Portugal’s coastal towns have officially been recognized for their ability to protect the local culture, heritage, and long-standing traditions. ITB Berlin, the world-renowned travel trade show, recognized Portugal’s west coast in terms of “Best Cities, Communities, and Culture” earlier this month and we at Culture Trip agree with their choice. Here is a breakdown of Portugal’s more lovely coastal towns, incorporating a couple located on the islands.
Cascais is a town that has been influenced by, and recognized for, its seaside location. The town’s history began as a maritime/fishing center but it later became popular among the country’s most affluent families and it even attracted international aristocrats looking for an oceanside vacation spot. Today, Cascais is a charming resort town that showcases its maritime and prosperous past and attracts visitors looking for a day or weekend from Lisbon in an environment that’s posh yet relaxing. For window shopping head to Rua Direita, or beeline to the coast if the beach is your main interest. Cascais is also home to many fantastic traditional restaurants.
One of Nazarés biggest claims to fame is its reputation for huge waves, attracting the most adventurous big wave surfers like the legendary Garret McNamara, Guinness World Record holder for the largest wave surfed (in Nazaré). This isn’t the only reason to visit though. Nazaré is and has been one of the country’s most important fishing villages. Colorful boats decorate the coast and fishermen can still be seen cleaning the day’s fresh catch. While visiting, keep an eye out for women walking through the streets in traditional outfits characterized by several layers of skirts, once meant to keep them warm while they waited on the beach for their fishermen to return from sea.
Óbidos is a beautiful town surrounded by its original medieval walls and one of the highlights is the unique city gate with an iconic azulejo mosaic inside the entrance. Known since the 13th century as the “wedding gift town” it was once presented by Portugal’s kings to their queens on their wedding days. Characterized by narrow cobblestone streets, clusters of white-washed houses decorated with colorful flowers, and the 8th-century Moorish castle that has been converted into a luxury hotel, Óbidos is a town that imprints on the memory of everyone who visits.
Sintra‘s history is reflected in each amazing manor home, palace, and exotic garden that together decorate the landscape. There is also the medieval town center intersected with narrow cobbled paths that wind between traditional cafés, restaurants, and homes. Once the home and vacation choice for Portugal’s royal families, it is now a popular tourist attraction and a charming place to live for those desiring proximity to Lisbon without actually being in the capital.
Noted for the surrounding green farmland and vineyards, and filled with historic landmarks, it’s fair to say that there isn’t a bad time to visit Torres Vedras. Those who have seen the town come alive with parties and parades in February, however, would argue that the best time is at Carnival (known as Carnaval in Portugal). Torres Vedras has been celebrating Carnaval since the 19th century but the organization of official events began in 1912.
Peniche isn’t just another Portuguese fishing town with a superb beach. The local culture holds strong, which includes the production of hand-made antique lace. Seaside Peniche was once a stronghold, used to protect central Portugal from coastal invaders, so why not try to visit as many forts as possible? An especially interesting site is the Peniche Fortification, built in the 16th century. It is now a museum that highlights a time during the 20th century when it was used as a prison for political prisoners. Then there is the 17th-century Berlengas fort, a lovely spot located on an island just off the coast. Also known simply as Berlengas, it is a nature reserve and a popular location for snorkeling.
Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Azores, located on São Miguel. Characterized by white-washed buildings bordered in dark stone (from the volcanic rocks used in the construction) and surrounded by rolling green countryside on one side and sparkling blue ocean on the other, there is no denying that it is a scenic town where you can spend an interesting day exploring. Visit the 18th century Portas da Cidade (Gates of the City) at one end of the town’s main square and then walk into the city to see more of the local heritage. Make sure to visit the 19th-century Jardim António Borges if you like gardens and the 16th-century Church of St. Sebastian showcases an excellent example of local architecture. Still one of the country’s best kept secrets, there is much to see and do in Ponta Delgada and the nearby towns, like boat tours, whale watching, hiking, soaking in natural thermal pools, kayaking, and eating fresh seafood.
Angra do Heroísmo is a lovely town where time has stood still, which is saying a lot since it is also one of the oldest settlements of the Azores. Filled with history and culture, Angra do Heroísmo is quite the vision. All around are remarkable white-washed buildings bordered in a rainbow of pastel colors from light blues to yellows and peach. Centered around the 18th-century Praça Velha square, the rest of the town branches off in winding streets that head toward incredibly lovely architectural wonders including churches and forts. An interesting fact is that the town center has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the role it played during the Age of Discoveries.
Plenty of travelers know to visit Madeira Island’s capital city Funchal, but have they heard of Santana? Just opposite the capital, facing towards the north, is this lovely town of under 8,000 people where you can find the island’s striking traditional houses called Casas Típicas de Santana. Shaped like triangles, these houses are built with stone and covered with thatched roofs. And do you like to dance? Santana is where you will find one of the island’s most popular folklore festivals, held annually in July.
Viana do Castelo is easily one of the more beautiful and Instagrammable towns in Portugal’s far north coast, located in the Minho region between Porto and Spain’s Vigo. A delightful trove of historic buildings, this is an excellent town for touring palaces, monasteries, and museums. It is also one of the best towns for buying jewelry since it is where Portugal’s gold filigree originated. One of the most notable highlights is visiting the Santuário de Santa Luzia, a Byzantine Revival church from the 20th-century that’s located at the top of a hill and offers breathtaking panoramic views over the town and of the ocean. To reach the church, take the Funicular de Santa Luzia up 160 meters and back down for €3.
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Algarve and one of the more beautiful towns in easily Lagos. The historic center and scenic seaside cliffs are two features that make this destination stand out. Walk along the 16th-century city walls and visit the 18th-century Igreja de Santo António, a beautiful church that boasts amazing gilded work in Baroque style. Lagos was also where many expeditions during the Age of Discoveries began, and you can learn more about this historical period at the local museum.