Beautiful Cascais on the Portuguese coast is just 40 minutes from Lisbon. Kings and aristocrats have holidayed here and it’s easy to see why. Read on for our guide to things to do in Cascais from beach-hopping to boat trips, cultural visits to kite-surfing. It’s a charming base for families or friends, for day trips to Sintra and Lisbon, for a golf break or a weekend away; check out our round up of hotels in Cascais too.
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The elegant seaside town of Cascais lies just along the coast from Lisbon. It’s neat as a pin yet full of character with its black and white mosaic pavements, decorative tiling and fishing boats bobbing in the harbour.
Back in 1870 it was just a quiet little fishing village until the Cascais beaches caught the eye of the Portuguese king, Luis. Improved roads from Lisbon meant that Cascais was suddenly within range as a summer getaway, and King Luis loved to be by the sea. He built a palace beside the fortified citadel and the aristocracy followed his lead with lavish summer mansions. Europe’s society set heard about it and Cascais soon became an early, upscale holiday resort.
One hundred and fifty years later Cascais is still a jewel in the crown of the Portuguese Riviera. Cleverly it’s kept its small town character and glamorous fin de siecle villas whilst its beaches are as lovely as ever.
How to get from Lisbon to Cascais
Cascais is only 30 km from Lisbon and 36 km from Lisbon international airport making it very convenient for a weekend or golf break.
In the interests of research(!) I took an evening bus from Lisbon airport direct to the Cais do Sodre train station in Lisbon. I did have to wait a while for the bus but I could have taken the metro instead, with one change. At the station I caught a stopping train to Cascais which took around 40 minutes. It’s a coastal route but at 10pm I couldn’t see a thing! Although the whole journey cost just a few euros it did take an hour and a half from airport to apartment.
Alternatively, my friend Freya arrived in Lisbon at lunchtime that day and took a taxi straight to Cascais which cost €30 and took 40 minutes. So a transfer by car, booked in advance to meet you from the airport, is the quickest and easiest option if not the cheapest. Click here for more details.
You could also splash out and book a boat transfer from Belem in Lisbon to Cascais marina!
Things to do in Cascais
Freya has been visiting family in Cascais for years and as she was planning a trip this Spring I jumped at the chance to go along too. Sure enough, after five days exploring its beguiling mix of seaside charm and fascinating history, I can understand why everyone loves Cascais so much.
So here’s the first in a series of posts: an introduction to this pretty seaside town and a round up of at least 21 things to do in Cascais.
Visit the Cascais beaches
Cascais doesn’t just have one or two beaches, its coastline has seventeen. And thanks to its location, between the Tagus river estuary and the Atlantic, there is quite a variety. The beaches to the west of town which face the ocean are buffeted by strong winds and currents making them a magnet for pro surfers. But the stretches of sand between Cascais and Lisbon are altogether quieter, more sheltered and suitable for family relaxation.
A regular coastal train runs from Lisbon to Cascais stopping at beaches en route, so visitors could sample a different beach everyday.
Take a boat trip from Cascais
A great way to get an overview of the beaches around Cascais is to take a boat trip. It’s a chance to see the iconic Cascais views from a completely different perspective. We set out on a beautiful, calm and sunny day so we were able to experience a sailor’s eye view of the Boca d’Inferno cliffs as well as the Santa Marta lighthouse. Then our boat turned east along the coast towards Lisbon and Torre do Bugio, the fortified lighthouse in the estuary.
From the sea it’s easy to spot the different characters of the local beaches and their levels of busy-ness. A boat trip would be a fun way to make the transfer to or from the airport in Lisbon too. Contact Aquastart.pt for more information on boat tours and transfers.
Eat fresh fish
Cascais started life as a fishing village and and fishing boats are still moored in the town centre harbour. This was my view when I woke up early one morning and went for a walk.
The catch is sold twice a week at the market and unsurprisingly the restaurants offer plenty of fish dishes. On our first day, after a stroll around the marina, we had lunch at Marisco where we shared a piece of fresh robalo or sea bass, chosen from their display of fish and sold by weight.
