Surfing in Portugal
Overview of surfing in Portugal
Although Western Europe is not always the first region to spring to mind when one imagines a bona fide surf destination, Portugal might be one of the most enticing options for a surf trip north of the equator. The food and wine are amazing (welcome to Mediterranean Europe) and downright affordable when compared to almost any other first world country. The historical and cultural experiences here are second to none; Portugal combines old world charm and cities with modern amenities.
More importantly for most surfers, the coast is wide open to any swell the Atlantic musters, leading to many more days with surf than without. The coastline is full of nooks, crannies, reefs, beaches, slabs, and points. It is a wave rich region with the swell consistency to compliment this myriad of setups leading to many, many surfable waves on most days, some published and some not.
Portugal is quickly becoming a popular surf destination and tourism is increasing rapidly. This leads to a few more people in the water, but also great amenities and surf shops along the whole coastline. You won’t need to be scrambling to find cold water wax here. If you get a chance to see Nazare break you’ll see how much the sport of surfing has taken over Portugal. Literally thousands will be lining the cliff faces to cheer on the hellmen and women taking on the beast. The Portuguese love surfing, are very proud of their rich coastline, and are happy to share the stoke as long as you bring your manners.
This guide will focus on mainland Portugal, but keen geographers will know that there are a couple island chains that are also part of the country: The Azores and Madeira. There are many quality waves on these volcanic islands, they are definitely worth the trip.
Surf Regions in Portugal
The entire coast in Portugal is surfable and there is a good variety of breaks everywhere. Therefore it is apt to list here a few regions/areas that have a dense concentration of waves and surf culture as opposed to breaking down the entire coastline.
This is one of the most well known areas in Portugal, home to a yearly World Tour competition at the infamous Supertubos. Peniche is really just an old fishing town that has become one of the hottest surf destinations, leading to massive amount of toursim. This is the place for surf schools, barrel hunters, and those looking for a good night out. The peninsula juts out pretty due West which creates a Southwest facing beachbreak and a Northwest facing beachbreak on the other side. There are a couple wedges and reef breaks in the area as well. Something is always working here, and it’s usually damn good.
Lying a very short jaunt away from Lisbon, Cascais is a popular resort town and area that offers up some beautiful beaches, cliffs, and rippable waves. The beachies are pretty good here, and there are a couple reefs/points that get very good when the swell is up. Popular in the summer with Lisbonites and vacationers, come in the winter for less crowds, cheaper prices, and better waves. The women’s world tour has held events here in the past, and like most other places in Portugal the surf amenities are countless.
This small town is now one of the most famous surfing sites in the world. A heavy, wedging beachbreak at Praia de Norte is the spot where the biggest waves in the world are ridden when big energy arrives. Smaller days also happen and the break becomes manageable for mortals. There are also a few breaks nearby that can offer more shelter from the big days. When it breaks here the cliffs and town have a festival like atmosphere, make sure to come visit.
The coastline of Ericeira is one of the few international regions officially designated as a “World Surf Reserve”. There is a huge variety of waves in a very concentrated area from world class slabs and reefs to mushy beginner beaches. Ericeira is considered the surf capital of Portugal and is just a short drive from the actual capital making it a convenient jaunt from the Lisbon airport. When the right swells fill in the coast here, most of Portugal’s pros will be in attendance, especially at Coxos.
This is the Southwestern region and it has both a West and South facing coastline. This wide swell window leads to consistent surf year round as well as almost guaranteed offshores somewhere. Like all of Portugal there is a wide range of breaks and difficulty level. You can also score some uncrowded waves if you choose to venture towards the national parks a bit North. This region is also known to have more sunny days than anywhere else in the world, not bad to work on your wetsuit tan!
Need to Know Surf Information
Seasons and Surf
Being in the Northern hemisphere, Portugal gets the biggest and most quality swells in the falls and winters. The Atlantic is usually very active, and it is rare to go more than a day or two without waves. This is the time to come for the more advanced surfer looking to score the best waves and conditions. The springs and summers are usually smaller, but there are still options for the beginners and sometimes a bigger swell can light up the warm days. The Algarve region is the exception, it receives both West/Northwest winter swells on its West-facing coastline, and summer swells on the South facing coast. Winds can be an issue in most seasons except for the fall. It is almost always harder to find the offshore spot than the spot that the swell is hitting.
