Surf's up

Wave by wave, Portugal has cemented its reputation as the surf capital of Europe.

In November 2011, pictures of Hawaiian surfer Garrett McNamara setting the record for the largest wave ever ridden spread across the world. The feat placed the Portuguese town of Nazaré, and the iconic lighthouse standing high above Praia do Norte beach, on the global surfing map as a Mecca for gigantic waves, attracting riders from around the globe during the violent storm swells of the Atlantic year after year. But in fact, Portugal's surf scene isn't confined to this one particular spot, and over the years it has earned a reputation as one of the best surfing scenes in Europe.

Due to its privileged geographical position at the western tip of Europe, Portugal and its 943km of ragged coastline are blessed with some of the world's best swells throughout most of the year, particularly in late winter and early spring. And although the country has produced many quality athletes and hosts a number of world-class championships, the mild climate and great variety of waves make Portugal the ideal destination for all levels of surfing. 

Aside from Nazaré, a coastal town north of Lisbon whose Praia do Norte beach is considered one of the most dangerous breaks in the world, thanks to an undersea canyon just off the coast, one of the most famous surf spots is Peniche, a peninsula just south of Nazaré whose beaches have helped establish Portugal as the surf capital of Europe. However, the most iconic spot of the Portuguese “wave capital” is the famous Superturbos beach, with one of the world's best barrelling waves and dubbed by many as “the European Pipeline”. Its surfing credentials have also garnered it a spot on the ASP World Tour, with the Rip Curl Pro Portugal attracting huge crowds to see the world's best surfers competing here every year around October time.

A little further south and known for its beautiful landscape and perfect waves, the coastline of Ericeira received the international recognition it deserved when it was named Europe's first World Surfing Reserve in 2011. Encompassing around 8km of coastline, the area boasts a number of beaches that suit all levels of surfers, from beginners to professionals. With a number of surfing spots to choose from, the beach of Ribeira d'Ilhas is one of Portugal's finest venues for high-performance surfing and hosts many world-class competitions – last year, the beach received the ASP World Junior Championships, won by Portugal's own Vasco Ribeiro, the first Portuguese surfer ever to claim the title. 

Nearer to Lisbon, in Cascais, Guincho is a western beach with strong north winds that offers excellent waves, but on the days of larger swells, beginners are better suited to Praia de Carcavelos, just 24km from the capital. Offering perfect conditions for novices and relaxed surfers thanks to its south-facing position, for this reason, Carcavelos is one of the most popular beaches and gets rather crowded during the summer. In winter, it is better known for its big tubes. 

Travelling south, the region of the Alentejo is blessed with uncrowded beaches, beautiful landscapes and a laid-back atmosphere. While popular surf spots include São Torpes, Zambujeira do Mar and Odeceixe, the area all along the Vincentine Coast Natural Park abounds with unexplored beaches and undiscovered spots. 

A true surfer's paradise, however, is the southernmost region of the Algarve, more popular with tourists but teeming with excellent surf spots and facilities to match. Still on the Vincentine Coast and quickly becoming one of the best-known surf towns in the country, Arrifana has a long bay-like beach protected by tall cliffs. A consistent swell makes it ideal for surf lessons – the area boasts many surf schools and accommodation –, while the pointbreak on the right side of the beach, named “Kangaroo”, provides pumping waves and challenging conditions for more seasoned riders. Taking place every July, the Arrifana Sunset Fest has quickly become something of an institution for locals, surfers and visitors, with a variety of music acts playing into the early hours of the morning on the fishing village's waterfront. Still on the western coast of Portugal is Praia do Amado, a popular surf hangout throughout the seasons because of its easy access and strong currents. Flanked by dark cliffs, this vast stretch of sandy coastline is one of the country's top surfing spots and regularly hosts surfing and body-boarding competitions. Popular in the holiday seasons, the beach is also suited to beginners who can make use of Amado's own surf school. 

Once considered “the end of the world”, today, Sagres is the Algarve's surfing capital, a title it owes to its position at the westernmost tip of the country, comprising unspoilt beaches, high cliffs and beautiful countryside. The beaches north of Cape St Vincent bear the full force of the Atlantic and, as such, are the playground of experienced surfers, but travel around the corner and the south coast provides a variety of waves for novices and veterans alike. Excellent surfing conditions afforded by southern swells and northern winds can be found between Sagres and Lagos – the city itself is home to a huge surfing community, with countless surf schools, hostels and laidback vibes –, at beaches such as Tonel (with western-like conditions and strong currents), Zavial and Ingrina. Further along, Praia da Rocha is one of the region's most popular beaches and is fast becoming a surfing hotspot, with natural swells, modern facilities and professional instructors helping to further establish Portugal as a surfing destination of excellence all year round.