Portugal has become a hotspot for travelers from all over the world, attracted by the beauty of its main cities, Lisbon and Porto. But another jewel of Portugal that creeps its way in more and more bucket lists is Algarve. The coastal area lies in the south of Portugal and features a breathtaking wild coastline with epic caves and archways, reddish beaches, year-round sunny sky and waves that any surfer dreams of. Charmed by the beauty of the area, the men settled here from ancient time and now tourists can visit gorgeous whitewashed villages and indulge in fabulous cuisine. There’s no shortage of things to do in the sunny Algarve of Portugal.
Why is the Algarve so popular?
Algarve is popular especially for its mild weather, stunning red-hued sandy beaches and unspoiled rugged coastline. But once you venture inland, you’ll find cork plantations, pine forests, pretty towns and fascinating Roman ruins. On the cobblestone streets, one can easily find tasty rustic Mediterranean food and pair it with great local wines. Algarve is definitely one of the top attractions of Portugal and any traveler would fall for its dramatic landscapes. Come for the beaches, stay for the pretty villages, superb cuisine and undeniably beautiful cliff-backed shores!
Where do you fly to to get to Algarve?
In order to get to Algarve, you should first fly to Faro. The international airport has many connection with other European cities. Some of the airlines that fly to Faro are EasyJet, Ryanair, TAP Portugal and British Airways.
Many people land in Faro and leave the city as soon as possible to get to the more popular beach resorts. In my opinion, this is a pity! Faro is the capital of Algarve and there are many things to do and see. It can be said it’s a tourist destination by itself. I’d spend at least two days in Faro. But if this is not your choice, you can also grab a taxi or a rental car from the airport and get on your way.
You can also fly to Lisbon, visit it and get to Faro by train, as we did. The distance between Lisbon and Faro is more or less 280 kilometers and takes around three hours and a half. The trip by car from the Portuguese capital takes almost the same amount of time, if you don’t stop many times on the road.
There are nearly 100 beaches to choose from. They vary a lot: isolated beaches on sandy islands only reachable by boat, dramatic rock pools, rarely visited beaches surrounded by red-hued cliffs on one side and clear ocean water on the other and people-packed endless stretches of sand next to buzzing nightlife. Whatever kind of beach you like, you’ll surely find it in the Algarve, minus the black sand beaches in Tenerife probably.
2. Take a boat trip to Benagil Caves
One of the best things to do in Algarve is to take a boat trip and discover some of the caves and grottos along the coast. The boat trips typically include a number of caves that can only be seen from the water and a hidden beach stop or more. If it’s your first boat trip in the Algarve, pick one that will take you also inside Benagil Cave. Boats are not allowed to stop there anymore, but they can still enter and you can get a nice picture of the perforated roof cave. Popular alternatives to get on a boat tour are Portimão, Albufeira and Lagos. While on the clear waters, don’t forget to look for dolphins as they might make an appearance.
3. Explore Ria Formosa
This natural lagoon is one of the 7 Wonders of Nature of Portugal. Ria Formosa’s maze of canals, marshlands and barrier islands forms an ideal habitat for migratory and native birds. This offers great bird watching opportunities. Sailing through the shallow waters, you will learn about some of their habits. Try to spot flamingos, razorbills, spoonbills, egrets, storks, ospreys, stilts, shanks and the florid purple swamphen.
The sloppy terrain of the lagoon is also populated with shellfish that doesn’t have to travel far to the many seafood restaurants. This is one of the best things to do in the Algarve. Boat trips can be booked from Faro, Olhão or Tavira.
4. Enjoy the landscape of the rugged red coast
The fresh breeze and rugged coast sights are something not to be missed in the Algarve. If you go on a road trip, you’ll be without a doubt amazed by the breathtaking views. Follow also the dirt road Estrada da Praia that will take you to 10 different scenic viewpoints. Another way to admire the rocky cliffs is from the water, by joining a kayak or stand-up paddle tour. One of the sights you should look for is Ponta da Piedade, a natural arch located 2 kilometers away from the center of Lagos.
Book this: popular kayak tour in Lagos.
5. Hike the Algarve coastline
Spring and autumn are perfect to visit Algarve, not only because of the dispersing crowds, but also for the milder temperatures. This will allow one to hike the coastline and get to vantage points only accessible on foot. You’ll have the opportunity to see some secluded beaches, caves and unique rock formations. Take in also the amazing views of the crystal clear waters seen from above. Make sure to wear proper shoes as the cliffs are slippery, have water and food in your backpack! A hat, sunglasses and sunscreen won’t hurt either. Hiking is one of the best free things to do in Algarve.
