Check out Portugal’s most famous surf beach

shows Nazare's massive waves
A photo of a photograph on a wall in the Sitio. It shows one of the gigantic waves crashing beyond the lighthouse on Nazaré’s North Beach. An underground canyon affects the size of the waves causing massive rollers between October and March. They can often reach a height of 80 feet or about 24 meters. This phenomenon has attracted big wave surfers to Nazaré who use jet skis to ride these huge waves.

Nazaré, Portugal’s most famous surf beach got that title because of its really big waves. But until a few years ago, this small coastal city was just a fishing center.

Although Nazaré’s beaches have been popular with surfers since the 1960s, it was in 2010 that professional big wave surfer, American Garrett McNamara really put the place on the map riding a 78-foot (23.77 meter) wave. 

The massive waves are due to the presence of an underwater canyon that increases the height of the waves. The season for these really big waves is between October and March.

Other surf centers in Portugal

Nazaré may be Portugal’s most famous surf beach but the country has several other well-known surf centers. South of Nazaré Peniche, and Eiriceira both offer ample opportunities to enjoy the beaches, watch surfers and try to learn this tricky but exhilarating sport.

surfers at Peniche
Surfers trying their luck at one of the beaches around Peniche, south of Nazaré.

 

Though Nazaré is now known worldwide for its big waves, the town is much more than just colossal surf. It’s history as a fishing village is still very much on display. In fact, you can see an array of local catch drying on racks along the seafront. Old ladies dressed in black will happily sell you a fish or two from their stands near the beach cafés.

A town on two levels

The town itself is on two levels. On the lower level, a warren of narrow streets clusters beside the main town beach. And these days, it’s very much a tourist scene. Shops along the street closest to the main beach sell all kinds of Portuguese souvenirs.

If you tire of shopping, you can stop and have a coffee at any one of the many local cafés. Or if you have a hankering for Indian food, you will find a superb menu at the Little Indian restaurant down one of the side streets. It’s near to the funicular railway that takes visitors up to the upper level, O Sitio.

The funicular railway that takes you up the steep cliffside to the Sitio costs 2.90 Euros round trip.

The Sitio is mostly ranged around a large market square that’s dominated by the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazaré (Nossa Senhora da Nazaré). You’ll find plenty of stalls selling souvenirs around the square plus a variety of restaurants specializing in excellent seafood.

But it’s what is beyond the Sitio market square that really draws the crowds to Nazaré. The Praia do Norte, or North Beach is where surfers from all over the world come to ride the massive waves that occur between October and March. To one side,  you walk down toward the lighthouse that overlooks the North Beach, you can see the lower town spread out below the imposing cliffs.

If surfing really isn’t your thing, Portugal has many other beach areas worth exploring. Try the Alentejo region south of Lisbon or the Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost province.

Fun places to see in Coimbra

The elegant Patio das Escolas at the University of Coimbra.

Wander through the narrow streets of Coimbra and you will come upon all kinds of fun places to see and explore. This small city in central Portugal is city rich in history, tradition and natural beauty. Add to that, quaint cafés, restaurants, places to hear the uniquely Portuguese fado music and even a museum for sardines!

But be prepared to do some walking. Coimbra, like Lisbon and Porto, is a city of hills. It will mean lot of climbing and a lot of steps. You might opt to take a ride in one of the city’s small electric buses on the Linha Azul. It’s quite a sight to see how the little buses squeak through the narrowest of streets with just inches to spare on either side. Skilled drivers no less!

University of Coimbra

Coimbra is best known for its ancient university. This famous institution is renowned as one of the oldest continuously operating universities in the world.

Founded in Lisbon in 1290 by King Dinis, the university moved back and forth between Lisbon and Coimbra several times over the next 300 years. In 1537, during the reign of King João (John) III, the university moved into the former Alcora Palace high above Coimbra. A statue of the king – looking remarkably like his contemporary, Henry VIII of England – stands in the Paço das Escolas or University Patio. This immense plaza looks out over the Rio Mondego, the broad river that bisects the city.

The entrance to the Biblioteca Joanina, or Joanine Library.

On one side of the Paço das Escolas stands the  magnificent library, the Biblioteca Joanina or Joanine Library. Founded in 1717, it has more than 40,000 rare books. Also in the square is the São Miguel Chapel whose massive organ has more nearly 2,000 pipes!

This massive organ in the São Miguel chapel has nearly 2,000 pipes.

Tours of the university, including access to the Joanine Library cost 12.50 euros. A tour without the library is available for 7 euros.

Since the university is at the top of the hill dominating Coimbra it’s a good place to start a tour. On the hillside beside the university are the beautiful botanical gardens, the Jardim Botanica da Universidade. 

