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 Prince 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 Ria Formosa chain of islands largely protects the eastern stretch of the Algarve.
The Ria Formosa islands.
This chain of islands includes Ilha de Faro, Ilha da Barreta (also known as Ilha Deserta), Ilha da Culatra, and Ilha de Tavira. These islands are largely protected, which has prevented extensive commercial development and helped maintain their natural beauty.
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.
Pousada Palacio Estoi is a luxury hotel housed in a restored 19th-century palace. The palace features an impressive neoclassical facade and is set amidst landscaped gardens. Visitors can book to dine in the “Visconde” Restaurant, renowned for its seafood cataplana and rabbit casserole.
Praia da Rocha: This is one of the most famous and popular beaches on the Algarve coast. It is a large, wide beach with golden sand, crystal-clear waters and stunning rock formations.
Lagos Old Town: Lagos is a historic town with narrow cobbled streets and whitewashed houses. The town is surrounded by walls, and visitors can explore the fortifications and the historic buildings such as the 17th-century church of Santo Antonio and the Castelo dos Governadores.
Zoomarine: This is a popular theme park located in Guia, just outside of Albufeira. It offers a range of attractions and shows, such as dolphin and sea lion shows, a 4D cinema, and a water park.
Grotte de Benagil: This natural sea cave is located near the town of Lagoa. It is one of the most famous and stunning natural landmarks of the region. The cave is a result of thousands of years of erosion by the waves and tides of the Atlantic Ocean. Its dome-shaped ceiling features a large hole in the middle, allowing sunlight to stream into the cave and illuminate the turquoise waters below.
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 the 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 northwestern 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.
Medronho is a strong fruit liqueur that is a traditional alcoholic drink in Portugal, particularly in the Algarve region. It is made from the fruit of the medronho tree, which is also known as the strawberry tree. Medronho has a high alcohol content and is often compared to moonshine or grappa. It has a distinctive, fruity flavour and is typically served in small glasses as a digestif or after-dinner drink. Medronho production is regulated in Portugal, and it can only be produced legally by licensed distilleries.
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.
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Overall, the Algarve offers a rich and varied experience for visitors, from its stunning beaches and rocky coastline to its charming towns and mountain ranges. Whether you're seeking a relaxing beach vacation or an opportunity to explore Portugal's history and culture, the Algarve has something to offer. The region's blend of natural beauty and cultural heritage make it a destination that is well worth a visit.
Map of the Algarve
Editor - Alan Rogers Guides
Rob has been involved in the leisure industry since completing a BTEC in Travel & Tourism in 1993. Previous roles have included the promotion of tourism in Yorkshire and running a motorcycle touring company in the Australian Outback.
He is the General Manager at Alan Rogers Travel Group, responsible for the ongoing development of the Alan Rogers website and the publication of the Alan Rogers Guides and 'Destinations' magazine.
He regularly travels with his wife and young daughter in their Dethleffs 'Campy' caravan. A keen cycling fan, Rob can often be found in a field in Belgium during the 'Spring Classics' season or riding his Royal Enfield Himalayan motorcycle.
The Alentejo forms around a third of Portugal's landmass, yet it has just 6% of the population, and few visitors can claim to know much about it. This is one of Europe's least densely populated regions and a sorely overlooked holiday destination.
Europe is home to over 450 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Southern Europe alone has over 130. We'll be journeying through Greece, Vatican City, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Malta this week, so hold on tight!