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The Berlengas Islands, Portugal
Situated 10km west of the fishing town of Peniche, the stunning and secluded Berlengas Islands are home to the Arquipélago das Berlengas nature reserve. It is possible to visit and explore the largest of the three islands, the Berlenga Grande, and this excursion is considered as one of the highlights of the Peniche region. This guide provides an introduction to the Berlengas Islands, detailing the main sights, what to do, and how to travel there
Why visit the Berlengas Islands?
The Berlengas Islands form part of a dramatic natural landscape, and contain Portugal’s most scenic fort, while the crystal-clear waters are teeming with sea life. There’s a lot to see and do around the Berlengas Islands, and the large variety of activities will appeal to a wide range of different visitors.
The small beach on Berlengas is regarded as one of the most picturesque in central Portugal and the sea waters are ideal for snorkelling. There are also birdwatching opportunities from the hiking trails that climb the steep hills around the islands, though seagulls are often the only bird seen and heard!
The pretty beach of Berlengas
For the more adventurous, the São João Baptista fort can be explored, with its narrow arched bridges and idyllic surrounds. Glass-bottomed boats also depart from the harbour, embarking on tours that explore the caves, grottos, and extensive marine life around the islands.
The São João Baptista fort on the edge of Berlengas
The ferry ride to the Berlengas is another highlight, with the route from the harbour winding along the craggy coastline of Peniche.
The speed boat from Peniche to Berlenga Grande
Planning a successful day trip to Berlenga Grande
The ferries to Berlenga Grande only operate from mid-May until mid-September, with the seas too rough to travel on during the winter months. As such, summer trips to the Berlengas are extremely popular and it’s advisable to book boat tickets in advance. This popularity also means that the harbour area and beach can feel very crowded, often filled with overly excitable Portuguese teenagers. To appreciate the true remoteness of the island, or in order to seek out the wildlife and nature reserve, a long hike may be required. For a guide to Peniche please click here.
The cliffs and caves of Berlenga Grande
Most visitors stay on the island for 2 to 4 hours, depending on how much time is spent on the beach or in the sea. It should be noted that the island is really only for the physically fit and mobile, as some of the footpaths are very worn and there are lots of hills to climb.
There is a café and restaurant on the island, but it’s advisable to bring plenty of water as it can get very hot. As a nature reserve, visitors to Berlenga Grande are encouraged to only follow the set paths, and not cause damage by stumbling into preserved and protected areas. The following section will detail the main sights of the island.
The São João Baptista Fort
Historically, the Berlengas were an important location to defend. The islands could have provided a suitable staging area to attack the Portuguese coast, so in the 17th century the São João Baptista fort was constructed. This little fort is one of the most visually striking buildings in Portugal, rising up from the turquoise sea waters and tied together by narrow arched bridges.
The São João Baptista Fort was well defended
The defensive prowess of this this tranquil setting was most notably demonstrated in June 1666, when just twenty soldiers based within the fort withstood a siege from 16 Spanish warships and over 2,000 men. The fort was only abandoned when its stock of ammunition was fully exhausted, but the attack cost the lives of 500 Spanish sailors compared to just one Portuguese solider.
Today, the historic fort has been transformed into a hostel and is fully open to the public to explore. As one of the most atmospheric locations to stay in Portugal, it is an absolute bargain at €22/€20(high/low season) per night; just don’t expect too many modern comforts.
The narrow birdges to the fort
The arched bridges, that so successfully defended the fort, have been preserved just as they were constructed in the 17th century. This does mean that the path is very uneven however, and there are no hand rails for support.
Berlengas Lighthouse (Farol Duque de Bragança)
Standing at the highest point of the island is the Farol Duque de Bragança, or the Duke of Braganza lighthouse. The light emitted from the 120m-high vantage point can be seen from more than 50km away, an impressive feat considering that the structure only uses solar power and batteries. The lighthouse dates back to the 19th century, and the building is not open to the public.
The Farol Duque de Bragança - completely solar powered!
The Praia do Carreiro do Mosteiro beach
The Praia do Carreiro do Mosteiro is the only beach on the island that is accessible and safe to swim from. The small spot lies in a beautiful setting, tucked between steep, imposing cliffs and overlooking the pretty harbour. The sea waters are very clear and great for snorkelling, but are shockingly cold, and for the more adventurous kayaks can also be hired from the harbour to explore the island in more detail. The beach itself is named after the 16th century monastery, which was situated above the harbour and has now been converted into a restaurant.
The waters are great for snorkelling
Glass-bottomed boat cave tours
Small fishing boats with glass-bottomed floors provide tours around the island, passing many unique coastal features that simply cannot be seen from land. The tours cost €6.00 for a 20-minute journey, and present a different, unique perspective of Berlengas. Sights seen by the glass bottom boat tours include:
• The Elephant rock formation
• The cathedral cliff, so named due to the arched shape of the cliffs
• The blue cave, where the water is a distinctive blue colour
If you squint, you can see that it is an Elephant.....
Travel to the Berlengas Islands
All ferries to the Berlengas Islands depart from the harbour in Peniche, and the ticket sales offices for all of the different companies are located on the harbour walkway. A standard ferry journey takes 45 minutes, and a return ticket costs €20 (€12 for one way). The more exciting and much faster speedboat costs €22 for a return, with the journey time is reduced to just 20 minutes. During the summer, always book tickets in advance or early in the day, as seat numbers are limited.
Top Tip: When departing from Peniche, sit on the right side of the boat, as this side faces the dramatic cliffs of the headland and promises a great view.