In Portugal’s Centro region, Peniche is a beach destination with many feathers in its cap. First, the raging sea and the lie of the land make this surf central. The best of many supreme beaches is Praia dos Supertubos, which has a tubular wave fit for big time international events.
Peniche has also been a port since the Early Modern Age, when a fort was constructed to defend it. This monument has an absorbing history, first as a maritime defence and then a prison during the Estado Novo regime in the 20th century. And since Peniche is still a fishing port, the fish and seafood could not be fresher. And on top of everything, you also have to make time for a voyage to the Berlingas Islands, a natural reserve off the coast.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Peniche:
1. Praia dos Supertubos
This beach south of the peninsula is revered in the surf community and even made a recent list of Portugal’s seven natural wonders.
Some combination of the shallow slope, north wind and ocean currents gives rise to a tall, perfectly hollow wave that is the ultimate for surfing and bodyboarding.
There isn’t a wave like it anywhere else in Europe, and every October it’s the location (along with nearby Praia do Baleal) for the Rip Curl Pro event when the best surfers in the world test their skills on the pipeline.
Autumn is when the waves are biggest but they’re pretty consistent in any season.
2. Cabo Carvoeiro
At the end of the peninsula is mainland Portugal’s westernmost point to be found north of Cabo da Roca.
Extraordinary at sunset, it’s a majestic cape with 25-metre cliffs that have strange karst formations on the top and face a limestone stack, the Nau dos Corvos (Ship of Crows). On the horizon you can spot the Berlengas Archipelago, while evidence of prehistoric human occupation was found in the Gruta da Furninha cave.
Cabo Carvoiero was always a shipwreck black spot, and a lighthouse has been here since 1790. It continues to warn sea traffic, and has a signal that can be seen 15 nautical miles away.
3. Fortaleza de Peniche
This cliff-top fortress controlling the port was built by King John III in 1557 and then expanded in the 17th century by John IV. At that time it was equipped with the latest anti-cannon architecture and given a star configuration.
As one of Portugal’s pivotal maritime defences it had a military purpose until the end of the 19th century.
From then on it was either a prison for political opponents of the Estado Novo regime, or a shelter for refugees, from the Boer War in the late 1800s or more recently the Angolan Civil War.
You can get up to the roof to scan the ocean, and there’s a museum inside, which we’ll come to next.
4. Museu Municipal de Peniche
Given the varied history of the fort the museum inside has lots of different facets.
One of the periods in focus is Salazar’s dictatorship in the 20th century, when this was a political prison.
Cells have been kept as they were, and there are accounts of covert anti-fascist activity in Portugal during this period.
But there’s also an archaeological side: The Neolithic artefacts from the Gruta da Furninha cave are presented here, while the many shipwrecks at Peniche give us a big section on marine archaeology.
You can also study Peniche’s traditions, like fishing, boat-building and bobbin lace.
A small, rugged peninsula sticking out between two white sandy beaches, Baleal is a former whaling station, now a tiny coastal village next to Peniche.
Those bays, Praia do Baleal Sul and Praia do Baleal Norte, point in slightly different directions.
So as general rule, when there are waves on one the other is calm.
If you’re here just to sunbathe and paddle you can pick the calmer of the two, while surfers, bodyboarders and windsurfers should always have waves to ride.
Baleal is also where most of Peniche’s surf shops and schools can be found and always has a small surf community.
6. Berlengas Archipelago
A trip these islands 10 kilometres offshore is one of those things you simply have to do in Peniche.
The archipelago is a natural reserve, with a colony of puffins and rich marine life in the water.
There’s no permanent settlement, but the main island has a fort, a former penal colony, which is now a campsite.
There are regular ferries across from Peniche as well as companies that will take you in smaller vessels like RIBs.
On the ocean side the Atlantic is rampant , smashing against the rocky shore, while away from the wind and currents the landward side has small beaches with perfect water clarity.
7. Igreja de São Pedro
This church is from the end of the 1500s, but as is often the case in Portugal it was given a big makeover in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The art in the chancel is from this period, and devoted to St Peter; there’s a statue of the saint, and 18th-century paintings of chapters from his life, like Quo Vadis and the Miraculous Catch of Fish.
