Exploring Portugal’s Surprising Vacation Haven - International Living

If you’ve already heard about Nazaré on Portugal’s central coast, it’s probably because of the surfing. After all, this is where daredevil surfers from all over the planet converge between October and February to test their skills against the famous monster waves of Praia do Norte (North Beach). Here, thanks to winter winds and swells, southerly currents, a deep undersea trench, and two wave directions angling together, colossal waves can develop—some up to 100 feet high.

Fortunately, the sea is much calmer during summer when Nazaré transforms itself into one of most popular beach areas along the Silver Coast. Days are invitingly long, nights are balmy, and the area’s many attractions pull in visitors from around the globe—you’ll find all ages and nationalities here.

As you relax in a cliff-top restaurant, gazing out over the blue Atlantic, drinking Campolargo wine and tucking into freshly grilled seafood, you come to realize that Nazaré truly has something for everyone.

Families with children, outdoor adventurers, digital nomads, sun-seekers, older couples, and young party-lovers will all find joy in Nazaré. You’ll never run out of things to see or do here, despite the town’s relatively small size (less than 25,000 permanent residents).

Nazaré may not boast the huge monuments, architectural marvels, or urban buzz of other Portuguese hot spots but it does have historic charm, a sense of tradition, and a laidback feel. Keep an eye out for the fishermen’s wives wearing traditional seven-layered skirts, black headscarves, and wooden clogs. The colorful wooden fishing boats of yesteryear are still being used today, too.

Nazaré’s fishing village roots are still in evidence today. ©iStock/Rick ELMOS
Nazaré’s fishing village roots are still in evidence today. ©iStock/Rick ELMOS

About 300 feet above Nazaré’s long expanse of golden-sand beach, the residential Sitio district can be reached by funicular ($2 for a return trip) and offers energetic walks, spectacular views, and access to a cute little chapel perched on a cliff edge. The funicular was first built in 1889 but is still going strong.

If you want to eat where the locals go, try the Restaurante o Luis in Sitio—the fresh shellfish and mixed beef/seafood kebabs are heavenly. Ask about the “dish of the day” if you’re chasing maximum value for money. I had a magnificent caldeirada fish stew and a drink here for less than $20.

Portugal is Western Europe’s cheapest country, so accommodation is quite reasonable, especially if you can dodge the busier months of July and August. For longer stays, Airbnb apartments with weekly or monthly discounts are the way to go. My comfortable studio, overlooking the beach, worked out at around $34 per night in mid-April and included a washing machine, full kitchen, and free Wi-Fi.

I saved money by shopping for groceries at the excellent municipal market and cooking for myself most nights. It’s right near the train station and offers everything from fresh produce, local cheeses, olive oils, and meats to just-caught lobsters, and mussels on ice.

Here are just some of the best ways to spend your time in beautiful Nazaré…

  • Stroll and people-watch along the lively beach promenade, the Avenida de Republica.

  • Climb, drive or ride the funicular (built in 1889) up to Sitio to check out the stunning view from the Suberco lookout.

  • Take a walk along the cliff tops to reach the Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo, built in 1577; it’s a lighthouse and museum today (entry $1.10) and also serves as a handy vantage point to watch the winter surfing action.

  • Rent a kayak (or join a paddling tour) on a calm, warm day to explore the Sitio headland.

  • Hop on a local bus for the 20-minute, $13 ride to the attractive sheltered bay of São-Martinho do Porto.

  • Find a bakery, buy some chorizo-filled pao com chouriço bread rolls, custard-filled donuts (bolas de berlim), or traditional egg tarts and plop yourself down in the sand while you watch the waves roll in along the main beach.

Nazaré is only two hours by bus ($14) from Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, so getting there is quite easy. Once you arrive and the sunshine starts seeping into your bones, you may discover that laziness can be just as satisfying as any other activities you had planned…

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