Outdoors enthusiasts will find plenty to appreciate in Portugal. With 830km of coastline, there's first-rate surfing all along the coast. Inland, rolling cork fields, granite peaks and precipitous river gorges form the backdrop for a host of other activities – from walking and birdwatching to horse riding and paragliding.
Portugal has some of Europe’s most impressive surf, with 30 to 40 major reefs and beaches. It picks up swells from the north, south and west, giving it remarkable consistency. It also has a wide variety of waves and swell sizes, making it ideal for surfers of all levels. Numerous surf schools in the Algarve and along Portugal’s western Atlantic coast offer classes and all-inclusive packages for all skill levels, from beginners to advanced.
When to Surf
The best waves in southern Portugal generally occur in winter from November to March. Further north, spring and autumn tend to be the best seasons for surfing action. Waves at these times range from 2m to 4.5m high. This is also the low season, meaning you’ll pay less for accommodation, and the beaches will be far less crowded. Even during summer, however, the coast gets good waves (1m to 1.5m on average) and, despite the crowds, it’s fairly easy to head off and find your own spots (with your own wheels, you can often be on your own stretch of beach just by driving a few minutes up the road).
Feature: World Championship Waves
In 2009 Portugal’s surf scene got a real shot in the arm when Supertubos beach near Peniche was chosen as one of 10 stops on the ASP World Tour, the most prestigious international competitive surfing event. For 12 days in October, the beach was packed with surfers from around the world showing off their best moves. The event’s organisers apparently liked what they saw – Supertubos has hosted the international contest (today known as the MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal) nearly every year since then.
Supertubos isn't the only spot in Portugal with legendary breaks. Some 60km north of Peniche, you'll find some of the world's tallest waves, thanks to a deep-water canyon connected to the shoreline. Pro Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa set the world record for the largest wave ever ridden in 2017, when he surfed a wave 24.38m (80ft) high.
The water temperature here is colder than it is in most other southern European countries, and even in summer you’ll probably want a wetsuit. Board and wetsuit hire are widely available at surf shops and surf camps; you can usually score a discount if you rent long-term – otherwise, you’ll be paying around €20 to €30 per day for a board and wetsuit, or €15 to €25 per day for the board only.
One of Portugal’s best breaks is at Ericeira, Europe's only World Surfing Reserve. It covers a stretch of some 4km of ocean, with seven world-class waves. South of there, Nazaré is also famous around the globe for hosting some of the tallest waves ever ridden (over 23m).
Other fabled surf spots include Peniche, where you can count on good waves with just about any wind. Praia do Guincho, near Cascais, sometimes hosts international championships. Another break that’s famous among the global surfing community is Carrapateira in the western Algarve. Schools and clubs head over this way from Lagos and further afield to take advantage of the crashing waves. Nearby, the area around Praia do Penedo is a good choice for beginners.
There are countless other good surf spots up and down the coast including, but by no means limited to, the following, from north to south: Viana do Castelo, Praia da Barra, Costa Nova, Figueira da Foz, Costa da Caparica, Sesimbra, Vila Nova de Milfontes and Zambujeira.
Surf Schools & Operators
There are dozens of schools that can help you improve your surfing game. Most offer weekly packages including simple accommodation (dorms, bungalows or camping), meals and transport to the beach.
In the Algarve you’ll have your pick of countless operators, many of them concentrated around Lagos, Sagres and Carrapateira.
For information on wave conditions, competitions and more, surf on over to one of these helpful sites:
www.magicseaweed.com International site with English-language surf reports for many Portuguese beaches.
www.surfingportugal.com Official site of the Portuguese Surfing Federation.
www.surftotal.com Portuguese-language site with news about the national surf scene, and webcams showing conditions at a dozen popular beaches around Portugal.
Portugal’s wonderful walking potential is all the better because so few people know about it. The fairly new Rota Vicentina offers fabulous views from multiday walks along the coast. The Algarve has some sublime hiking opportunities along the coast, particularly around Sagres, and in the hilly interior. Monchique makes an excellent base. There's also superb walking in the protected Serra do Caldeirão area north of Loulé. Northern Portugal has more mountainous terrain and several lovely, little-visited natural parks.
