Algarve Travel Guide
The Algarve, Portugal Summary
- Reportedly receives 300 days of sunshine per year
- Spectacular beaches, generally flanked by dramatic, photo-worthy cliffs
- Dozens of charming, historic towns -- many with amazing sunset views
- Loads of architectural gems, including pre-colonial era churches and castles
- Locavore cuisine and seafood even at the most casual cafes
- Cheap prices when compared to other European beach destinations
- Well-maintained roads mean navigating region is easy
- All manner of languages spoken by those in tourist industry
- Attractions for everyone from nature lovers to families
- Less than a three-hour flight from most of Europe
- Can feel hyper-touristy in places like Albufeira and Portimao
- Large region means a car is needed to explore
- Lots of drab and dated hotels
- The sea is cold, even in summer
What It's Like
If you're anything like us, it's hard to argue with nearly 300 days of sun per year, and that fact likely accounts for the several million travelers that visit Portugal's Algarve every year. With 130 miles of shoreline, this rugged region spans the entire southern coast of Portugal. It was once the launchpad for Henry the Navigator's fleet of imperialist explorers, and it served as a trade hub for centuries, including a dark chapter as a port on the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Today, though, that coastline is best enjoyed on a surfboard, from a beach towel, or with a camera. Golden sandstone cliffs -- some of the most iconic you're likely to find -- flank seemingly every beach. Yes, the water is chilly year round, but that doesn't stop throngs of tourists from packing beaches like Praia Dona Ana in Lagos, or Praia da Oura in Albufeira. For truly spectacular sunsets, Sagres is the place, with its series of long clifftop peninsulas that jut out into the ocean at what seems like the end of the world.
There's also some great local culture to experience, though just how authentic the scene is depends on where you're heading. There's authentic Algarvian character in towns like Tavira, Ferragudo, and Lagos, each of which have iconic cobblestone streets, colorful pre-colonial buildings, and more pastelarias and confeitarias than can possibly be counted. And while a humble meal of grilled fish and rice will likely hit the spot at any of the region's sidewalk restaurants, there are six Michelin-star restaurants here as well.
Given the stunning scenery and relatively cheap cost of everything from food to booze and hotel rooms, the Algarve can feel hyper-touristy. In fact, many of the cities and towns resemble hollowed-out movie sets. Take Albufeira, for instance, whose old town still looks like a Medieval holdover, but whose streets are packed with Irish and British pubs, tacky souvenir stands, and bars advertising cheap, day-glow colored shots. Elsewhere, Portimao's Praia da Rocha feels a bit like Miami by way of the Iberian Peninsula.
Take heart, though -- there are still places where you can feel like you're lost in the region's laid-back way of life. Sagres is a lovely little town with wild beaches and a chilled-out surfer culture. It's surrounded by hundreds of acres of blessedly undeveloped natural parkland. Alternatively, Lagos, has maintained has a stunning walled old town that's buzzing with a vibrant mixture of tourists and locals watching guitar players in Praca Gil Eames, or bargaining for fish at the morning market.
If you want our advice, head to the Algarve now. There's only so long before the rest of the world outside of Europe discovers this gorgeous corner of Portugal, too.
Where to Stay
The Algarve is large, and there's a wide range of hotels and styles on offer for nearly every type of tourist. Keep in mind that some two- and three-pearl hotels do have incredibly dated interiors, so doing your research is essential. Albufeira, Portimao, and Carvoeiro mostly draw tourists from the British Isles and Ireland, and all have a relatively healthy party scene in various corners (Albufeira, though, takes the nightclub cake). There are also smaller towns that have less of a rowdy party scene, but are still packed with tourists from Europe's northern countries -- check out Luz as a sleepy little alternative. It has a bustling boardwalk and a wide, stunning beach that's hopping with tourists all day long.
Travelers wanting a blend of tourist trappings and authenticity should consider Lagos. Its central location puts it within a 30- to 40-minute drive of Albufeira and Sagres, though the town itself -- with its charming historic core -- has enough to keep everyone busy. It's also home to some of the region's most spectacular scenery, with dramatic rock arches over the blue ocean at Ponta da Piedade. Tavira is another great option for travelers wanting to score some authentic eats alongside tourist-friendly amenities, though it's eastern Algarve location is a bit isolate. Those who want to have a quiet, relaxing getaway should investigate Sagres. This small town lacks historic charm (though is home to one of Henry the Navigator's forts), but has unbeatable beaches, trendy dining, lively bars, and sunsets that are worthy of a postcard.