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An Adventurer's Guide to Traveling Portugal

For adrenaline junkies and outdoor sports lovers, here's how to adventurously explore more of Portugal.

 

An Adventurer's Guide to Traveling Portugal

When most people think of visiting Portugal, some of the first things that come to mind are likely this southern European country's renowned gastronomy, culture and beautiful cities. Dreamy images of eating pasteis de nata while walking past colorful buildings in Lisbon or sipping port wine overlooking the rolling hills of the Douro Valley evoke a mental picture of a leisurely, laidback country, full of cultural immersion, delicious food and drink and lovely vistas.

But what you may not know is that Portugal is an amazing destination for adventure travel. Its diverse landscapes are good for far more than a pretty view; those mountains, coastlines and beaches are calling to be explored and discovered on active outdoor adventures.

From cycling along its beautiful Atlantic Coast to taking on some of the most famous surf spots in Europe (yes, you can surf in Europe!), Portugal's picturesque and dramatic landscapes offer high-octane thrills and active adventures that help you connect with the landscapes in wholly new ways.

Adventure Travel and Portugal: Top Sports

Whether you want to take advantage of all those stunning Atlantic beaches or watch the rocky coastline fly by from the seat of a bike, Portugal offers tons of adventure activities to choose from.

Watersports

With 1,115 miles of coastline, water sports are a big deal in Portugal. But surfing is the crown jewel. The Atlantic Coast offers a wide range of world-renowned surf spots, from peaceful beaches for beginners to gnarly big waves.

The central coast has many of the country's best surf spots, like Peniche, Ericeira, Nazaré and the beaches near Porto and Lisbon. The coastal city of Nazare in particular is a hot spot for surfing, with monster waves that have drawn competitive surfers from across the globe.

If surfing isn't your thing, the Atlantic Ocean offers plenty of other watersports to enjoy. In the crystal-clear waters off the Azores Islands and Madeira, scuba diving and snorkeling are popular ways to explore the underwater worlds of shipwrecks and marine wildlife habitats. Finally, if you prefer to just admire the surf or splash in the shallows, Portugal has plenty of beautiful beaches where you can just unwind and enjoy a day by the ocean. The vast, sandy beach at Praia do Norte is one of the best in the country, and while exploring the Algarve Coast, you'll find plenty of popular and secret beaches to enjoy on hot summer days.

But the ocean isn't the only water you can play in around Portugal. On the beautiful Douro River in the north of the country, you can kayak, stand-up paddleboard, water ski, or sail along the river right through the heart of wine country, surrounded by vineyard-covered hills.

Walking and Trekking

From coastal paths to island mountains, hikers and trekkers will have a field day exploring this Iberian nation on foot.

With their volcanic summits, crater lakes and bucolic countryside, the Madeira archipelago and the Azores Islands are among the best places for hiking in Portugal. On Madeira Island, most hiking trails parallel the island's levada irrigation routes, offering a network of flat and easy hiking trails across the island. These trails are so integral to the island's culture and identity, they're even a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 You can ascend to the highest peak of the archipelago at Pico Ruivo with its panoramic island and ocean views or hike to beautiful waterfalls hidden deep in the jungle along the 25 Fontes hike. Hopping over to São Miguel in the Azores, you can walk along the rim of lake-filled calderas at Sete Cidades or take leisurely strolls through the islands' cultivated gardens and tea plantations.
 
Back on the mainland, both the coastline and mountainous inland interiors offer incredible hiking routes that allow you to connect with local culture. Located along the Algarve Coast, the 7.4-mile Seven Hanging Valleys Trail is a not-to-be-missed route traversing sea caves, rugged cliffs, hidden beaches and the dramatic landscapes of limestone sea cliffs and sea stacks.

 In northern Portugal near the border with Spain, Peneda Geres National Park holds the title of being Portugal's only national park. As such, it's well worth a visit to go on day hikes to view the park's woodlands and lakes. If you're lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of rare wildlife like its resident wolves or wild boars.

Another extremely popular hiking route is the Portuguese Way or the Camino Portuguese: one of the legendary pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela. Starting in Lisbon or Porto, pilgrimages can take several either coastal or inland walking paths heading north to Galicia.
The northern Coastal Path is an increasingly popular option, traversing the Atlantic coastline on paths and boardwalks instead of navigating the mountainous interior. The southern Rota Vicentina in the Alentejo and Algarve provinces is a further extension of the Camino Route, hugging the beautiful beaches and rocky cliffs of the coast the majority of the way to Spain.

Cycling

Portugal is a fantastic country to explore by bike, whether you want to enjoy a leisurely ride along the ocean or take on challenging routes while mountain biking. Popular walking routes like the Rota Vicentina and the Portuguese Way also double as bike trails, allowing you to cycle along historic routes and soak up the culture and history as pilgrims as well (but some sections of trail, like the northern Coastal Way, are off-limits to bikes).

 In the Douro Valley, the Douro Valley cycling route offers breathtaking (literally and visually) climbs through the vineyard-covered hills overlooking the river valley. In both the Douro wine region and the Alentejo, it's easy to cycle between vineyards and wineries for wine-and-bike tours as well. Along with wine tasting, going on a bike tour of Portugal helps you work up an appetite to enjoy hearty lunches and dinners of regional delicacies and cuisine, like salted cod (bacalhau) and seafood dishes like octopus.

