We’ve been visiting Figueira da Foz a lot more recently; we now have an apartment there, which we use when we don’t have tenants. I love being able to pop to the beach and every time we go, we find even more amazing things to see and do in this small city in Central Portugal.
Figueira da Foz, aka the Queen of Beaches, has been a popular Portuguese holiday resort for over 100 years, hence the number of hotels, holiday apartments and rooms to let. It’s only a 45-minute drive from Coimbra so easy enough for a day trip either way, depending on which city you choose as a base.
There are, of course, more things to do in Figueira da Foz than lounge on its beaches or stroll the extensive promenade.
If you get bored of sunbathing, you’ll find artistic surprises, walks through forests, salt pans and nature reserves, a dash of history and some sweet treats.
Read on to find out what’s in store, and why more and more expats are choosing to make it their home.
1. Take your pick of Figueira da Foz beaches
You can choose from 13 different beaches in the area. Seek seclusion at Praia da Murtinheira, surf and bodyboarding at Praia do Cabedelo or have family fun at Praia do Cabeldelinho.
These are the ones closest to the city centre.
Praia do Relógio, aka Praia da Claridade
Literally across the road from the city centre, the golden sands of Praia do Relógio seem to go on forever. Thankfully, a network of wooden boardwalks help protect your bare feet from the scorching sand on your way to the water or beach cafés and the lack of natural shade is overcome by rows of stripy tents that you can hire for the day. You can, of course, bring your own beach umbrella and a windbreak might come in handy.
Buarcos beaches, Figueira da Foz
I prefer the beaches at Buarcos, just a little further north along the seafront. The distance between the road and the ocean is much shorter in Buarcos, especially the further north you go.
At the tiny rocky bay of Praia da Tamugeueira you only have to walk a few metres to feel the chill of the Atlantic fizzing around your ankles.
At low tide, you can follow this beach north, as it changes name to Praia do Cabo do Mondego and then Praia do Teimoso. These are my absolute favourite sections of beach in Figueira da Foz because of the rock formations and rock pools. There is some amazing seaweed and I’ve also discovered sea slugs and a purple starfish!
If conditions are favourable and you’re willing to don a wetsuit, you could join the lines of surfers waiting for the right wave further down the coast in Cabedelo and Gala. The beaches here are backed by sand dunes and tend to be more windswept and less busy.
Beyond the Serra da Boa Viagem, the forested hills north of Figueira da Foz, you’ll find the extensive sands of Quiaios and Murtinheira beaches, which are likely to be quieter than the ones in Figueira.
Check this for a complete guide to Figueira da Foz beaches.
Is it safe to swim?
Only a few brave souls venture past their knees in Figueira da Foz, even in summer. It’s not just the bracing temperature that keeps people from venturing too deep; there are often strong waves and undercurrents so pay attention to the warning flags before taking the plunge.
See the practicalities section at the end of this article about Portuguese beaches for more beach-going tips.
2. Go to a festival in Figueira da Foz
The wide expanse of sand hosts a variety of summer events from huge music festivals to sporting tournaments.
Although summer is peak time for festivals, there are other events throughout the year, with the annual carnival parade being one of the best in the country.
Check here for upcoming events.
3. Taste the best ice cream in Figueira da Foz
For Mike and I, it’s not just the beach that brings us to Figueira da Foz, it’s the ice cream sundaes. Even after all these years I still couldn’t tell you whether the Portuguese are correct in their assertion that the best ones are from Emanha. We’ve remained loyal to the copa primavera (spring sundae) and copa silvestres (fruits of the forest sundae) from Gelataria São Remo in Buarcos.
Yet another of our favourite things to do in Figueira da Foz!
4. Barter at a market in Figueira da Foz
The monthly (1st Saturday of the month) outdoor antiques and collector’s fair is huge and takes place along the harbour. You’ll find a fine collection of retro furniture, old-fashioned bedspreads and kitsch crockery.
