Europe Vanlife: The Ultimative Portugal Surf Roadtrip
Europe Vanlife: The Ultimate Portugal Surf Roadtrip
If we talk about surfing in Europe, Portugal is the first thing that comes up. Rather small and surrounded by Spain, it differs widely from its big neighbour. As soon as you cross the border, you will realise that people here speak a higher level of English and generally feel much more international. While the south coast is a favourite among European families for their summer holidays - which results in big crowds and tons of hotels - the west coast all the way up to Spain is much more natural. Starting in Sagres the west Algarve is a surfer’s mecca. But from fall on, you can even catch some waves closer to Lagos. North of Lisbon and South of Porto is the second surfing hotspot with several surf towns lining up. The highlight of this region is in the middle - the place where the highest surfable wave on the planet builds up every winter: Nazare. Porto is full of history and everything above is just as raw and rural as Spain across the border - an absolute must if you visit Portugal. Sadly, the laws for vanlife and camping changed from January 2021 on resulting in making wild camping basically impossible. It has already been hard for the past few years with overnight parking forbidden signs and the police handing out fines, but more about that a bit later. Nonetheless, Portugal is still the place to be if you love surfing and worth a trip, no matter if by van, or with renting a set place.
I marked the most famous surf spots on the map, just look out for the blue sign!
As I already mentioned, Portugal may just turned into the least vanlife-friendly country in Europe. The reasons for it are obvious and justified, as during the past few years thousands of caravans, RVs and vans came here to stand in nature. The main problem? They didn`t follow the rules. Small vans aren`t really the problem. More so the big RVs who still decide to not go on a campsite and fill up every parking spot for weeks, building enormous illegal campgrounds. People use the nature as a toilet, which would be fine, but leave so much trash and toilet paper behind that it’s absolutely disgusting. Instead of trying to stay hidden, many put all their camping gear out and instead of helping the local communities with spending money, they sometimes don`t do it at all. This led to a new law, that prohibits overnight parking / camping not just along the coastline, but basically everywhere and the police is on the hunt. Even in 2020 it felt like a cat and mouse hunt; especially in the Algarve where I personally wouldn`t recommend trying to stay close to the ocean at all during the night. The north was much more relaxed, but by now it’s very hard to predict how this will change during the next few years. If you choose to wild camp, please follow the rules, take your trash and don`t show camping behaviour - for the locals, for us vanlifers and for the environment.
Roads, Rules & Tolls
Portugal has a very complicated toll system, so if you can and want to explore the country, I would recommend avoiding them. In case you need them, make sure to get the right information and contact the necessary authorities to get registered. The roads in general are in an ok condition. On the other hand, if you want to reach beaches, many roads are full of potholes and mud. Drive careful, know your car, and make sure everything is secured. Then you are on the safe side.
Language & Culture
Portugal has a long history of conquering and fame which you can see in all the beautiful buildings that cover the big cities. Every place has its own story and the most famous symbol is the colourful tile you can find anywhere. Traces of Portugals power centuries ago can be found all over the world!
Safety-wise, Portugal can be compared to Spain. There is crime in the cities and occasional cases of theft in villages. But if you`re careful and follow the rules that apply to most of southern European countries you are on the safe side. Always lock your car, don`t leave any valuables inside and if you go surfing, take the key with you if you can.
The south Algarve is known for its crystal-clear beaches, calm waters, and caves. While the region is incredibly beautiful, sadly tourism took over and nowadays you`ll find hotel after hotel - especially around the cities of Faro and Lagos. Many beaches are very crowded and in the background of the stunning sceneries you`ll see concrete buildings popping up. There are rarely any waves down here, but in winter the west coast around Sagres turns into a surfing hotspot.
Praia da Falesia
This beach in the very east of the country is famous for its red formations. A nice stop for either a beach day, a walk along the water or a picknick enjoying the view. During main season this place gets very crowded: loads of chairs are out and tourists overrunning it. But as it is a quite long stretch, so you should be able to find your own corner.
