On the coast in Portugal’s Norte Region, Esposende is a resort by the Cávado River Estuary. The coastline is blessed with a chain of Blue Flag beaches, all in the North Coast Natural Park, which rolls out for kilometres north and south of Esposende. You can learn to ride the tube-like Atlantic waves at a surf camp, or just lounge on the luxurious white sands and pootle around the dunes and riverbanks.
In the town there are a couple of engrossing museums and a lovely 17th-century church. While to the east the coastal plain is dominated by granite mountains, where religious sanctuaries and ancient villages like the Castro de São Lourenço rest amid coniferous forest.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Esposende:
1. Castro de São Lourenço
On a granite spur 200 metres above sea level is an Iron Age fortified village, which has given up artefacts as old as the 4th century BC. There’s an obvious Roman influence in some of the later buildings, and you can also see where the streets have been paved between the houses.
With the first metre of the village’s buildings still visible, you don’t need much imagination to picture how this place would have looked at the height of its powers.
On top of that historical interest the castro is a lofty place to gaze over the Atlantic, and down to Fão and the Cávado River.
2. Praia Suave Mar
In summer, between June and September, you can catch a tourist train from Esposende to this beach a few hundred metres up the waterfront.
Like every beach around the town Praia Suave Mar is in the Litoral Norte Natural Park, which keeps heavy construction at bay.
There’s just a line of dunes behind and views up to the granite peaks in the distance.
The beach has well-tended white sand, and is washed by rolling waves.
These break a long way out, which leaves a large shallow space for people who just want to dip their feet in the brisk Atlantic water.
3. Praia de Ofir
South of the Cávado Estaury is another of Esposende’s beaches that wins a Blue Flag every year.
The beach is in front of the small tourist enclave in Ofir, which is aimed at a younger crowd and has a surf school and a few places to go out on summer nights.
This is all bordered by a forest of sky-scraping maritime pines.
As for the beach, there are the same dunes and vigorous waves that will have watersports fans raring to go.
And when the tide goes out you can see the Cavalos de Fão (Horses of Fão) , natural clusters of rock that emerging from the sea.
4. Museu Municipal de Esposende
The town’s museum is in an eye-catching building from 1911. This used to be the Teatro-Club de Esposende and was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by the Miguel Ventura Terra who had lots of commissions in Portugal around the start of the 20th century.
The galleries recount Esposende’s past, from the Upper Palaeolithic to medieval times.
Naturally there are finds from the Castro de São Lourenço, like buckles, hairpins, coins, knifes, spearheads and glassware.
But there’s also material from the medieval cemetery in Fão, a Roman villa unearthed in Apúlia and three Megalithic dolmens situated in the municipality.
5. Igreja da Misericórdia de Esposende
The Baroque church in the historic centre is from the middle of the 17th century.
The outside is charming if understated, with granite portals and the town’s coat of arms on the gable.
The headline though is the Capela do Senhor dos Mareantes, which shines in the otherwise unadorned interior.
This chapel is a Portuguese National Monument and dates from the donation of its Crucifixion shrine at the end of the 1600s.
This image is set against a polychrome sculpted ensemble, with gilded sun rays, Mary, Joseph and the heads of angels.
On the ceiling and the chapel walls there are also panels representing the messianic prophets, with meticulous workmanship in their faces and clothing.
Esposende is a good place to learn to ride your first waves.
The right and left beach breaks produce fun peaks and hollow waves that are around a metre high, which is fine for newcomers to the sport.
You also won’t have to wait your turn as the beaches are large and surfers usually flock to resorts south of Porto.
There are three surf camps in the town for those who want an intensive week-long course (see Kook Proof, Onda Magna and ElementFish). Kite-surfing is also on the menu, and the same surf camps also hire out stand-up paddleboards, which are a fun way to get around the calmer estuary waters.
7. Parque Natural do Litoral Norte
One of the best things about being in the middle of a natural park is the choice of walks nearby.
There are ten marked trails around Esposende, passing dunes, windmills, white sandy beaches, reed beds, farms, oak woodland, soaring maritime pine forest and marshes.
Tread quietly on the riverbanks and you might see an otter, heron or black-necked grebe.
