Chasing the biggest waves in the world in Nazaré, Portugal

The Portuguese fishing town of Nazaré lies 120 kilometers north of Lisbon.Michael Doucette /Handout

It’s early December. I am 120 kilometers north of Lisbon, in the Portuguese fishing village of Nazaré. It’s a far cry from my concrete box in Toronto, where the culture at this time of year is to complain about gloomy days and cold weather. Here the skies are clear, the sun is out, the water is calm – enter all the other coastal shots you can think of. And I’m livid.

Okay, livid might be a bit dramatic, but disappointed, it does the trick. You see, Nazare is home to the biggest surfable waves in the world – and that’s why I’m here. The best time to see these swells, generated by Europe’s largest underwater canyon and which can reach heights of 30 meters or more, are on stormy days between October and March. But it looks like someone forgot to tell Mother Nature my reservations.

I’m not here to surf myself: I’m just here to catch a glimpse of the big waves and those who dare to ride them. Big wave surfing is prohibited for amateurs here; even the pros didn’t think it was possible. That changed when the local surfing community lobbied for funds to buy jet skis (the waves are too big to paddle), then American Garrett McNamara came to Nazare 11 years ago and beat the world record while surfing a 78-foot wave.

A giant wave in Nazaré.handout

Since then, not only has the record been broken several times (five of the six biggest waves ever ridden have occurred here), but Nazaré has seen an increase in winter tourism – essentially non-existent before – due to people like me who want to see it all in action.

But since that’s not an option, I bide my time to explore: walking along the sandy stretches of Nazare and North beaches (it’s easy to see why this seaside town is a popular summer destination), doing pop into the shops that line the promenade and wander around every day. cobbled street and alley that make up both Praia, the beachfront community, and Sitio, the clifftop one. (There is a convenient funicular that connects the two neighborhoods.) I also visit the daily market as well as the viewpoints of Miradouro do Suberco and Forte de Sao Miguel. The latter has a small surf museum, and both offer stunning views of the sand, ocean, and – presumably – big waves.

A funicular connects Praia, a seaside district, and Sitio, on top of a cliff.Michael Doucette /Handout

But after three days, there is still none. Why do I care so much to see them? I’m not 100% sure. It’s probably a combination of my East Coast partner’s love of the Atlantic and my desire to see something beyond the greatest Portuguese hits of azulejo tiles, centuries-old architecture and wine bars. . But my anxiety is also about schedules and good financial management. And since we have more hotels and Airbnbs booked, we are leaving.

As the days go by, we cross the rest of Central Portugal, the region between Lisbon and Porto, the largest and most visited cities in the country. First up: Peniche. This active port city, 100 kilometers northwest of Lisbon, is known for its seafood, as well as surfing and coastal hiking. Ilheu da Papoa and Cabo Carvoeiro are popular walks, and from the latter you can see the Berlengas Nature Reserve, a protected archipelago.

We travel further inland, 110 kilometers northeast of Nazare, to Coimbra. We head straight to the University of Coimbra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Established in 1290, it is one of the oldest educational institutions in the world. At the captivating Biblioteca Joanina, an 18th-century library, students walk around campus wearing Harry Potter-esque black capes.

From there, 65 kilometers northwest, we come to Aveiro, located on a lagoon that is one of the last untouched coastal marshes in Europe. The city’s fame includes its Art Nouveau architecture and barcos moliceiros – colorful boats on the canal which were traditionally used to harvest seaweed. In addition, thanks to the salt ponds in the region, a quality fleur de sel is available. We buy a few to bring back in our hand luggage.

But even as I explore central Portugal, as well as Porto and the Douro Valley, I can’t help but think of the waves. So we are back on the way back, after careful monitoring of the forecasts. And although the conditions aren’t right to produce record-breaking waves, they’re still the biggest I’ve ever seen. And it doesn’t matter. Because I think that’s what Nazare does: he gives you the thrill of the hunt, and you leave him wanting to come back for more.

Where to stay and eat


Stay: Nazare Holidays

Three reasons to love this apartment rental company: it’s a family business, it offers affordable prices (rates from €45/night) and many accommodations have ocean views.

Eat: Maria do Mar

This is classic Portuguese cuisine at its best: fish, fish and more fish. Order it bacalhau (cod) and grilled sardines served with potatoes and olives.


Stay: Mercearia d’Alegria B&B

You can’t miss the exterior of this bed and breakfast: it’s painted bright pink. Inside, you will find nine cozy bedrooms. Favorite place ? The sunny outdoor patio.

Eat: Profresco fish market and restaurant

Not sure it gets cooler than that. The restaurant, which overlooks the Atlantic, is connected to its own fish market next door. We had the lobster and shrimp rice.


Stay: Hotel Quinta das Lagrimas

This hotel, located in an 18th century palace, has a spa, a fantastic restaurant and excellent service. But the best part? It is surrounded by 12 acres of lush gardens.

Eat: Sete

Like many Portuguese restaurants, seafood is the star here, but they also serve many meat dishes such as lamb shank and suckling pig galette.


Stay: 1877 Estrela Palace

Overlooking the canals that cross the city, each of the nine rooms and suites has its own unique design. Ask for the one with the tub in the bedroom.

Eat: Cais do Pescado

Here, you’ll find more seafood (try the garlic prawns!), an impressive dessert menu, and so many bottles of wine they literally cover the walls of the restaurant.

Part of this trip was funded by the Central Portugal Tourist Board. They have not reviewed or approved this story.

Keep up to date with Sightseer’s weekly newsletter. Register today.

Comments are closed.