Because Portugal isn’t too big, water temperatures don’t vary too much from North to South. Of course the Northern beaches will be bit colder, but only by a couple degrees. Focused on Peniche (about right in the middle of the coast) water temperatures get up to low 20’s Celsius in the summers and drop to 15 Celsius in the winter. A 4/3 will work fine at those lower temps, but some locals opt for 5/4’s when the winds pick up in winter. Summers require a 3/2 or spring suit depending on personal preference.
Easy as pie for almost any spot. Portugal has great infrastructure and roads go just about everywhere on the coast. There are some remote spots that will require a 4×4 to handle the dirt and sandy roads, but if you’re renting a care it is not a necessity. Public transportation is good in Lisbon, but you’ll really need some wheels for a serious surf trip.
Crowds can get a bit tricky here but only in the big surf centers. Think Ericeira, Peniche, and Sagres. However for the most part the coast is not crowded at all. There are plenty of empty lineups and unpublished reef breaks that will keep your itch for loneliness at bay. Be nice to the locals at these spots and they might be kind enough to bring you to another little known spot.
Portugal is not a place where you need to be worried about localism. As mentioned above the culture here is very welcoming to outsiders, especially those with good manners. This doesn’t mean that locals will give you set waves when the breaks are at their best, but generally lineup positioning is respected. Only at the best and most crowded waves (like Coxos) will there be a local vibe.
Can’t Miss Surf Spots
Found in Peniche, this is a world class beach break among the best in Europe. This spot hosts a yearly WCT event and as the name suggests serves up heavy, thumping barrels over hard packed sand. It can get pretty crowded at times, but bigger days thin the lineup. There are some good setups here off of a jetty or two as well that offer up steep, thick wedges. A word of advice: if you think a local isn’t going to make the tube, he probably will, so don’t paddle in on the shoulder!
Really named Praia de Norte, but often just referred to as the town it’s found in, this beachbreak holds the world record for the biggest waves ever surfed. In the winter it gets downright consistently over 50 foot, and tow surfing is the name of the game. If the swell is small it will still break heavy and hollow, but you’ll be able to paddle it. A cliff that juts out into the lineup offers the perfect viewing area for the throngs of people that come when the waves are big. This is a long beach with the main big wave peak at the Southern end.
Found in Ericeira, Coxos is considered one of the best waves in Europe. It is a hollow, heavy, fast righthand point/reef set up that breaks over an urchin infested rock bottom. Long barrels, performance walls, and broken boards are all common here. It breaks inside of a beautiful small bay, and the cliffs along the edge are usually filled with photographers and families on sunny days. This is one of the most crowded spots in Portugal when good. Make sure to keep a low profile if visiting.
This is a hollow, heaving slab of a wave. It sucks hard up off of a flat rock shelf often leading to multiple lips and dry reef at the bottom of the wave. The reward is an ultra deep, fast right hand barrel. This is a spot for experts only, bring some extra boards.
This isn’t the most world class spot in Portugal, but historically speaking it is the birthplace of Portuguese surfing. Long stretches of sandbars offer up quality peaks on the border of Lisbon and Cascais. Great atmosphere and towns and good waves for all abilities, this is the spot to come to with the whole family.
This isn’t just one spot, but it lies on the Southwest tip of Portugal. This means a full 270 degree swell window and waves year round. This is the epicenter of surfing in Southern Portugal and offers up good quality waves for all levels. There are some barreling reefs for the more advanced surfers and mellower beachbreaks for those learning. Somewhere is always offshore as well.
Portugal has a climate similar to all of coastal Western Europe. Summers are warm and sunny. Bring a sweatshirt or thin jacket and you’ll be just fine. Autumns get a little crisper so a couple more layers will be nice and cloud cover becomes more common. Winter is both the coldest and wettest, but sunny days can still happen. Be ready for a lot of gloomy days though, fog and clouds abound. It is best to bring a good amount of layers at this time, as it often starts of cold in the morning and warms up through the afternoon. It never really gets below 5 or so Celsius on the coastline, even at night, so you don’t need to worry about freezing temperatures. Day times in winter can range up to 20 Celisus in the middle of Portugal, but it will be warmer down South.
