Soft sand, crystal turquoise water, steep cliffs shining red in the sunset, the best grilled sardines and delicious local wine. It’s not surprising, that Algarve is one of the most popular parts of Portugal. What is it worth to see there, especially with a short time?
The best things to do in Algarve
Algarve is the most southern region of Portugal, lying by the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It stretches up to the westernmost corner of Europe – St. Vincent Cape. Full of wonderful beaches, stunning rock formations and tasty food, it attracts visitors from all over the world.
We went there out of the high season, in March, and had limited time, but tried to make the most of it. What did we see?
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Read more: Ultimate 4 days Portugal road trip itinerary
How to travel in Algarve? Rent a car in Portugal!
To be independent and be able to visit more in a short time, we rented a car. After our recent trip to Iceland, the prices surprised us in a very good way. For the 4 days rental with everything included, the prices were starting from £11-21 (out of season)! You can check prices and availability here.
After checking the reviews, we went for a bit more expensive company, Guerin, paying £21 for a small mini and picking it up from the Faro airport. It turned out to be Toyota Yaris and everything was perfectly fine, no additional costs (apart from the deposit, that they hold from your credit card, which is usually around €1500, released after the car is returned – you can reduce it by buying additional insurance with reduced excess payments, but then you need to pay more upfront).
Our first stop and arrival/departure hub was Faro. The main city of the region, with good flight connections, Faro is a popular stop for travelers arriving in Portugal. Its great restaurants and good nightlife make it a busy holiday destination.
For me ,Faro made an impression of a small cosy town. Narrow cobbled streets of the historic old center, encircled by ancient city walls, pubs with outdoor sitting, a pretty marina and colorful tiled houses on every corner.
Where to eat in Faro?
The city centre is located 10 min drive from the airport. One thing to watch out for is that after 11 pm, you won’t probably be able to find many proper restaurants open. However, tapas bars and pubs still serve food until 1 am or even longer (at least on Saturdays). At the beginning, we were a bit sceptical about “pub food” expecting something like burgers or fried fish, similar to what you get in the UK. Fortunately, this was not the case.
We sat outside in the bar “Aperitivo” and had great local wine with traditionally baked bacalhau dish (dried and salted cod), delicious octopus and calamari. Yummy!
It was Saturday night, so the streets were slowly getting full of young people laughing and drinking when heading to the bars and clubs.
We had a long day behind us and wanted to get up early the next morning, so we decided to quietly drink green wine Vhino Verde (young Portuguese wine) on the rooftop of our hostel. I’m crazy about rooftops, I can spend there the whole day and night, so I was very happy when I discovered, that we have one in the hostel. You can listen to the city sounds whilst star glazing with a glass of wine – perfect!
Where to stay in Faro?
There are many good hotels in Faro with the option for every budget.
You can try hostels for a very cheap price, mid-range accommodation or even a bit of luxury. You can also even drive a bit out of the city and explore places like Quinta do Lago Country Club located in the natural reserve of Ria Formosa.
We decided to stay in the city and we chose Lemon Tree Room at The Backyard House. It was reasonably priced and very nice with a garden, several lounge areas, few kitchens and bathrooms and of course a terrace on a rooftop! The hostel is run by a young and friendly couple, with many backpackers staying there, so you can make friends from all over the world. However, if you need more privacy, you can choose the room away from the main building – that’s what we did.
The next morning we were again on the rooftop watching the sunrise. The sky was turning pink, the town was slowly waking up, storks were clacking from their nearby nests. We were sipping coffee while biting into the fresh pastel de nata (traditional Portuguese egg tart) – what better beginning of the stay in Portugal can you imagine?
The best beaches in Algarve
#2 Praia da Rocha
Our first “beach stop” was Praia da Rocha in Portimão. Initially, we wanted to see Benagil cave, but because of the high waves, the tours were cancelled. You should try if you have a chance though.
The beach didn’t make a huge impression on me, because of the multitude of shops and hotels dotted just above it (in Algarve all of the beaches are elevated lower than the land, due to the high cliffs). However, it was very wide with rocks carved in different shapes at the end of it.
We had some crispy grilled sardines and iced coffee enjoying the heat and then we went to explore the area. The distant part of the beach was much nicer, especially if you went behind the hidden tunnels in between the rocks, so you couldn’t see any hotels, just the sea and the interesting rock formations.
#3 Praia dos Três Irmãos
Not too far from Praia da Rocha, in Alvor, near Portimão, there is another beach – Praia dos Três Irmãos, that literally means “beach of the three brothers”. This name was given to it, because of the three distinctive rocks located just by the beach. There are also several caves and tunnels created in the rocks.
The beach was much quieter and smaller compared to the previous one, with just one restaurant nearby (but I think during the season, there is also a club/bar and watersports office) – I liked it more. Behind the beach, there are some small dunes, that you can walk on.
Our next stop was Lagos, where we visited three main beaches – Praia Dona Ana, Praia do Camilo and Ponta de Piedade. We also came back there a few days later to visit them again and to see the town better.
Lagos is one the most popular towns of the Algarve coast. Some of the most beautiful beaches are located here, and they always attract many people. I can imagine that in a high season it gets quite busy.
In March the town was very quiet. Bars/clubs were still open but empty inside. The beachfront was free of people, with only a few of them walking there during the day or enjoying the sun. Again – cobbled streets and mosaic tiled houses were a distinctive feature of the city center.
Where to stay in Lagos?
