On the coast not far from Coimbra, Figueira da Foz is a resort city with a casino, bars restaurants and an enormous urban beach.
It’s a destination for doing as little as possible by day and dining and partying by night.
Figueira da Foz has lots of palatial holiday homes, one from the 17th century for the Bishop of Coimbra, and others in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles when the city first came into fashion as a resort.
Dominating the horizon to the north is the Serra da Boa Viagem, an inviting range of pine-cloaked hills with scenic viewpoints, walking trails and a woodland adventure park.
Lets explore the best things to do in Figueira da Foz:
1. Praia da Claridade
Figueira da Foz’s generous white sandy beach began to draw holidaymakers in the 19th century, and the Bairro Novo quarter of bars, hotels and restaurants was soon built next to it.
It’s a bay with sands so broad (the widest urban beach in Europe) that it can be a trek just to get down to the water! The views are satisfying too, up to the pine-clad hills of the Serra da Boa Viagem and Cabo Mondego.
Facilities are plentiful, with a legion of stripy parasols, sun loungers and shops and bars on Avenida 25 de Abril to the rear.
As for the surf, the waves break quite a long way out so there’s some safe, shallow water for youngsters.
2. Casino da Figueira
The city’s casino is among the largest on the Iberian Peninsula, and also the oldest, although you wouldn’t know it from the building’s sleek glass facade.
It goes back to the 19th century, as you’ll see from the opulent Beaux-Arts interiors.
Even if you’re not a high roller it’s worth an evening just for the decoration and to admire the stuccowork and frescos while you ponder your hand at the poker table.
There are a handful of bars and a first-rate restaurant, and before you come you could check the programme to see if the entertainment meets your fancy.
3. Museu Municipal Santos Rocha
Figueira da Foz’s superb history, art and archaeology museum was founded in the 1890s by the prominent archaeologist António dos Santos Rocha.
It moved around a few times before arriving at its modern purpose-built home in 1976. There are lots of riveting things to see, most of all the furniture, sculptures and other decorative pieces brought back from colonies in India, East Africa and the Far East.
There’s plenty of religious art from defunct monasteries and convents, as well as a huge coin collection, sedans, carriages and antique weapons.
4. Nucleo Museologico do Sal
The marshes on the south arm of the Mondego River are a chequerboard of salt ponds.
Salt production is more interesting than it might sound, using techniques that have been passed down for generations.
Recognising its value the town set up this museum by the salt ponds ten years ago.
There’s a raised boardwalk to show you around the site, and a warehouse with exhibits on themes like salt’s role in nature, the history of salt in Portugal, salt production in Figueira da Foz, the production cycle and the natural habitat in these marshes.
5. Palácio Sotto Mayr
Joaquim Soto Mayor was a Portuguese businessman who had made his money in Brazil at the turn of the 20th century, and showed off his wealth at this palace complex a five-minute walk from the beach.
It’s on a road in the Bairro Novo, lined with posh villas from the time when Figueira became a favoured retreat for the well-off.
Check with the tourist office beforehand about opening times or an arranged visit, and you’ll be shown around this luxurious Neo-Renaissance property, enhanced with porcelain, statues, chandeliers and paintings.
Even the stables look like a stately home, while there’s also a viewing tower designed like a Manueline castle.
6. Forte Santa Catarina
In the Early Modern Age the Figueira da Foz was vulnerable to attacks from the ocean, and so a trio of forts were built to deter corsairs and foreign navies.
The sturdiest of these defended the mouth of the Mondego River and dates to the Philippine era at the end of the 16th century.
This has a triangular plan, and was repeatedly attacked and rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries.
You can come by for the view from the top of the walls, and to see the little Mannerist chapel here, built in 1598 and with an image of Santa Catarina from the 1700s.
7. Cabo Mondego
The Serra da Boa Viagem mountain range meets the Atlantic at this mighty headland a couple of kilometres up from the city.
There’s a lay-by on a bend in the road where you can get out and gaze over the city and Praia da Figueira.
