Portugal’s 10 stunning seaside secrets

A flamingo paddles in the water near Praia do Barril

From the soft white sandy islands of the eastern Algarve to the quiet rocky coves north of Porto, Portugal is home to some of Europe’s finest beaches – but with so many great coastal stretches, how do you choose the very best? 

Simon Heptinstall drove Portugal’s entire 600-mile coastline to find the top ten secret seaside spots and discovered the delights of the wonderful Pousadas de Portugal – luxury, traditional or historic hotels – along the way.

EASTERN ALGARVE

Algarve beaches were voted Europe’s best at the 2019 World Travel Awards. Escape the crowds on the Eastern Algarve’s dreamy long stretches of soft sand and dunes. Adventure-seekers can find Caribbean-style beachy islands, while less energetic sun-lovers can relax in popular resorts such as Monte Gordo and Vilamoura.

1. Praia do Barril, near Tavira

The short walk from town keeps crowds away. Take a floating wooden bridge to cross a lagoon where flamingos wade. The path leads into what feels like another world: a six-mile-long uninhabited sandy island.

Dunes and no roads make this a relaxed holiday hideaway. Restless sun-bathers can investigate a quirky fishing museum – you’ll find a great seafood cafe inside. It’s a chance to learn about the demise of the Algarve’s tuna industry… while eating fresh tuna. Photographers will love the arty arrangement of 100 big rusty anchors covering dunes as a vast memorial to the Algarve’s ‘lost’ tuna fishing fleet.

2. Praia de Faro, Faro

It’s hard to believe, but one of Portugal’s best beaches is right next to one of its busiest airports. Beyond Faro airport’s runway, simply cross the long wooden bridge to this long, bohemian island in a national park. Beach-lovers can step from their flight and discover a three-mile beach. It’s a local favourite but unknown among international tourists, who drive away from the airport for hours to busier resorts.

Best of all, Faro Island offers two beaches: soft, hot, white sands facing the Atlantic’s frothing waves and sheltered sandbanks along the inland lagoon. So children can dig for shellfish and catch crabs in buckets on one side, while parents do their grown-up job of undisturbed sunbathing on the other.

Explorers can take wooden boardwalks through waterside shanty cabins along the edge of the lagoon. Take your phone to capture creative gardens of driftwood and cactuses. Faro Island is full of Portuguese eateries. Try cataplana fish stew at Wax beachside cafe (waxhostel.com/restaurant/).

Check in: Pousada Tavira

Find a tranquil retreat from beach life in this medieval cloistered convent on a church square in the heart of Tavira. Double B&B from £102 (pousadasofportugal.com/pousadas/tavira/).

WESTERN ALGARVE

At Albandeira near Porches you can follow a tunnel through the cliffs to find a hidden cove. This giant rock arch is another attraction

At Albandeira near Porches you can follow a tunnel through the cliffs to find a hidden cove. This giant rock arch is another attraction 

From Albufeira westwards, the beaches are such a spectacular mix of pretty coves and wild rock formations that most visitors take boat trips just to look at the coastline from the water.

The further west you go, the wilder the coast and less crowded the resorts, but there are so many beaches that you can choose a different one every day. Try main resorts such as Albufeira, Portimao and Lagos for shops, bars and nightlife – but crowd-avoiders can find scores of little-known spots, too.

3. Albandeira, near Porches

Excitement mounts as you wind down narrow country lanes through cacti and fig trees to discover these small golden-sand coves wedged between orange cliffs and rock arches. Even better, you can then follow a tunnel through the cliffs to find another hidden cove. Your lasting memory will be of swimming from one beach to another through a giant rock arch.

It seems such a remote spot, until it’s time to eat and you stroll into trees above the beach to discover former Portugal soccer star Luis Figo’s classy Morgadinho restaurant (suitesalbaresort.com/morgadinho-restaurant).

4. Praia da Mareta, near Sagres

While at Praia da Mareta, visit Europe's south-west corner to see Cape St Vincent, Portugal's equivalent of Land's End

While at Praia da Mareta, visit Europe’s south-west corner to see Cape St Vincent, Portugal’s equivalent of Land’s End

Visit Europe’s south-west corner to see Cape St Vincent, Portugal’s equivalent of Land’s End. After visiting the powerful lighthouse, ‘end of the world’ souvenir stalls and Henry the Navigator’s 600-year-old clifftop castle, you’ll feel like flopping on a beach.

Fortunately, little-visited beautiful yellow sands are just below the headland. They are sheltered from Atlantic winds by massive rampart-like cliffs. Spot storks nesting on rocky ledges and take a meal break at Tasca seafood restaurant on nearby Sagres’s fishing harbour (restauranteatasca.pt/).

Check in: Pousada Sagres

Stare into the Atlantic sunset at this stylish hotel which mixes traditional with modern touches. Bedrooms offer views of Mareta beach, Sagres Castle and Cape St Vincent. Pull curtains tight or the lighthouse will keep you awake. Double B&B from £89 (pousadas.pt/en/hotel/pousada-sagres).

