When well-heeled Lisboans need a change of airs in summer they go west to Cascais on the upper lip of the Tagus Estuary. At this beach getaway you can bathe in transparent waters at peaceful coves. Or you can brave the charging Atlantic waves of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park on a surfboard.
Portugal’s royal family holidayed at Cascais at the turn of the 20th century, and that glamour has never faded: The president spends his summer in a palace beside the marina, while neighbouring Estoril has an enormous casino once frequented by the jet set. There are elegant parks, noble mansions replete with precious furnishings and a superb art museum for Paula Rego.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cascais:
1. Museu Condes de Castro Guimarães
At the back of a long, rocky creek is a whimsical Revivalist palace completed in 1900. The palace has a loggia, mullioned windows with Manueline-style mouldings and an imposing Gothic revival stone tower.
This is all the stage for a museum enriched with paintings, Indo-Portuguese furniture, jewellery, prehistoric archaeology from local caves, oriental porcelain, all left to Cascais in the will of Manuel Inácio de Castro Guimarães.
Bibliophiles will be thrilled with the library, which has 25,000 volumes, many going back to the 1600s and including an illuminated manuscript from 1505. There’s a small chapel on the grounds, and the palace backs onto Parque Marechal Carmona.
2. Praia da Rainha
It isn’t easy picking a favourite beach in Cascais, because they all have their strong points.
But if your vision of a perfect beach is a sandy cove lapped by crystalline seas then Praia da Rainha is the one for you.
It’s also a few strides from Rua Frederico Arouca and so effortlessly close to bars and cafes.
The beach is oriented to the east, which explains why there are hardly any currents, and it’s all the more picturesque for the low cliffs and two big limestone outcrops deposited on the sand.
3. Old Centre of Cascais
Cascais is small and pedestrian-friendly so you could see it all in an hour or so.
There’s a posh ambience on these streets, in its boutiques, restaurants and cafes.
The squares and sidewalks are paved with calçada portuguesa, mosaics in various patterns.
If you don’t mind the tourist trail your evenings out will be centred on Praça 5 de Outubro, which is hemmed by bars and restaurants.
But there are other, maybe more authentic bars and restaurants in the quieter more residential corners of the town.
Idle along the promenade under palm fronds to the Fortaleza da Nossa Senhora da Luz, one of a line of sea forts built in the 16th century when Portugal was under Spanish control.
In summer it’s an official summer residence for the President of Portugal.
4. Boca do Inferno
On the side of Cascais that faces the open ocean the coastline gets rocky, as you head into the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park.
Only a short of walk from the marina is the Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth), a chasm in the limestone cliffs.
Try to be here where the surf is choppier to see the ocean surging through the hole in the bluffs and hear it echoing up the chamber.
Late in the day in summer it’s not unusual to find couples sitting on the promontory beside it and watching the sunset.
For some trivia, this cave was the first ever to be recorded on film, as the subject of Henry Short’s 1896 moving picture, A Sea Cave Near Lisbon.
5. Praia do Guincho
All of seven kilometres from Cascais is a wild Atlantic beach in the untouched nature of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park.
Praia do Guicho has an enormous arc of fine white sand, fringed by dunes and with views up to the mountain range to the north.
In summer the steady northerly winds and small swells are the ideal ingredients for kite-surfing and windsurfing.
In winter the winds blow from the east, for hollow left and right beach breaks that surfers hunt for.
If you don’t mind the wind Praia do Guincho is fine for sunbathing in summer, and a dramatic place to walk and watch the surfers in the cooler months.
6. Parque Marechal Carmona
If this park has a stately feel it’s because it is in the grounds of two aristocratic properties: Palácio Condes de Castro Guimarães and land belonging to the Viscount of Gandarinha.
Close to the resort’s museums and monuments are lush lawns, flowerbeds, mature trees and lots of water features, from fountains to ponds and the Mochos River.
Kids can spot the turtles in the water and feed the roosters, peacocks and ducks that strut around the mini farm.
Deckchairs and benches are provided, and there’s a coffee shop with a terrace by the main pond.
7. Praia do Tamariz
Passengers catching the train from Lisbon to Cascais can get off a couple of stops early at Estoril and find themselves on this fabulous beach.
Like all the beaches on the bay side, Tamariz has only light waves and is further protected by a pier on its eastern fringe.
Beside the pier there’s a lido fed by the Atlantic if you feel like taking a dip but don’t want to deal with the currents.
Praia do Tamariz was once favoured by aristocrats and industrialists and then the jet set as it’s just a stone’s throw from the casino.
8. Casa das Histórias Paula Rego
Unmistakeable for its red pyramid-like towers, this art museum is dedicated to the Portuguese-British artist Dame Paula Rego.
The building is from 2009 and was the work of Pritzker Prize-winner Eduardo Souto de Moura.