Praia de Benagil
These caves are probably the most famous ones in the whole country. There are several tours that take you here, but you can also take your surfboard and paddle in. Or if you got your own boat, swim from there. Again, it can get quite crowded and you should book in advance if you would like to see it with a tour. Try to go early and you will have them all for yourself!
A pretty spot to overlook the Algarve and have a walk along the cliffs. It`s a great spot for photos; there is parking close by and it’s worth a visit if you`re close by.
Praia dos Tremos Irmaos
Huge beach with fantastic sunsets. There are several small restaurants close to the water and toilets are available. Perfect for a walk, lunch, and a dip in the water; if it`s too crowded there is the possibility to go a bit back to the rocks. Again, going early is advised in high season if you would like to have your peace.
Lagos is the biggest city in the southern Algarve. There are several beaches that surround the centre; every shop you could possibly need can be found here and the old town is worth a visit. It is busy and one of the classic southern European tourist towns. But still, it kept its charm and is equipped with a harbour. There are spots where you can park your van close to the city and it is quite easy to navigate, as its less narrow than other towns in the country.
Praia do Zavial
Praia do Zavial is one of several small beaches between Lagos and Sagres. But it is the first one that usually offers surfable conditions from around September/October on. There are other smaller ones. For example Praia da Ingrina is just next door, which is also worth a visit as it lies in a small bay. There is a restaurant and parking available; make sure to leave before sunset as the police does come by and gives out fines if they catch you.
This little town is worth a visit and has a very laid-back surfer vibe. Just a short drive away is a fortress that is worth a visit: the lighthouse marks the officially most south-eastern place in mainland Europe. There are countless surf shops, cafes and restaurants around the centre; there also is a beach right in front and several more just around the corner. It is also the place where the local Sagres brewery got its name from, whose beer you will find in every bar in the country. It`s one of my favourite spots in the country, no matter if you`re looking for some surf, company, or a night out.
There are countless parking spots in town, but most of them prohibit overnight camping. And as I said before, this will probably get even stricter now with the new law in place.
The West Algarve starts right after Sagres and goes all the way up to Lisbon. It is where you will find the biggest amount of surf spots and countless beaches of all sizes are located around the coastline. Nature is extremely beautiful here, a lot wilder than the South. Even though it sadly also got overrun by tourism in the past few years - which led to the restrictions I mentioned before - it still kept its natural beauty without any huge hotel complexes around every corner. There are quite a few eco camps where you can stay legally that are definitely worth a visit; they are the opposite of the cramped, cold campsites most vanlifers cannot stand.
Praia da Cordoama
This is a huge, sandy beach with a nice beachbreak. Waves can get big, but also suitable for beginners if you check beforehand. There is a surf school located at the beach and parking is available right next to it, it is a beautiful place to spend a day surfing. It’s very prone to fog, but it often disappears as fast as it came, so it`s worth waiting a bit if you got the time. The road is in great condition and easily accessible for all vehicles.
Praia da Amado
Being maybe the most famous surf beach in all of Portugal, Praia da Amado attracts surfers from every part of the continent. The waves are consistent and beginner friendly. There is a huge parking area and several surf schools that rent out boards. It can get crowded and is definitely not a hidden gem. But on the upside, this means water safety as you are never alone and there are lifeguards on duty in case something goes wrong.
Praia da Bordeira
Praia da Bordeira has a huge beach that goes back quite a bit; to reach it you have to walk through the dunes and cross a river. It is pretty popular by locals, so many come to relax, but the waves are also great and you will always find surfers here. Even though the parking is big, it fills up pretty fast so make sure to arrive early if you would like to spend the day here.
Arrifana / Monte Clerigo
Those two beaches are very close to each other and if one parking is full, the other one may still has space. Both are beautiful and have waves that are accessible for all levels; rental and lessons are available. You have to walk down to reach them and the distance can be quite a bit if you are carrying your board, but the roads are in great condition.
Where to camp
With the new laws that prohibit overnight parking, maybe more campsites will pop up. And so it is important to showcase some that are worth checking out - especially if you are focussing on an environmentally friendly lifestyle and would like to support places who are trying to make a change.
