The southernmost tip of Portugal, the Algarve has 96 miles of a spectacular coastline on the Atlantic, and a culture and scenery very different from the rest of the country. With a mild year-round weather, warm sea waters, rich history, culinary and traditions – with low prices – the region has seen international tourism replace agriculture and fishing recently, since an international airport was opened in Faro, the regional capital. With no crime or political strife, the Algarve now is one of the most popular vacation spots in Europe – in 2017 alone it received 7.1 million visitors, and the summer of 2018 is expected to be its biggest season yet.
This success has come at a price: the permanent population of the province is of only 450.000 people, but in the summer this number is multiplied by three. This influx of tourists has caused parts of the region to become overbuilt and cluttered – mostly the central region, as the coastline towards the Spanish border (see post on the East Algarve) is less developed, perhaps due to a nature reserve of lagoons and inlets separating the towns from the sand beaches. The east is also a more traditional and historic part of the Algarve, better suited for mature travelers. But that doesn’t mean that the bustling center should be bypassed – there is a lot to see there, if you pick the right time and place to visit.
Let’ go about the places that make the cut – or not.
Pros: major sport facilities
Cons: modern and purpose-built, no charm or history
Leaving Faro and driving west towards Sagres, on the extreme west of the province, we stopped first at glitzy Vilamoura, a town started in 1980 as a golf course and now becoming a massive sports center: five 18-hole golf courses, theme and water parks, shooting and riding schools, tennis complexes and a marina for big boats. Vilamoura wants to be Europe’s largest sports destination, and in the summer it attracts the ritzy Lisbon’s jet set crowd and their counterparts in Europe. Outside town, the main attraction is Praia da Falésia (Falesia Beach) and Roman ruins, but few hours here were enough in cold march, and we continued towards famous Albufeira, Algarve’s undisputed tourism capital.
Pros: pretty center town, lots of character and history
Cons: very busy in the summer, planning ahead a must
Albufeira was already a favorite of the Romans, who built a castle on top of a hill, a privileged location overlooking a sheltered beach. Later the Moors – Muslims from North Africa who occupied the area for five centuries – made it the center of a prosperous trade route they called it Al-Buhar, Arabic for castle on the sea. Sent back to Africa in 1452 – by the Catholic army of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella – their legacy is still felt in the architecture, food and traditions here. On main street – Rua da Igreja Velha (Old Church Street) – Moorish arches still stand, not far from Praia do Peneco (Peneco Beach), where fishermen sell their catch at the end of each day, and some boats have names in Arabic.
Finding a hotel here wasn’t easy; we ended up in Estalagem do Cerro, a pleasant 4-star hotel with private parking (a definite plus here), high on a hill with ample sea views. The hotel proved to be a favorite of tourists from the UK, as we learned the next morning, waiting in line for breakfast with Scottish retirees eager for bacon and eggs. Not available was the simple fare of coffee and toasts the Portuguese – and I – prefer to start the day with, so I had just coffee. The Algarve definitely caters to tourists, which reminded me of what a Lisbon friend once told me: “The Algarve is for foreigners, too expensive for us”. It didn’t feel expensive to me, with American dollars (EUR/USD: 1.23 in march of 2018), so I imagine how convenient prices must be in other parts of Portugal.
Crowded but gorgeous, Albufeira offers something to everyone. There are well-known golf courses and a lively nightlife, as we learned in the Tourist Office from a local lady passionate about her town. She took the time to mark on our map “the most beautiful beaches in the world” – some we had heard about, others were not even in our many books. One is Praia da Marinha (Navy Beach) in Caramujeira, near the western Algarve town of Lagoa, not on any tour guide yet one of the most emblematic of the region. We kept that piece of paper as a treasure for the rest of our trip – the best information always comes from locals.
The postcards beaches the Algarve is known for – formed by ochre sandstone rocks sculpted by erosion – start in Albufeira towards the west of the province. The first of them is scenic São Rafael, less than 5 miles from town., where we arrived by the end of the day when just a few professional photographers – and birds – were visiting. The view was magnificent: white Albufeira on the horizon, sandy coves between rocks on both sides, for sure the most spectacular place we had seen that far in our trip. Overwhelmed by the vast openness of sea and sky with different shades of blue, we kept silent all the way back to the hotel.
Armação de Pêra
Pros – low prices, many restaurants, trips to the coves, Romanesque church
Cons – overbuilt, no character
On a completely different note, eight miles west of Albufeira is perhaps the worst example of over development in the Algarve: the town of Armação de Pêra, where a building frenzy years ago managed to eliminate all signs of the relaxed Algarve feeling: high-rise apartment building blocks sit empty for most of the year, cheap construction everywhere, too much traffic in the summer. Its saving grace is a pretty chapel in Romanesque style – Nossa Senhora da Rocha – said to be a place of pilgrimage of local fishermen for centuries.
