Whether you are charmed by the light dancing on the waves of the Atlantic, seduced by the taste of freshly caught tuna, or dazzled by the cobbled streets of its villages, once you visit the Algarve, you will never quite leave it behind. Whichever of its three regions you choose to explore, be prepared to find amazing local wines and dishes, friendly locals, and nature at its most colorful. Here are five of the most picturesque towns to visit while in the region.
Faro is the capital of the Algarve, and the first point of contact with Portugal for many of those who choose to arrive by air. During the height of the season, it boasts the reputation of a party-goer’s dream. However, in wintertime it is home to many an intrigued traveler making it their headquarters for the exploration of the Algarve. Unfortunately, many merely drive out of Faro to explore the beaches to the east, while the town itself has much to offer as well.
Faro’s Old Town is the perfect place to kick start your relationship with Portugal. Visit the Largo da Sé (the Cathedral Square), perfect for snapping an image in the shade of its orange trees. If you are feeling macabre, stop by the Capela dos Ossos in the Igreja do Carmo church – the chapel is decorated with the remains of over 1200 monks. You should also visit the marina, bustling with arrivals and the busy lives of the locals.
While in Faro, make sure to travel the 7 kilometers to the Milreu ruins, one of the best Roman ruins to be seen in the Algarve. Today, a Christian church, which began its life as a Roman villa, still stands there.
If you are looking for delectable bites in the vicinity, make sure you visit the Lagar da Mesquita – located in an old oil press in the village of Mesquita.
On the southern part of the coast lies Lagos, another small city worth getting lost in. In fact, the proper way to experience Lagos is strictly on foot. This is especially true of the wall-rimmed inner city, hiding streets too narrow for even the smallest of cars.
It was from Lagos that King Sebastião set off on his crusade against the Moors to Morocco in the 1570s. The feat was however a disaster, and the king himself lost his head in the Moorish desert.
One of the sights you cannot afford to miss is the Lagos fish market, with its amazing variety of fresh catch. From dogfish and monkfish to piles of prawns and mountains of hake, you simply have to take the opportunity and get lost in the early morning bustle. Upstairs, you can find the vegetable market, emanating the smell of dried piri-piri. It will certainly send you in search of the nearest restaurant serving Piri-piri chicken, the national specialty.
A stone throw from the fish market you will find another market – the mercado dos escravos, the first European slave market. The very porch where the continent’s trade in humanity once began is surprisingly small – yet full of ghosts.
Lagos also boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in Algarve – the Meia Praia and the Praia da Batata. From there, you can take boat tours, from the Ponta da Piedade, to the natural caves the area is rich in.
A short drive to the west will take you to Sagres, the most western extremity of the Algarve. It is famous as the location of Henry the Navigator’s Nautical School, set up in the 1450s. He was also the one who ordered the construction of the Fortress of Sagres at the Ponta de Sagres, to protect the town’s strategic position. The fortress was later assaulted by Francis Drake, in 1587.
Today, the town is most famous as a surfer’s haven. The cliffs of Cabo de São Vicente, the most westerly point of Europe, give the town a specific, end-of-the-world atmosphere. Sagres is perfect for those wishing to distance themselves from the rest of the world, as it does not offer much more than surf and sun. It does boast an amazing restaurant as well, the Bubagem – you must try their octopus salad. Some of the beaches on your must-visit list should be the Praia da Mareta, Praia do Tonel and the Praia da Baleeira.
While in Sagres, make sure to try the locally caught lobster, and try out your endurance on one of the hikes above town.
The town of Tavira is located west of Faro, nearer Spain, on either side of the Rio Gilão. The best place to begin your exploration is the ancient Roman bridge the town is famous for, or alternately, one of its Renaissance or Gothic churches. Interestingly enough, Tavira has more churches than any other town in Portugal. Some of the ones you should visit are the Misericórdia, dating back to the Renaissance, famous for its tiled panels depicting the 14 Acts of Mercy, or the medieval São Brás.
Like many other Portuguese towns, the streets of Tavira are lined with cobblestone and its plazas shaded by orange trees. Above it sits an ancient castle, rebuilt in the 13th century, after Tavira returned to Portuguese hands. It was however badly damaged in an earthquake in 1755, and is today home to an amazing amalgam of colors within its beautiful garden.
With its abundance of guesthouses and charming restaurants, Tavira can be your headquarters for exploring the eastern parts of the Algarve. Located only 3 kilometers from the coast, it is your entry to the stunning beaches of the Ilha de Tavira. The island can only be reached by boat, and is today a notable habitat of marine and bird life. If you are a birdwatcher, it is the first place you will wish to explore.
Portimão is the second largest city of the region. It is one of the ports founded by the Carthaginians around 550 BC. Today, Portimão is home to many of those visiting one of Portugal’s most famous beaches, the Praia da Rocha, which is located nearby. However, while the two are inextricably linked, they are in truth quite different. The beach town is packed with hotels and restaurants catering to foreign visitors, while Portimão itself is a residential city, home to local visitors.
If you are looking to escape the hectic bustle of Praia da Rocha, Portimão is your haven. Its streets are calm and offer a lot for the keen shopper. Its restaurants are full of life and offer locally caught fish, grilled sardines being one of the more famous delicacies to try.
Wherever in the Algarve you decide to stay, you will have endless opportunities for exploration. The public transportation system is great for getting around, or you can choose to rent a car, and explore the Algarve at your own pace. Wherever you stay, and whenever you choose to visit it, the Algarve and its residents will welcome you with open arms, a glass of crisp wine, and the unforgettable smell of freshly caught fish.