Between the Aveiro Lagoon and the Atlantic, Gafanha da Nazaré is a seafaring town in the Ílhavo municipality. With the scent of brine in the air and trawlers still moored in the port, most of your activities will have a nautical theme.
You can doze off on the beach watch the rolling surf, dine on ocean-fresh seafood and learn about the White Fleet. These were cod-fishing vessels sailing across the Atlantic and up to the North Sea to sate Portugal’s hunger for “bacalhau”. There’ s a maritime museum in Ílhavo and a gigantic trawler on the canal in Gafanha da Nazaré, open to visitors.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Gafanha da Nazaré:
1. Museu Marítimo de Ílhavo
Ílhavo’s maritime museum opened its doors in 2003. It was designed by the duo Nuno Mateus and José Mateus, and is still cited as one of the most spectacular museum buildings in the world.
It handles all aspects of the city’s relationship with the ocean and lagoon.
So there’s a gallery for those long cod-fishing expeditions, and a replica of a trawler to investigate.
In the “Sala da Ria” you’ll get acquainted with the nature and culture of the Aveiro Lagoon, with real examples of painted “moliceiro” vessels.
You can also get a closer look at the fish that launched a thousand ships, in the cod aquarium, added in 2013.
2. Navio-Museu Santo André
After reading about the White Fleet at the maritime museum you can step aboard a genuine trawler docked at Gafanha da Nazaré.
This side-loading vessel is more than 71 metres long, and was built in the Netherlands for the Empresa de Pesca de Aveiro in 1948. The boat was in service in the North Sea and Newfoundland until it was finally retired in 1997. Go aboard and tour the mess, sailors’ quarters and bridge.
The massive hold has been turned into a an exhibition room with paintings and photos of the White Fleet.
3. Jardim Oudinot
Beside the Mira Canal at the Port of Aveiro there’s an agreeable public space that was regenerated with a multimillion-Euro scheme in the 2000s.
In a former industrial zone there are now bike and walking trails, picnic areas, a marina, sports facilities and rows of palm trees.
It’s all close to the Santo André trawler, and is where the town’s big festivals are held.
In mid-August there’s the Festival do Bacalhau, honouring Ílhavo’s old fishing fleet with cooking demonstrations, tastings, handicraft markets and lots of fun activities for little ones.
4. Capela de Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes
A Portuguese heritage building, this chapel is the oldest religious building in Gafanha da Nazaré, dating to 1863. It has a Gothic revival style with a cute rose window and pointed merlons atop its main facade.
The portal is made of pale limestone from the town of Ançã 60 kilometres to the south, with an ogival arch carved in a spiral pattern.
Fishermen would come to this chapel to pray to the image of Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes before departing on voyages.
5. Aveiro Lagoon
Measuring 45 by 11 kilometres, the Aveiro Lagoon is one of Europe’s largest undeveloped wetland reserves.
To look at it you wouldn’t know that this lagoon is quite new, created by tectonic movement around 500 years ago.
It’s also very shallow, with an average depth of just a metre, and with shipping lanes that have to be dredged regularly.
In many ways time has stood still here; the crescent-shaped moliceiro boats, originally used to harvest seaweed, still navigate the lagoon and Aveiro’s canals.
There are also salt farms using age-old techniques, used for Portugal’s beloved salted cod.
6. Praia da Barra
This divine ocean beach is at the mouth of the lagoon a couple of kilometres from the centre of Gafanha da Nazaré.
Praia da Barra has the feel of a small resort, with a cluster of restaurants and bars next to the beach and is traced by a boardwalk and low dunes.
The beach is in two parts, and has a child-friendly portion to the north that is bookended by breakwaters, keeping the ocean surf at bay.
South of the lower breakwater there’s a ribbon of sand that sweeps out into the distance towards Costa Nova.
This is for surfers and people who can handle boisterous waves.
7. Celebrações em honra de Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes
If you’re in Gafanha da Nazaré for some late summer sun in September you may be in time for this extraordinary devotional spectaccle.
Starting in the old cod fishing port and ending at the Capela de Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes is a flotilla carrying the Marian image of the same name.
It all takes place on the third weekend of the month, and hundreds of vessels take part.
These can be luxury yachts, traditional moliceiros, tugboats and trawlers.
The annual procession has taken place for more than 150 years, but it’s only since the 70s that it has been conducted on the water.
