Nazaré in Portugal: among the World’s Highest Waves

Nazaré, Portugal, Atlantic coast: these are the coordinates of Surfer’s Paradise. Here you can see the highest waves in the world. Waves of an absurd size, called Big Waves. But Nazaré, 120 km north of Lisbon and about 250 km south of Porto, is not just waves and surf. Nazaré is wide beaches, stunning views, and memorable sunsets over the Atlantic Ocean.

Nazarè al tramonto
Nazaré at sunset

In a road trip in Portugal, you will not be able to miss this stop. I went to Nazaré as part of a collaboration with an RV rental company Visiting Portugal in fly & camper mode is a great idea. Surfing and RVs go great together.

Nazaré: waves, big waves and ocean

As soon as you arrive on the beach of Nazaré, Praia do Norte, it will be impossible not to notice the headland that turns toward the ocean.

A giant rock over 310 meters high, totally overlooking the sea. On that rock stands the famous Nazaré Lighthouse, which looks the ocean “straight in the eye” and faces the big waves that crash against it without a blow.

un particolare del faro di Nazarè al tramonto
A detail of the Nazaré lighthouse at sunset

Why Nazaré is famous

Nazaré is famous for the giant waves that form right in front of the lighthouse, thanks to a particular conformation of the seabed. We could say it is a mecca for surfers, although not all surfers practice the sport on the big waves.

Only a few crazy people (in the good sense of the word) venture out to ride these waves, because yes, a little crazy you have to be to surf waves over 30 meters high. Can’t imagine them? Let me help you: try to think of a 9- or 10-story building…

How to get to the lighthouse

To reach the lighthouse you can either arrive from the main road continuing from the town center, or…

strada per nazarè in portogallo recyourtrip
If you would like to reach Nazaré by car (beware that the road is not easy)

…park in the upper part of Praia do Norte. I recommend this option (which you see in the screenshot below) because you will find more parking and have less problems when maneuvering, especially if you will be in an RV. What’s more, you will appreciate the beach and the fact that you will gradually get closer to the lighthouse.

strada per nazarè in portogallo recyourtrip
The X’s are the parking lots on the side of the road, the path the way to walk (in red)

Follow the red trail I made on the map, you will walk on the beach and near the headland you will find an uphill path that will take you directly to the lighthouse.

What to see in Nazaré, Portugal: the museum in the lighthouse

If you are lucky, in Nazaré you will be able to see the biggest waves in the world. In any case, you will be able to visit the lighthouse museum.

For the price of 1 euro, you can enter the lighthouse, admire the surfboards that have made the history of big waves and find out how these incredible waves are formed. And then what? And then you can take a thousand photos like the ones I show you.

tavole da surf per le big waves a Nazarè
The surfboards for the Big Waves in the Nazaré Lighthouse
nazaré portogallo vista sulla spiaggia
Overhead view of the Nazaré Lighthouse

When do the world’s biggest waves form?

The best time to see the big waves in Nazaré is from October to March. Nazaré during this period becomes a favorite half of those who want to measure themselves against the power of the Ocean. Big waves, however, do not occur every day. In fact, they can only be created under certain conditions.

Surfers entered in this competition experience the “good time” for waves in a special way. Not knowing when the waves will occur, they are perpetually waiting for a call from the organizers. From the moment they are called, they have only 72h to show up for the competition, wherever they are.

surfisti nelle acque di nazaré in Portogallo
Of surfers in the water as they wait for the perfect wave.

Unfortunately, I was not able to see the big waves of Nazaré, despite that it is a wonderful place, photographically interesting. If you are in the area and would like to know the wave forecast, I recommend you read the Info Surf Report.

How come big waves form in Nazaré

Nazaré is home to a peculiar conformation of the seafloor of the Atlantic Ocean. A deep underground canyon wedges toward the mainland.

Under particular conditions, the force of the underwater currents funnel through the canyon until it almost reaches the lighthouse. At that point the canyon ends and veers to the left and the force pushes upward joining the force of the waves already present that turn toward Praia do Norte.

nazarè come si formano le onde in portogallo
How Nazaré’s waves form. Credits: 5W Infographics, research by Kyle Frischkorn and Sonya Maynard; Source: MaxSea / Dr. Kevin Horsburgh, National Oceanographic Centre, UK

What is the difference between normal surfing and big wave surfing

I will preface this by saying that I am not a surfer, but this little information was given to me by “one of them.” The surfers who participate in the World Cup are not the same as those who compete in Big Waves.

The former compete on waves of a few meters and their purpose is to ride them by doing evolutions or sliding inside the “tubes” that form the waves.

And the latter, on the other hand, practically run away from the waves. If you go to youtube and watch some videos of Nazaré, you will be astonished. They get dragged by jet skis to almost the crest of the wave, then they break away and from that moment their only thought is to escape the huge mass of water behind them. The surfboard for big waves is much narrower than regular boards and allows them to go faster; surfers stay attached to the board by clips where they insert their feet so that they are more stable.

Nazaré’s big waves are spectacular but really dangerous. Getting run over by a wave can be deadly. Don’t even think about venturing into one.

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