For fresher fare, there’s a municipal market in Buarcos and another in Figueira da Foz itself where the refurbished market hall offers up daily doses of colour and odours. The fish market has such a good reputation it draws customers from miles around.
5. Find the Figueira da Foz fortifications
Buarcos was once a separate village but has long been absorbed by the sprawl of Figueira. Back in the 12th century, when Portugal as a country was in its infancy and battling hard against the Muslims and other invaders, there was a castle here. All that remains of it now is one corner, which is not really worth a special detour. Instead, enjoy the defensive walls and fortresses near the sea front.
Although the castle served its purpose in keeping marauders and enemy forces at bay in the middle ages, advances in the art of warfare rendered it ineffective by the 16th century when the Santa Catarina fortress was built at the mouth of the river.
This small fortress still looks impressive and has an attractive pond and sculpture (more about her later) in the grounds beneath it. Part of the fort is now a bar with a terrace on the roof, which is a nice place for drinks with views of the water.
The lighthouse on top has very limited opening times and there’s a small chapel inside the fortress. You can get more information from this leaflet.
6. Walk the walls of Buarcos Fortress
At the Buarcos end of Figueira da Foz you’ll see several stretches of the bulwark of this fortress, built to protect the shipping commerce from pirates.
If you go through the tunnel in the wall, away from the beach and towards the village of Buarcos, you’ll find an azulejo panel that shows what this fishing community looked like in the past.
7. See where local women used to dry fish
Beside the thick walls of Buarcos Fortress you’ll find some wooden racks and photos of them when they were used by local women to dry the ray that their menfolk caught at sea.
8. Find out what’s on at the Centro de Artes e Espectaculos (CAE)
As the name (Centre for Arts and Shows) suggests, this arts centre hosts a range of musical events and exhibitions throughout the year.
As you enter the front of the building, you pass through the Inner Garden with its intriguing ash tree sculptures. The ground floor is lined by an array of small galleries with exhibitions of varying standards, which are free to visit.
The theater, dance and music schools occupy the first floor along with a small cinema and more exhibition rooms.
In the summer season, there are frequent festivals, concerts and DJ nights but these become a bit thin on the ground once the holidaymakers disappear. For more information and current programme see the website.
9. Peruse exhibits at Santos Rocha Museum
This little gem of a museum is next to the CAE and contains some extraordinary pieces of Indo-Portuguese furniture and fascinating exhibits from African countries.
It also hosts temporary contemporary art exhibitions and, for the forseeable future, the main room is occupied by one of my favourite artists, João Reis. His paintings of the local fishing community, nature and landscapes can keep me enthralled for hours.
The museum is open Tuesday to Friday 9:30 am to 5 pm and Saturday 2pm to 7 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday.
10. Check out the street art
You’ll find several great examples of street art around the town.
Add Fuel is a Portuguese artist who reinterprets the language of traditional tile design, as can be seen with his work located near the Santa Catarina fortress. Herança means Heritage.
11. Wander around Figueira da Foz old town
There’s still a nucleus of traditional architecture in various states of repair in the historical centre. You’ll find family run shops here and local people simply going about their business, regardless of the season.
Café culture is, of course, part of daily life and there are plenty of outdoor seating areas where you can catch up with local gossip or simply relax and do some people watching.
12. Chill out at Figueira da Foz Marina
I always find a visit to a marina relaxing and Figueira’s is no exception. There’s something about the sound of wires slapping against masts that I find soothing.
The mooring area for the pleasure boats in Fig is quite small but, on a sunny day, if you can find a shady bench, there’s nothing like reflecting on life’s joys as you watch the boats gently bob about.
You also get rowers, kayakers and paddleboaders practicing their maneuvering skills in the protected calm water.
13. Browse top quality art at Galeria o Rastro
Strolling around and taking time to explore a new place is one of my favourite things to do, after all that’s how you find the gems. And that’s exactly how we stumbled upon this lovely gallery, which is bursting with works of art of various genres.