Feature: Best Reads Before Hitting the Trail
The following books, available online or at bookshops in Lisbon and Porto, are great planning aids for some of the country’s best hikes:
- Walking in Portugal: 40 Graded Short and Multi-day Walks Throughout the Country, (2018) by Simon Whitmarsh and Andrew Mok – The most comprehensive, up-to-date guide for walking routes across the country.
- Walking in the Algarve: 40 Coastal & Mountain Walks, (revised 2014) by Julie Statham − An excellent guide authored by a British-born Algarve resident and tour leader.
- Algarve: 5 Car Tours, 50 Long and Short Walks, (revised 2016) by Brian and Eileen Anderson − Lots of useful information for exploring the southern coast.
- Portugal Passo-a-Passo: 20 Passeios por Portugal, (2004) by Abel Melo e Sousa and Rui Cardoso − A great little guide for anyone who reads Portuguese, with full-colour pictures and maps outlining 20 hikes around the country.
- Guide to Walking Trails in the Algarve (www.iltm.com/__novadocuments/62282) Published by Turismo de Portugal, this free downloadable guide has info on dozens of walks in the south.
When to Walk
Summer temperatures can get stiflingly hot in some regions – particularly Trás-os-Montes, Beira Baixa, the Alentejo and the Algarve. To beat the heat, consider travelling in spring (April and May) or autumn (late September and October).
What to Take
Wherever you go, you’ll want a hat, strong sun protection and some type of palliative for aching feet. A compass can come in handy, as trail maintenance and signposting are often spotty. Maps (or photocopies thereof) are best obtained at local turismos (tourist offices). If you’re headed to the showery north, be sure to bring reliable rain gear.
Southern Portugal offers some lovely hiking opportunities. One of the newest routes (opened in 2013) is the Rota Vicentina, which consists of two signed long-distance trails in the Alentejo, one along the coast (120km), one inland (230km). Both offer picturesque scenery and there are opportunities to stay in guesthouses along the way.
Those interested in walking the breadth of the country should consider the Via Algarviana, a 300km route following paved and unpaved roads between Alcoutim and Sagres that takes two to three weeks. Day hikers will find the Algarve equally rewarding, in places such as Monchique and Serra do Caldeirão.
In the Beiras, the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela forms a beautiful backdrop for walking, with both day hikes and multiday itineraries. In many places you’re likely to have the trail to yourself. Especially beautiful is the Vale do Zêzere, a glacial valley at the foot of Torre, Portugal’s highest peak. A good base in this region is the mountain village of Manteigas. Also in the Beiras is the beautiful multiday GR-22 walking route, a 540km circuit of aldeias históricas (historic villages) including medieval hill towns such as Sortelha, Linhares and Monsanto.
Perhaps the country’s best walking is in the far north, where Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês offers gorgeous hikes over mountainous terrain, encompassing forests, villages, high-altitude boulder fields, archaeological sites and ancient Roman milestones. A quiet base for adventure is Campo do Gerês, while a busier touristy base (but with lots of services) is Vila do Gerês. In neighbouring Trás-os-Montes, the natural parks of Montesinho, Alvão and Douro Internacional also have some splendid trails connecting the region’s remarkably picturesque stone villages.
Closer to civilisation, there are some great day hikes in prime tourist areas, including the walk along the top of Évora’s 16th-century aqueduct and the climb from Sintra to its 9th-century Moorish castle.
Feature: Santiago de Compostela
Every year thousands of walkers from around the world hike the Camino de Santiago, the classic pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. But what if want to start in Portugal? Portuguese pilgrims have their own route to Santiago, less crowded but just as interesting for lovers of long-distance walking. Like its sister trail to the north, the Caminho Português has multiple starting points, but the best-known section originates in Porto. Information is available through www.caminhoportosantiago.com.
If you love to walk but hate to plan, why not consider an organised walking tour? The companies listed here offer both group walking tours – complete with tour leader – and self-guided tours where you walk independently, following an itinerary provided by the tour company, with prearranged meals and lodging included in the price.
About 10km north of Sagres, walking-guide author Julie Statham runs Portugal Walks, which offers week-long packages (€860 to €980), as well as self-guided walks (14 days from €870) in mainland Portugal, plus Madeira and the Azores.
Another dependable Portuguese outfitter offering guided walks throughout the country is A2Z Adventures.
Ecotourism company Sistemas de Ar Livre, in Setúbal, arranges activities including three-hour guided walks.