SOUTH OF LISBON

Carvalhal in Alentejo is an empty sandy cove framed by gentle cliffs with no houses or hotels

Carvalhal in Alentejo is an empty sandy cove framed by gentle cliffs with no houses or hotels

Little-known by British visitors, this rugged, undeveloped west-facing Atlantic coastline includes national parks full of lakes, inlets and marshes, seashores backed by rice paddy fields and one of Europe’s longest sandy beaches stretching 30 miles. With so many choices, it’s easy to find all the space and seclusion you need.

5. Carvalhal, Alentejo

Drive into a quiet green valley, brushing against swaying wildflowers, and you’ll find this empty sandy cove framed by gentle cliffs. With no houses or hotels, it seems as if you have just the lifeguard and beach bar for company. Cool off in the nearest village, Brejao, and enjoy a meal of octopus cooked over coals with locals at Cafe Central.

6. Praia Comporta, Troia

At the end of an unpaved sandy track, you’ll find this part of a never-ending sandy beach. You might not realise it has become a Portuguese celebrity hang-out. So you can mingle with stars you’ve never heard of at stylish beach cafes or find your own space – there are miles of white sands to choose from.

Beachcombers will scoop up big, colourful shells, nature-lovers spot dolphins from the shore and foodies will devour gourmet specialities like monkfish risotto sitting at the beachside tables of Ilha do Arroz restaurant.

Check in: Pousada Castelo Alcacer do Sal

Stay in this cool minimalist conversion of an ancient hilltop castle, perched on cliffs above a whitewashed riverside town. Double B&B from £89 (pousadas.pt/en/hotel/pousada-alcacer).

NORTH OF LISBON

Praia da Tocha, near Coimbra, is described as an 'enormous, white-sand beach amid dunes and pine trees, backed by small wooden fishermen's houses'

Praia da Tocha, near Coimbra, is described as an ‘enormous, white-sand beach amid dunes and pine trees, backed by small wooden fishermen’s houses’

Beaches near Lisbon are understandably busy, so head just 50 miles further north for quieter local resorts and long, unspoilt sandy beaches which never get overcrowded.

7. Praia do Baleal, near Peniche

Escape to a tiny former whaling village on its own rocky island across a narrow causeway. Surfers can choose from a huge sandy bay on one side; paddlers can pick the shallow beach sheltered by rocks on the other. Active beach-goers can find watersport lessons and kit hire in nearby villages, while walkers can explore paths through mountainous dunes. At lunchtime, Mundano, a tiny restaurant on a cobbled alleyway on the island, offers the sort of innovative food you’d expect in a big city restaurant.

8. Praia da Tocha, near Coimbra

Another enormous, white-sand beach amid dunes and pine trees, backed by small wooden fishermen’s houses. Don’t miss the charming little ‘beach library’ on stilts right on the beach, offering free books and magazines for sunbathers. This place is a big hit with locals, so no wonder the food is sensational, especially the grilled sardines. First visit the seafront museum about local sardine fishing, then sample the real thing on the beachside terrace of Avenida Restaurant.

Check in: Pousada Ria

This quiet modern hotel overhangs the shore of a lagoon on a sandy spit next to the sea in a tranquil nature reserve. Double B&B from £68 (pousadas.pt/en/hotel/pousada-ria).

NORTHERN PORTUGAL

A view of the 400-year-old Lord of the Rock church built on boulders jutting into the waves at the centre of Miramar Beach, near Porto

A view of the 400-year-old Lord of the Rock church built on boulders jutting into the waves at the centre of Miramar Beach, near Porto

Most British beach-lovers head for the Algarve; few consider northern Portugal, even though the beach resorts here are closer to the Equator than the Costa Brava, the French Riviera and the Adriatic. It’s easy to find flights to Porto and accommodation is cheaper than further south.

9. Miramar Beach, near Porto

Right beside the smart suburban streets in Porto’s Arcozelo district, you’ll find spectacular sandbanks, roaring waves, rocks and pools plus a unique sight: the 400-year-old Lord of the Rock church built on boulders jutting into the waves at the centre of the beach. Then eat delicacies such as salmon with passion fruit at the beachside Areal Praia cafe.

10. Praia de Paco, near Viana do Castelo

Portugal’s last few beaches before the Spanish border are secluded sandy coves between rocks backed by woods and ancient stone windmills. Paco is the best: a sheltered Blue Flag beach dotted with granite boulders and 16th Century castle ruins. Later, treat yourself to grilled prawns on the period terrace of Pousada Viana do Castelo enjoying sunset over a view often described as the world’s best.

Check in: Pousada Viana do Castelo

It feels special to stay in this elegant converted hilltop mansion with sensational views. Double B&B from £81 (pousadas.pt/en/hotel/pousada-viana). 

For more information about Portuguese beach holidays, go to visitportugal.com. At Portugal’s chain of 34 historic ‘pousada’ hotels (pousadasofportugal.com), two children under 12 can stay free when sharing a room with parents.


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