Animals and Nature

From whales to wolves, Portugal is a great destination for wildlife-viewing out in nature. It's a lower-risk way to adventure out in the wilds of the country, getting to observe native and migratory animals in their natural habitat.

In both the Azores and Madeira, you can see year-round dolphin and whale residents like sperm whales, as well as migratory blue and sei whales in the spring. In Peneda-Geres National Park, it's possible to glimpse wild boars and rare Iberian wolves, as well as otters and deer. Birdwatchers will have a field day at Lake Alqueva in the Alentejo region, as this massive manmade lake attracts a wide variety of bird species.

 

Portugal's Top Destinations for Adventure Travel

Where should you go to find adventure in Portugal? These regions are ready to wow you with their wealth of adventure travel activities.

The Algarve Coast

The southern Algarve Coast or Faro District along Portugal's Gulf of Cadiz has some of the best beaches and coastal areas in the country, offering swimming, hiking and cycling.

While it is possible to surf here, the protected gulf makes for calmer waters and fewer big waves. Ideal for beginners, more experienced surfers will have a better time trying their hand at the bigger waves on the central coast.
 

The Azores Islands

Sitting out in the mid-Atlantic, the Azores are a dreamy archipelago of nine volcanic islands, whose caldera summits now house sky-high lakes. For outdoor sports lovers, it's a true haven of adventure, from hiking trails to coastal walks to whale-watching in the protected marine sanctuaries off-shore. The pristine water also offers incredible scuba diving and snorkeling, giving you the chance to explore shipwrecks and swim among marine wildlife.
 

Madeira

Another archipelago off the coast of Portugal, the Madeira islands are often called ‘Europe's Hawaii’ and it's easy to see why with the towering coastal cliffs, lush forests and idyllic beaches. Along with hiking the Levada network of trails that crisscrosses the islands, Madeira also offers whale-watching, swimming and oceanic watersports.
 

Douro Valley

The Douro Valley is best known internationally for its wineries and gastronomy. But in between wine tastings and meal breaks, adventurers can break a sweep cycling up the steep hills, hiking along hilltop paths or kayaking along the river.
 

 

What's the best time to visit Portugal for outdoor activities?

With its year-round fair weather, comfortable temperatures and sun-soaked setting right on the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is open to adventure and discovery throughout the year. But some seasons or months are better than others for specific sports:
 
  • Surfing: The best time for surfing in Portugal is during the fall (September to November) and spring (March to May) seasons when the swells are consistent, and the water temperatures are comfortable. Summer is the best time for beginner or novice surfers to come out and test their skills, as the waves are smaller and the water is warmer. Surf schools will also likely have more summertime classes or camps. Swells get bigger and more dangerous during the winter months, making it only suitable for experienced surfers.
  • Hiking and Cycling: With its mild temperatures and fair weather, spring and fall are typically the best times to go hiking or cycling around Portugal. While summer offers stunning weather as well, it can get very hot and you may not want to be out in the hot sun all day. Each season also offers different benefits, like getting to see fall foliage during fall or undertaking the Pilgrimage to Fatima in May and October.
  • Rock climbing: Climbing is best enjoyed in Portugal during the cooler months of fall (September to November) and spring (March to May) when the temperatures are more favorable for physical exertion.

What to pack for outdoor adventure activities in Portugal

Exactly what you should pack for your trip to Portugal depends on the kinds of sports you want to try:
 
  • Hiking: Sturdy hiking boots, moisture-wicking socks, breathable clothing, layers, waterproof jacket, sun protection (sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, etc.), backpack, water bottle
  • Cycling: Helmet, cycling kit, cycling shoes, layered clothing, waterproof gear, sun protection (sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, etc.), backpack, water bottle
  • Surfing (many surf schools around Portugal offer surfing gear to rent): Wetsuit, surfboard, surfboard leash, sun protection ((sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, etc.)
  • Rock climbing: Flexible/comfortable clothes, climbing shoes, chalk and chalk bag, climbing harness, climbing rope, belay device, helmet, backpack, and other safety gear

Adventure travel, Portugal: Health and safety tips

Safety comes first, so before heading off on an adventure travel trip to Portugal, educate yourself about how to stay safe during your activities:
 
  • Follow any posted rules or signage at beaches about where you shouldn't surf
  • Don't go out to surf in bad weather
  • Stay hydrated during outdoor activities like hiking, cycling, and rock climbing
  • Wear plenty of sunscreen
  • Carry and use all the appropriate safety gear for your sport (a helmet for cycling, harnesses for climbing, etc.)
  • Stay safe by trying outdoor activities with friends or fellow travelers
  • If traveling solo, make sure friends and family know how to contact you and have a copy of your itinerary
  • If you're not comfortable with a certain activity, don't do it
  • If possible, opt for experiences with guides to offer instruction and help make the experience safer and more fun

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No matter what kind of outdoor sports you like, you can likely find it during a small-group or solo trip to beautiful Portugal.

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