Three noteworthy outfitters based out of the UK also run tours. ATG Oxford (www.atg-oxford.co.uk) offers week-long guided walking holidays between Sintra and Cascais; Headwater (www.headwater.com) leads week-long walking trips as well as cycling jaunts; and Ramblers Holidays (www.ramblersholidays.co.uk) has guided seven- to 10-day walking holidays in the Minho, the Douro and the Algarve.
Many turismos and natural-park offices offer free brochures about local walks, although materials frequently go out of print due to insufficient funding. Other organisations that produce free maps of their own trails include Odiana (www.odiana.pt) in the Algarve and the Centro de Interpretação da Serra da Estrela in the town of Seia in the Serra da Estrela.
Portugal uses a system of coloured blazes to mark its trails. White and red are the colours of choice for the major multiday trails known as Grandes Rotas, while red and yellow blazes indicate Pequenas Rotas (shorter day hikes).
Other Outdoor Activities
While walking and cycling can be done at the drop of a hat, many other outdoor activities need a bit more organisation – and often specialist gear, as well as guides or instructors. Below are a few ideas to inform and inspire. If you need more details while you’re travelling in Portugal, turismos can advise about specialist local operators and adventure centres.
This isn't Switzerland – or even Spain for that matter – but believe it or not, Portugal has a downhill ski run. The country’s highest peak, 1993m-high Torre in Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela, offers basic facilities including three lifts and equipment rental. Truth be told, Torre offers more curiosity value than actual skiing excitement, and the mountain landscape is so fragile that it’s hard to recommend this as sustainable tourism. If you’re really hard-up, and want a (slightly) less environmentally damaging alternative, you can always hit the rather surreal ‘dry ski’ run at SkiParque east of Manteigas.
Climbing, Paragliding & Adrenaline Sports
In the far north, the granite peaks of Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês are a climber’s paradise. Other popular places are the schist cliffs at Nossa Senhora do Salto, east of Porto; the rugged 500m-tall granite outcropping of Cántaro Magro in the Serra da Estrela; the limestone crags of Reguengo do Fetal near Fátima; the sheer rock walls of Penedo da Amizade, just below Sintra’s Moorish castle; the dramatic quartzite ridge of Penha Garcia, near Monsanto in Beira Baixa; and Rocha da Pena in the Algarve.
Useful organisations for climbers include Clube Nacional de Montanhismo and Grupo de Montanha e Escalada de Sintra (www.gmesintra.com).
Eco-aware, Sesimbra-based Vertente Natural offers trekking, canyoning, canoeing, diving and rappelling, while Porto-based Detours offers waterfall treks and canyoning, as well as off-track tours around the Douro in 4WD vehicles.
Located outside Coimbra, Capitão Dureza is a one-stop shop for high-adrenaline activities including rafting, canyoning, abseiling (rappelling), mountain biking and trekking.
Porto-based Trilhos is another reputable outfitter, offering climbing, caving, canyoning, trekking and other adventure sports.
Along the coast, especially in the Algarve, pleasure boats predominate, offering everything from barbecue cruises to grotto tours to dolphin-spotting excursions. Inland, Portugal’s rivers, lagoons and reservoirs offer a wide variety of boating opportunities, including kayaking, sailing, rafting and canoeing. Rivers popular for boating include the Guadiana, Mondego, Zêzere, Paiva, Minho and Tâmega.
Companies that rent boats and/or operate boat trips can be found in Lagos, Mértola, Barragem do Alqueva, Tomar, Coimbra, Ponte de Lima, Rio Caldo and Amarante, just to name a few.
Portugal has many exhilarating opportunities for mountain biking (bicicleta todo terreno; BTT). Monchique and Tavira in the Algarve, Sintra and Setúbal in central Portugal and Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês in the north are all popular starting points.
Bicycle trails are also growing in popularity. Rio Lima in the north has a handful of short greenways (ranging from 8km to 13.3km) that are popular with cyclists, walkers and runners. Another rail-to-trails initiative, the 49km Ecopista do Dão (www.ecopista-portugal.com) between Viseu and Santa Comba Dão in the Beiras, opened in 2011; there are even places to rent bikes near the start in Santa Comba Dão. Down south, the ambitious Ecovia do Litoral is a 214km cycling route across the Algarve that connects Cabo de São Vicente at Portugal’s southwestern tip to Vila Real de Santo António on the Spanish border. For more information on the ecovia (walking and cycling path) and other ecovias around Portugal, the Ecovias Portugal Road Book with maps and other key info is available for purchase online at www.ecoviasportugal.wix.com/ecoviasportugal.
