Northern Portugal is a region of rich culture and history. The coast is peppered with old towns and cities built on fishing and ocean industries. Among historical launch sites of Portuguese exploration and trade posts we find modern beach and surf havens. The lovely coastal towns and beaches have a history and charm that can make for both an exciting and relaxing travel experience. Take a trip into this region to eat well, bask in history, and chill like the locals.
In this article we cover our Best Coastal Towns and Beaches in North Portugal including top attractions and a few off the beaten track gems.
Viana Do Castelo
Viana Do Castelo is a beautiful city located at the mouth of the Lima River. It has deep historical roots in the Portuguese discoveries of the new world and the Portuguese fishing industries. Conveniently located 75 km north of Porto, it is easily accessible by car and rail. Any trip to northern Portugal would be enriched with a visit to Viana Do Castelo.
The Sanctuary of Santa Luzia is a beautiful structure located on a hill overlooking the city of Viana Do Castelo. In order to reach the sanctuary, travelers may climb the steep hill on foot, or take a funicular. This beautiful sanctuary is much younger than it appears. Although it is inspired by both Byzantine and Gothic architectural elements, construction on the church was completed in 1943. Entrance to the church is free and access to the lookout at the top of the dome is 2 euros. The small fee is worth it to enjoy the spectacular view of Viana Do Castelo.
Like most Portuguese coastal towns, fresh local food is in abundance. Enjoy a delicious dinner of authentic Portuguese seafood at Tasquinha da Linda. Located in a former warehouse on the docks, this restaurant has access to seafood right off the boat. Although remotely located, it is worth the trip to sample some of the best seafood this town has to offer.
If you love sweets as much as the Portuguese do, check out Fabrica Do Chocolate, chocolate factory. This hotel, restaurant and chocolate museum is located in a restored chocolate factory that was operating over 100 years ago. If you have the time, make sure to try the chocolate making workshop for the full experience.
Travelling south from Viana Do Castelo is our next seaside city, Esposende. Along the oceanfront of Esposende is the protected Northern Littoral Natural Park. Here you’ll find ocean reefs, beach, dunes and a variety of fish & birds.
In the city of Esposende, take a walk through another time at Castro de São Lourenço. This ancient settlement on top of a hill has artifacts as old as 4th century BC. Walk through the cobblestone roads to take in the evolving architecture of this small village. Some of the newer structures built around 4th century AD embody Roman influence. They provide a stunning contrast to the traditional western European style of dwellings. The history buff will not want to miss this unique relic of a time passed.
For even more stunning views, hike to the Santuário da Senhora da Guia. This shrine stands at the top of a mountain approximately 150 meters above sea level. With gardens, statues, and a fountain residing before a beautiful backdrop of blue ocean, the Santuário da Senhora da Guia is a must see in Esposende.
After all this time in the hills, take a leisurely bike ride along the ocean front. The tourist office in Esposende offers free bike rental. The city has extensive paths running along the water. Take your time, smell the salt in the air, and enjoy a Portuguese sunset.
Ofir Beach is one of the gems of Esposende. This beach is known as a hot spot for activity. You can regularly find kite-surfers and surfers as well as football and beach volleyball matches. This beach offers entertainment for the whole family.
Apulia Beach is another excellent destination in Esposende. With long stretches of sand and some picturesque rock outcrops, Apulia does not disappoint. If you are looking to spend another day lounging on the beach, Apulia and it’s lovely wooden walkways is worth seeing.
Pôvoa de Varzim
Pôvoa de Varzim is a small town and former fishing village with a unique cultural identity in Northern Portugal. Due to their unique physical appearance among other Portuguese peoples, the locals long believed that they were of a separate race to the rest of Portugal. Now it is believed that the different appearance of the Povoans is due to historical interaction and marriage with other seafaring villages in northern Europe. These beliefs were reinforced by the Povoans maintaining some Ancient Norse customs of writing and farming.
The biggest attraction in Pôvoa de Varzim is the Muro de Azulejos. This mural displays a history of the people and the history of Pôvoa de Varzim. With wonderful detail and exceptional craftsmanship, the Mural of Azulejos takes one back to a simpler time when this small town was built by shipbuilders, seafarers, and fishermen.
As one of the few casinos in Northern Portugal, many travelers decide to stop in a try their luck at this Portuguese national monument. Located right across from the Muro de Azulejos, it makes an excellent night activity after a day of exploring the town or lounging on the beach.
Vila do Conde
Vila Do Conde is the next coastal city, located at the mouth of the River Ave. From the Age of Discovery until the 20th century, Vila do Conde is known for shipbuilding. Vessels from Vila Do Conde spread Portuguese influence to Asia, Africa and South America.
The Nau Quinhentist is a replica of a Vila do Conde built ship used around the 16th century for Portuguese explorers and navy. Anchored in the river Ave, this replica can be boarded and explored by tourists and locals alike to imagine life as a Portuguese explorer. Built with excellent craftsmanship and attention to detail, many of the historical navigation instruments, sails, ropes, and other details are just as they would have been centuries ago.
Covento de Santa Clara convent built in 1283 was inhabited and run by Catholic nuns. Due to irregular flooding from the Mondego river, the convent was often uninhabitable. In 1314, Queen Isabel of Portugal ordered expansion of the building with renovations designed to block off the river flooding so the nuns could return to living at the convent. Now a museum, the convent has a great hall displaying many of the archaeological finds from this part of history. The Convento de Santa Clara is a beautiful stop for any traveler passing though Vila do Conde.