Praia da Odeceixe
This beach is great for beginners and advanced surfers. The leading road is in great condition. The parking lies right above, so you only have to carry your board down. There are free showers and toilets available. Most days are pretty consistent here. There are also some swimmers, but most of them know how to act among the many surfers in the water. Several restaurants and little shops are placed in the small village at the cliffside, if you need a snack after a long day in the water.
The Aterra Eco Camp is a glamping experience in the Algarve. A bit inland and in a beautiful lush green area, hidden away from all the buzz. They focus on a sustainable way of living: rainwater showers, solar energy and recycled material used for its built. They have several kinds of accommodation, their own little lake with a beach, a yoga shala and a communal area where you can socialize during the day. They offer breakfast and dinner (vegan on request). And if you come with your van there are a few spots available in the parking area. The owners are incredibly nice and it’s one of those places that just make you feel at peace - even if it’s just for a night.
Open from spring to fall
Carvalhal das Figueiras
Corgo da Casca, 7630-635
There are countless surf schools in the Algarve and it`s hard to figure out which ones are the best for your own needs. Most of them also rent out boards, either for your own use or during lessons. But if you are an advanced surfer you may be better off renting one for the whole trip as the amount of hardtops is often limited.
The surf school in Milfontes offers lessons for all levels - private or in classes. All teachers are well experienced: they know the beaches and will keep you in small groups to give you the best experiences regarding the current conditions. I highly recommend booking a lesson if you`re in the area - no matter if you are just starting or would like to improve!
Portugal’s capital is pretty much in the middle of the country and often the starting point for a roadtrip. The city has a lot to offer: cute little alleys with traditional shops, bakeries and cafes wherever you look. Be prepared to walk upwards, as especially the touristic parts are uphill but offer the best view over the whole region. Everything you know Portugal for can be found here, and it is a city flooded with light. Of course, you will also come across the famous yellow trams. And the historic centre has countless relicts of past days that are worth visiting. The city of Sintra close-by is also worth a visit. And the nature reserve next to it holds several surfing spots that are worth checking out. A quick Google will lead you to the most famous attractions, but let`s focus on some extraordinary ones.
What to do
Carmo Convent Ruins
In 1755, the city nearly got ruined by an earthquake and the Carmo Convent laid in ruins like many other buildings in the area. Nobody knows how many people exactly died, but it should be around 60´000 and 85% of the city was destroyed. Many people were in churches or had candles lit at home, which lead to raging fires who destroyed whatever was still standing. Survivors lived in tents in the outskirts of town while looters had taken over the centre until the government started the rebuild. Today, the convent stands as a symbol as it was one of the only buildings that survived at least with its structure and can be visited to this day.
The world’s oldest still operating bookstore is placed in Lisbon and has been so since 1732. It used to be the go-to place for Portuguese writers and intellectuals; started off as a tiny place but grew with time. They still got an old printing press that was used to publish some of the most important pieces of literature of its time.
Where to eat
Lisbon is a vegan paradise with new spots popping up everywhere if it wouldn`t be for the pandemic. If you only got a day, you may check out the following places as they offer great views, fresh food and a beautiful environment for your stay.
Situated very central and close to the old convent, the 8 Health Lounge welcomes you with loads of cute furniture and staff that couldn`t be friendlier. It has two stories, while parts of the top floor offer seats with sockets and Wi-Fi. Does it get better than brunching while watching through Lisbon’s iconic floor long windows? The menu is diverse and the mushroom toast an absolute staple! Make sure to try one of their cold teas and burgers, you won`t regret it.
Sunday to Thursday 9:00 - 20:00
Friday 9:00 - 15:00
Praça da Figueira 12A
There is plenty of parking available in the city and you should be able to find a spot somewhere at the roadside, even in a bigger vehicle.
While Sagres may be the surf town in the south, Ericeira is its bigger pendant in the North. Easy to reach from Lisbon, it has everything you can wish for in terms of surf shops, bars and cafes while being close to other hotspots of the area. Several surf beaches are in the area, and it is easy to target the one that fits your skills best every day.