Meanwhile, bike paths have become fixtures of the urban landscape around Lisbon and in northern cities such as Porto, Coimbra and Guarda; popular bike trails have also cropped up in coastal venues such as the Estremadura’s Pinhal de Leiria and the Lisbon coast between Cascais and Praia do Guincho.
Feature: Penniless Pedalling
Fancy a ride without spending a cent? An increasing number of Portuguese towns have adopted free bike programmes. In places such as Cascais you tap into the extensive free bike-sharing scheme known as BiCas and take some memorable rides along the coast. Further north, Aveiro has its own free scheme, known as Loja BUGA.
If you’re looking for a good day trip or a longer cycling holiday, there are a number of excellent companies that can point you in the right direction.
In Lisbon, Portugal Bike has an excellent selection of bike tours. Trips go through the Algarve, the Minho or the Alentejo. There's also a route that follows the Camino de Santiago through northern Portugal and into Spain. Tours run six to 13 days and are available guided or self-guided.
Pedal Portugal (www.pedalportugal.com) is a well-established company offering both guided and self-guided bike tours throughout Portugal.
Based out of the USA, Easy Rider Tours (www.easyridertours.com) features several guided cycling itineraries in the Minho, Alentejo and Algarve, and along the Lisbon coast near Sintra.
From the UK, Saddle Skedaddle (www.skedaddle.co.uk) has both guided and self-guided tours lasting seven to nine days. Trips go through the eastern Beiras and the Alentejo (with a coastal and an inland route).
Portugal offers some of the best diving in Europe. The mainland is home to eight marine protected areas and has over 940km of coastline. You'll find rich sea life and countless wrecks to explore, with wide-ranging appeal for both experienced and novice divers (the 3000 hours of sunshine per year only adds to the appeal).
Water Temperature & Visibility
The water temperature is a bit crisp (around 14°C to 16°C, though it doesn’t vary much between summer and winter); most divers prefer a 5mm suit. Visibility is usually between 4m and 6m; on the best days, it can range from 15m to 20m.
Portugal’s best dive sites are concentrated in the Algarve. One of the top destinations for beginners to learn to dive is off Praia do Carvoeiro, with several operators offering PADI-accredited courses in English. PADI-accredited courses are also offered in Lagos and Sagres, among other Algarve locations.
Praia da Carvoeira is also the gateway to the Pedra da Torre, a terraced rock formation with a sandy bottom and a variety of sea life hidden among the indentations. This is a good place for spotting various fish species as well as crustaceans, nudibranch, gorgonians (soft coral), anemones and different types of algae – at times it feels like diving in an underwater forest. Owing to the minimal current, it's a fine place for night dives.
Near Praia da Luz, the Porto de Mos is a submerged rock wall that stretches up to 7m high in some places. It's often a good place to see large schools of fish, as well as pods of dolphins that come to hunt and play in the area.
Reserva Natural da Berlenga
One of Portugal's top diving destinations, the Berlenga archipelago sits just over 10km off the coast of Peniche in central Portugal. Its waters are home to one of the country's richest marine ecosystems. Here you'll find more than 60 different dive sites spread between Berlenga Grande and the nearby islets of Estelas and Farilhões-Forcados. There are canyons, holes, caves and diverse sea life – large schools of sea bream (various species) and massive sunfish, plus mackerel, conger, moray, snapper and rocky underwater walls dotted with gorgonians. It's also easy to spot dolphins and dwarf whales in June and July. The whole area (some 95 sq km of marine territory) was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by Unesco in 2011.
Less than a one-hour drive south of Lisbon, the town of Sesimbra is a gateway to some fabulous dive sites, including the wreck of a 170m-long Nigerian cargo ship, suitable for experienced divers, and plenty of rich sea life along the coast. It also has rock and cave formations. A highly recommended operator in the area is Anthia Diving Center.