It hosts temporary exhibitions of Rego’s paintings and graphic art, presented in a refreshingly frank and unpretentious way.
Context and clear explanations of each piece are given in Portuguese and English, describing the different phases of her career.
The most recent exhibition in 2017 was curated by her son and deals with her early years in London, marriage, motherhood.
There’s also a shop, cafe and a garden where you can appreciate this remarkable building.
9. Cascais Marina
If you want to pootle around and get some sea air you don’t need to stray far from the centre of Cascais.
The marina was refurbished at the start of the 2000s to become a venue for major sailing events like a stage of the ISAF Sailing World Championship and the European 49ers.
At any other time you can size up the plush yachts, and at the far end of quay you can gaze back at the Cascais waterfront and pick out monuments like the tower of the Palácio Condes de Castro Guimarães.
The marina also hosts charter companies and a smattering of bars and restaurants.
10. Santa Marta Lighthouse and Museum
Rising from the Fort of Santa Marta, the blue and white lighthouse has been guiding ships in and out of the Tagus Estuary since 1868. The beacon still functions and a fog horn still blasts when visibility is low, and in 2007 a museum annexe was built next to the tower.
This is in two sections, the first of which handles Portuguese lighthouses in general.
You’ll understand the part they played in Portugal’s seafaring prowess, and see exhibits like the 3.7-metre-high beacon and lens from the Berlengas lighthouse.
The other wing reveals the story of Santa Marta’s 17th-century fort and the day-to-day running of the lighthouse back when it was manned.
11. Museu do Mar Rei D. Carlos
The town’s maritime museum opened in 1992 and is just next to the Casa das Histórias.
It is named after King Carlos I who reigned at the turn of the 20th century and was an avid oceanographer.
The permanent exhibitions study both the ocean’s ecology and natural history, as well as man’s relationship with the ocean.
You can delve into the history of oceanography and navigation, find out how life first evolved in earth’s oceans and discover artefacts from shipwrecks in the Tagus Estuary.
Among them are Roman amphorae, cannons and a bronze Florentine musket from the 1600s.
The town’s heritage as a former fishing village is also laid bare in a gallery of nets, old-time clothing and model vessels.
12. Casino Estoril
OK, so gambling might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Casino Estoril needs to be seen, even if you’re only passing by.
This first opened in 1916 and was reworked in the middle of the 20th century.
It conjures images of jet set glamour, not least because Ian Fleming visited before writing Casino Royale.
The view of the facade between the rows of cedars on Jardim do Estoril is something to behold: This is claimed to be the largest casino in Europe.
And if you are tempted to have a flutter the casino is as glitzy as you’d imagine.
There are all the usual games like roulette wheels, baccarat tables and black jack as well as a thousand slot machines, restaurants and a spacious auditorium for shows.
13. Mercado da Vila de Cascais
The town’s market trades on Wednesday and Saturday mornings in a big semi-permanent hall that doubles as a live music venue.
If you found the TimeOut market in Lisbon a little sanitised and want to see an authentic market in action be sure to drop by.
There’s fruit and veg, cheese, cured sausages, meat, fish, honey, flowers, olive oil, pastries, bread, you name it.
The market also has cafes and restaurants down the side for a coffee or authentic Portuguese meal.
Meanwhile outside are stalls selling clothes, kitchenware, as well as azulejos and other handicrafts.
There’s also a calendar of special markets twice a month, for anything from chocolate to wine or sardines.
For fun in the water, you have the tranquil waters in the bay in front of Cascais, or can travel around the headland to the windswept beaches in the natural park.
The resort-side beaches like Praia da Duquesa and Praia do Tamariz you can hire a kayak or paddleboard for a self-guided voyage.
But if adrenaline is in order, summer is kite-surfing season at Praia da Cremina and Praia do Guincho.
Hook up with Gustykite, SBKiteboarding and Kitesurf Adventures if you’ve ever felt tempted to have a go.
There are also plenty of surf schools and camps open all year round, and you can book week-long courses, one-day sessions or single lessons at Angels Surf School, Cascais Surf School, Surf’s Up, Moana Surf School and many more.
In line with the resort’s reputation as an upmarket getaway, there are five golf courses within a ten-kilometre radius of Cascais.
Safe to say that Cascais is where affluent Lisboans come to hit the fairways.
The most reputable is the Penha Longa Resort, host of the Portuguese Open and ranked in Europe’s top 30 courses.
There are 27 holes designed by the legendary architect Robert Trent Jones jr.
in the flowing, upland terrain of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park where tall maritime pines line the fairways.
More affordable but still in the premium bracket is Golf do Estoril, laid out in the 20s for Estoril’s high class tourists.
Green fees of €80 in the week and €95 on weekends, and the main course if famed for its absurdly steep and challenging par-3s.