Everyone you know is probably going to Portugal, or at least talking about going to Portugal, the same way they went to Tulum, and Cartagena, and Iceland. It’s affordable, and full of exceptional wine and food, and small enough that you can drive north to south in half a day and see the sunrise and sunset from two very different vantages. Thanks to TAP Airline’s stopover program, you can now pop into Lisbon or Porto for up to five days en route to another European destination. (It’s exactly what Iceland Air did for Iceland, which is why so many people stopped there for a natural springs soak after a long weekend spent partying in Berlin.)
But the country’s real trophy is its beaches—they’re gorgeous, they’re everywhere, and they’re a huge part of the culture. The same way you ask your friends where they went out this weekend, or which movies they saw, the Portuguese jump right to “which beach did you visit this weekend?”, since each offers something special. So, the next time you’re dreaming up a beach vacation, skip Mexico and skip the Caribbean, and instead hop over to Portugal to park your wine-drunk ass in the sand. Here are some of our favorite Portuguese beaches:
If you’re staying in Lisbon, without a car
Hop on the train line to Cascais from Lisbon’s Cais Sodre station; in half an hour, you’ll be here. You will pass plenty of other beaches en route, but Carcavelos offers the best uninterrupted, expansive sands that are easily accessible by public transit. (Other options exist, but they involve bus transfers and plenty of room for error.) You know Carcavelos is good since that’s where all the Brazilian tourists go when they visit Lisbon. (A warning: You will be distracted by super hot beach bodies all day.)
This is for the surfers. Take the same train all the way to Cascais, which is a cozy little town at the end of the line. It’s considered “Portugal’s Riviera”—a somewhat silly comparison, as Portuguese people aren’t showy. This quaint town has a very pretty but very crowded beach. Check it out for a few minutes, then catch a car to Guincho. It’ll cost just a few euros, and then you can surf to your heart’s content—or take surf lessons—on this wave-laden beach.
If you’re staying in Lisbon, with a car
Drive south across the bridge one hour to Portugal’s Setúbal district, and due west to the Tróia peninsula. Here you’ll discover a stretch of beach adored by Lisboners (hehe). It’s as expansive as Carcavelos, but it feels like it belongs to the locals, since it requires light lifting (and four wheels) to get there. It’s dotted with cottages, cafés, little food shacks, and leathery Portuguese seniors who figured out long ago that this is the life. (There are also plenty of young hotties, if that’s your thing. Essentially, it’s a universal favorite, and probably where your Lisbon pals will suggest you go.)
If you hate tan lines and clogged pores and homophobia, then go south to Portugal’s Sesimbra region, and specifically to Praia do Meco. The humble beach town points you to endless sands, naturally gated by a slowly eroding seacliff. Walk down past the families and you’ll be in a safe space for nude sunbathing. At certain points, the rocks produce natural mud (look for the tiny waterfalls, or the naked people slathering green mud on their bodies like they were at the Dead Sea). Let it dry onto your skin for an all-over detox, then hop into the cold waters for a thorough rinse. This is also a popular destination for Lisbon’s gay community, thanks to the relaxed nature of the naturists—it’s free of any judgment. Meco isn’t the best beach for taking a swim—in fact, its waters are quite rugged—so don’t plan on more than a quick soak.
If you’re in Porto
Praia da Luz
Porto isn’t known for its sandy beaches. It’s fairly rocky, and the city’s residents aren’t as beach-crazy as Lisbon’s. That being said, you can still catch a bus to the Atlantic, hopping out in the fisherman district of Foz, at Praia da Luz. There’s a restaurant by the same name, perfect for slurping down some Port while you watch the sunset. Then, walk over to any of Foz’s seafood restaurants (which is to say, any restaurant) for something that was caught just hours before it hit your plate.
If you’re visiting the Algarve, or Island Hopping
I’m a big proponent of TAP’s stopover program not just because it drops you into Portugal en route to Prague or Amsterdam. It also lets you target the coolest corners of Portugal as your final destination, with a free stopover in Lisbon or Porto as a bonus. So, if you’re planning a trip specifically to Portugal’s beaches, then check flights to the Algarve, Azores, or Madeira, and tack on a few days in the city for a well-rounded sojourn.
Best of the Algarve: Meia Praia and Rocha
Portugal’s southern-most region, the Algarve, is known for its fantastic rock formations that burst through the ocean floor. Stick to the west side for the best of the pack, near Lagos. The towns along the coast here offer all-inclusive resort packages, if that’s your jam. You can surf, golf, tan, all of it, but you came here to learn about the beaches themselves: They’re big. They’re photogenic. They’re sunny. The Algarve is a safe bet for a recreational vacation, if not a little too resort-y for other tastes.
Best of the Azores: Ilhéu de Vila Franca
If you haven’t heard much chatter about the Azores (pronounced uh-ZOR-ays), you soon will. With direct flights from Oakland and New York (and from all around Europe), the archipelago—a few hours east of mainland, by air—is going to be as popular as any resort beach in Mexico. The volcanic islands offer Hawaii-style hopping, lush green fields and forests, dozens of jaw-dropping praias, and unparalleled carnivorous eating. (There are more cows than people, some say, not to mention all the damn fish in the sea.) A survey of a few locals concluded that the best beach, though, is on the islet called Ilhéu de Vila Franca, just south of the main island, São Miguel. There’s a crater with a deep-blue lake at the center, with a tiny stretch of beach that is protected from the ocean waves. It’s the perfect space to take a dip (or a dive!), soak in the sun, and question that whole “going home” thing.
Best of Madeira: Porto Santo
Madeira, a volcanic island north of Morocco, is a hiker’s heaven. The beaches on the main island, however, aren’t too inviting. They’re covered in giant rocks, and the locals set out wooden slabs just to get some sun beside the water. Don’t let that spoil your hopes of sandy beaches and blue waters. In fact, you can find waters with a dozen shades of crystal blue at Porto Santo, which is a 2-hour cruise ride from Madeira. It departs from the city of Funchal (near the airport), and for $60 takes you round trip to the tiny vacation island, where you’ll feel like you’re in the Caribbean and can see your own reflection in the sea. In my opinion, it’s the best of this whole lot.