- Algar Seco – in Carvoeiro the ocean eroded the rock to form little caves and rocky outcrops, including a cave with twin windows to the sea
- Seven Hanging Valleys Trail – this nature trail extends for almost 6 km from Praia da Marinha to Praia de Vale Centianes
- The cliffs in Costa Vicentina Natural Park – on the west coast of the Algarve, this walk along the cliffs offers incredible views
- Carvoeiro boardwalk – you can also get off and explore the amazing tunnels beneath the wooden boardwalk
- The cliffs in Sagres up to Sagres Fort and the lighthouse – this is one of the most dramatic places in Algarve
- Serra da Monchique – for stunning views over the Algarvian mountainous landscape
6. Discover the nearby towns and villages
You might be tempted to think that Algarve is all about the natural scenery. But the same things that attracts us about it today, attracted people long time ago to set there and build beautiful towns and villages.
The capital of Algarve has a medieval town centered bordered by high walls. Once inside the walls, the winding alleys will take you to the main attraction, a 13th century cathedral. From the tower you get some incredible views over the town and the surroundings. Outside the walls, one can visit the lively marina and several other sights, including a bone chapel.
Albufeira is one of the most popular resorts in Algarve. It is a favorite for its amazing party scene, wide beaches, calm waters, abundance of restaurants and bars. It is also easy to access from the international airport in Faro. Besides, it has a charming old town with whitewashed houses and traditional churches.
This is the largest fishing port in Algarve. Pretty much everything here revolves around fish and seafood. If you get to the village, you should visit its fish market in the harbor and see a huge display of regional fish, like monkfish, scabbardfish, turbot, rayfish, sea bass, white sea bream, dourada and dried codfish. The space is noisy and lively, but you have to get there before 11 am.
Loule is best known for its covered fruit and vegetable market. The stalls are set in a 19th century red-domed building, but is often too little for all the vendors. In the end, they also display their products on the surrounding streets. Loule is also home to the ruins of a Moor castle built on Roman foundations. From there, one can enjoy sweeping views over the old town.
Ferragudo is a charming fishing village that has kept its traditional charm. Locals still paint their houses in white and fill the narrow streets with colorful flowers. Traditional fishing boats can still be seen on the shore. It might easily be one one the most picturesque villages in Algarve, so don’t leave your camera at home.
Around 45 minutes of Faro, Silves is mostly known for its imposing red castle. It was build by the North African Moors when they settled in Algarve, on older Roman foundations. This is now the best-preserved Moorish stronghold in Portugal. A walk around the beautiful historical centers, town walls and cathedral will make you feel you have just stepped back in time to the Middle Ages.
The main attraction in Tavira is the Camera Obscura at the old water tower. This might not sound as an obvious thing to do in Algarve. But if you haven’t seen one yet, after our experience in Eger, I encourage you to go and see it. Besides, the fishing town is incredible charming. It has tiled houses with hipped roofs, ornate churches, beautiful cobbled streets and elegant bridge.
Another pretty village with a long fishing traditional is Carvoeiro, 10 minutes away from Ferragudo. It can also be seen from a boat. The white houses and main beach are wrapped between towering red-hued cliffs. Praia do Paraiso, with its white curved stairs is easily accessible from Carvoeiro.
Vilamoura emerged in the 80s as a golfing destination and this is still one of it main attractions. Over time, more facilities were added in order to attract the rich people in Portugal and Europe. Casinos, riding schools and shooting clubs, besides the incredible golf courses make it a high-end destination. The super yachts in the marina are one more proof of the wealth of the holiday-makers.
Historically, one of the hubs of the thriving canning industry in the Algarve, Portimão reinvented itself and is now a popular tourist resort town. The former cannery building hosts now a museum that focuses on fishing and canning along the history of the city. Offshore, there’s the first artificial reef in Portugal that attracts many diving enthusiasts.
Less the ten minutes from Faro, one can visit the ruins of a Roman luxury villa in Milreu. This is one of the best preserved indicators of Roman presence in the Algarve. One can see mosaics with maritime motifs, oil and wine presses and the inner-workings of an ancient bath. The complex also includes an older temple turned into Christian chapel in the 5th century. Later on, the place was occupied by the Moors.
