14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in the Algarve
The Algarve is Portugal's southernmost region, and one of the most popular vacation destinations in Europe. Blessed with a superb coastline and some of the country's loveliest beaches, the province enjoys hot, dry summers and short, mild winters. Warm sea temperatures and gentle winds add to its allure.
The Algarve is a land of contrast, and there's plenty to see and do. More than fifty percent of all visitors to Portugal spend their holidays here. The popular and more developed central region offers lively coastal resorts, first-rate tourist amenities, and some of Portugal's best golf courses. Further east, a string of sandbar islands and lagoons form part of a beautiful and protected natural park, and a distinctly Spanish atmosphere pervades the border towns and villages. Over to the west, a very different Algarve beckons. Wilder and more remote, this is a place to escape the crowds and where surfers seek communion with a restless Atlantic Ocean.
Busy Faro is the capital city of the Algarve, and its international airport is the gateway for many tourists arriving in southern Portugal. As the largest city in the region, Faro accommodates around 50,000 inhabitants and is a modern industrial and manufacturing hub. It is the Old Town, however, that sightseers will want to visit. Enclosed by sturdy defensive walls, Faro's Cidade Velha sits on Roman and Moorish foundations. The town was badly damaged by the great earthquake of 1755, and what you see today dates mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries. A warren of cobblestone streets and leafy squares surround the landmark cathedral. Explore further, and you'll find a number of cafés and restaurants tucked discreetly between rows of tidy houses and artisans' workshops. An excellent museum exhibits treasures unearthed in the area and further afield.
The nearby esplanade harbors a small marina, beyond which lies an expanse of lagoons and wetlands teeming with marine life. This beautiful natural park is also composed of numerous islets and enormous sandbars with their own fabulous beaches, including one named after the city.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Faro
2 Vila Real de Santo António
You're as likely to hear Spanish spoken here as Portuguese for this is about as near to Spain as you can get without actually crossing the frontier. Indeed, the shops and markets of Vila Real de Santo António are geared towards visiting Spaniards, but this pleasant border town also has a number of tourist attractions worth investigating. The excellent Arquivo Histórico Municipal on Avenida da República chronicles the region's almost vanished sardine and tuna canning industry with a spirited interactive exhibition that's free to visit. The handsome main square, Praça Marques de Pombal, features an eye-catching mosaic sun burst radiating from a central obelisk and is ringed by orange trees and lots of inviting cafés and restaurants. A fun-filled diversion is to take the ferry from the quay near the marina to the Spanish border town of Ayamonte, with its colorful tapas bars and traditionally styled delicatessens. The ferry, which also carries cars, takes around 20 minutes to cross the River Guadiana.
A ten-minute drive north of Vila Real is the spruce village of Castro Marim, which is dominated by an imposing 13th-century castle. Open to the public, its massive ramparts afford fine views over the surrounding coastal Reserva Natural do Sapal nature park.
The eastern Algarve's barren and sparsely populated interior is rarely visited, and for the most part remains well off the tourism map. But some 40 kilometers north of Vila Real is the wonderfully scenic border village of Alcoutim. The drive alone is worth the detour. Rather than using the IC27 dual carriageway, follow the road that hugs the Guadiana River, a broad, meandering waterway that provides a natural border between Spain and Portugal. A smudge of whitewash announces this riverside gem, and the tiny hamlet looks as though it's been created from the imagination of an exceptionally talented artist. Once a strategic river port controlled in turn by Greeks, Romans and, notably, Arabs, Alcoutim later played a role as the setting for the peace treaty signed in 1371 between King Fernando I of Portugal and Enrique II of Castile.