It should come as no shock that Portuguese is the official language of Portugal. The language is pretty similar to Spanish and Italian, speakers of those languages will find it easier to pick up Portuguese. For those who are not language inclined, most everyone, especially in tourist areas will be happy to speak English. The younger generations almost all speak English and are eager to practice. Of course it is appreciated to at least make an effort to speak the local language, and even a few phrases can make a big difference when talking to locals, see below.
Good morning: Bom dia
Good afternoon: Bom tarde
Good night: Boa noite
Please: Por favor
Thank you: Obrigado/a (Use “o” if you are male and “a” if you are female, it literally means “obliged” and you are referring to yourself)
I do not speak Portuguese: Nao falo Portugues.
May we speak in English?: Podemos falar em ingles?
Some Cultural Notes
In general Portuguese people are very welcoming, but tend to be a bit on the reserved side. Being loud in public will draw attention, try to keep a lower profile.
Family is huge in Portugal. It will trump any other relationship, even in business dealings. Don’t be surprised if your Airbmb host cancels your reservation at the last minute because their uncle came to town and needs a place to stay.
Greetings are usually just shaking hands. Friends and family will generally hug (for men) or one kiss on the cheek (for women). When in doubt a hug or handshake is best.
Respectability is important here. People dress well here and you will get better service if you dress up as opposed to down. If you are invited to a home bring a small gift. Address those who serve you at restaurants or stores as “senhor” (sir) or senhora (ma’am), it will go a long way.
Cell Coverage and Wi-Fi
All of Portugal is covered in service. It is very simple and darn affordable to get a sim card or burner phone while here. Meo and Vodafone are the big providers. Wi-Fi is also ubiquitous, it is not hard to find a cafe or restaurant with internet. It is extremely difficult to find a hotel or Airbnb accommodation without internet, and speeds are generally very good.
General Overview of Expenses
As mentioned above, Portugal is on the cheaper side of things in Europe. Cost definitely varies with season, but luckily for surfers the peak season or tourism is the worst for waves, and vice versa. Portugal uses the Euro, so all prices will be shown in that currency.
Portugal, especially in areas near the capital can be as expensive as you’d like, but it can also be very affordable if you take some steps. These might include traveling with others, eating in, and abstaining from surf camps or guides. These are all very doable and you’ll still have an amazing trip.
Rental cars are not as expensive here as they are elsewhere. As of the writing of this article you’ll be looking at around 43 Euro per day for a car that can seat up to 5 with room for boards on top. Of course you can go higher if you’d like a bigger/better/4×4, but this is the budget option.
Accommodations are not too bad either. On the lower end you can find hostels or camping options for under 25 Euro a night. Going up in price look at Airbnbs, which can be as low as 50 Euro a night. There are also luxury hotels and resorts that can be as expensive as you’d like. The sky is the limit, especially in places like Cascais. Renting for longer periods of time in the offseason can make for massive deals on apartments and bnbs, send an email to the landlord before booking and you might get a big discount.
Food is also affordable. A local “tasquinha” will cost you up to 15 Euro for a good meal with wine, around 13 without, although I recommend the wine. Cooking in will be a lot cheaper, especially if you find local markets to buy food at. There are definitely nicer restaurants as well, and the quality of food is amazing. These can cost as much as you’d like, but for a first class experience I would expect to pay at least 50 Euro outside of Lisbon, more in the city.
Gas and toll highways will also add up. Make sure to research the toll roads and calculate if it will make sense to ask your rental car company for a highway pass. It can be a bit tricky to navigate for foreigners and the fee for messing up isn’t low. Gas is usually diesel here, and will cost about 1.5 Euro a liter as of the writing of the article.
All in all you can have a decently affordable trip to Portugal without much trouble, just a little planning. If you have the funds to burn you can really live it up as well. It really has the best of both worlds.