We stayed in Airbnb, a bit further from the beach – around 20 min walk, but in a beautiful house and, again, cheap. The house was owned by a young Australian couple, who also run the surf school. The room, that we had was HUGE, and the bathroom was massive. There were chandeliers in the corridors, leather seats in the living room and the antique furniture all around. I felt like in a mansion 😉
There are also plenty of nice and cheap hotels in Lagos:
Don’t have Airbnb account yet? Don’t worry – click here to register and receive a gift for your next stay. Easy? Easy!
Not too far from the house, there was a local eatery, which the Australian couple recommended – they were serving great value food and cheap drinks.
There were 10 different set menus to choose from and for an alcoholic drink, very tasty meat sandwich/burger, soup and chips you would pay around €4. Alex couldn’t believe how cheap it was. For a drink, I tried Submarino (beer mixed with Martini) – interesting taste.
#5 Ponta de Piedade
It’s a name of the famous coastline around Lagos. It consists of a maze of the stunning cliffs carved into tall pillars towering above sandy beaches, hidden caves and natural tunnels. Their yellow and orange colours contrast with the turquoise sea waters and deeply blue sky, making this region very special and definitely worth to visit.
#6 Praia Dona Ana
Located in Lagos, this beach is the most popular of them all. I’m sure you saw it on many postcards or pictures from Portugal. Not a surprise – wide golden sand stretches on two sides with orange rocks emerging from the sea.
Praia Dona Ana is the biggest of all the beaches in Lagos and there are several hotels located around. However, this time, they didn’t bother me that much – the place was so pretty, that you just wanted to sit on the sand and admire the tall rocks being shaped by the strong waves. A long set of steps leads down the beach, where you can find some hidden grottos.
#7 Praia do Camilo
Another famous beach, but this time much smaller, located just around the corner from Praia Dona Ana. Winding wooden steps lead down to the sand and the rocks surround it around. By crossing some of the tunnels carved in the rocks you can reach some more hidden beaches behind.
There are a few restaurants on the top and from there a beautiful view stretches around to the sea. Definitely must see! However, during a high season be sure to be there a bit earlier as with a limited space you might not be able to find a free spot.
Small coastal town popular with surfers – with surf schools and chic cafes on every corner. It’s located between two significant structures – Cape Saint Vincent and Sagres Point.
Historically connected to the early Portuguese Age of Discovery, during which Portuguese sailors discovered several Atlantic Archipelagos like Azores or Madeira, colonized the African coast, discovered an eastern route to India and explored the Indian Ocean, discovered Brazil, and sent the first European missions to China and Japan. Near the town lies Fortress de Sagres built in order to protect the strategic coastal position.
We just stopped there for dinner in one of the restaurants serving freshly caught fish and seafood – I had mouth-watering calamari and Alex went for the daily catch.
Where to stay in Sagres?
#9 Cape Saint Vincent
This most southwestern corner of Europe has also significant historical meaning. When it was a part of a Roman Empire, the Romans believed it was a magical place, where the sunset was much bigger than anywhere else. They considered the sun sinking into the sea waters delineating the edge of their world.
Later on, in XV, Portuguese expeditions of the keen explorers were leaving the shores from Saint Vincent’s cape in order to venture into unknown lands and expand their empire. It also has a pirates invasion history and it was a place for several naval battles.
Now, it’s a mark for ships traveling from or to Mediterranean sea and has lighthouses among the most powerful ones in Europe – its two lamps can be seen from 60 km away. The cape is surrounded by cliffs rising to the high of 75 meters, that are home to the rich marine and bird life.
The lighthouse can be visited and there is a small museum explaining the history of the region, however, unfortunately, it was closed at the time. On the way, you can find a fortress and some small pretty beaches, that you can explore. Make sure you’re wrapped up though, as the wind can be very strong.
Town and the surrounding it hills located just north of the Algarve coast. It’s a popular tourist destination with its historic town centre, wonderful views from the peaks stretching up to the horizon and great opportunities for hiking, biking and bird watching. There are also hot sulfur springs around (we didn’t visit them, unfortunately).
If you are around and looking for meal ideas, try black pork, which is a famous local product.
You drive through the windy roads, passing endless cork trees and orange plantations. Sun is going down leaving the sky painted red and pink, some storks fly around, others look for food slowly wading in the fields. Steam is rising up from the forest, the wind is gently moving the trees. You pass small villages, that turn into bigger towns the closer to the coast you are.
I wish we had more time to explore this peaceful area better, but we will definitely come back for more.
Former Algarve’s capital with its distinctive castle towering over the town. Full of beautiful old buildings and archaeological remains, it played an important part in Portuguese history. It lies north of Lagoa, surrounded by the Arade river and situated on the hill. The oldest buildings in town are from the VIII century and have an interesting history.
The castle can be visited and even though now it’s mostly only ruins, it’s still interesting to see. It dates back to the XII century when it was a Moorish settlement. Tickets to the castle are cheap (a couple of euros) and the views are spectacular.
Just next to it, there is Silves Cathedral, which was converted into a church from a mosque. In the cathedral garden, you will find a local restaurant with delicious food. I can definitely recommend Morrocan lamb tagine (I was dreaming about it afterwards, it was SO good) and fresh prawns with avocado.
The St. Vincent’s Cape marks the edge of the wonderful Algarve region. Make sure to pay that area a visit so you can admire the beautiful scenery and try the delicious local food. But if you don’t like crowds – better choose the time out of the high season. You probably won’t be able to swim in the sea, but the weather still should be mild and nice enough with some sunny and hot days (we had one day with 30 degrees in March, which was a bit too hot for me ;)).
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