It's still a sleepy and tranquil Alcoutim that greets visitors today. The best way to begin sightseeing is by exploring the 14th-century castle (the entrance fee includes access to a small archaeological museum by the main gates). The castle walls afford stunning views of the vicinity and take in the Spanish village of Sanlúcar de Guadiana, set on the opposite bank of the river. A regular ferry service shuttles between the two villages, but there is an alternative and absolutely exhilarating way to cross the river. On the Spanish side, high above Sanlúcar, is the only cross-border zip line operator in the world. As well as speeding from one country to another, you also cross a time zone - there is a one-hour time difference between Spain and Portugal.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Alcoutim
Near the coast in the eastern Algarve, Tavira is one of the region's prettiest towns. Sited on both sides of the broad River Gilão, this is a destination celebrated for its historical legacy, a past shaped by the Romans and later by the Moors, whose settlement by the river was topped by a castle, still visible today. The hipped roofs that define much of Tavira's architecture are unique to this part of the Algarve. So, too, is the number of churches - 21 in all - that embellish the old town. Straddling the river is an elegant bridge, built in the 17th century on Roman foundations.
An amble along the riverfront is one of the best ways of appreciating Tavira; the palm-lined gardens are flecked with color in the summer months, and a nearby market brims with fresh fruit and vegetables. Ferries depart from the quay to the Ilha de Tavira, a favorite destination for sun seekers and one of the few islands in the area where camping is permitted. Alternatively, you can join a sightseeing cruise along the Ria Formosa, a beautiful and unspoiled waterway and part of a protected natural park.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Tavira
The Algarve's busiest fishing port, Olhão is all about the ocean, and some of the best seafood restaurants in the region are on Avenida da República, the town's vibrant thoroughfare. Another reason for paying Olhão a call is to browse its incredible harborfront market - the biggest and most animated on the coast. Open at daybreak, the fish market is filled to the gills with an extraordinary array of produce, sleek and silver, and the freshest you're ever likely to taste. Complementing this Atlantic harvest is a rural riot of just-picked fruits and vegetables, a farmer's choice of delicious country fare.
While it radiates a palpable North African atmosphere with its casbah-cluster of whitewashed flat-roofed houses, Olhão is bereft of any major tourist attractions. However, the waterfront town is a great base from which to explore the pristine Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. Visitors can follow a wonderful network of nature trails and discover a wealth of wildlife within its various habitats. For others, it's Olhão's proximity to the fantastic near-deserted sandbar islands of Armona, Culatra, and Farol that lures them to this particular pocket of Portugal.
Far from the coast, Loulé is a busy market town of singular character and a fascinating past. The town is best known for its covered fruit and vegetable market, one of the busiest and most entertaining in the Algarve. The sprawling collection of stalls, cabins, and kiosks are arranged in a late 19th-century red-domed building with distinctive horseshoe-shaped windows. On Saturday mornings, the market spills out into the surrounding streets when farmers from outlying districts come to sell their crops.
Loulé has always been a lively commercial hub. The Moors built on Roman foundations to create a thriving center of commerce and constructed a castle here in the 12th century to protect their interests. You can walk the ramparts for fine views over the old town, and there's a small museum set within the grounds. Arab influence is everywhere. Wander Loulé's backstreets, and you'll discover the ruins of an Islamic bathhouse, the hammam de Al-'Ulyà. In the beautiful 16th-century Capela Nossa Senhora da Conceição, decorated with stunning azulejos tiles, part of the floor reveals the foundations of a 12th-century Moorish house. Explore further, and you'll stumble upon the Igreja Matriz de São Clemente. The church's lofty bell tower originally served as a minaret.
About 25 kilometers northwest of Loulé, Alte is a picturesque village snuggled in the foothills of a mountain range and dotted with flower-filled gardens. To absorb the town's quaint local color, sightseers can stroll along the narrow cobbled streets with their charming white-washed houses or relax at one of the many cafés.