Naturally, many surf camps decided to situate them in Ericeira and no matter if you would like to start your surfing journey, meet new people or work on your skills, a surf camp is always worth a visit.
In the south of the town is one of the most populated surf beaches Praia da Foz do Lizandro. Rapture has several surf camps all over the world and the Portugal one defines their high standard in every way. I have visited many surf camps during the past years: from tent towns in France, dorm camps in Sri Lanka and South Africa, to surf houses in Spain, but this one holds a very special place in my heart. They always say that the people make a place, and I couldn`t agree more. The people who run it and their staff vibrate what they got on all guests and make it something you rarely find but are always on the hunt for.
The beach is only a few minutes away and you can overlook the beach from the road to check the waves. Google reviews speak for themselves, but the food is as good as they say and being vegan is absolutely no issue at all. They happily cater for your special diets. Unlike other camps, you will get your dinner served and everyone sits together for a chat after an exhausting day in the water. Boards and wetsuits are in great condition, their surf teachers make sure that you get into a group that fits your level and helps you progress in your own pace. Whatever you`re looking for, you`ll find it here as they also offer theory lessons, yoga, and SUPs which you can use in the nearby river. There is a huge carpark next door. And a sandy one closer to the beach, where some vans stayed overnight (which is prohibited on the big one). They are open from spring to fall and offer flexible stays instead of set weeks.
If you`re thinking about visiting a surf camp in central Portugal, don`t think twice and go with Rapture.
R. do Lizandro 6
A bit more in the north the next surf village awaits you. While Ericeira is full of charm, Peniche lacks a bit of that. Nonetheless, it has two beautiful beachbreaks that are perfect for all levels and are supervised by lifeguards. There is plenty of parking available on both sides and if you choose to stay somewhere in the city, all spots are very easy to reach.
Nazare got its fame for the biggest surfable wave in the world and attracts thousands of people every year. It has also a pretty cute little town and a smaller beach where even normal surfers can get in the water. The monsters won`t roll in until November, but then can come all winter. There also is a little museum in the lighthouse that you can visit and if you’re lucky, you can watch the pros train for the real deal. Please keep in mind that the roads inside of Nazare are very narrow, so avoid driving down and park somewhere on top instead.
This town between Lisbon and Porto is famous for its canals that run through the alleys and make it look like a Portuguese version of Venice. It’s a perfect place for a day excursion, a break between all the surfing and can be combined with a visit in Costa Nova. Beautiful coloured houses surround the main road that leads to the beaches, where locals and tourists come together for a swim.
A short drive from Aveiro, a German-owned surf camp offers lessons and fun in a very laid-back environment. The place feels like home the moment you arrive; the kitchen is available for your own use and every evening Nico cooks the most delicious dishes, happily adjusting them for vegans on request. All day long there is bread and fruits available to get you ready for the next session. A swimming pool invites you to relax and if you want to watch the sunset, the beach is right in front behind the dunes. Especially if you are already an advanced surfer, this place is perfect for you as you got several challenging breaks close by. There is a huge parking in front where you can park your van or car during your stay. If you plan to reach Porto make sure to plan a few days here and you won`t regret it.
Praia da Vagueira
Rua Armenio Abreu 46
3840-240 Urb, 3840-240 Aveiro
Where to eat
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, a beautiful couple runs a small vegan catering business out of their stunning home. Every traditional Portuguese dish you could wish gets veganized here. And if you got the chance to spend a night here (they also rent out a room), I cannot recommend you enough to do so and feel the love they put into everything they do. You can order on their website or via text!
Av. Primeiro de Maio 149
2430-210 M.nha Grande
Up in the North, Porto is the second biggest city in the country. Culturally rich, a very cool hipster vibe with bars and restaurants around every corner make this an absolute must. It also has an airport, so a perfect spot to fly out off, if your trip has to end here. If you're into Urbexing, make sure to check for the abandoned hospital above the city, its well worth a visit!