Colourful Fishing Towns in Portugal Beyond the Algarve

Introduction

When planning a trip to Portugal, most travelers naturally look to the sunny southern region of the Algarve first. With its golden beaches and charming coastal villages, it’s easy to see why the Algarve is a top destination. However, Portugal offers so much more beyond its popular southern coast. Up and down the country are countless other charming coastal towns just waiting to be discovered. For those seeking an authentic Portuguese fishing village experience off the beaten path, look no further than these vibrant ports located outside of the Algarve. Colourful harbors, scenic landscapes, rich seafood cuisine and abundant nautical heritage await in towns like Sesimbra, Nazaré, Peniche and Costa Nova. Read on to learn about these hidden gems and start planning your own adventure to picturesque Portuguese fishing villages beyond the overcrowded Algarve.

Sesimbra

Let’s begin our tour 35 miles south of Lisbon in the little town of Sesimbra. Though just a short drive from the Portuguese capital, Sesimbra has managed to retain its sleepy fishing village charm. Strolling along the picturesque harbor lined with brightly colored boats and swaying palm trees, it’s easy to feel a world away from the bustle of the big city. The protected sandy bay is ideal for swimming and soaking in the sunshine. On weekends, locals flock here to relax along the waterfront promenade and enjoy the village’s famously fresh seafood.

Beyond the touristy harbor area lies the historic pedestrian-only medieval quarter perched high on the hilltop above town. Wandering these narrow cobbled alleyways gives a glimpse into traditional village life. At every turn are quaint houses with overflowing flower boxes and bells tolling from the church tower above. For panoramic views over Sesimbra’s picturesque harbor and surrounding coastline, make your way up to the ruins of a 12th century castle at the summit. On clear days, you can even spot the city of Lisbon in the distance across the bay.

As dusk falls, head down to the waterfront for the lively Friday night fish market. Freshly caught shellfish, mackerel and tuna are piled high for eager locals to select their supper. Nearby seafront restaurants invite visitors to join in on the fresh seafood feast. Grilled sardines, rice dishes brimming with shellfish and rich cataplana (seafood stew) are local specialties not to be missed while taking in the laidback coastal scene. With its appealing blend of natural beauty, historic old town charm and authentic fishing village atmosphere, Sesimbra makes for the perfect low-key beach getaway outside of Portugal’s south.

Nazaré

Continuing up the coast a few hours north lies the small seaside town of Nazaré, one of Portugal’s best known beach destinations. Easily recognized by its tall colourful fishing boats docked in the river mouth, Nazaré is world famous among big wave surfers for massive winter swells that barrel in from the Atlantic. However, even for casual visitors, it offers appealing off-season charm. The humble fishing village retains an authentic feel despite tourism; sardines still come straight from the boats to restaurants’ grills each night.

A cable car carries visitors up towering seaside cliffs to the historic quarter, Sítio, up above. From here, the full beauty of Nazaré’s coastline, beaches and dramatic ocean scenery is revealed. Strolling the narrow lanes lined with pastel-coloured houses, it’s easy to get lost in another time. Several belvederes provide panoramic photo opportunities to capture the craggy cliffs plunging into foaming surf below. Down on the beach, surfers ride waves even on calm days, a testament to the power of Nazaré’s ocean pulls. Non-surfers can enjoy long peaceful walks along the broad sands or lounge watching the action from nearby cafés.

Near the cable car base stands the imposing Church of Our Lady of Nazaré, a religious landmark that draws pilgrims from Portugal and beyond. Its towering baroque facade and golden interior are beautifully ornate after decades of faithful donations from sailors who credited the Virgin Mary for their safe returns from sea. For the holiest day each year, crowds swell in late August for the annual religious procession and festivities including fireworks over the ocean. Beyond beaches and belle époque town charm, Nazaré remains deeply connected spiritually to the sea even today. Its natural drama, surf culture, and warm village welcome make it a highlight of any Portuguese coastal voyage north of Lisbon.

Peniche

Venture another hour up the coast from Nazaré to discover the historic port town of Peniche. Situated on a protected peninsula embracing two distinct sandy beaches on either side, Peniche retains a genuine fishing village feel. Unlike other destinations that have succumbed fully to mass tourism, the working docks, boats and fresh fishmongers along the waterfront keep things authentically Portuguese. However, its natural beauty, beaches and heritage sites have still made Peniche a popular domestic vacation spot for over a century.

One of Peniche’s primary claims to fame is its historic 17th century fortress guarding the mouth of the harbor. Imposing defensive walls enclose an entire neighborhood within, an intact example of Portuguese military architecture of the era. Wandering the tunnels and casemates which once held political prisoners gives fascinating insight into Portugal’s late colonial history in Africa and Asia. Beyond the citadel walls, lively Peniche remains a commercial fishing hub. Colorful trawlers still unload their daily catches, and restaurants supply only the freshest seafood prepared with pride.