A total of 117 bird species have been sighted in the park, and strategically positioned hides have been installed if you’re up for some spotting some.
8. Piscinas Municipais Foz do Cávado
While Esposende has some first-rate beaches, bathing can be tricky as the ocean water is chilly and the surf can be too strong.
If you do feel like going for a swim there’s an excellent alternative at Esposende’s public pool complex, right on the estuary.
This has an indoor pool open year-round and generating waves for five minutes every hour.
Outside there are two pools, one for kids and one where you can get some serious swimming done, and both are fed by saltwater from the ocean.
9. Santuário da Senhora da Guia
In Belinho you can battle up one of the inland peaks to visit this sanctuary with marvellous views of the Atlantic.
At a height of 150 metres there’s a sequence of terraces linked by stairways and hosting a chapel rebuilt in 1970, gardens, a fountain, a monumental cross and statues of people important to the area.
One of these is the 14th-century military commander Nuno Álvares Pereira who is said to have prayed at this location before leading Portugal to victory against Spain in the Battle of Aljubarrota.
10. Forte de São João Baptista de Esposende
This fort has controlled the mouth of the Cávado since the reign of Peter II at the turn of the 18th century.
And even if it’s just a minor curiosity the building is worth a closer look, and there’s a footbridge across this nook of the estuary beside it to help you do this.
You can get a good look at the bartizans on the corners, and the acutely angled walls built to repel cannon fire.
The lighthouse that rises behind dates to 1922 and is one of just a small number of metallic lighthouses existing in Portugal.
11. Praia da Ramalha
The beaches in Esposende are so large that you’ll always be able to find a corner all to yourself.
But if you really value peace and privacy you can carry on down to Apúlia under ten kilometres to the south.
The sandy area here is vast, larger than any other beach near Esposende.
And like the others on this list it’s a Blue Flag recipient and is within the natural park.
After that there’s not much else apart from a campsite, a bar, cafe and the boisterous waves.
12. Museu Marítimo de Esposende
Next door to the municipal pools at the entrance to the estuary is a maritime museum.
This only opened in 2012 at Esposende’s “Estação de Socorros a Náufragos”. Built in the early 1900s, it was a rescue station for ships in distress, so you can imagine the building was already drenched with seafaring heritage.
With models, photographs and equipment salvaged from ships, the museum reveals Esposende’s maritime activity, from fishing to shipbuilding to ocean rescue.
You can also peruse some artefacts from the many vessels that have gone down off the coast of Esposende, including the wreck of a caravel in 1548.
13. Bike Rides
If you hand over your ID at Esposende’s tourist office you can rent a bike for free.
This is the easiest way to get around the web of footbridges in the Parque Natural do Litoral Norte but is also ideal for seeing Esposende.
You could take a swift self–guided tour of the cute historical centre around the Igreja da Misericórdia.
There’s the town hall, streets lined with genteel granite-built townhouses and a pillory that was the symbol of the town’s autonomy and freedom of its citizens.
14. Day Trips
Inside half an hour you can get to the cities of Viana do Castelo and Barcelos, and both are days out to keep in your plans.
Viana do Castelo is a refined old city of churches, squares, fountains and palaces emblazoned with their family coats of arms.
There’s so much architecture that the town has drawn up special trails for each style, from Renaissance to Art Deco.
Don’t leave without catching the funicular up to the Santa Luzia Sanctuary for an epic panorama of the coast and mountains.
Barcelo is a beautiful Minho Valley city that all of Portugal knows for the Rooster of Barcelos that has become a national symbol.
There’s fantastic ceramics museum in the town filling you in on the 17th-century legend behind this symbol.
The ocean off Esposende abounds with octopuses, and these are served at nearly every traditional restaurant.
The dish to try is polve de Espodende, a stew with cabbage, potatoes and octopus.
But you can also get them grilled and fried.
The crab, mussels, limpets and shrimp are also all delicious and supremely fresh, and go into a multitude of rice preparations and stews like arroz de marisco.
If you can’t decide on one thing, you could always just go for a big seafood platter.
Vinho verde is the regional wine in the North of Portugal, and is sharp and fresh enough to pair beautifully with seafood.