With more than 300 days of sunshine per year, the Algarve in Portugal is one of Europe’s top beach destinations. The golden sands, tinged with the red of the cliffs in the Central and Western Algarve, wrap all around Portugal’s southern coast. As you fly into Faro airport the sea sparkles below you and the offshore islands of the Ria Formosa invite closer inspection.
There’s something for everyone here. Busy resorts like Albufeira and Vilamoura are for those who like a lively time, with plenty of bars and restaurants. The marina at Vilamoura is enormous and filled to the brim with gleaming yachts. It’s a great place to grab an icecream or a glass of wine and indulge in a little people-watching. Who knows which of those yachts might have a celebrity owner?
Further west, Lagos has a good mix of old and new, including city walls that date from 16th century. Many of the houses are covered in the distinctive tiles that are a common feature of Portugal. Prince Henry the Navigator based many of his journeys of discovery in Lagos and there is a replica of the caravel, Boa Esperanca (Good Hope), in the marina. It was also the base for the slave trade, and the oldest slave market in Europe was founded here in 1444. Prince Henry received one fifth of the selling price of every slave, helping to pay for his voyages. Notable churches are the Igreja de Santo Antonio, with its gilded wooden carvings and 18th century blue and white azulejo tiled pictures, and Igreja de Santa Maria.
Far out at the western tip, Sagres has the remains of a 17th century fort and a giant wind compass marked out on the ground. It’s mostly breezy here, particularly at the lighthouse at Cabo St. Vincente which marks Europe’s most south westerly point. The surrounding beaches are flawless and cooler in Summer.
Many local festivals take place in the Algarve, particularly in the Summer months, and are a great source of free entertainment. “Carnaval”, to signify Lent, is widely celebrated with processions. The best known is in Loule, a traditional town not far from Faro airport.
Faro itself has an interesting old town, with narrow cobbled streets and artisans at work. Climb the clocktower of the cathedral for beautiful views out to the islands. Boat tours run from the far end of the marina out to several of these- a great day out with a fine beach to enjoy.
Going east, the fishing port of Tavira is a lovely town, with many restaurants and cafes along the tree-lined riverside, and tucked more cheaply into the back streets. The remains of the castle has a shaded garden and views over the pretty tiled roofs and out to the salt marshes, teaming with fish and birds. A ferry from the quayside will take you across to the island, where 7kms of sparkling sand await. One of my favourite ways to end an Algarve day is sitting outside Cafe Anazu with a glass of fine port, looking across the river at the churches and water tower as dusk descends.
Where to stay?
Depends on your budget. In Tavira, Hotel Porta Nova is a very reasonable and central choice. If you favour the luxury end of the market, the pousada, Convento da Graca, will not disappoint. In Lagos, Casa Paula is a great base for a good price, with lovely rooftop views. There are numerous high-end options too.