No less than five championship golf courses cluster in and around Vilamoura making this upmarket coastal resort a favorite with those who want to practice their swing or improve their handicap. Some hotels offer their guests preferential green fees and other inducements such as free shuttle services to and from the clubhouses. Vilamoura is also synonymous with Portugal's largest marina facility, which offers 825 berths and can accommodate vessels up to 60 meters in length. The esplanade is lined with designer boutiques and pricey restaurants, and is fabulous for people watching, especially in August when Lisbon's jet set tread the boards clad in their designer best.
This is a family-friendly destination with plenty of activities for kids. The boardwalk is the jumping-off point for coastal cruises and other water sports activities, and you can hire pedalos on the sand at Praia da Marina. Elsewhere, the family golf park is an 18-hole mini-golf layout themed around ancient Rome. Actually, the Romans were here, and the area features the ruins of a 2nd-century villa complex, Museu Cerro da Vila, complete with sunken baths, salt tanks, and striking mosaics.
Albufeira is the destination of choice for many Algarve holidaymakers. Its central location on the coast of southern Portugal makes it one of the region's most accessible resorts, and it's a favorite with tourists from across Europe and beyond. Set on sandstone cliffs above a wide sandy bay, the Albufeira of old was once a quiet fishing village, nothing more than a cluster of whitewashed cottages, a chapel, and a church. Step back further, and it was the Romans who built a castle here, strengthened later by the Moors. Little remains of their presence, but what Albufeira lacks in historical interest it more than makes up for with its animated spirit and vacation-time atmosphere. The resort's neon-lit streets illuminate a plethora of hotels, cafés, restaurants, and nightclubs. Top-notch leisure facilities exude an all-round appeal, and Albufeira is often the preferred choice of families.
But the destination's biggest crowd-puller is its beaches. Some of the best stretches of sand in the Algarve are within walking distance of the resort, spectacular cliff-backed coves lapped by warm, shallow water. This is why Albufeira is the tourist capital of the Algarve.
Lying across a hill overlooking a fertile valley embroidered with orange groves, olive trees, and vineyards, Silves is one of the most scenic towns in the Algarve. The landscape, however, is dominated by the town's splendid castle - the grandest monument to Islamic rule in the region. Built by the Moors in the 11th century on Roman foundations, the castle's dramatic profile is enhanced by its copper-red walls, sections of which extend into the town below. This was Xelb, the Moorish capital of the al-Gharb ("the west"). Another fine example of Islamic presence can be seen in the Museu Arquelógico, where the star exhibit is an impressive Arab water cistern with an 18-meter-deep well.
Silves is worth exploring at leisure. Downhill from the fortress is the Sé (cathedral), built between 1242 and 1577 on the site of Xelb's Grand Mosque. Opposite is the 16th-century Igreja da Misericórdia, replete with a fine Manueline side door. The town itself is delightful, especially the area along the riverfront, which is lined with a small market and some excellent restaurants. Cruise boats from Portimão tie up here near the old bridge.
Historically associated with the Algarve's once thriving cannery industry, Portimão has successfully reinvented itself as a destination for tourists who prefer to stay in an urban setting yet remain within shouting distance of a beach resort environment. The region's second largest city, Portimão enjoys an enviable location overlooking the banks of the River Arade. Endowed with an award-winning museum and a noted theater complex, the city is basking in its reputation as one of the region's liveliest cultural hubs. It's also an international port of call for luxury cruise ships en route to the Mediterranean.
An eclectic choice of tourism amenities is close at hand, options that include a fabulous artificial reef - the first in Portugal - that's attracting diving enthusiasts from around the world. Inland, a Formula 1-standard racetrack hosts sports car championships and other high-profile competitions. A modern marina set at the mouth of the estuary is within walking distance of one of the Algarve's most famous beaches, Praia da Rocha - a beautiful and alluring stretch of golden sand that fronts the lively tourist resort of the same name.