And it wouldn’t be a Baroque altar without the usual mass of radiant gilt-wood, carved into columns and panels with foliate patterns surrounding cherubs.
8. Peniche Port
Even though it’s a tourist resort Peniche still has a healthy fishing industry, and to see this is in action you should come to the harbour when the fleet returns and unloads its catch on the quay.
The many bars and restaurants around lend the port a convivial ambience, and there’s a bit of history here too.
In the 17th century Peniche was turned into a citadel and a curtain of walls still faces the water, with earthworks on top that have been planted with palms.
9. Igreja de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios
When you visit Cabo Carvoeiro poke your head inside this chapel dating to the 1600s.
It was built after an image of Mary had been found carved into the rock of one of the caves by the water, and remains the subject of a pilgrimage and festival every October.
It’s a gorgeous little compound that has outer walls protecting a courtyard with pines.
Go inside to see the blue and white tile panels evoking episodes from the life of Mary.
10. Praia da Consolação
Down from Peniche, Consolação has two very different bathing areas.
To the south are rocky coves known for their health benefits.
People come to soak in the iodine-rich waters, supposed to help with bone conditions and thyroid problems, and then dry off in the sun.
Just up from here is a craggy peninsula, surmounted by a 17th-century fort and the site of a shipwreck in 1786 when a Spanish galleon was dashed into the rocks.
And from there, arcing round towards Peniche, is a sandy beach, buffeted by white surf and strong breezes, and a hive of watersports in the summer.
11. Igreja de São Leonardo
A couple of kilometres inland is the village of Atouguia da Baleia, which was actually the main seaport in medieval times until the harbour silted up and Peniche replaced it.
And there’s a monument to this lost status, at the fabulous 13th-century Gothic church that was a place of burial for local noble families.
The chancel has a lovely ribbed vault, with floral keystones, and on the wall of the nave is a very rare bas-relief sculpted in the 14th century, as well as a Renaissance painting of St Leonard.
Peniche is could well be Europe’s surf capital, and there’s a lot of competition for your business at the many surf shops and schools.
If you’re here for tuition you could take part in a camp over several days or just book a one-off lesson.
One of the big pros about surfing in Peniche is that all the surfable beaches face different directions, so at least one will have the right waves at any give time, and the school will usually give you a lift by car.
Beginners will be instructed on the basics, as well as safety and surfing etiquette.
If you’re in good shape it’s not unusual to be standing on your board by the end of your first lesson.
Waterparks will always go down well with children, and there’s just outside the centre of Peniche a quick jaunt from the main beaches.
There are four slides, two with a languid, gentle pace for almost all ages, and a multi-lane racer and a fast kamikaze slide for slightly older kids.
The littlest visitors have their own pool with short, shallow flumes that are safe even for toddlers.
Beyond that you have a full-sized pool for swimming or bathing, a cafe and green areas for exhausted children to dry off and for parents who just want to lounge in the sun.
At just 15 minutes there’s no excuse not to see one of the loveliest towns in Portugal.
From the 1200s to the 1500s Óbidos was patronised by Portuguese queens, and you can go adventuring through its warren of streets walled by whitewashed houses that now have artisan shops and restaurants.
The whole settlement is fortified by walls that gained their current form in the 13th and 14th centuries at the behest of Kings Denis I and Fernando.
Find the portal with tiled walls, and soak up the views from the walls out to the coast.
The other upside of being so close is that you can get there earlier before the tourist coaches arrive
Avenida do Mar by the harbour is where the best fish restaurants are, with a selection of tasty regional preparations on the menu: Caldeirada is a stew best described as the Portuguese version of bouillabaisse.
It’s a medley of white and oily fish, spiced with a little piripiri chilli, and every other town has its own recipe.
In Peniche it will involve anglerfish, turbot, ray, dogfish and conger, all cooked with potato.
Arroz de marisco is a delicious seafood rice dish with crab and shrimp, while there’s also lobster soup and the old classic, barbecued sardines.