Steps to Santa Catarina fortress, Figueira da Foz, 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. There is, of course, more to see and 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.

Figueira da Foz beaches

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. For me, there’s still too much space between me and the ocean on this beach.

I prefer the tiny rocky bays of Praia da Tamugeueira at Buarcos, just a little further north along the seafront. Here, you only have to walk a few metres to feel the chill of the Atlantic fizzing around your ankles.

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.

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 Gala. The beaches here are backed by sand dunes and tend to be more windswept and less busy.

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Best ice cream in Figueira da Foz

For Mike and I, it’s not 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.

Mike with a massive 'copa primaveira' ice cream sundae in Figueira da Foz
Mike with a massive ‘copa primaveira’ ice cream sundae in Figueira da Foz

Markets in Figueira da Foz

The monthly (1st Saturday of the month) outdoor antiques and collector’s fair starts in the street below our favourite ice creamery and spreads north along the old town walls, giving you the chance to check out 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.

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 is one corner.

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. The fort isn’t currently open for visits but it still looks impressive and has an attractive pond and sculpture in the grounds beneath it.

If you’re interested in the defensive structures and related history of this area, this 1/2 or full day tour might interest you: Montemor Castles and Town Walls. Use this code: JULIE5 to get a special 5% reader discount when you book.

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Arts and entertainment in Figueira da Foz

I haven’t been to the casino but it’s one of the few places that puts on shows on a regular basis so even if you’re not into gambling, it may be worth checking the programme to see what’s on. The Centro de Artes e Espectaculos (CAE) is your best bet though. As the name suggests, this arts centre hosts a range of musical events and exhibitions throughout the year. 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.

FUSING, a newcomer on the festival scene, didn’t run in 2015 but we went in 2014 and it promises to return next year. I hope it does. More than just a music festival, FUSING blends in art, sport and gastronomy to provide a range of day and night time activities which include free cycle tours of the town to discover the street art that’s happened as a result of this festival.

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Dutch ceramics in Figueira da Foz

As well as an impressive amount of urban art, Figueira da Foz has some ancient artistic treasures. If I was looking for Delft pottery, a seaside town in central Portugal probably wouldn’t have been the first place I thought of. How wrong I would have been! There are, apparently, nearly 6,700 Dutch tiles in Casa do Paço, a 17th mansion built by the Bishop of Elvas. The collection is one of the largest in the world and is likely the result of a shipwrecked vessel.

Figueira da Foz old town

The apartment blocks of Figueira da Foz seem to go on forever but there’s still a nucleus of traditional architecture in various states of repair in the historic 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.

Figueira da Foz salt pans

In the flat land under the suspension bridge, beyond the old part of town, lie the salt pans and nature reserve. There’s a walking route that takes you through the salt pans, to the Salt Museum and provides plenty of bird-watching opportunities.

Forest fun near Figueira da Foz

If you need to escape the sun and sand for a while, you don’t have to go far. You can choose the level of adventure, too. Drive up to the pine forest at Serra da Boa Viagem with a picnic, take a stroll through the woods or go the whole hog and tackle the treetop adventure park.

Treetop adventures in Serra da Boa Viagem, Figueira da Foz
Treetop adventures in Serra da Boa Viagem, Figueira da Foz

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.

The 4* Universal Boutique Hotel is comfortable, modern and close to the beach.

The shiny blue Eurostar Oasis Plaza is on the seafront with spectacular views and a heated pool for those who find the ocean too bracing.

Casa dos Suecos is a smaller and more low key bed and breakfast. Some rooms have sea views and there’s an onsite restaurant and small pool in the garden.

If you’d rather have sweeping views over Figueira da Foz’s city and beach, head up to the Serra da Boa Viagem hills to Serra Mar where you’ll find a lovely location with marvelous views and a seawater pool.

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What to see and do in Figueira da Foz
What to see and do in Figueira da Foz

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5 Comments

  1. Very interessante all that you write about Figueira da foz.however, you missed the importante museus oficial the city, the Santos Rocha municipal museum . Next time you come Tô Figueira you must visita this museum anda Aldo the salto museum, on the other diferentes oficial the tiver. Amazing place!

  2. That headland at Buarcos reminds me very much of Foz de Douro at Porto, Julie. Still haven’t made it up to Coimbra. One day… 🙂

    1. Author

      You’d like it, Jo, I’m sure. Maybe next year…

  3. We often drove to Figueira da Foz for the day to go to the beach, but I don’t think we ever swam there, the water is freezing!
    That sundae looks amazing, and so huge, I think it would be enough to feed 3 or 4, no?

    1. Author

      Possibly, Sami, but my husband’s not willing to share such a treat 😉

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