Hiking along Portugal's western coast with the Rota Vicentina
If you love hiking but prefer to avoid camping, this trail is a dream come true. Read on to learn more about our 5 days of hiking along Portugal's scenic west coast.
As two people who love hiking, finding satisfactory nature in the immediate vicinity of Berlin can be a struggle for my boyfriend and I. This typically means for a true nature fix, we need to travel out of the area. Traveling somewhere and doing a multi-day trek is normal for my boyfriend, but it's still a new concept for me, in part because I've been spoiled by my time in the Pacific Northwest, where there are countless options for breathtaking, single-day hikes in the area. But, wanting to test out the experience of a multi-day tour together here in Europe, our research led us to Portugal's Rota Vicentina, specifically the Fisherman's Trail (Fischerpfad in German).
We spread the trip over 8 days at the beginning of March, with a total of five consecutive hiking days that brought us from the town of Porto Covo to Aljezur. Hiking the Rota Vicentina was easily one of the coolest experiences I've had in Europe to date. The sights were exceptional, the trails easy to navigate, and the towns along the way provided a nice variety and glimpse into small-town life in Portugal. Moreover, it doesn't seem to be overly popular, as we rarely ran into other hikers and almost always had the trail to ourselves.
What is it?
The Rota Vicentina is a network of two hiking trails along Portugal's western coast: the Fisherman's Trail and the Historical Way. The Fisherman's Trail starts in the coastal town of Porto Covo (about two hours south of Lisbon) and works its way down coast, with much of the trails walking directly alongside the ocean. As the name might imply, it is based on the trails locals would take to get to the seaside and fish. Together with the inland Historical Trail, these two trails offer the opportunity to hike all the way to Cabo de San Vicente, the southwestern-most tip of Portugal. The total length of the Rota Vicentina is 450 km.
As European trail systems go, this one is relatively new - it formally opened in 2012. Since it generally goes from town to town, it was formed in part out of a desire to spur tourism in the area, with the hopes that travelers would bring both their money and their weary feet to the towns in search of food and rest.
What did our trip look like?
As previously mentioned, spread the the trip out over 8 days at the beginning of March. We did not hike the entire length of the trail, but we did walk the portions of the trail that spent the most time on the coast, since that was what was most of interest for us. I think this was absolutely the right call, as I feel like we saw the best of what the trail has to offer, at least in terms of gorgeous nature. We spent the night in a different town each evening, almost always in a vacation apartment. Along the Fisherman's Trail, it is not permitted to camp.
For reference, is the specific breakdown of each day. For hiking days, I have included the data for how far and how long we walked each day. As a general note, the distances I post here may differ somewhat from what other sources say; my boyfriend used his phone to track our movements each day so I am reporting those numbers. Some of the differences are probably from us calculating distance from the moment we exited our lodgings in the morning to when we reached our next accommodation in the evening. Additionally, the times listed here include breaks.
Day One: Flight from Berlin to Lisbon
We caught an afternoon flight and arrived in the early evening in Lisbon. Since we knew we would be catching an early morning bus the next day, we didn't do much sightseeing - just got dinner and walked in the area close to where we were staying.
Day Two: Morning Bus from Lisbon to Porto Covo; Hike from Porto Covo to Vila Nova de Milfontes
Distance Hiked: 20km
Length of Hike: 7 hours
We took a roughly two-hour bus ride from Lisbon to Porto Covo. We started our hike around 10 a.m. I would say the first day was probably the toughest. It was one of the longest stretches, and it also had the most walking on sand of any of the days, which was particularly strenuous.
Day Three: Hike from Vila Nova de Milfontes to Almograve
Distance Hiked: 15.7km
Length of Hike: 6.5 hours
This was a much needed shorter hike after a tough first ay day on the trail. In terms of infrastructure, I think Almograve was the most limited place we stayed - there not a lot of options for food beyond mini-marts, for example.
Day Four: Hike from Almograve to Zambujeira do Mar
Distance Hiked: 23km
Length of Hike: 8 hours
In Zambujeira do Mar, we were able to watch an exquisite sunset. Overall, the town was my favorite of all the ones we stayed at, as it was located directly on the coast and had some breathtaking views.
