Portugal’s southwest coast, the ‘Algarve’ is truly a picturesque jewel that should be on your bucket list. To be honest, I was quite ‘eh’ about the thought of going to Portugal. It doesn’t have the same PR in my mind as its neighbor, Spain. If you’re a romantic, the sunsets alone along the Algarve will do you in. I’ve been there a couple times now, and I fall in love with this area more and more each time I go. Here is my list of the top sights to see in the Algarve.
Where to stay in the Algarve
The best way to see these sites is to base yourself between the gateway city of Faro and Cap St. Vincente. Somewhere in the middle will make day trips easier. A super resort if you can splurge is the 5* Vila Vita Parc Resort and Spa in Alporchinhos.
From there, either rent a car or ask the hotel to book a private tour. There is 150 km of stunning coastline to discover. The red, mineral-rich terrain is quite a contrast to the low shrubbery, so you’ll want a car at some point to check out the hidden coves and smaller towns.
The roads are easy to drive, and the drivers are typically not in a rush. All the signs are in English and Portuguese. A car gives you a lot of freedom, but a tour will show you places you may have missed without a local guide that has intimate knowledge. I took a tour and it really opened my eyes to local nuggets of info I’d never have known without their commentary.
The name Algarve is an Arabic word meaning The West. The landscape is quite arid and the closer you get to the ocean, the more you see low shrubs growing, versus trees. It’s quite cool. The winds of the Atlantic can be very strong and the waves crashing against the limestone cliffs is quite amazing. It’s violent work by Mother Nature.
Top sights to see in the Algarve
Cape St. Vincente
Cape St. Vincente is the western-most point in the Algarve. You see awesome limestone cliffs, sculpted into unique structures by the ocean’s waves. In 10 years time, this whole place will look totally different with the ocean constantly eroding the limestone. Getting too close to the cliff’s edge, I get a serious case of vertigo. I’d really avoid being out on the promontory on windy days because a gust could blow you over the edge. No joke! Oh, and barriers, what barriers? The area is not all blocked off so you can hike around on the cliffs as far as your legs or nerves will take you.
The lighthouse there was built on the ruins of a Franciscan convent in the 1800’s. However, a rudimentary lighthouse has been there since the 1500’s! Over the years of being destroyed by England’s (Sir) Francis Drake, then rebuilt, left again for ruin, then finally reconstructed, it’s now one of the most important lighthouses and one of the 10th largest in the world. They use it now for terrestrial as well as maritime guiding. You can see its beacon for 33 miles! Wow. Definite must see!
This town is just over 30,000 and survives on tourism. People come here for the beaches, and the rock formations of the Ponta da Piedade. These are the typical, dreamy images of the Algarve you see in a vacation brochure. Take a stroll around the walled old town, and tour the Mercado de Escravos museum. This is the Slave Market Museum built in 1444. It’s surreal and quite interesting.
Lagos is a quaint and kitschy town, but well worth the stop. There are some great lunch spots, and you can easily spend several hours here admiring the history, and the city walls. It’s definitely a must-see for its charm. School children learn how to crochet by making a ‘coat’ for the trees in winter. Since the bark falls off the trees seem so bare.
Buy Portuguese salts, spices, Port wine and items made of cork
One thing you absolutely must buy in Portugal is sea salt infused with Piri-Piri. Piri-Piri is a tasty, spicy hot sauce made with red chili peppers. Great to use on grilled meats, and it’s a Portuguese staple. I had no idea Portugal is loaded with salt flats. The salts are so mineral-rich that you can’t go home without buying some. And the town with the best Piri-Piri chicken is Guia. I love my spices and am psyched this is now in my cupboard.
You can’t visit Portugal with out buying Port wine, so save space in your suitcase. Port is produced in the north near Porto, but if you don’t make it up there, buy some in a local store. They also produce a lot of olive oil here, too. It’s excellent quality and reasonably priced.
Then buy something cork: flipflops, phone covers, notepads, jewelry, watches, wallets, shoes, handbags… you name it. The cork is really supple. They shave and sand it down, so it’s buttery smooth. Bizarre and cool at the same time.
Portugal is the number 1 grower of cork trees. Ok, I did not know that cork is an oak or a tree. I don’t know what I thought. And cork is impermeable to gases and liquids, which is why we use it as well as a stopper on our olive oils. Cork trees also absorber CO2, so that’s positive for the environment. Personally I will only buy a bottle of wine with a cork in it. Screw off tops smack of bad quality wine and lazy drinkers! I know that’s not true today, but I can’t help but think of cheap wine we used to drink when I was barely old enough, because it had a screw-off top!
The city of Portimao near the train station is run-down, but it’s the seafront that is the heart-stopper. The seafront promenade is clean and smart. The main beach, Praia da Rocha, is the largest and most well-known. It stretches for more than a kilometer with beautiful sands and snack bars on the beach. There are steps that lead down to the well-manicured beaches. Going down is easy. Coming up is another story. You can walk on the wooden boardwalk along the cliffs and rock formations sticking up from the ocean.
You feel miniature next to these structures and they are truly a marvel of nature. The sands are so fine and it’s a pleasure to walk the beach. During high season, you can get a relaxing massage in covered cabanas. You can also take a banana boat ride or hire a jet ski to get a better view from the water.
The sunsets from here are just magical and people collect each evening to watch the sun melt into the horizon. Then, the painted skies after the sunset are an awesome sight. I’m not sure what is more beautiful.
As you’d expect there are several seafood restaurants, most offering typical Portuguese fare. After awhile, there’s only so much ‘Caldo Verde’ (cabbage and potato soup with spicy Portuguese sausage), ‘Bacalhau (cod in various recipes), and Frango (chicken) with Piri-piri that you can eat. In Portimao, you’ll find plenty of other options: Italian, British Pub food, and Asian, so it’s well worth spending a few days.
You can’t get to the Algarve without passing through Faro, either from the airport or the train station. You might as well take a peek while you are there. Faro has undergone quite a face lift in the past few years with a renovation of the port near the marshlands. There, too, is a waterfront promenade with the impressive imposing walls of the old town. Faro’s not too big and you can see the heart on foot. It’s is more a quiet, adult location.
One unique point here is that the roads are not straight. Almost as if you say, ‘You never know what’s around the bend,’ and this city is full of bends. It’s like a city built on Feng Shui. Quite interesting. There are lots of unique restaurants and shops selling locally made items.
Visit a Portuguese Winery
If you have time, arrange a winery tour. The wines in Portugal are quite good and you’ll need to travel inland to visit a winery. The terrain is more fertile inland than near the coast. I particularly like Vinho Verde, the Portuguese ‘green or young’ white wine, which is a bit bubbly. It is like champagne, but not so bubbly and more flavorful. I highly recommend visiting the Grous winery that Vila Vita Parc Resort owns. It’s massive and they provide a great tour. It’s about 1.5 hrs from the coast going north.
For the best bases, position yourself in Portimaio, Albufeira or Armacao de Pera depending on whether you want an active nightlife or quiet one. I highly recommend the Apartamentos Belo Horizonte in Portimaio. I had a brand new 1-bedroom apartment, fully kitted out, smack dab in the heart of the promenade with ocean view. A real treat, and I’d definitely return.
You can fly to Faro and Lisbon from many European destinations using a variety of low-cost European carriers.