There’s also a lighthouse up here, while the cliffs are worth a mention for their geology.
They’re composed of sedimentary rock and are streaked with fossils from the Middle and Upper Jurassic Period.
There’s also an amazing panorama from the Abrigo da Montanha, a restaurant resting a short way inland and up the slope.
8. Praia do Cabedelo
On the left bank of the Mondego there’s yet another epic beach.
This one has been divided into two sections, linked by a boardwalk that crosses the dunes to the rear.
By the mouth of the river is a small bay shielded by long breakwaters.
This keeps the ocean currents out, leaving calm, shallow water to float in.
On the other side of the groyne is the southern part of the beach, which continues for a kilometre and is washed by the Atlantic’s rolling waves.
Surfers love it, as we’ll find out later, but if you’re just planning on lounging on the sand this beach will also do the trick.
9. Casa do Paço
The Bishop of Coimbra ordered this palace in the 17th century, and it’s set a few steps from the marina on the Mondego.
The outside is rather unassuming as the palace is integrated with modern shops, but the headline attraction is inside, with room after room decorated with Dutch tiles.
These blue and white tiles were produced in Delft near Rotterdam at the beginning of the 18th century.
How 6,700 of them (a record-breaking quantity) came to be at this palace is a bit of a puzzle.
One theory is that they were recovered from a shipwreck.
10. Centro de Artes e Espectáculos
If you’re up for some culture you could always see what’s on the program at this enormous arts venue next to the Museu Municipal Santos Rocha.
This modern building opened in 2002 and has two auditoriums, one seating more than 800, and several galleries.
There’s opera, art exhibitions, dance, live music, theatre and workshops for kids.
The centre also has a cinema showing acclaimed independent movies.
At the time of writing there’s a season for Wim Wenders.
Only 15 minutes upriver is this menacing castle, soaring over the Mondego River and the rice paddies beside it.
It was built in the 11th century after the fall of Coimbra, and was the region’s key fortification, marking the frontier between the Christian north and the Moorish south during the Reconquista.
You’ll realise why this was such a prized strategic spot when you patrol the battlements and can see for miles in every direction.
There’s a church within the walls with Gothic and Manueline architecture, and fittings and sculpture going back to the 14th century.
Somehow Figeira da Foz has stayed off the map as a surfing destination, overshadowed by places like Peniche.
But this city holds its own against the best and has a growing community, with a surf camp and various shops and schools.
There’s surfing at Praia da Claridade, Cabedelo and Murtinheira.
But the beach that gives surfers goosebumps is just up the coast at Buarcos, which on the right day has the longest right-hand break in Europe, with hollow tubular sections that are a dream to ride.
13. Parque Aventura Figueira da Foz
On a snaking road ten minutes into the Serra da Boa Viagem from Figueira is an adventure course turning an area of pine woodland into a sort of treetop village.
You’ll learn the ropes on a test course, showing you how to use the harness and karabiners before climbing high above the forest floor: There’s a range of challenges in the form of rope nets, a 90-metre zip line and tricky bridges suspended by rope and connecting with platforms fastened to trees in the canopy.
14. Ferry Ride on the Mondego
Until the 1970s the last stretch of the Mondego was a busy highway of ferries transporting shipyard workers and students.
This activity was lost until recently, when the ferry service was revived.
You can catch the Saramugo to get across the estuary to Cabedelo for a day of surfing or doing sweet nothing on the beach.
The same company also offers trips up the river, exploring the southern arm and its salt farms, or going as far as Montemor-o-Velho.
Figueira da Foz is very partial to fish and seafood (cod, sardines, mussels, eels and even lamprey), and has many trademark recipes.
Here’s a few to look out for at traditional restaurants: Pataniscas de bacalhau, which is cod shredded and deep-fried, enguias de escabeche, fried eels in a wine, vinegar and garlic sauce, and caldeirada de petinga, a stew made with tomato, onions and baby sardines.
On saints days and Christmas you’ll catch the scent of broas doces being baked, although they’re popular all year round.
These are pumpkin pastries with currants, walnuts and cinnamon.