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The Portuguese fishing town of Nazare is 120 kilometres north of Lisbon.Michael Doucette

It’s early December. I’m 120 kilometres north of Lisbon in the Portuguese fishing town of Nazare. It’s a long way from my concrete box in Toronto, where the culture this time of year is to complain about the dark days and cold weather. Here, the sky is clear, the sun is out, the water is calm – input every other coastal cliché here you can think of. And I’m livid.

Okay, livid might be a tad dramatic, but disappointed fits the bill. See, Nazare is home to the biggest surfable waves in the world – and they’re the reason I’m here. The best time to see these swells, which are generated by Europe’s largest underwater canyon and can reach heights of 30 metres or more, is on stormy days between October and March. But it seems someone forgot to tell Mother Nature about my reservations.

I’m not here for surfing myself: I’m just here to catch a glimpse of the high-rise-sized waves and those who dare to ride them. Big-wave surfing is a no-go for amateurs here; even pros didn’t think it was possible. That changed when the local surf community lobbied for funding to buy jet skis (the waves are too big to paddle out to), and then American Garrett McNamara came to Nazare 11 years ago and broke the world record by riding a 78-foot wave.

A giant wave in Nazare.Bruno Aleixo

Since then, not only has the record been broken several times (five of the six biggest waves ever surfed have happened here), but Nazare has experienced a surge in winter tourism – essentially non-existent before – because of folks like me who want to see it all in action.

But with that not an option, I bide my time exploring: walking along stretches of sand at both Nazare and North Beaches (it’s easy to see why this seaside town is a popular summertime destination), popping into shops that line the boardwalk and roaming every cobblestone street and alleyway that makeup both Praia, the beachside community, and Sitio, the clifftop one. (There’s a handy funicular that connects the two neighbourhoods.) I also check out the daily market as well as the lookouts of Miradouro do Suberco and Forte de Sao Miguel. The latter has a small surf museum and both have sweeping views of sand, ocean and – presumably – big waves.

A funicular connects Praia, a beachside neighbourhood, and Sitio, a clifftop one.Michael Doucette

But after three days, there are still none. Why do I care about seeing them so much? I’m not 100 per cent sure. It’s probably a combination of my East Coast partner’s love of the Atlantic and my desire to see something beyond Portugal’s greatest hits of azulejo tiles, centuries-old architecture and wine bars. But my anxiety also cares about schedules and sound financial management. And since we have more hotels and Airbnbs booked, we leave.

As the days pass, we traverse the rest of the Center of Portugal, the region located between Lisbon and Porto, the country’s largest and most visited cities. First up: Peniche. This working port town, 100 kilometres northwest of Lisbon, is known for its seafood, along with more surf and coastal hikes. Ilheu da Papoa and Cabo Carvoeiro are popular strolls, and from the latter you can spot Berlengas Natural Reserve, a protected archipelago.

We travel further inland, 110 kilometres northeast of Nazare, to Coimbra. We head straight for the University of Coimbra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; established in 1290, it is one of the oldest educational institutions in the world. Here you can check out Biblioteca Joanina, a captivating 18th-century library, and spot students wearing Harry Potter-like black capes around campus.

From there, 65 kilometres northwest, we arrive in Aveiro, located on a lagoon that is one of Europe’s last remaining untouched coastal marshlands. The city’s claim to fame includes its art nouveau architecture and barcos moliceiros – colourful boats on the canal that were traditionally used to harvest seaweed. Also, thanks to the area’s salt ponds, quality fleur de sel is available. We buy a few to bring back in our carry-on.

But even as I explore the Center of Portugal, along with Porto and the Douro Valley, I can’t stop thinking about the waves. So we head back, after some diligent forecast tracking. And while the conditions aren’t right to produce any record-breakers, they’re still the largest I’ve ever seen. And that’s okay. Because I think that’s what Nazare does: It gives you the thrill of the chase, and you leave it wanting to come back for more.

Where to stay and eat


Stay: Holidays Nazare

Three reasons to love this apartment-rental company: It’s family run, it has affordable prices (rates start at €45/night) and many units have an ocean view.

Eat: Maria do Mar

This is classic Portuguese food at its finest: fish, fish and more fish. Order the bacalhau (cod) and grilled sardines served with potatoes and olives.


Stay: Mercearia d’Alegria B&B

You can’t miss the exterior of this bed and breakfast: It’s painted bright pink. Inside, you’ll find nine cozy bedrooms. Favourite spot? The sunny outdoor patio.

Eat: Profresco Fishmarket & Restaurant

Not sure it gets any fresher than this. The restaurant, which overlooks the Atlantic, is connected to its own fish market next door. We had the lobster and prawns rice.


Stay: Hotel Quinta das Lagrimas

This hotel, located in an 18th-century palace, has a spa, fantastic restaurant and great service. But the best part? It’s surrounded by 12 acres of lush gardens.

Eat: Sete

Like many Portuguese restaurants, seafood is the star here, but they also serve plenty of meat-forward dishes such as lamb shank and suckling pig patty.


Stay: 1877 Estrela Palace

Overlooking the canals that run through the city, each of the nine rooms and suites have their own unique design. Ask for the one with the bathtub in the bedroom.

Eat: Cais do Pescado

Here you’ll find more seafood (try the garlic prawns!), an impressive dessert menu and so many bottles of wine that they’re literally covering the walls of the restaurant.

A portion of this trip was supported by the Center of Portugal Tourism Board. They did not review or approve this story.

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