Forget about Hawaii, Bali and Costa Rica -- Portugal should be the next location you check off of your surfing bucket list. Many surfers, and those aspiring to become surfers, don’t have Portugal on their list of must-visit places around the world. They also don’t know that people have been riding waves off the coast of this petite European country for nearly 100 years.
However, Portugal’s surf scene didn’t truly blossom until the 1990s, and it has grown leaps and bounds since. Several of Portugal’s breaks have now been featured in surf magazines, films and even on prime-time television. After all, the country is home to the legendary 100-foot-tall wave.
But you don’t have to be a big-wave-seeking adrenaline junkie to enjoy Portugal’s picture-perfect beaches and growing surf scene. Everyone from advanced wave riders to beginners searching for the elusive feeling of the “glide,” can find what they’re seeking in Europe’s small but scenic surfing mecca.
However, you’ll appreciate your visit to this often world-class surf destination if you understand the decades it took for the sport to find its roots and take off.
The History of Surfing in Portugal
The first account of waves ridden in Portugal dates back to sometime between 1926 and 1927. Bodyboarders were filmed coasting to shore on the crashing waves off the coast of Leca da Palmeira. The black and white film, stored in the National Archive of Moving Images, shows 12 bodyboarders on flat wooden boards riding large waves into shore. The video, named “Details of Leca de Palmeira, Matosinhos and Leixoes,” is expected to be the oldest surf film in European history.
Roughly two decades later, in 1946, the first bodysurfing club of Portugal was created in Carcavelos e Parede. Surfers in Portugal continued riding boards made of cork and using them as bodyboards until the late 50s and early 60s, when surfboards were brought to the country from France. Pedro Lima, Portugal’s pioneer of surfing, started riding waves, without a wetsuit or other modern surfing luxuries, during this time.
Surfing grew slowly until the sport experienced a boom in Portugal in the early 1980s. Portugal was represented for the first time with a national surf team at the Eurosurf European surfing championships held in France in 1987. The Portuguese Surfing Federation was established in 1988.
It wasn’t until 1990, when the Buondi Pro surf competition was held in Ericeira, that Portugal gained recognition as a top-quality surf destination. Portuguese natives began rising to stardom in the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Tour. In 1996, Portugal’s Bruno “Bubas” Charneca claimed victory over four-time world champion (now 11-time world champion) Kelly Slater.
By the 2000s, Portugal had become one of the world’s great surf destinations, and in 2010, Peniche became a stop on the ASP (now the World Surf League) professional surfing tour. The otherwise mellow seaside town sees crowds of 35,000 on the sand on some competition days. World-renowned surf competitions continue to be held at beaches spanning the length of Portugal’s coastline, and the country has become known as one of the world’s best big wave surf destinations too.
Portugal’s big wave surfing scene made headlines around the world in November of 2011, when Garrett McNamara set the world record for the largest wave ever surfed by riding a 78-foot-tall giant at Nazare. The world stood in awe again, two years later, when Brazilian Carlos Burle road a Nazare wave that was expected to be 100-feet-tall.
Surfing in Portugal Today
Portugal remains one of the world’s most storied big-wave surf destinations, but many of the world’s everyday surfers don’t know that it’s one of the top places to find a variety of high quality and often uncrowded waves.
Peniche, the location now featured on the World Surf League professional surfing tour, is home to one of Portugal’s favorite waves, Supertubos. The unprotected beach break sees surfable waves nearly every day of the year, and the access to the charming, traditional town of Peniche makes becoming a beach bum there even more enjoyable.
Surf tourists and beach bums of all kinds now flock to waves like the picture-perfect tubes at Coxos north of Ericeira, and the birthplace of Portuguese surfing, Carcavelos, which is just 20 minutes from Lisbon’s city center. The country’s visually stunning Algarve region, known for it’s pristine beaches and Mediterranean climate, offers beaches and coves that produce ideal waves for surfers ranging from beginner to advanced.
Portugal’s surf scene began nearly 100 years ago, and it appears it’s will only be getting bigger and better from here. Surfers and beach lovers can find everything from surf shops and board rentals to surfer-friendly retreats and beachfront bars serving ice-cold Sagres for salty-skinned surfers fresh out of the water.