One of the most picturesque seaside towns in Portugal, Nazaré is a bustling resort with a large crescent-shaped stretch of golden, sandy beach on the west coast of central Portugal.
Its inhabitants are of Phoenician origin, the legacy of which can still be seen in their features and traditions. The local fishermen often wear the black stocking caps and plaid trousers of old, while their womenfolk sometimes choose to appear in black shawls and bright embroidered aprons.
A popular holiday destination in the summer months, the town’s name derives from a statue of the Virgin brought back from the town of Nazareth in Palestine by a monk in the 4th century.
Modern-day Nazaré is the undisputed big wave capital of the world where Atlantic rollers the size of multi-storey car parks often crash in during the winter swells.
With its tight cluster of small whitewashed cottages lining long alleyways leading down to the beach, Nazaré’s ancient fishermen’s quarter conjures up images of the town’s vibrant past. Some of the fish and seafood restaurants in this part of town feature amongst the best places to eat in the whole of Portugal.
Located high on the cliff overlooking the town and beach is Sítio, a lofty place that is best reached by a funicular railway that climbs 110 metres to the top. Here a well-positioned belvedere affords head-spinning views right the way down Nazaré’s spectacular Atlantic coast.
Notable for its old-world charm, Sítio was Nazaré’s original settlement and legend has it that the Virgin Mary saved a local 12th-century horseman (a companion in arms of Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques) from falling into the waves below, a story that is commemorated in a small chapel, the Ermida da Memória, perched on top of the cliff.
Featuring two Baroque belfries and fine Dutch azulejo tiles inside, the nearby 17th-century church of Our Lady of Nazaré boasts a lovely interior and a superb location overlooking the entire sandy bay below.
Sítio is also the setting for the excellent Dr Joaquim Manso Museum which contains exhibits relating to the rich maritime heritage of Nazaré and its surrounding areas, including miniature fishing boats, traditional costumes, sculptures and paintings.
Nazaré is a natural base from which to explore Portugal’s enchanting Estremadura region, which is home to a plethora of top tourist attractions. Chief among these are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Batalha and Alcobaça, each with its own monumental church and long history to match.
Two of the most charming places to visit within easy reach of Nazaré are Leiria to the north and Caldas da Rainha to the south, the latter famous for its spa waters established by Queen Leonor in the 15th century.
For a different kind of tourist experience, head for Fátima (approximately 60 kilometres to the east of Nazaré) where three very young shepherds saw the Virgin Mary on the 13th of May 1917, on the spot where a large sanctuary now exists.
North of Nazaré, an ancient pine forest called the Pinhal de Leiria covers more than 11,000 hectares, including much of the local shoreline. Originally planted to halt erosion as well as to provide wood for the robust caravela ships during the Age of Discovery, it’s a beautiful area for walking and picnicking on a warm summer’s day.
13 km south of Nazaré, São Martinho do Porto has a fine sandy beach sheltered by a natural harbour that’s very suitable for families with young children.