If you really want to make the most of a diving holiday to Portugal, consider heading out on a liveaboard. Subnauta offers one-, two- and three-day liveaboard trips on the 18m catamaran Xu-Nauta. These sail from the Marina de Portimão in Praia da Rocha and take in coral reefs and wrecks (including a visit to the Ocean Revival Underwater Park) along the western coast of the Algarve. Trips include full board and anywhere from three dives (one-day trip) to five dives (for the two-day itinerary) to eight dives (for the three-day trip). One-two-three-day liveaboard, including dives, costs €130/260/365.
Portugal is a golf mecca, and its championship courses are famous for their rolling greens and ocean vistas. Although many courses are frequented mainly by club members and local property owners, anyone with a handicap certificate can play here. Greens fees run from €40 to over €120 per round.
Vidago Palace in Tras-os-Montes has become one of the premier golfing destinations in Portugal. Estoril has nearly a dozen spectacular courses. Golf do Estoril, one of Portugal’s best known, has hosted the Portuguese Open Championship 20 times. It’s 5262m long and set among eucalyptus, pine and mimosa trees. Two other Portuguese Open venues lie nearby: Oitavos Dunes, which rolls over windblown dunes and rocky outcrops; and Penha Longa, ranked one of Europe’s best courses, with superb views of the Serra de Sintra. See www.estorilsintragolf.net or the Estoril and Cascais turismos for full details of all courses.
Two well-regarded courses around Lisbon are Troia Golf near Setúbal and Praia d’El Rey Golf & Beach Resort near Óbidos.
The Algarve has more than 50 golf courses at last count – including the renowned Dom Pedro, which has hosted the Portugal Masters every year since 2007. For a general overview, see the complete course guide at www.algarve-golf.com.
For golfing packages around Lisbon and in the Algarve, try UK-based Your Golf Travel (www.yourgolftravel.com).
Bear in mind that golf courses’ toll on the environment can be significant, especially in dry and fragile coastal settings such as the Algarve.
Horse riding is a fantastic way to experience Portugal’s countryside. Lusitano thoroughbreds hail from Portugal, and experienced riders can take dressage lessons at the Escola de Equitação de Alcainça (www.eealcainca.pt), near Mafra, in Estremadura. Otherwise, there are dozens of horse-riding centres – especially in the Alentejo, and in the Algarve at places such as Silves, Lagos and Albufeira. Northern Portugal also offers some pleasant settings for rides, including Campo do Gerês at the edge of Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês. Rates are usually around €20 to €30 per hour.
Switzerland-based Equitour (www.equitour.com) offers eight-day riding holidays (€1200 to €2000 per person), including accommodation and some meals. Its signature tour follows the Alentejo Royal Horse Stud Trail, with stays at grand country estates. Other destinations include the Alentejo coast and the rugged terrain of northern Portugal.
The Wyoming-based outfit Equitours (www.equitours.com), America’s largest and oldest, offers a year-round classical dressage programme on Lusitano horses at the Escola de Equitação de Alcainça. Rates including accommodation plus up to three hours of riding per day start at US$220 in low season, and up to US$275 in high season. Equitours also offers several different multiday rides around the country from around US$1850 (for an eight-day trip along the Alentejo coast), including lodging and food.
Portugal provides excellent opportunities for birdwatching, with a wide variety of habitats and over 360 species that are regularly spotted. Given Portugal's long coastline, the country is also well placed for boat trips to view marine life, and you can spot dolphins, pelagic fish and even sea turtles along the coastline.
Regions & Habitats
There are myriad spots to see birds and other wildlife, especially in Atlantic coastal lagoons and the deep river canyons along the Spanish border.
Portugal’s leading ornithological society, Sociedade Portuguêsa para o Estudo de Aves, runs government-funded projects to map the distribution of Portugal’s breeding birds.
Windsurfing & Kitesurfing
Praia do Guincho, west of Sintra, and the beaches near Portimão in the Algarve are both world-championship windsurfing sites. Other prime spots include (from north to south) Viana do Castelo’s Praia do Cabedelo; Lagoa de Óbidos, a pretty lagoon that draws both sailors and windsurfers; and (closer to Lisbon) the Costa da Caparica’s Fonte da Telha. In the Algarve, Sagres attracts pros (its strong winds and fairly flat seas are ideal for free-riding), while Lagos, Albufeira and Praia da Rocha cater to all.