Nazaré – a charming seaside town with the biggest waves in the world

Nazaré is a picturesque seaside town with big, sandy beaches just over an hour drive north from Ericeira. Already for a long time it has been very popular among tourists in the summer, but in the recent years it has also become known worldwide for the huge waves breaking in front the lighthouse of the town.

Summer in Nazaré:

During the summertime Nazaré is a great destination for a leisure daytrip from Ericeira. You can explore the narrow old streets of Nazaré ‘Praia’ located right next to the beach, enjoy fresh seafood for lunch in one of the many restaurants on the boulevard and after that take the historical funicular train up the hill to enjoy the majestic views from Nazaré ‘Sitio’. In the afternoon lay your towel on the half-moon shaped beach and enjoy an ice-cold beer.

Praia da Nazaré is also one of the only beaches in Portugal that still retains the very colourful fishing traditions, it’s not uncommon to encounter fishmongers who still wear the traditional ‘seven skirt’. At the end of the afternoon on Saturdays during the summer months, don’t miss sitting on the seawall to watch the fascinating ‘Arte Xávega’ (Drag Nets) spectacle, in which nets with fish arrive from the sea and the women scream out their wares for sale. If you don’t understand the words, don’t worry – they use codes that often only they know.

For culture-lovers there are many places to visit, especially in the ‘Sitio’ area. At the top sits the Ermida da Memória chapel, famous for the legend from 1182 of the miracle that Our Lady made to prevent the horse of the nobleman, D. Fuas Roupinho, leaping over the cliffs when he was chasing a deer. True or not, the Suberco Belvedere viewpoint shows the imprint left in the rock by one of the horse’s hooves that foggy morning. Sítio also houses the Shrine to Our Lady of Nazaré and not far away, the Dr. Joaquim Manso Museum for more details about the history and traditions of Nazaré.

Below you can see a nice video with aerial view from Nazaré on a summer day with small waves:

Copyright Helder Afonso

Nazaré from autumn to spring:

If you happen to be around in the season from autumn to spring, there is a good chance to see some of the biggest waves in the world breaking just in front of the ‘Farrol de Nazaré’ lighthouse. It is located just below ‘Sitio’, above the main town. The winding road goes down towards the lighthouse, and already from far away you can see the giant waves approaching. The Hawaiian surfer Garrett McNamara received worldwide publicity in 2011 when he rode the biggest wave in the world at Praia do Norte. He won the Billabong XXL Global BigWave Award and entered the Guinness Book of World Records. Since then big-wave surfers from all around the world have ventured to Nazaré during the winter season to take on the mystical beast of the ocean. Nowadays there are even international big-wave competitions held every winter in Praia do Norte.

Check the surf from the light house in Nazaré

Why are the waves in Nazaré so big?

This is possible because of the Nazaré Canyon, an underwater geomorphological phenomenon that allows the swell to form to perfect giant waves. It is the largest underwater canyon in Europe, about 170 kilometres along the coast, reaching a staggering depth of 5,000 metres. 

The following elements contribute to the wave size in Nazaré:
1. The deep canyon makes waves come in with more speed.
2. Difference of depths between the continental shelf and the canyon change swell speed and direction.
3. A rapid depth reduction makes the wave stand up.
4. The wave from the canyon meets the wave from the continental shelf and pushes the wave into a peak with an increased size.
5. A water channel from shore pushes water towards the incoming waves and increases its size even more.

In general the waves at Praia do Norte in Nazaré are always around 4 times bigger than for example in Ericeira.

Even on days when the waves are not that big, the lighthouse and the views from it are well worth a visit. In the lighthouse you can visit a big-wave museum where they showcase boards of various big-wave surfers, information and graphics about the underwater canyon and much more.