In the 1930s, Cascais was a tiny fishing village that attracted artists and writers to its little cottages. But it was once known as a royal village because it enjoyed the patronage of Portugal‘s ruling family. When the monarchy died, the military replaced it. Gen. António Óscar de Fragoso Carmona, president of Portugal until 1951, once occupied the 17th-century fort guarding the Portuguese Riviera. To say Cascais is growing would be an understatement: It’s exploding! Apartment houses, new hotels, and the finest restaurants along the Costa do Sol draw a never-ending stream of visitors every year. However, the life of the simple fisher folk goes on. Auctions, called lotas, of the latest catch still take place on the main square. In the small harbor, rainbow-colored fishing boats share space with pleasure craft owned by an international set that flocks to Cascais from early spring until autumn.
The town’s tie with the sea is old. If you speak Portuguese, chat up any of the local fishers. They’ll tell you that one of their own, Afonso Sanches, discovered America in 1482. Legend has it that Columbus learned of his accidental find, stole the secret, and enjoyed the subsequent acclaim. Most visitors are content with the trio of fair beaches here, and simply lying on one of the lovely, sandy beaches is a fine way to spend the day. Fortunately, the waters of Cascais are no longer polluted as they were in the late ’90s, so swimming is now also possible. Many visitors, both foreign and domestic, clog the roads to Cascais on summer Sundays, when bullfights are held at the Monumental de Cascais, a ring outside the “city” center. When you’re not at the beach, a good place to relax is the sprawling Parque do Marechal Carmona. It lies at the southern tip of the resort, near the water. Here you’ll find a shallow lake, a cafe, and a small zoo. Chairs and tables are set out under shade trees if you’d like to picnic.
The most important church is the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Assunção (Church of Our Lady of the Assumption), on Largo da Assunção, a leafy square toward the western edge of town. Paintings by Josefa de Óbidos, a 17th-century artist, fill the nave. They’re unusual because women rarely attained such artistic posts in those days. The hand-painted azulejos (tiles) date from 1720 and 1748. The beautiful altar dates from the end of the 16th century.
Cascais also has some minor museums, including the Museu do Mar (Museum of the Sea), Rua Julio Pereira de Mello. The museum displays fishing artifacts, including equipment and model boats. Folkloric apparel worn by residents in the 1800s is also on exhibit. Old photographs and paintings re-create the Cascais of long ago. Another museum is the Museu do Conde de Castro Guimarães, Avenida Rei Humberto II de Itália, Estrada da Boca do Inferno. On the grounds of the Parque do Marechal Carmona, it occupies the former 19th-century home of a family whose last surviving member died in 1927. The museum offers a rare glimpse into life in the 18th and 19th centuries, with ceramics, antiques, artwork, silver ewers, samovars, and Indo-Portuguese embroidered shawls, you name it.
The most popular excursion outside Cascais is to Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell). Thundering waves sweep in with such power that they’ve carved a wide hole resembling a mouth, or boca, into the cliffs. However, if you should arrive when the sea is calm, you’ll wonder why it’s called a cauldron. The Mouth of Hell can be a windswept roar if you don’t stumble over too many souvenir hawkers. Take the highway toward Guincho and then turn left toward the sea.
The most intriguing shopping possibilities are at the markets. Head north of the center along Rua Mercado, off Avenida do 25 de Abril, on Wednesday or Saturday morning, and you’ll find a fruit and vegetable market (along with a lot of other items). Another sprawling market operates at the bullring, Praça de Touros, on Avenida Pedro Álvares, west of the center, on the first and third Sunday of each month.