From sparkling resorts of the Algarve to hidden coves of the northern Costa Verde, Portugal is a favourite destination for beach lovers.
I found myself this year’s ultimate travel writing job - driving the entire 600-mile coastline to discover whether Portugal really does have Europe’s best beaches.
Where to start? Well, it was easy. I hired a Renault Kadjar from Avis at Faro airport and drove along the entire coast, before dropping the car off with the helpful Avis team at Porto airport.
The plan? To find ten great Portuguese beaches - or praias - that I’d never heard of before, and to demonstrate what Portugal’s coastline really has to offer.
GRAND BEACH CLUB, VILA REAL DE SANTO ANTONIO, EASTERN ALGARVE
The Grand Beach is just a few metres from Portugal’s Iberian neighbours, Spain. It’s a tiny sandy bay but this is the first beach in Portugal if you’re approaching from the East. You’ll find it alongside the new Grand Beach Club boutique bar and restaurant looking across the mouth of the Guadiana River towards Spain.
If that’s too tiny for you, a few hundred yards away you’ll find the second beach in Portugal: miles of the Ponta de Areia sandy beach stretching away towards the resort of Monte Gordo.
PRAIA DE BARRIL, ILHA DE TAVIRA
Around 30 miles west, I drove to another stunning spot: Barrel Beach on Tavira Island in the Bay of Cadiz.
I parked and crossed a wooden footbridge to this uninhabited island with miles of white sand and a stylish seafood café. Praia de Barril is so clean and well maintained it has won a Blue Flag every year for 32 years.
Alongside the café is a distinctive arrangement of 100 rusty ship anchors idling in the dunes. It’s an arty tribute to the area’s formerly thriving tuna fishing industry.
PRAIA DE FARO, ILHA DE CIMA, FARO
Faro’s best beach is on a long sandy island just a short drive from Algarve’s main airport. Praia de Faro must be the easiest beach to reach in Portugal - yet foreign visitors rarely stop before driving off to the busy resorts of central Algarve.
A Faro taxi driver had told me about this beautiful spot so I drove across a rickety bridge crossing a huge lagoon where flamingos wade. I found the island of Cima is full of quirky beach bars, quaint hotels and wooden boardwalks between colourful fishermen’s shanty houses.
Best of all is the beach itself: three miles of soft white sand facing sparkling Atlantic waves.
PRAIA DO CAMILO, LAGOS
There are scores of spectacular beaches as I drove along through central Algarve. However, I was looking for something more ‘off the beaten track’ and just to the west of Lagos I found this small glorious beach down a flight of steep wooden steps.
This is a remote spot and different from many other Lagos beaches, so don’t expect lifeguards, beach bars or changing rooms, but it’s spectacular, featuring orange cliffs, dotted with caves. Thankfully the long stairs down deter many tourists.
PRAIA DE BALEEIRA, SAGRES
Towards the western end of Portugal’s south coast, I found the little town of Sagres on cliffs above its fishing harbour and seafood restaurants. Just to the west is the beautiful Baleeira beach between two sheltering rock headlands.
It’s overlooked by an ancient medieval fortress on the cliffs and at night you’ll see the powerful sweeps of the Cape St Vincent lighthouse on the next headland – the very southwestern point of mainland Europe.
AMADO BEACH, WESTERN ALGARVE
One of the great hidden secrets of the Algarve is driving down a remote gravel road to reach this inspiring beach. Amado sometimes attracts a few surfers and artists but equally can be completely empty, even on a hot sunny day.
The clifftop “Fishermens’ Path" offers memorably scenic hikes in either direction and when I visited I couldn’t leave before dark - because the Amado sunset was so beautiful.
I’d never even heard of the Troia Peninsular near Setubal until I drove there to discover a protected beach area within the enormous Sado Estuary nature reserve.
I followed lanes down to the sea at various points, all leading to quiet car parks along an amazing 11-mile sandy stretch. Locals say you can spot dolphins from the beach. Sadly I didn’t - but I did see beachcombers collecting big colourful shells along the waterline.
PRAIA LAGIDE, FERREL
About an hour north of Lisbon I parked on the shore and walked across a stone causeway to the old island whaling village of Baleal. On the south side is a long beach stretching to the resort of Peniche and to the north the sand curves round another bay backed by huge dunes. They’re both brilliant – but I chose this Lagide beach because it’s more sheltered and very quiet.
This small seaside town is almost a suburb of Porto but has its own stylish upmarket ambience. The best bit is the beach, which locals call ‘Miramar’. It has wide swathes of sand between rocky outcrops, with interesting pools, dunes, boardwalks and sandbanks.
The highlight is the pretty ‘Lord of the Rock’ – a 400-year-old church built on boulders jutting into the waves at the centre of the beach.
VIANA DO CASTELO
I’d driven north along the coast, almost to the Spanish border, when I reached this spectacular coastal town at the mouth of the Lima River. Viana offers a sensational landscape once called ‘the best view in the world’ by National Geographic, including a coast lined with quiet sandy beaches.
My favourites were Praia de Carreco and Praia de Paco where the Atlantic surf crashes against rocks and sandy beaches, alongside an unspoilt backdrop of woods rising into the hills.
For further inspiration about road trips in Portugal, take a look at the Avis Portugal Road Trip guide, available online at www.avis.co.uk/inspires/guides/portugal-guide/
About the author: Simon is a writer, author and editor covering a broad range of subjects such as travel, cars, food, history and music. He is a huge fan of Portugal, recently returning from his fourth trip this year!