 Cathedrals, churches and monasteries

Other Coimbra attractions include the “old” and “new” cathedrals

The massive and somewhat foreboding Sé Velha (old cathedral) looks more like a military stronghold than a church. It even has narrow windows and battlements more proper to a fortress. The explanation for its martial appearance stems from its construction date during the late 12th Century. This was a time when Portugal was battling the Moors and when Coimbra was the country’s capital.

The Sé Nova (“new” cathedral) is a much more elegant structure. This beautiful building , with its curvaceous facade, started life as a Jesuit church in 1543 and officially became the cathedral a couple of hundred years later. 

Coimbra is also home to two famous monasteries, the Igreja e Mosteiro da Santa Cruz and the Mosteiro de Santa Clara Velha. 

And while exploring Coimbra’s historic places, don’t forget to visit the Machado de Castro National Museum. This architecturally superb museum houses a wide collection of jewelry, sculpture, paintings and ceramics, mostly from convents and monasteries around the diocese of Coimbra.

Parque Verde do Mondego

Coimbra has a lot of fun places to see. But at some point it’s worth taking a break from the history. That’s when it’s time to take a stroll to the Parque Verde do Mondego by the river. If you’re lucky, and the sun is shining you will see a blaze of rainbow colors in the water feature on the city side of the park. In the middle of the park you might do a double-take when you see a giant green statue of a bear. It looks as if it were made of grass but on close examination you can see it’s astroturf.

Sunlight creates rainbows in the water feature at the Parque Verde do Mondego in Coimbra.

At the end of the park, a path leads to a modern footbridge dedicated to Pedro and Inês. These 14th Century star-crossed lovers are often called the Portuguese Romeo and Juliet. Pedro, an heir to the Portuguese throne, fell in love with a lady-in-waiting, Inês de Castro. It’s a dark and tragic story of political intrigue. In short, Pedro’s enemies captured and killed Inês, leaving Pedro heartbroken.

Sardines and your birthday

Sardines are close to every Portuguese heart. So it’s no wonder there is a virtual shrine to the little fish in Coimbra. On the list of the fun places to see is the Mundo Fantastico Das Conservas Portugues. Here you will find every flavor of sardine imaginable. You can pick a can of sardines from the year of your birth. Or maybe sardines packed in a gold tin. Kind of like a fishy version of gold bricks.

Fun place to see - Sardine museum
Sardines of every flavor and even packed in gold cans.
How to get to Coimbra

By Car: Coimbra is appoximately 200 km from Lisbon. Driving from Lisbon using the A1 toll highway takes about 2 hours. 

Train: from Lisbon Santa Apolonia station to Coimbra takes between 1 hr. 40 mins. to about 2 hours. depending on which service you choose. Tickets are between about 20 euros to 35 euros depending on the service and class of ticket. All train seats are assigned. Travelers aged 65 and over can ride half price with ID. (Information at Comboios de Portugal.)

Bus: from Sete Rios bus station in Lisbon takes about 2 hours to Coimbra. Tickets cost about 13 euros. Information at Rede Expressos.)

Exploring central Portugal: Tomar

The old bridge over the Rio Nabão in Tomar, with the Templar Castle and Convento de Cristo on the hill.

Central Portugal is not as well known to international tourists as the beaches, the Algarve or Lisbon and Porto. But the region has plenty of fascinating spots to explore. Tomar, a city of around 20,000 inhabitants along the Rio Nabão is a gem for history buffs.

Templar Castle

 This charming small city has a rich and colorful past. In fact, it was once the headquarters in Portugal for the Order of the Knights Templar

Walls of the ruined Templar castle and Convento de Cristo on the hill overlooking Tomar.

The Knights Templar was a powerful military religious order during the time of the Crusades. Gualdim Pais, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, founded a castle in Tomar in 1160. The ruins of the castle and the associated Convento de Cristo still dominate the Tomar skyline. In 1983, UNESCO recognized the castle and the Convento de Cristo as a Heritage site.

A statue of city founder Gualdim Pais stands in the Praça da República in Tomar.

In October, Tomar holds a celebration of the Knights Templar. For the celebration, citizens in medieval costume and knights on horse back parade through the streets at night. It’s an awesome sight. The knights wear clothing with the distinctive red cross on a white background that symbolizes the Templar Order. 

Night time parade in Tomar, celebrating the city’s history with the Order of the Knights Templar.
Feat of engineering

Just outside Tomar is the Aqueduct of Pegões which brought water to the Convento. Built between 1593 and 1614, it is 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) long and up to 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) high.

Tomar has several other medieval and Renaissance-era churches such as Santa Maria do Olival, São Jõao Baptista and Santa Iria. Also, the best preserved medieval synagogue in Portugal is in Tomar’s historic district. It houses the small Jewish Museum Abaão Zacuto.