11 Serra de Monchique
Offering an alternative to the Algarve beach scene is the Serra de Monchique, a rolling mountain range that adds a dramatic perspective to the region's western countryside. Skirted by fragrant meadows of wildflowers, Monchique's slopes bristle with chestnut and eucalyptus, the verdant habitat sustaining an abundance of wildlife. A network of nature trails snake through the shady woodland; one leads all the way to Fóia, at 900 meters the highest point in the Algarve. On a clear day, the spectacular panorama embraces the region's entire western landmass including Lagos and Sagres, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
The pleasant hill town of Monchique is an excellent base from which to explore the area and is noted for its traditional handicrafts: look out for the cadeiras de tesoura, the x-shaped folding wooden chairs based on an ancient Roman design. And it's the Romans who first took advantage of the warm, curative waters that nourish Caldas de Monchique, a charming spa tucked away in a wooded ravine in the foothills of the Serra. Set around a cobbled square furnished with a restaurant, café-art gallery, and bed and breakfast accommodation, the modern thermal spa offers a tantalizing menu of therapeutic treatments and rituals.
Lagos is the western Algarve's liveliest resort town. It's also of great historical significance. Prince Henry the Navigator launched Portugal's Age of Discovery from Lagos in the 15th century, and the nobleman later became governor of the Algarve. His extraordinary vision, and the bravery of the intrepid explorers who set sail for uncharted waters, helped place Portugal on the world map, and Lagos is proud of its seafaring heritage.
The town's medieval collection of castle walls, graceful churches, and stout sea defenses always captures the imagination of visitors, but it's the coastline that lures holidaymakers. A stunning run of cliffs, caves, and grottoes provide the backdrop to some of the most scenic beaches in the Algarve. A series of spectacular ochre-splashed rock formations contrasts with sparkling azure waters, and the best way to appreciate this idyllic environment is by boat - Lagos's extensive leisure amenities extend to sightseeing cruises and dolphin safaris. Shopping here is good and inexpensive, and a wide choice of cafés and restaurants provide plenty of culinary distraction.
Around 120 kilometers west of Faro, Sagres, continental Europe's southwesternmost community, basks in glorious isolation and is the Algarve's least developed coastal resort. It was here that Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) is believed to have established a school of navigation on a windswept promontory near the town, thus heralding Portugal's remarkable period of maritime exploration. The chunky walled Fortaleza seen today dates from the 17th-century, but inside the walls, you'll see a giant pebble wind compass, the Rosa dos Ventos, said to have been used by Henry. The adjacent 15th-century chapel of Nossa Senhora da Graça was certainly built on his orders.
Ancient Greek chroniclers described nearby Cabo de São Vicente as "the end of the inhabited earth," such is the austerity of this stark, windblown cape. The lighthouse serves as a navigational beacon, not just for shipping, but also for thousands of migrating birds, and there's a birdwatching festival here every October. The town itself wakes up in summer to welcome a predominantly young crowd drawn to inexpensive accommodation, simple restaurants, and proximity to some truly fantastic beaches. Sagres is Europe's surfing capital, and the destination hosts legs of the World Surfing Championships.
14 The West Coast
Precipitous sea cliffs, wide-open beaches, and a restless Atlantic Ocean define the character of the Algarve's west coast. Devoid of development, this remote and untamed stretch of coastline is the preserve of the more spirited traveler. Surfers worship the region, drawn by the outstanding rollers that crash onto Praia da Bordeira, Praia do Amado, Praia da Arrifana, and other sandy arenas. Surf schools abound, with many offering free transfers from Faro airport.
Traditional villages untouched by tourism dot the landscape, places like Carrapateira and Odeceixe. Accommodation is scarce, and very often it's the humble campervan that prevails. Unfussy restaurants serve succulent grilled fish and other delicious seafood dishes. The entire region falls within the boundaries of the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, and you can follow a number of footpaths, both inland and along the coast, that showcase its wild and rugged scenery. For a worthwhile cultural diversion, head for the lively town of Aljezur and visit the ruins of an 11th-century Moorish castle, set on a hill with uninterrupted views of the valley below.