Pros: calm town removed from the busy coast
Cons: not much to do
Silves was the capital of the Moorish Algarve for centuries (700-1200), and remnants of its glorious past are plenty here. Among them is a massive red brick 7th-century castle dominating the skyline, once the Moors’ stronghold in the region and open to visitors. The castle was the scenario of battles with Christian crusaders, but Silves today is an unhurried and charming town far removed from the buzz of the coastline few miles away. A good example of how the Algarve was before the advent of mass tourism, Silves has no modern development, perhaps the reason why we found so many stork nests on top of old buildings. Another attraction here is Casa da Cultura Islâmica (House of Islamic Culture) and a pretty riverside area, the place to be in the summer to watch Viking-like canoes run trips down the Arade Rivers.
Pros: high-end restaurants and lodgings, pretty coastline
Cons: too crowded in the summer, expensive
In busy but pretty Carvoeiro, the first impression is that of being in England, but with sun. The English are everywhere here, and in the main town square the bars were already full of them in march. Some were sunbathing shirtless, something the modest Portuguese frown upon, others already turning a curious shade of red they acquire when tanned (the French call them “roast beef”). Carvoeiro is a very popular destination year-round, thanks to good restaurants and high-end lodgings, but it still maintains some of its fishing village charm. There is a boardwalk overlooking a dramatic coastline, but parking and crowds can be a problem in the summer. Nevertheless, this seems to be a favorite place of the so-called “beautiful people” (and red Brits), who enjoy the topnotch cuisine and scenic coastline here.
Portimão and Praia da Rocha
Pros: real town with permanent residents
Cons – modern and crowded coastal town
The largest town in western Algarve, Portimão was once a major center of sardine fishing and processing. Not a touristic destination in itself, this is a relaxing place with 50.000 working-class Portuguese residents where old fishing docks were transformed into scenic promenades on the Arade River. But the real activity here happens 2 miles from town, at Praia da Rocha (Rock Beach), a purpose-built resort designed for foreign tourists and packed full of modern hotels, bars and restaurants. The beach at Praia da Rocha is a mile long stretch of sand, with a wooden walkway running alongside it. In the summer young crowds turn it into a party scene. No Portuguese charm or history here, just high-rises and heavy traffic, but they don’t seem to mind.
Pros: pretty, historic, well-preserved, near best beaches
Cons: crowded in the summer
All the charm and history – and everything else typically Portuguese – lacking in Praia da Rocha, we found right next door to it, in attractive Lagos. A lively town near Algarve’s most glorious beaches, Lagos was once an important naval center in Portugal, and today it still retains its character. The historic center is surrounded by a well-preserved Moorish wall overlooking a pretty harbor, and on the the main streets there is a wide variety of restaurants, bars and boutiques. This is a good base from where to explore the western Algarve, and also an ideal destination for those interested in more than great beaches and sunny weather for their holidays.
There’s an architectural jewel in Lagos: the 18-century church of Santo Antônio, the most extraordinary structure in town and a Baroque treasure of the Algarve. Lagos is also 20 minutes away from promontory Ponta da Piedade (Piety Point) and the sheltered coves and clean waters of Praia do Camilo (Camilo Beach) and Praia de Dona Ana (Dona Ana Beach), best examples of the beauty of this coast and a magnet for tourists. A little further west is Praia da Luz (Light Beach), a pleasant and very popular destination for Portuguese families on vacation.
Pros: historic, calm, relaxed
Cons: not much to do
Small and unassuming Sagres was believed – in the Middle Ages – to be the end of the world. On the extreme southwest point of Portugal, and of Europe, it marked the limit of the land known to mankind until then. All that changed right here in Sagres, in the 15th-century, when a nobleman known as Henry the Navigator set up a school of navigation and a shipyard on a windy promontory. The Sagres School of Navigation shot Portugal to world prominence – and wealth – and started the Age of Discoveries: navigators and explorers such as Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus and others learned here the skills that would make them the first Europeans to reach India, dominate the west coast of Africa, and later cross the Atlantic Ocean to discover the Americas.
Today sleepy Sagres is still a fisherman’s village, but nearby Cabo Sâo Vicente (Saint Vincent Cape), with the most powerful lighthouse in Europe, continues to be a reference for shipping. The ruins of the Sagres School of Navigation can be visited, a tribute to those brave men who expanded the world by refusing fear, opposing the Church and daring further than no one had. At the exit gate of the school, a small sign on the wall tells more than anything else of the pride the Portuguese have of their first Discoverers.