Wander through the labyrinth of rooms and you’ll find paintings, sculptures and other delights by some of Portugal’s most renowned artists as well as a few international ones.
The owner and staff are friendly and always happy to assist. Works can be purchased online and various events take place throughout the year. See their Facebook page for up to date information.
14. Admire sculptures around town
Besides the usual assistance a visit to the Tourist Information office offers, I highly recommend popping up to the first floor gallery of the one in Figueira da Foz to see some excellent artwork.
You’ll find some amazing sculptures on display by Laranjeira Santos, the artist who made the reclining lady found in the water pool near the Santa Catarina fortress. Although locals were initially shocked at the nude, they have grown to love her and nicknamed her A Preguiça (The Lazy Woman).
The building itself features a turret, earning it the nickname Engineer Silva’s Castle. It was built in the 19th century as the residence for the hydroelectrical engineer who designed the Bairro Novo, or New Neighbourhood of Santa Catarina.
There are other sculptures around the city, notably the large bellied ladies in the municipal gardens near the market and marina. Unfortunately, I haven’t made a note of the artist’s name.
15. Try your luck or see a show at Figueira da Foz Casino
The oldest casino in the Iberian peninsula, Figueira’s is not only beautifully decorated inside, it also hosts an array of concerts and events and contains a selection of restaurants.
For further details check out the website at Figueira da Foz Casino.
16. Explore Figueira da Foz salt pans
In the flat land near the suspension bridge, beyond the old part of town, lie a network of salt pans and a nature reserve. There’s a walking route (Rota das Salinas PR6 FF) that takes you to the Salt Museum and through the salt pans, providing plenty of bird-watching opportunities.
Mike and I were starting to wonder where all the flamingoes were hiding until we found them all huddled together in a massive lagoon about halfway around the trail. It was winter when we did this so there were no pyramids of salt to be found, although crystals were starting to form in some of the smaller pans.
17. Head to the forest near Figueira da Foz
If you need to escape the sun and sand for a while, you don’t have to go far. One option is to drive up to the pine forest at Serra da Boa Viagem with a picnic and take a stroll through the woods.
Or go for a more strenuous hike if you have proper walking shoes and ideally poles.
Note that my friend Dori and I have tried to follow the PR3 FF trail 3 times, with the help of Wikiloc, and never managed to stick to the (not very well) marked trail! The views are stunning though, offering a variety of woodland, coastline, a waterfall and rock formations.
18. See the views from the Serra da Boa Viagem viewpoint
You can drive to this hilltop terrace in the Serra da Boa Viagem and enjoy amazing views of the coast and countryside. If you choose to stick to the coastal road on the way downhill, it will take you past the old limestone quarry and the Cabo do Mondego lighthouse, with some gorgeous views.
Where to stay in Figueira da Foz
You could visit Figueira da Foz as a day trip from Coimbra or elsewhere in this region but if you prefer to stay overnight, you’ve got several options. Here are just a couple to get you started…
If you’re looking for a guesthouse, Vila Branca has a pool with a lovely terrace as well as fantastic hosts. It’s not far from the train station and you can rent a bike to get to the more distant beaches. Check availability.
For more options, take a look at my Fantastic Figueira da Foz Hotels and Gorgeous Guesthouses to get a full flavour of accommodation here.
When’s the best time to visit Figueira da Foz?
Mike and I have been regular visitors to Fig over the years but mostly it’s been during the busy summer months when everyone and their dog has headed for the coast. Recently, we’ve had the opportunity to spend time there out of season and boy, what a difference it makes.
There may not be so many restaurants open or events going on but it’s wonderful to stroll along the prom or walk on the beach in relative solitude. There’s a more laid back vibe yet still plenty to enjoy and enough going on that it doesn’t feel like a ghost town.
I’ve seen sunbathers on the beach in March but the main beach season is June to September with July and August being the busiest months. The rest of the year, sunny weekends attract people from the surrounding area, especially on Sunday afternoons, but unless there’s an event, it’s pretty calm the rest of the time.