Lisbon’s surfer-led renaissance

It was only four years ago that Lisbon, Portugal, was described as a city on its knees. There were reports of evicted businessmen sleeping in cars and a country wracked by debt. Now, though, things are very different. It’s been touted as hip, cheap and innovative — like Bondi meets old Europe — and is the new hipster capital of the continent.

It’s become a magnet for sophisticated nomads of the global creative class. Yet while Portugal leads the leagues in renewable energy (in 2015, half of the country’s energy was produced from hydro, wind, solar and other renewables) and cosmopolitan tech scenesters, it may have been humble surf tourism that kickstarted it all.

The dramatic coastline of Cascais, just outside Lisbon. Photo: Courtesy of World Surf League

You see, way before current Prime Minister António Costa swept aside bureaucratic obstacles and encouraged creative and tech entrepreneurs, as well as promoted culture and sport, the Portuguese government had long been investing in surf tourism. A huge driver of Lisbon’s rejuvenation, and what has drawn many of the new hipsters to the city, is surfing.

In 2013, Adolfo Nunes, secretary of state of tourism, said, “We need to achieve the level in which the first thing that comes up in the mind of a surfer is, ‘We need to go to Portugal to surf!'”

The government had been backing the World Surf League World Championship Tour (WCT) event in Peniche since 2009 and was quick to realize the potential of the big-wave scene at Nazaré. The local council gave the keys to the city (or at least to all their Jet Skis) to Garrett McNamara, who was the first to open the eyes of the world to the sleepy fishing town’s enormous big-wave potential.

The rest, as you know, is history.

Nazare Portugal Sebastian Steudtner 2015

Nazaré has become one of the most recognizable waves in the world. Photo: Courtesy of Don Richards

In 2011, Ericeira, a town located only 45 minutes north of Lisbon, was designated as one of the world’s first International Surfing Reserves for its “high density of surf breaks, and the quality and consistency of the waves, and unique environment.”

On the outskirts of Lisbon, the town of Cascais hosts an annual women’s WCT event and one of the biggest World Qualifying Series competitions for the men. At every stage, Portugal’s government and businesses have looked to support surfing. They have helped transform the country from a well-guarded secret to a global hub for surfers from all around the world.

As the Visit Portugal slogan says, “Surfing is a 365 days a year activity in Portugal. Or 366 if it’s a leap year.”

John John Florence wins his first world title in Portugal in 2016. Photo: Courtesy of World Surf League

When surfers saw the potential of the waves and their proximity to the capital, many decided to stay. The waves are fantastic, but the capital city itself has an old-fashioned dignity with yellow timber-lined streetcars, historic buildings, incredible pastry shops on every corner and family-owned seafood restaurants serving incredible food into the earliest hours of the morning.

“When I first moved here two years ago, a cab driver asked me why on Earth would I leave London for Lisbon,” says Greg Martin, a partner in Friday, an action sports media production and talent management agency. “I told him the people are nice, the food is amazing, it’s really cheap, always sunny and the waves are amazing. I also felt that it was the last capital city in Europe that had real potential for growth.

“It just ticked so many of the lifestyle and work boxes.”

Lisbon: Come for the waves, stay for the culture. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Portugal

Martin has found a network of likeminded friends, from Californian yoga teachers to English guitarists, Australian surfboard shapers and French surf industry execs, all of whom have recently made their homes in Lisbon. They were first drawn by the waves, but have stayed to be a part of the ancient European city’s latest renaissance.

More about surfing in Portugal from GrindTV

Your complete guide to a Lisbon surf getaway

A guide to pulling off 2 days of multi-adventures in Portugal

Why you need to take a surf trip to Portugal, any time of year