Lots of ways to chill in Tomar

If you want to relax, just wander through the narrow, cobblestone streets of Tomar’s historic district and enjoy a meal or a coffee at one of the numerous restaurants along the river.

Students enjoying graduation celebrations in Tomar.

Tomar is about 90 minutes northeast of Lisbon by car. If you don’t have a car, Trains to Tomar depart almost hourly from Lisbon’s Oriente station. Tomar is also conveniently located to other historic spots in Central Portugal such as Batalha, Coimbra and the Castle of Almoural.

Beja is a must see in the lower Alentejo region

The “keep” or Torre de Menagem of the 13th century Knights Templar castle in Beja, capital of the Lower Alentejo region of Portugal.

Alentejo, meaning beyond the Tejo river, is the largest of Portugal’s provinces. It stretches from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Spanish border in the east, and from southeast of Lisbon in the north, to the Algarve, the country’s southernmost province. Beja is the capital of the Baixo, or lower, Alentejo.

As with so many Portuguese towns or cities, its long and varied history from pre-historic times through Roman and Moorish eras, is visible everywhere. Most obvious is the 13th Century castle dominated by a tower, or “keep” 40 meters (131 feet) high. In normal times, you can climb to the top and view the gently rolling croplands of the Alentejo and even see Spain in the distance. On my recent visit, the top portion of the tower was closed to visitors because of Covid 19 restrictions. Apparently access to the top involves traversing a narrow stairway, not conducive to social distancing.

No matter, the friendly folk in the office in the castle square gently suggested a tuk tuk tour, which cost 10 Euro per passenger for an hour-long tour. 

Tile work images from the Gospels, (center) is an image of St. Elizabeth visiting the Virgin Mary. The images were in the Capela do Rosário which adjoined the Igreja (church) of Santa Maria.

Tuk tuks, the motorized version of rickshaws commonly seen in Thailand and India, have become commonplace in Lisbon, Porto and other Portuguese cities as a way of showing tourists the sights. Our trip took us to churches, museums and around the town with an excellent recommendation for a lunch spot, “A Pipa” at Rua da Moeda 8, in the historic district. It serves a great selection of typical Alentejana food.

Mural depicting the Galo de Barcelos, the rooster of Barcelos, which is a common symbol of Portugal. It symbolizes honesty and integrity, based on an old folk tale.

One of our stops was to the Rua do Sembrano Museological Center, where you walk over a glass floor looking down at pre-Roman ruins excavated in the 1980s and 1990s. The center also has an extensive collection of artifacts such as pottery, jewelry, tools and weapons dating back to the Iron Age.

Ermida de Santo André. A church or chapel built in the Gothic-Mudejar style. Tradition has it that it was built by order of King Dom Sancho I to commemorate the taking of Beja from the Moors in 1162.
Beja is about two hours drive southeast of Lisbon, not far from the Spanish border.

 

Exploring Portugal’s hilltop villages

A restored house in the hilltop village of Casal de São Simão near Figueira dos Vinhos, Central Portugal. The village is one of the “Aldeias de Xisto” or Schist villages.

Casal de São Simão, located in Central Portugal near the town of Figueiros dos Vinhos, is one of several “schist” villages, so called because of the type of stone used to build the houses. granites, schists and quartzites. These remote villages sit perched on the hillsides of steep narrow valleys.

Near São Simão is a well known rocky formation, the “Fragas de São Simão” (Saint Simon Crag), above a stream called the “Ribeira de Alge”.

A lookout point has recently been completed at the summit of the Fragas, across the valley from São Simão. A wooden walkway leads down the steep valley slope.

Because of its remote location, the village of São Simão was abandoned as its inhabitants left for larger towns and other means of earning a living rather than subsistence farming.

In the last 20 years São Simão has been revived through the efforts of people who bought the houses and began to restore them. In 2006 the owners of almost all houses of Casal de São Simão have created the “Associação Refúgios de Pedra” (The Stone Refuges’ Association).

Walking paths

One of the many trail markers along the path from Sao Simao.

From the village of São Simão it is possible to take a hike of several kilometers down into the valley and along the stream. Be prepared for some steep descents and ascents, but it is well worth it. The path is mostly well-marked with posts painted with blue and yellow stripes. It leads along each side of the stream. On the return portion you pass a “river beach” with rocky pools that are popular with swimmers in the summer. Visitors can sit at picnic tables and enjoy a drink from a riverside bar which has bathroom facilities.

If you are weary by the time you return to São Simão, you can enjoy a meal at the village restaurant, Varanda do Casal.

Map showing the location of São Simão, near Figueró de Vinhos in Central Portugal.