algarve is much more pleasant in the winter. The climate is similar to southern California and — for cycling ‑ the winter is a much better bet than the summer.
See When To Go & Weather for more information.
For information about cycling in different areas of Portugal, please take a look at the information on the different regions listed under the appropriate page within the Day Rides section.
Please note: as of February 2014, I’m in the process of expanding and updating these pages – including adding some rides for the Algarve!