Later in the week, we ate at Gordinni’s at the marina with a lovely view of the Santa Marta lighthouse. Gordinni’s serves Italian food and also has local specialities on its menu. We chose octopus with olive oil, garlic and baked potatoes and fresh bream, grilled and served with sauteed vegetables. Other local favourites are cod with cream, Bulhao Pato clams cooked with white wine and Arroz do Mar which is a rice dish with shrimps, clams and mussels.
Walk along the promenade from Cascais to Estoril
A wide seafront promenade links Cascais to the nearby town of Estoril. It’s a lovely springtime walk that hugs the coastline above the sands and sea defences. We set off late one afternoon to have a look at the beaches and the views. After about 3km we decided it was just far enough to warrant a stop at a beachside bar. As the shadows lengthened we drank caipirinhas at Praia do Tamariz (and were thrilled that they cost half the price they would in London). Afterwards we retraced our steps to Cascais although we could have easily hopped on the coastal train to go home instead.
I wish we’d had a bit more time to explore Estoril. It was a hotbed of intrigue during WW2 when Portugal was neutral and spies from both sides lurked in neighbouring hotels beside the grand casino. Ian Fleming stayed there on a work trip for the Intelligence service. He was inspired to write Casino Royale, and the rest is history. Don’t miss the chance to use the Instagram-ready mobile phone holder that frames the view of ornate Chalet Barros!
Explore the town of Cascais
Well-swept and tidy with wafting palms and neat rows of bedding plants, Cascais has a well-heeled air, without being brash or glitzy. It’s done a wonderful job of holding onto its heritage whilst moving decisively into the 21st century.
One minute you can be wandering through pastel painted streets, admiring wall tiles and billowing bourganvillea. The next, you might be passing a pile of workaday fishing nets as you round the ramparts of the 15th century citadel which is now a chic hotel. From there it’s just a few more steps to a marina of glossy pleasure boats and restaurants. If that wasn’t enough, there are historic villas to visit, a park with peacocks and a whole cultural quarter to explore. It’s a great mix with always something interesting to explore.
Try the local Portuguese pastries
The sweet Portuguese custard tart called pastel de nata is world famous. In fact they were first made by monks in Lisbon. What I didn’t realise until this visit was that Portugal has hundreds of recipes for sweet pastries.
Many towns, including Cascais, have their own local recipes. It dates back to the time when egg white was used for starching linen. In the monasteries, monks and nuns used the yolks left over from their laundry to make and sell pastries. After the dissolution of monasteries in 1834 the monks carried on their craft in order to earn a living and baking became a local industry. Nowadays Cascais pastry shops still sell plenty of sweet treats to tempt you with your morning coffee. Try simple Areias or deliciously almond’y Jesuitas de Amêndoa at Bijou de Cascais.
Find some street art
We didn’t have to go far to find art in the quiet streets of Cascais. We came across several big vibrant images that reference the town’s seafaring history.
Browse the boutiques
I could easily have spent all day browsing through Cascais’s quirky selection of shops. If you’re looking for souvenirs then you’ll be surprised by exactly how many accessories can be made from cork. It’s one of Portugal’s biggest exports. You’ll find cork mats, hats, handbags, phone pouches and even ties in the shops around Cascais’s square. Ceramics and painted tiles are another favourite buy, but you’d be missing out if you thought that was all Cascais has to offer.
Roam the network of cobbled streets to find artisan makers, boutiques and homeware stores as well as international designers. On the west side of town, Casa da Guia is a clifftop mansion on the Guincho road. Inside you’ll find tempting shops and an art gallery. It has outdoor cafes and lovely views too.
Take a closer look at the pavements
The pavements and pedestrianised squares in Cascais are like little works of art. The swirling patterns of black and white cobbles reminded me of the the beachside pavements in Rio de Janeiro.
That’s because Brazil was once a Portuguese colony and took inspiration from the tiled streets and squares of Lisbon. The style is called calçada portuguesa and dates from the 14th century. Even today the patterns are still painstakingly laid by hand and they swirl and twirl into the little streets around the main square.
Visit the market
We managed to miss the Wednesday market but the newly re-vamped Mercado da Vila sells fish, fruit and flowers and has an eating plaza with an array of restaurant and take-away options. Best days to visit are Wednesdays and Saturdays when local sellers from the region set up their stalls.
