Travel Destinations

The giant waves of Nazaré, in Portugal

The pretty coastal and tourist town of Nazaré, on the west coast of Portugal, continues to be crowded throughout the summer with tourists flocking to its long sandy beaches to relax, swim and surf. But when winter comes, only the strongest adrenaline seekers stay here.

At that time, the beaches are dangerous. Huge waves of up to 30 meters break regularly along the rocky shoreline.

Nazaré’s monster waves attract surfers from all over the world, but until very recently, the city was relatively unknown outside of Europe.

Nazaré made headlines in November 2011 when Hawaiian surfer Garrett McNamara surfed a 23-meter giant wave, breaking a new world record. In January 2013, McNamara returned to Nazaré and broke his own record by successfully surfing a wave estimated to be 30 meters high. Later, in October of the same year, the hero of the giant waves, the Brazilian Carlos Burle, surfed a wave that seemed to be even bigger.

Nazaré, on the Atlantic coast, has become a legendary spot in the surfing world for giant waves.


Sebastián Steudtner, from Germany, rides a big wave, while being watched by the crowd from the cliffs of Praia do Norte in Nazaré.

But… how does Nazaré manage to generate waves of such colossal size, with such regularity?

The answer lies in a rare underwater geography. Off the coast of Nazaré, is the largest underwater ravine in Europe, called Nazaré Canyon. This huge canyon stretches for 200 kilometers in the abysmal plain of the Atlantic Ocean, less than 800 meters from the coast, pointing towards the city in the shape of an arrow. At its deepest point, the bottom of the canyon is 5 kilometers below the surface, then quickly rises into a “headwall” canyon that rises up to 30-35 meters off the coast of Praia do Norte beachwhich is where some of the world’s biggest waves have been seen.

The waves originate in the North Atlantic, due to the giant winter storms, and, near Nazare, its energy is focused and amplified in the narrow canyon like a magnifying glass concentrating the sun’s energy in a small region. The bottom of the sea rises steeply, allowing waves to come up very suddenly and to colossal size.


Praia do Norte, in Nazaré, on December 11, 2014


Crowds on the cliffs of Praia do Norte.


Waves reaching the Nazaré lighthouse.

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