8. Farol da Barra
Portugal’s tallest lighthouse has been ushering ships into the Port of Aveiro and along the coast since 1890. It towers above the resort area at the Praia da Barra, reaching 62 metres and painted with red and white hoops.
If you’re wondering what the view must be like from the top you can see for yourself on Wednesday afternoon.
It is 291 steps to the top, but you can also take an elevator.
And from the beacon you’ll have a 360° view encompassing the lagoon, Aveiro, Gafanha da Nazaré, Ílhavo and the São Jacinto Peninsula.
9. Costa Nova
A very pretty seaside village five minutes from Gafanha da Nazaré, Costa Nova has kept its fishing heritage alive.
This is manifested in its quaint weatherboard houses.
Painted in bright stripes, these were temporary shelters and warehouses for fishing gear, but are now quaint holiday homes.
You can hire a bike in Costa Nova to coast beside the lagoon or the ocean front, and a mini-golf course for some family fun.
The beach is a surfer’s dream, with rolling beach breaks that hit staggering heights in autumn and winter.
10. Mercado do Peixe da Costa Nova
Facing the lagoon, Costa Nova’s fish market is open every morning except Monday, its counters have a bewildering selection of fish and shellfish.
Even seasoned connoisseurs may not recognise some of these.
On weekends you can buy freshly cooked goose barnacles or cockles, the ultimate snack for a wander beside the ocean.
Local handicrafts are sold here, like lace and the lagoon’s famed ceramics, and you can stock up on everyday provisions like fruit and veg.
11. Vista Alegre Museum
Vista Alegre has produced high-quality porcelain by royal appointment for 200 years.
Its founder Pinto Basto chose this site by the lagoon in 1815 because of the abundance of all the materials and minerals for making porcelain, like clay, sand and crystallised pebbles.
The museum is in a converted factory building, and incorporates two kilns and a trove of more than 30,000 porcelain items, most created by Vista Alegre.
As part of the visit you can also see inside the current workshops where the porcelain is painted by hand.
This old factory was the centre of a Utopian village built from scratch with facilities to keep workers healthy and happy, like a theatre and day-care centre for children.
The capital of the district is five minutes away and has the shops and ambience of a big city.
is a shopping centre cleverly integrated into the city on the quayside, equipped with international high street shops, restaurants and a cinema.
In Aveiro you can also glide along the canals on one of those colourfully painted moliceiro boats passing the Art Nouveau houses that line the quays.
But if there’s one reason to go, it’s for the Museum of Aveiro.
This is in the Dominican Convent of Jesus and was where Joanna, Princess of Portugal lived and died in the 15th century.
She was the daughter of Afonso V, and her inlaid marble tomb in the church’s choir is exceptionally ornate.
13. São Jacinto
At the Port of Aveiro in Gafanha da Nazaré’s you can catch a ferry across the estuary to the small community of São Jacinto.
The boat takes 15 minutes and there are up to 13 crossings each way every day.
São Jacinto is on the southern tip of its namesake peninsular on the western shore of the lagoon.
On one side are the lagoon’s shallow, saline waters and on the west side, a few hundred metres away, are the untamed Atlantic waves.
And to the north for ten kilometres there’s nothing but the desert-like landscape of the São Jacinto dunes.
Between the lagoon and the ocean you’ll have the right conditions for all manner of water-based adventure.
There’s a clutch of surf schools by the ocean, offering week-long camps or one -off lessons.
And if you’re up for something with a shallower learning curve there’s always bodyboarding.
On the lagoon companies like Riactiva have the gear and tuition for windsurfing and kitesurfing, but guided stand-up paddleboarding excursions are also provided.
And finally, with shallow depths and healthy winds, the lagoon is as good a location as any to learn how to sail a catamaran.
15. Food and Drink
You can’t visit the home of Portugal’s White Fleet and not try salted cod at least once.
Portugal has hundreds of ways of preparing this delicacy, and the local version is baked with onions, herbs and sliced potatoes.
Whether grilled or in a stew, fish and seafood are staples around the Aveiro Lagoon.
The eels that inhabit these waters are the basis for a broth with tomatoes, paprika and saffron.
There’s also cataplana, a stew with a medley of shellfish and arroz de marisco (seafood rice), usually with clams, mussels, crab and shrimp.
For dessert rice pudding is a product of the paddies around the lagoon and is spiced with cinnamon.