Climb the Santa Marta lighthouse
Thanks to its strategic position, en route to the port of Lisbon, the area around Cascais boasts several historic lighthouses and fortresses. The prettily striped Santa Marta lighthouse, built in 1867, is a photographer’s dream. But it still has a day to day role in signalling along the coastline.
The lights are automated these days and the keepers’ accommodation is now a contemporary museum. Freya had been before with her family but it was worth a second visit. The views from the top are lovely and the museum sheds light on the history of Portuguese lighthouses and the keepers’ lives. Check the website for opening times.
See how high society lived in Cascais
The high society summers of Cascais’s past sound like a golden age. And you can still visit some of the opulent private villas that were built at the turn of the 20th century. The Casa de Santa Maria, next door to the lighthouse and included in the ticket price, was designed in traditional Portuguese style in 1902 by an Irish aristocrat Jorge O’Neill. Check it out for the terrace views and gorgeous tiling.
O’Neill also built the grand Torre de San Sebastiao, now the Museum of Condes de Castro Guimaraes, across the road. It was his own summer house and he indulged completely in a romantic, fantasy castle style. Both houses are open to visitors.
Step into the world of Paula Rego
For art of a very different sort, just a few minutes from O’Neill’s summer houses, is the utterly modern Casa das Historias (House of Stories) Paula Rego.
Built in 2009, its two towers echo the chimneys of the Palace at Sintra. It’s a museum entirely devoted to the strange and thought-provoking world of visual artist Rego, who was born in Lisbon and now lives in London. The galleries are easy to navigate with clear explanatory texts in both Portuguese and English – I certainly needed them! There’s a cafe too and the shop is lovely if you’re looking for some good quality souvenirs.
Walk to the Mouth of Hell
To be fair Boca d’Inferno wasn’t really living up to its name on the afternoon we visited. This sea arch in the limestone cliffs outside Cascais was more ‘a bit splashy’ than ‘ mouth of Hell’.
But I can well believe that when the winds and waves rise it gets pretty diabolical. It’s an easy walk from Cascais and has a few souvenir stalls and a cafe by the cliffside views. Interesting to see, whatever the weather.
Learn about Cascais’s seagoing heritage
Even before it was discovered by the aristocracy, Cascais was a thriving fishing village. The Museum of the Sea, named in honour of King Carlos, celebrates the town’s centuries old connections with the ocean. We dipped in to find a small and engaging collection that’s perfect for a cultural visit in between time on the beach. A bathing hut stands on the lawn outside the museum with mannequins fully clothed for a day at the beach. Learn about sea life, gulls and the fishing industry as well as the Portuguese love of the ocean.
Meet King Carlos
You’ll find King Carlos himself, binoculars in hand, surveying the harbour he loved, just outside the Citadel where he spent his Cascais summers.
He inherited his love for the sea from his father King Luis who gave him a yacht for his fifteenth birthday. King Carlos loved to sail and organised many regattas at Cascais. He was a keen fisherman, skilful marine artist and studied oceanography too. His sporting legacy lived on for many years in the shape of the Cascais Sporting Club which hosted tennis, cricket and even football matches during his reign. The original building is now the Sea Museum.
Try water sports in Cascais
We spotted kayakers in the harbour and surfers at Guincho but during the summer months there’s plenty more watersports. From sailing and diving to paddleboarding and kite surfing, equipment and tuition can be hired at the marina or the surrounding beaches. On a sunny spring day quite a few people were braving the Atlantic waters to swim off the sheltered town beaches too.
Play golf in Cascais or tennis or go on a bike tour
Cascais offers lots of sporting activities of the land-based variety too. The area is famous for its golf courses: Oitavos Dunes is rated as one of best courses in world, with dramatic links views for good measure. Hotel Quinta da Marinha has its own course while Estoril golf club caters for beginners and tournament players alike and offers golf and spa packages. Keen golfers can get a golf passport for the region. Tennis and padel (a mix between tennis and squash) are also popular and it’s easy to hire cycles for a coastal ride or a mountain biking tour.
Visit Guincho beach
In complete contrast to the town beaches with their neat umbrellas and sunbeds, Guincho is altogether more rugged and windswept. A parasol wouldn’t stand much of a chance on this dramatic stretch of sand, backed by dunes and lashed with Atlantic breakers. Its wild vibe is protected as part of the Serra de Sintra National Park, and you really do get a sense that you’re on the westernmost edge of mainland Europe. You can see the absolute western tip, Cabo da Roca, in the photo below. It was once thought to be the end of the world.