Day Five: Hike from Zambujeira do Mar to Odeceixe
Distance Hiked: 19.5km
Length of Hike: 7.75 hours
In terms of nature, the hike between Zambujeira do Mar and Odeceixe was my favorite, simply because I thought it had the most constant stream of pretty and interesting sights. This hike was also our last one along the coast, as once we turned inland toward Odeceixe, we would stay inland for the following day.
Day Six: Hike from Odeceixe to Aljezur
Distance Hiked: 21km
Length of Hike: 6 hours
Compared to the other days, this was a very easy and also fairly dull hike. The countryside just couldn't compare the beauty along the coast.
Day Seven: Bus from Aljezur to Lagos
We wanted to do at least a little bit of proper touristing, so for our last full day, we ditched the train and took a 45-minute bus ride to the coastal port town on Lagos on Portugal's southern coast. I wouldn't say Lagos is a must-see city -- it felt a bit rough around the edges and was pretty but not exceptional -- but regardless we enjoyed exploring it, especially climbing along its rocky beaches. For a single day of sightseeing, I think it was the right call.
Day Eight: Bus from Lagos to Lisbon; Flight from Lisbon to Berlin
Since our flight back to Berlin wasn't until the evening, we took a bus back to Lisbon in the late morning and still had a few hours to sightsee before heading to the airport.
We used the Wikiloc app for wayfinding and tracking our journey and it worked extremely well. If we ever strayed off-trail, it would ping to let us know, and then ping again to let us know when we were back on. It was extremely accurate and while we rarely were unsure of our route, it was great for peace of mind.
After the first day of hiking, I ended up with a ton of blisters that stuck with me the whole trip and made the journey harder than I think it needed to be. This was really unexpected, since my hiking boots were not new and had never given me problems before. My best guess is that so much walking on sand caused my feet to slip around in my shoes more than they ordinarily would, causing blisters. After the first day, I doubled up on socks to prevent this and it seemed to help, though the damage was done. For other hikers - make sure you are wearing appropriately thick socks!
We were able to book nearly all of our lodging via AirBnB, and my guess is that as the route continues to become more popular, more and more such lodging options will pop up. It happened multiple times that the person renting us our apartment for the night did not speak English, but we always got by with good humor.
The suggested season for hiking the Rota Vicentina is September to June and I would absolutely heed this suggestion. We went in early March and each day was warm and sunny, usually 22 - 25 degrees (Celsius). It was just at the cusp of being too warm, but we usually had a cool sea breeze to balance things out. But to me, hiking later in the season when the temperatures are likely to be even warmer sounds very unpleasant.
That said, the mornings usually started cool. More importantly, EVERY apartment we stayed in was absolutely freezing at night - it seems that most of these places (especially vacation-type homes) are not well-insulated. That meant despite sweating profusely during the days in a t-shirt and light hiking pants, each night I went to bed in sweatpants, long underwear, a sweater, and fuzzy socks -- all things I almost left behind but was SO HAPPY that I had ended up bringing. For that reason, I would advise hikers to pack for all temperatures, not just for the heat of the day.
Would I recommend this trip to others?
Unequivocally. The views were beautiful and the trail was always well-marked and very easy to follow. This trail is a particularly good option for people like me who enjoy hiking but are less fond of camping and all the extra gear that implies.
However, you should definitely be in decent shape to tackle the Rota Vicentina. I think I was a bit cocky going in, because while the distances were longer than what I was used to, the elevation gain and loss was very minimal compared to what I'm used to in the Pacific Northwest. For that reason, I thought that the hikes wouldn't be very physically taxing, but I was always exhausted at the end of each day. That said, I am not extremely sporty and do not hike regularly in Germany and I still managed well enough. So you do not need to be in great shape for this, but you do need to be able to handle 6 to 8 hours of walking over somewhat uneven terrain.
Additionally, you don't have to do five straight days of hiking like we did. In fact, I wish we had thrown a rest day in there somewhere just to have a little more time to recuperate and enjoy the small towns more. But overall, it was a fabulous experience that I think all hikers and would-be hikers should check out for themselves.
If you're interested in planning your own trip along the Rota Vicentina,
Below, a few more of my favorite photos.