Although stretches of its coast around the best beaches are very developed, there are plenty of places to go for a more low-key experience. Resorts such as Lagos and Albufeira aside, the Algarve retains a distinctly Portuguese feel. There are wilder shores, quiet villages and to the west, the scenic Serra de Monchique mountain range that separates the region from the Alentejo district.
Coast to coast
Best known for its rocky coves, the Algarve has an increasingly wild coastline as you head west. The fine sands of Lagos give way to the caves and outcrops around windswept Sagres, the site of Henry the Navigator’s naval school. Its warm waters draw in bathers, surfers and divers and the fortress, Fortaleza de Sagres, is a point of historical interest and houses a 14th century chapel. Outside it is the impressive Wind Rose, a wind compass that reaches 39m in diameter. The area’s cape, Cabo de São Vicente was thought in Roman times to be the most westerly part of the world, a place where the setting sun made the ocean boil.
From the harbour, 15th century sailors set out to colonise Madeira and the Azores, as well as trade along Africa’s western coast. It became the training school for some of Portugal’s greatest explorers, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan among them.
Moorish influences are still very much apparent in the area’s architecture and flora – hand-painted tiles adorn the whitewashed houses and fig trees grow in abundance over the landscape. The gorgeous Praia do Martinhal, a fine swathe of golden sand with softly lapping waves, is a prime place for a stroll or a paddle.
The eastern stretch of the Algarve is largely protected by a chain of islands which has prevented extensive commercial development. A short boat ride brings you to the beaches, which are backed by rolling dunes and dotted with seasonal cafés. Immediately obvious is the more laid-back nature of the resorts, the largest of which is Faro. With its mosaic-paved streets, shopping centre and energetic nightlife, it is the capital of the region and easily the busiest town. For a more gentle experience, head to the streets of Cabanas, lined with fishermen’s houses, or the Ilha de Tavira, where a 15 minute walk will take you away from the high season crowds and to a sweep of sand that you can enjoy more or less undisturbed.
Of course, there’s much more to the Algarve than its beaches. Inland, it remains less developed and is peppered with little towns that provide an interesting diversion from sunbathing. Approached from the north along a road that follows the winding path of the Guadiana River, the white walls and orange roofs of Alcoutim stand out against the deep blue sky. Settled by the Greeks, the Romans and the Arabs in turn, it was once a thriving river port and has a pretty riverfront with a small main square and cobbled alleys that lead to the castle and archaeological museum.
Along the Arade River and north of Portimão is Silves, once capital of the Algarve when it was under Moorish rule. It’s home to the best preserved castle in the district, perched on a hilltop above the town and an impressive sight with its red walls and numerous towers. Alongside it, the Gothic cathedral presents a striking façade of white and red and houses several tombs, including those of the town’s notable families. A network of cobbled streets runs down to the modern town, with its central square framed with palms and flowers. Take a break in a riverside café and enjoy the beautiful views and leisurely pace of life.
Into the mountains
Forming part of the north western border of the Algarve is the Serra de Monchique mountain range. Its slopes, forested with oak and chestnut trees, present the Algarve in a spectacular panorama; on a clear day atop Fóia, its highest peak, the south coast is visible, with Cabo de São Vicente away to the west.
Monchique, a market town settled on the slopes, is a lovely stop with narrow streets that converge in a square with a charming water feature. The town is famous for the production of Medronho, a rather strong fruit liqueur, and the honey which is a key component in many of the region’s desserts and cakes. Close by is Caldas de Monchique with its natural spring baths built by the Romans. A centre treating rheumatism and respiratory illnesses is based there, but poor health isn’t a prerequisite for visiting the town. Encircled by towering trees and featuring a small chapel with steps leading to a tranquil area of parkland, it’s a place that could have been lifted from a storybook. A stream runs down the hillside, beside which sit stone benches and tables that provide a delightful spot for a picnic.