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On Portugal’s sunny coast, just west of Lisbon is the town of Cascais. It’s easy to see why this lovely little seaside city, with its sandy beaches, untamed coastline and bustling marina, was the perfect locale for royal retreats. Since European nobility began flocking to Cascais in the late 19th century it’s evolved into a popular resort destination for the rest of us. Come along and see why a few days in this Portuguese Paradise will renew and refresh you, body and soul.

A Coveted Coastline

Once an unassuming fishing village coveted for its location on Portugal’s coastline, Cascais has been the site of battles, a natural disaster and playground of the rich and famous. The prime real estate that is Cascais made it a much-desirable spot from which to scan the horizon of the sea and watch for incoming conquerors.

In 1580 the country of Portugal fell to Spanish rule as the Spanish army invaded and overtook Lisbon by way of Cascais. Once the Portuguese recovered their country they sought to continue fortifying their coastal gem of a city, a project begun by their conquerors.

With the completion of the Cascais Citadel, a set of forts that included Santa Marta and São Jorge de Oitavos, the city felt sufficiently protected. So mighty were these forts that even the earthquake that leveled the rest of Cascais in 1755 proved no match for Cascais imposing Citadel.

You can visit the forts today however they are less steadfast guardians and more luxe accommodations fit for a king.

The Beginning of The Portuguese Riviera

In the late 19th century King Luis I of Portugal converted the mighty forts into a royal retreat. The quarters that formerly stood guard over the coastal enclave were now used to house the royal family and their noble friends, their staff and various other members of their entourage.

For decades the Portuguese Royals and their companions arrived in early September and remained until the end of October. In 1878 the royal retreat in Cascais became the first place in all of Portugal to be equipped with electricity. The Portuguese potentates and other affluent Europeans flocked to Cascais, now recognized as the Portuguese Riviera.

With nothing but time to rest and relax the upper crust participated in newly-introduced water sports such as sailing, canoeing, swimming and dry land sports such as tennis and soccer. The town of Cascais hosts several sailing and surfing events and competitions throughout the year.

Dedicated to The Sea

It wasn’t all fun and games for the royals in Cascais. Portugal has always had a profound connection to the sea. That’s why King Carlos I (son of Luis) truly saw the value of Cascais remarkable coast and in 1896 established the first Marine Biology Institute in Cascais, within the royal enclave of the Citadel.

There is an impressive museum in Cascais, The Museo do Mar, which contains an eclectic collection of seafaring artifacts. fossils, shells and examples of traditions of Portuguese fishermen through the generations. The museum is located in a very lovely green space which is also home to the Casa Das Historias Paula Rego, a museum showcasing the work of contemporary artist Paula Rego.

The Casa de Maria and Santa Marta Lighthouse

The Casa de Santa Maria museum and Santa Marta Lighthouse are definite ‘can’t miss’ visits when you’re in Cascais. The lighthouse is separate from the Casa but it is right next door.

The Casa de Santa Maria is a gorgeous once-private home commissioned by a wealthy Irish tobacco Barron of the late 19th century. George O’Neil commissioned a Portuguese architect to design and build the home ignoring the common style of the European architecture of the day and instead go rogue and use his own ideas. O’Neil also instructed architect Raul Lino to use only materials sourced in Portugal.

The result is a stunning structure built in a Moorish fashion reflecting the Arab influence of the finer buildings in Portugal. From the home’s painted tiles, salvaged from an old chapel in Lisbon to the arched doorways and lush interior, the home is a fine example of how the affluent lived in the Portuguese Riviera.

Casa de Maria was owned by several of Europe's wealthy or royalty at one time or another, each making their mark on the residence. In 2004 the home was purchased by the council of Cascais and opened as a museum.

The adjacent lighthouse museum occupies the former Santa Marta fort and lighthouse. While the lighthouse is still in operation the complex has been turned into a cultural center. The museum showcases lighthouses through history and specifically the lighthouses of Portugal.

Stroll the Colorful Old Town of Cascais

A wonderfully restful and pleasant experience is a simple stroll through the old town of Cascais. Slow down and enjoy the Cascais pace of life as you meander the lanes and side streets where colorful bougainvillea cascade, vying for your attention among the amazing street art.

Stop in some of the local shops where you’ll come upon locally curated artisan goods and trendy, relaxed clothes with that just-right resort vibe. As you’re enjoying the sights and sounds of the harbor, be sure to stop and delight in some fresher-than-fresh seafood or jump in line for a cool and creamy treat. Like most sunny vacation spots Cascais is known as the place to get some of the best Gelado, or ice cream, in all of Portugal.

A Dazzling Shore

Of course the real draw for any visitor to Cascais is the stunning coastline. Part seaside escape for the jet-set and part natural wonder the seashore in Cascais is a place to behold. Take a dip, weather permitting, or simply stroll and people-watch as you go along. Be sure to take time to enjoy the sunset on a beach in Cascais. It never disappoints.

From pristine city to sparkling coastline, fascinating artifacts and a rich history Cascais is a great destination. A few days in this sunny seaside city and you’ll feel relaxed, renewed and maybe a little like royalty yourself.

Cascais Portugal