Porto is the crown jewel of Northern Portuguese coast. This city on the Douro River of just under 300,000 people is dripping with rich history, stunning architecture, and unique culture.
Porto has been affectionately named the city of bridges for good reason. With many beautiful bridges to experience, we recommend walking across the top of the Dom Luis Bridge. Cars are able to cross the lower level, but the top level is reserved for pedestrians and public transportation. From the center of the bridge, most of the city of Porto, and much of the Douro River is visible. This view makes for stunning photos and great memories. It can be worth going twice to see it in the day and night.
In 2011, Lonely Planet named Livraria Lello the 3rd most beautiful bookstore in the world. But Lonely Planet isn’t the only world famous name that is partial to this bookstore. JK Rowling lived in Porto from 1991 – 1993, while she was writing the first Harry Potter book. Rowling was a frequent customer at Livraria Lello, and many fans and speculators have noticed the striking similarity between the interior of Livraria Lello and the fictional castle of Hogwarts. One particular similarity is the unique staircase of the bookstore and the moving staircases in Hogwarts castle. It is commonly believed that this bookstore provided much of the inspiration for this iconic literary creation. For any Harry Potter fan or lover of books, this bookstore is a destination that cannot be missed.
Port wine grapes are grown in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal, so why is it that this world famous wine is named after the city of Porto? This famous wine gains its name from the aging process it undergoes in the wine cellars of Porto. Any amateur sommelier or adventurous traveler must take the chance to step beneath the city and see this unique Porto wine being made. One of the many Porto Wine Caves open for tours is Caves Ferreria. Caves Ferreria was founded in 1751. The last Port wine brand that is still Portuguese owned, Caves is an excellent choice to tour the Port wine making process.
On the northern bank of the Douro river is the Ribeira district, one of the most beautiful areas of Porto’s historic district. Lined with colourful restaurants serving traditional Northern Portuguese cuisine on terraces overlooking the river, this district is a must see for any traveller. Passenger boats line up along the water’s edge to take travellers on tours up and down the Douro River for a truly unique view of the city. Grab a free table as the sun goes down and watch the light dance on the Douro as the Portuguese have for centuries.
Matosinhos Beach in Porto is one of the only beaches in Europe accessible by metro, and one of the top surf destinations in Portugal. Though this beach is teaming with Surf Schools during warmer months, there is still plenty of space for everyone. The gently slope of the ocean floor makes for one of the most consistent surf spots in Portugal. As such, Matosinhos is an excellent place to go to learn to surf. If you prefer to avoid the crowds, this surf spot works all year round but is far less crowded in the winter. A large harbor port wall provides a buffer from large swells and protection from predominant north winds. Matosinhos Beach and Porto are the perfect Surf City combination.
Miramar beach is a great way to spend an afternoon relaxing outside of the relative bustle of Porto. Miramar is located south of Porto and is accessible by train or car. This long beach with clear water is a favourite among the locals to unwind and enjoy the lovely Portuguese summers. On the north point sits the stunning Senhor Da Pedra Chapel, built in 1686.
Every Monday Espinho hosts one of the largest weekly markets in Portugal. Espinho Market is a bustling hive of activity. Go to find deals on everything from fruits, vegetables, and meats, to clothes, tools, and bedding. The shopper in any travel group could spend hours here wandering through the stalls hunting for deals.
Located next to the beach, Espinho Casino makes for an evening of fun and excitement. Boasting over 750 slot machines, as well as Texas Holdem, blackjack, and many other game tables, this casino in the small town of Espinho is not so small. Since it’s opening in 1974, Casino Espinho has been a standard in Northern Portugal gambling. Along with extensive game options, Casino Espinho has 6 bars and restaurants along with a 340 person concert hall hosting international musicians and performing artists. Casino Espinho is an excellent destination to enjoy a night out with family and friends in Northern Portugal.
Espinho Beach is the top Surf Destination in the North of Portugal. Every year in Spring Espinho hosts the WSL Espinho Pro Junior surf competition, and most years the WSL Longboard Pro. This well protected beach break has a wave for everyone from beginners to pros. When it’s working well, the best wave can get a bit crowded. But most Portuguese surfers are very friendly and localism is not a big problem.
Esmoriz is a small town located 25km south of Porto, just 8km south of Espinho. Esmoriz is a popular summer destination for Portuguese families, and is rapidly becoming a great ‘off the beaten track’ destination for surfers. If you prefer a more authentic beach holiday, Esmoriz is an excellent option.
Aveiro has been called the ‘Venice of Portugal’ thanks to a small network of canals running through much of the city. It is easy to let an afternoon pass meandering through the streets. Walk along the canals while popping in and out of the many shops and historical buildings, or take a guided tour on a Moliceiro. These colourful boats can be found at most places on the canal to show you the traditional salt warehouses and old fish market.
The beautiful Rossio area of Aveiro makes for breath-taking sunset walks. At the beginning of the 20th century, many of the Portuguese immigrants who made fortunes in Brazil returned to this Averio neighbourhood to settle down. Stroll past the lovely Art Nouveau architecture and the pristine palm trees to Casa do Major Pessoa. This former residence has been converted into the Art Nouveau Museum and is an excellent place to learn about the history that shaped this dreamy town.