Yet for many modern visitors, the calm sandy beaches and crisp ocean air are Peniche’s main appeal. Head to the scenic Cape Carvoeiro peninsula for seaside walking paths through eucalyptus groves with panoramic vistas, then relax in peaceful coves and bays along the untamed shore. Surf culture also thrives, with legendary breaks off the Cape bringing an international crowd. After a day enjoying Peniche’s nature and history, dinner in one of its many authentic seaside tasquinhas (restaurants) is the perfect way to experience the wealth of seafood the village has to offer while taking in folk music and chilled vinho verde wine.

Costa Nova

Travel another hour north along the Portuguese coast from Peniche to discover the hidden charms of Costa Nova. Less developed than neighboring destinations, this small village of colorful houses clustered around a natural harbor retains its true fishing village essence. Though rarely visited by foreign tourists, locals and domestic travelers have appreciated Costa Nova’s relaxed pace and natural beauty for generations. Today it remains an idyllic snapshot of coastal life from simpler times.

The sheltered waters are home port to a small traditional fishing fleet that has worked these waters for centuries. Fresh crabs, oysters, barnacles and fish are still landed daily to stock local restaurants’ menus. Stroll the waterfront in the late afternoon to watch the fishermen unload their catches and to sample snacks like fried baby cuttlefish and razor clams straight from bubbling faito oil. Grilled sardines are another standby on terraces overlooking the tranquil harbor. Beyond dining, Costa Nova invites peaceful wandering along sandy beaches, seaside trails amid pine groves or relaxing in hammocks strung between palms.

For insights into local heritage, make your way to the top of the Santa Maria do Castelo church for panoramic views. Nearby, the 15th century Manueline Castle offers a glimpse into the village’s strategic maritime past. Though low-key, Costa Nova charms with its scenic natural setting, colorful buildings lining the harbor, tranquility and genuine connections still intact between locals and their traditional livelihood from the surrounding waters. For authentic local flavor beyond the typical tourist routes, this picturesque fishing port is worth discovering as a refreshing change of pace on Portugal’s northern coast.

FAQs

What is the best time of year to visit these Portuguese fishing towns?

Spring (April-June) and fall (September-November) are generally considered the best times to visit with mild weather and fewer crowds. High season is July-August when Europe vacationers swell coastal resort towns, and winter brings rain and chilly Atlantic winds. However, each town also has peak times to consider – Nazaré and Peniche are most vibrant and lively in summer when surfing swells arrive, while festivals and important Christian holidays like the Assumption (August 15) draw big crowds to towns like Sesimbra and Nazaré.

How can I get around between the fishing villages?

Public transportation connections exist but are often limited between these smaller coastal towns. Train lines run from Lisbon up the coast to places like Sesimbra, but service frequency drops off beyond that. Rental cars are highly recommended to most easily explore the full region over multiple days and reach the more remote villages like Costa Nova not served directly by trains. Well-marked cycling and walking paths also connect some neighbors like Nazaré to Peniche for active travelers. Otherwise, organized day trips from Lisbon are a comfortable option.

Is it worth visiting if I don’t surf or fish?

Absolutely! While surfing culture flavors destinations like Nazaré, and all still retain deep ties to the fishing industry, these towns have much more to offer the casual visitor. Appreciating scenic coastline walks, historic architecture, authentic cuisine and a glimpse into traditional Portuguese village life are rewarding aspects of a trip that do not require an active participation in water sports. Many visitors simply enjoy relaxing beach days, soaking up the laidback vibes over seafood meals with nice views, and taking photographs of the colorful harbors and boats. There is a reason these destinations have charmed visitors for generations – beyond any single activity, their natural beauty, historic charm and genuine personalities make them very worthwhile destinations. https://retiredandtravelling.com/exploring-small-towns-in-the-algarve/

What are some authentic dishes to try in these towns?

Freshly caught seafood reigns supreme, with regional specialties varying between villages. Popular dishes to seek out include grilled sardines, clams or mackerel, fish rice dishes overflowing with shellfish, and rich seafood stews like cataplana and ameijoas à bulhão pato. Braised octopus and squid stewed in its own ink also frequently appear on menus. For snacks, look for marinated baby octopus, crustaceans like crabs and shrimp served with alho (garlic) flavors, and deep-fried baby cuttlefish. Rice desserts, regional sweets like queijadas and almond cakes, and local vinho verde white wines round out authentic meal experiences in these fishing town restaurants.

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