James Bond has been to Guincho of course, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And it’s worth a visit for the scenery alone. Guincho’s powerful currents mean it’s best left to the watersports experts. However Cresmina beach next door is a little more sheltered. NB there are some good restaurants near Guincho, and a beautiful hotel.
Cascais to Sintra
I’d read so much about Sintra that a visit, even for half a day, was an absolute must. If Cascais was the royal beach resort, then Sintra was their escape to the hills. In 1838 King Ferdinand II restored an abandoned monastery with the help of architect Baron von Eschwege. He transformed it into a romantic palace with parkland which is now the world famous Pena Palace. Sintra has several other extraordinary palaces and mansions but we decided to focus on just two sites, Pena itself and the Capuchos convent.
A colourful riot of architectural styles, Pena Palace is amazing and intriguing. If you want to see it without throngs of visitors, then you need to get to Sintra early! This was the top-most tip from our friend and guide, Eva who drove us to Sintra. The journey from Cascais to Sintra took about 25 minutes by car and we arrived, pre-bought tickets in hand, before the gates to the palace opened. Even so within half an hour the battlements were pretty busy.
We bought tickets for the terraces and gardens, not the interiors, but still spent a couple of hours here. The gardens are expansive and you can wander the little pathways, enjoying the viewpoints and walks that Ferdinand created.
Next we moved on to Capuchos Convent on the other side of the Sintra hills. We were almost the only people there. Built in 1560, the convent was the remote home for an order of Franciscan friars. They insisted on a spiritual life of extreme simplicity. It was profoundly peaceful after the bustle of Pena, but just as fascinating. We walked around quietly, peering into the monks’ tiny cells lined with cork then paused in the peaceful courtyard. It was humbling to think that for hundreds of years travellers would stop here to rest and bring news from the outside world.
We visited Sintra with our excellent guide and friend, Eva Sanches of www.greatdayout.eu. Please mention Map and Family if you contact her.
Take a day trip to Lisbon
Visitors to Lisbon often take day trips to Cascais. So we reversed the trend by spending a day in the city before we flew home. The Lisbon Cascais train makes it easy to pop back and forth between the two. The journey takes about 40 minutes although you can just as easily take a taxi. On our final day in Portugal we drove into Lisbon then parked our bags at the station by Rossio square.
After a fun day of tiles, trams, views and city tales it was an easy hop by metro to the airport for our evening flight home. I’ll write another post about what we got up to in Lisbon soon.
Hotels in Cascais
Looking for a hotel in Cascais? Here are some options that we saw during our trip which are well situated and well-reviewed. You can check them out here via Booking.com:
The Albatroz Hotel – an up-scale and historic hotel in the centre of Cascais with pool and terrace overlooking the beach.
Pestana Cidadela Cascais – an historic pousada & art district set within the grounds of the former citadel and royal palace, overlooking Cascais marina.
Pergola Guesthouse B&B – a very pretty mansion with gardens and antiques. Adults only. Book early!
Hotel Quinta da Marinha Resort – a luxury resort on the edge of town with its own golf course and Atlantic views.
Martinhal Lisbon Cascais – 5 star family resort hotel 3 miles from the historic centre of Cascais. Set between 2 championship golf courses with indoor and outdoor pools, boutique rooms and villas.
Hotel Fortaleza do Guincho Relais & Châteaux – on the site of a 17th century fort overlooking Guincho beach. It has a Michelin star restaurant too.
Please note that all visitor information here is for guidance only. Please check the venues’ websites for the most up to date information on tickets, entrance requirements, opening times etc.
HERE’S A SELECTION OF TICKETS AND TOURS FROM GET YOUR GUIDE
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Disclosure: with thanks to Visit Cascais for hosting a fascinating day’s introduction to Cascais. Our excellent tour, with André of Shortcuts Tourism, included visits to the Santa Marta lighthouse and the Museum of the Sea, a boat trip with Aquastart.pt and lunch in the Marina at Gordinni’s. Thanks also to the Paula Rego museum for entry and the catalogue of the current exhibition.
All photos are all rights reserved. Please do not reproduce these photos without prior written permission.