Northern Portugal Summer

Fog in July? Frigid water even when it’s sunny? The nortada wind? Welcome to the northern Portugal summer, where the gorgeous beaches call anyway. Three tips on how to get the most out of your next beach trip.

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Porto beach sunset
I am the product of a suburban Chicago childhood, where summer always meant the pool, not the beach.  Sure, Lake Michigan was an option, but it was also frequently off limits because of contamination from nearby food processing plants (!) and I didn’t spend much time downtown until I lived in Chicago as an adult.  As a consequence, I only had a vague appreciation for coastal life – I always considered myself more of a concrete than camping type, if you know what I mean – so people who have always lived near the sea will probably find what I’m about to say the Captain Obvious of openers: the ocean never gets boring. 
We spend most of the year in northern Portugal, and now that I live here, I finally understand what my husband had been saying to me for all those years before we moved.  My daily constitutional walking along the oceanfront, looking out at the rocky coast and the vastness of the ocean beyond it, somehow manages to look just a little bit different each time.  And when I’m away from the water, I miss the feeling of smallness against its seeming infinity.  Perhaps for the same reasons, in northern Portugal there is no day too cloudy, no water temperature too cold, and no wind too ripping to empty the beach of the Portuguese.
School’s out by the end of June here, and July starts the época balnear, beach season, for schools with summer programs and day camps.  This entails two weeks of busload after busload of Portuguese children – some as young as two or three – heading off with their class to spend each morning at the beach.  Sunscreen is grudgingly slathered on at home beforehand.  Flip flops smack away on sandy feet.  And each school has their designated area on the beach, complete with its own barraca, a little tent house, which provides shade and where towels and an impossible variety of plastic pails and shovels are stored for the next day’s sandcastles.
But northern Portugal being northern Portugal, July at the beach might look something like this:
Beach Porto
Peaceful at sunset
Beach Povoa
Gearing up in the AM
Or it might look something like this:
Beyond all that fog is probably the ocean.
more fog 1
Could also be an overpass. Who can say?
Yet for all the blather about bad weather in the north, the truth is most summer days are perfect beach days here.  And though there are all kinds of “best beaches in northern Portugal” lists out there, the beaches are almost uniformly beautiful in all their untamed glory.  Plus, there is some fantastic people watching a beira mar, by the sea, whether its divers looking for percebeswhich you should try if you haven’t, as I try to convince everybody to do here – or groups of weathered old men shouting over cards, or the mingle of Portuguese families with coolers and tourists sipping cocktails all along the waterfront.  Like I said, the ocean never gets boring.       
divers looking for percebes
Divers always identify with fluorescent dive floats
men playing cards
I feel like there’s a canasta joke in here somewhere.
However, perfect beach days in northern Portugal are a little different than in the south.  Since it’s always good to be prepared, here are three things to keep in mind in planning your next northern Portugal beaches tour.

Plan Your Refreshments Strategy

The main rule of thumb about comes e bebes, eats and drinks, on northern beaches in Portugal is that the closer they are to an urban center with a lot of foot traffic, the more seaside cafés and restaurants you’ll have to choose from.  (There’s less of a culture of drinks-only establishments like bars, but even the most humble café in Portugal sells wine and beer, as I explain here.) If you’re looking for something a little more secluded – keeping in mind that you’re not likely to get a whole lot of total isolation considering the fact that more than 80% of the Portuguese live near the coast – you’ll have to bring your own supplies.  Some of the main beach-adjacent cities that have a good mix of beach and an easily accessible restaurant scene are in Costa Nova (near Aveiro), Porto (including Gaia and Matosinhos), Vila do Conde, Póvoa de Varzim, Viana de Castelo, and Espinho.
Personally, while I can certainly appreciate the value of some quiet and contemplative beach time, I am fundamentally too lazy a human to pack a lunch, and I can only handle a couple hours of sand at a time anyway.  I much prefer a more urban beach with restaurant options to get out of the sun and get into some grilled fish or mussels washed down with a cold glass of vinho verde  (I’ve talked about this lovely white wine here before).  In fact, there are a lot of fantastic fish and seafood restaurants in the north, including several “Bib Gourmand” designated restaurants from the Michelin Guide, which are high quality, reasonably priced options if you are not in the Michelin-Starred restaurants scene.  I wrote about these options for people looking for great cuisine outside of Lisbon, so check out the entries for Costa Nova, Porto, Gaia, Vila do Conde, and Viana de Castelo.

Strike Out in the Morning

There’s a reason that Portuguese littles go to the beach in the morning hours, and it’s not just because the sun is weaker.  It’s also because of the nortada or the vento do norte, the northern wind, which hits Portugal in the summer months and tends to grow stronger as the day goes on.  How strong? Well, if you’ve got a parasol dug into the sand, it can blow it right out if it’s not planted deep enough.  And even when it’s not particularly strong, it will still whip long hair around.  In the morning, however, the wind tends to be relatively calm or even absent, so if wind is not your thing, plan your beach visit during the AM.
As for me, the nortada poses a logistical challenge.  I might like to catch a few rays on the weekend, but first I want a leisurely meia da leite, a coffee drink similar to a latte (see here for more on Portuguese coffee), and to compulsively read bad news back in the United States.  I am decidedly against early morning beach.  But since I don’t usually park myself at the beach all day, the nortada actually keeps me from sizzling away and I leave before it becomes annoying.  The nortada also tends to be stronger the farther north you go, so it’s usually not too bad in the Greater Porto area, but it can be harder to avoid beyond that.
Also, the sand in many northern beaches is not as fine as in the south – it’s more like finely pebbled – so don’t worry, the nortada will not be flinging sand in your eyes.  Probably.
Pro Tip: Check out the website Praia em Directo and use the map to locate the beach you’re planning on visiting.  There you can see the water temperature (temperatura da água) and wind speed (velocidade do vento) before heading out.  A relatively strong wind would be something over 40 km/h. 

Bring the Right Gear

Something you won’t see too often in the Algarve but that’s indispensable in the north is the para-vento to block the wind.  The para-vento is made from the same material as a beach umbrella, but it functions as a wall that you mount in the sand and that will protect you from the worst of the nortada.  You can usually buy them in any beachfront store that sells beach supplies, or in a hypermarket like Continente, which is similar to Target, or Auchan.
para vento
Para-vento at a beach restaurant
Keep in mind, that beach umbrellas, lounge chairs, and para-ventos are not typically available for rent in the north.  Some beaches have concessions that will rent a barraca, the little tent house, for the day or various days, but you have to bring your own chairs, or just hunker down on your towel with a para-vento, which is what most people do. 
After that, enjoy the salty brine of the ocean, the comradery of friends and family, and maybe, if you’re lucky, an old man dressed all in white, like an oasis in the dessert, will come by selling bolas de Berlim, a Portuguese take on a Boston cream donut, and you can hold out long enough to catch a spectacular sunset.
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