The quiet little village of Estói is home to one of the architectural jewels of Algarve, Palácio de Estói. Built in 1840, this dusk pink palace combines neo-Baroque and neo-Rococo features. The restored palace was converted into a hotel. Its restaurant and gorgeous French gardens are accessible to the public. Don’t miss the cute pavilion with blue and white azulejos panels. The church Matriz de Estói, with altars made out of wood from old boats and agricultural equipment, deserves a visit as well.
So far nearly everything has been about the coast, but the Algarve has an extensive inland region. Serra de Monchique is a low mountain range that separated Algarve from Alentejo. From September to June, Monchique is the best place in the region for walks in cool hills coated with meadows and wildflowers. The old town center is also a joy to explore, with a 17th century convent, cobblestone alleys and whitewashed houses with colorful doors and window frames. A modern thermal spa caters for anyone in need of a bit of pampering.
Lagos is the liveliest resort town in the west of Algarve and has a great seafaring heritage. Algarve’s former capital is supposedly where Prince Henry the Navigator started Portugal’s Age of Discovery in the 15th century. He himself later became the governor of the Algarve. Lagos is also one of the most charming medieval town in Algarve, with castle walls, elegant churches and a slave market. The coastline is also a delight, with stunning beaches, cliffs and caves, the highlight being the scenic Ponte da Piedade.
7. Watch perfect sunsets
There’s no better end to end a day in Algarve than sipping a glass of local wine and viewing the sunset. They are gorgeous, with hues of burnt orange, vivid red and purple. Besides, you don’t have to wake up early to see this spectacle offered by nature.
8. Visit a cork factory in São Brás de Alportel
One of the best things to do in Algarve is to visit a cork factory in São Brás de Alportel. The visit includes a guided tour of the plantation and the facilities, as well as a lot of information provided by the guide. After seeing all the cork items in the souvenir shops all over Portugal, it’s nice to see how they are made.
9. Try a new activity
The incredible waves in Algarve make it a hub for watersports lovers. If you want to try surfing or kitesurfing, there’s a ton of schools you can choose from. On the other hand, the protected bays with calm waters are perfect for kayaking and stand-up paddling. The equipment can easily be rented for a few hours. Algarve is also one of the best golfing destinations in Europe. If you’re not a fan of sports, , you might want to consider one of the many top golf courses.
10. Be amazed by fresh seafood
Taking into consideration the length of the seacoast, the dishes of Algarve are mainly based on seafood. Fruit, almonds and carob beans are also used to add flavor to this already tasty cuisine. The Iberian pork is also widely cooked. Chicken appears in the menus mostly as piri piri chicken.
The most famous dish of Algarve has to be cataplana, named after the hinged metal dishes in which the ingredients are cooked over the stove. It usually consists of layers of vegetables, pork belly or chorizo and fish or seafood. In the town centers it costs around 50 euro for two persons. Checkout the restaurants tucked down the side streets for better prices. There are lots of variations available.
Other local dishes you should try are Enchidos (smoked sausages), grilled sardines, oysters and caldeirada (a Portuguese fish and seafood stew). Tasting the fresh seafood dishes is one of the best things to do in Faro.
If you don’t have the luck to find caldeirada in the local restaurants or just want to cook it yourself, there are ready to cook packages in the supermarkets for around 3 euro. They usually include pieces of different fish species like cod, hake, flounder or tuna, mussels, squid, clams and some vegetables. Use this recipe and cook it yourself.
Pair the delicious dishes with a glass of local Algarvian wine. Bom apetite!
How many days should you stay in Algarve?
Knowing what I know now, I’d stay at least 5 days to be able to enjoy all the good things the Algarve has to offer. Out of these, two days would be spend in Faro, Ria Formosa and the nearby islands. If you want to spend some days just relaxing on the beach, maybe even add a few more days.
Where to Stay in the Algarve?
The Algarve is best viewed on a road trip, except in case you love lying on a beach all day long. But, even then, you might want to check out several of the wonderful beaches in Algarve. There are many hostels, hotels and guesthouses to choose from. I’d stay two nights in Faro, one in Carvoeiro and two in Lagos. But this is just me. Depending on your interests, you might decide differently. Here are three nice options:
We hope you enjoyed this article with our best tips for a holiday in the Algarve. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions or recommendations! Have a nice trip!
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