Certainly one of the most popular places to visit in Portugal is the southern Algarve region, known for its beaches and coastline. Visitors mostly come to the Algarve for affordable holidays by the beach and to get a taste of coastal Portuguese life. With that popularity though comes crowds and plenty of commercialised tourism. Surprisingly, travellers can also find these things without the crowds in Nazare on the central coast.
Like many of the Algarve towns, Nazaré began as a humble fishing village. However, it hasn’t had decades of European tourists descend on it every summer. The town’s popularity has soared in recent years thank to the local surf culture, but it still clings strongly to its roots. Nazaré’s untouched character is what makes it such an appealing alternative to the Algarve.
It seems only fitting that we start with the beach at Nazare. After all, for that is what the Algarve is known. While Algarve beaches vary between wide open and secluded by cliffs, Nazare just has two wide open beaches separated by a large rocky spur. The main beach here is just a short walk from the centre of town and is fine for swimming. To the north Praia do Norte is more a surf beach, although it also has a nice wide beach.
Beyond its beaches, Nazare still has many remnants of its fishing days. Possibly the most obvious are the colourful fishing boats take pride of place on the sand by the promenade. Each has its own distinctive paint job, but all bear the name “Nazaré”. Along from the boats by the promenade, you’ll also find racks upon racks of fish drying out in the sun.
All of this fits in squarely with the local cuisine, which is naturally focussed around seafood. Throughout town there are umpteen seafood restaurants and very little else. Safe to say you’re not going to find scores and scores of international cuisine like you would on the Algarve.
Sitting roughly a third of the way from Lisbon to Porto, Nazare is quite typical of Portugal’s central coast. It still has much of its historic layout but has seen a fair bit of renovation during the 20th century. This means that the town may not be a great fit for those looking for somewhere truly historic to stay. Thankfully, places like Obidos and Leiria are just a short distance away.
Regardless, Nazaré still boasts the colourful, laid-back look of a typical Portuguese coastal town. It has the glossy tiles, often decorated with simple patterns. The buildings are painted with creamy whites and bursts of blue and yellow. Concerning landmarks, there aren’t many standout buildings in Nazaré. It’s more of a town where you can simply wander about and enjoy its mellow atmosphere.
Quite hard to miss from Nazare is the immense cliffs and hill of Sítio that overlooks the town. From the top of the hill, you’re afforded spectacular views out over Nazare’s town and beach, not to mention the coast to the north. The hilltop is accessible either by funicular or via steps, a trade-off between the queue for the funicular and the exertion of climbing up all those stairs. Either way, the views from the top are well worth it.
As I mentioned earlier, Nazare is best known nowadays for its surfing and the epic waves that roll in. The waves that come off the Atlantic reach the lighthouse point by Sítio at monstrous proportions. You may have seen footage of surfers riding 100ft high waves? Well that was likely here. Just check out this video by Red Bull.
Unfortunately, during my visit there were no such waves. Actually, the water was dead flat. It seems early spring is the wrong time of year, but exploring the point was interesting and made me all the more impressed by the videos I saw.
Beyond its views and lighthouse, the Sítio neighbourhood is pretty picturesque on its own. A large square dominates its centre, as well as the typical Portuguese church, Igreja Nossa Senhora da Nazaré. Up here you’ll also find plenty of market stalls, as well as fruit and nut vendors. Definitely one of the more scenic spots I came across in town.
Nazaré at Easter
As it happened, my visit to Nazare coincided with Easter weekend. Having no idea what to expect, it was a pleasant surprise to see people dressed up in traditional outfits throughout the city. Most of them were women, dressed in a manner that immediately reminded me of traditional clothes in Peru.
What was more fascinating to me was the game that they were playing, surrounded by decent crowds. It kind of reminded me of cricket or bowling. Essentially, several women stood about 15 metres from a crate on its side and then would throw a ball at it. I couldn’t discern any more rules than that but everyone seemed to be having a good time.
On Easter Sunday as I had coffee at a local cafe, the sound of music alerted me to a parade as it approached and proceeded directly in front of the cafe. Talk about luck! As it made its way through the narrow pedestrian streets of Nazaré, men played guitars and accordions as groups walked through in varying traditional outfits. It really turned out to be a fortunate time to visit.
Reasonably popular with domestic tourists, Nazare has a vast array of accommodation options for visitors for all price ranges. For my stay, I went with an airbnb that was quite suitable and felt truly local.
Unfortunately, Nazaré does not have a train station, so bus is your only choice for public transport. Buses run to larger neighbouring towns Leiria and Caldas da Rainha, from which you can connect elsewhere. Local bus companies include Rede Expressos and Rodo Tejo. The town is also a popular stop for those travelling by motorhomes/RVs, with car parks seemingly dedicated for them.
Would you look to visit Nazare on your next trip to Portugal? If you’ve been to both Nazaré and the Algarve, which did you prefer? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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