Things to Do in The Algarve
A sandy, uninhabited island off Portugal’s Algarve coast, Barreta Island (Ilha Deserta) is a popular beach destination and wildlife refuge inside Ria Formosa National Park. With freshwater lagoons, salt flats, sand dunes, and more, the park has a diverse range of habitats—each with its own resident population of birds and other species, including chameleons.
Home to more than 140 different species from across the world, Lagos Zoo offers a family-friendly alternative to the crowded Algarve coast. Opened in 2000, the zoo has become a world-class conservation facility, and its close proximity to central Lagos makes it a top choice for a day away from the city.
Located at the southernmost tip of Portugal’s Algarve, Ria Formosa Natural Park (Parque Natural da Ria Formosa) is a scenic swirl of freshwater lagoons, sandy islands, and lush salt marshlands. The park hugs the coast between Manta Rota and Vale do Lobo, and is best known for its varied topography and diverse bird life.
A favorite among locals due to its golden sands and calm, swimming-friendly waters, Praia Gale should be at the top of any beach-lover’s Albufeira itinerary. Steps away from the resort town of Gale, Praia Gale offers more than just sunbathing opportunities: you can spot marine life in natural pools between the rocks or explore the sandstone caves on either side of the sand.
Stretching for 6km between the villages of Vilamoura and Olhos do Agua, Falésia Beach is one of Portugal’s longest beaches and it’s a serene spot, with miles of pristine golden sands hemmed in by towering red sea cliffs and crops of pine forests.
A firm favorite among both locals and tourists, Falésia is ideal for swimming and water sports, while the cliff top resort is well served with restaurants, hotels, playgrounds and golf courses. Falésia and neighboring Quarteira beach also offer a magnificent backdrop for walking, cycling or Segway tours, with the palm-lined promenades and coastal lanes offering breath-taking views.
Backed by ochre cliffs, the seemingly endless shoreline of Praia dos Salgados exemplifies the picture-perfect beauty of The Algarve’s coastline. Steps away from the sand, you’ll find a golf course and reserve that cater to nature lovers and families alike. Meanwhile, the calm waters of the Atlantic Ocean provide a safe place for kids to swim.
Twenty-one miles west of Lagos, the whitewashed village of Sagres is popular with families looking for a laidback holiday spot near the Algarve’s famous beaches. Backpackers, surfers, and divers also come to Sagres to holiday. Most of the action takes place around the town square, where there are plenty of lively restaurants and cafes. And on August 15 of every year, a big party is held to celebrate the local saint’s day with fireworks.
Sagres is on a headland overlooking the southwesternmost harbor in Europe, and from the village you can see the boat builders and lobster fishermen dragging their haul in each day. This area is also marked by two geomorphological structures: Cape St. Vincent and Sagres Point. Cape St. Vincent (São Vicente Cape) was once known as the “End of the World,” because, being at the extreme west of continental Europe, no one knew what lay beyond the horizon. Historically connected to the Portuguese Age of Discovery, in the 15th century Henry the Navigator established a school of navigation here where some of the world’s most important explorers, including Magellan and Diaz, apprenticed. One of the best views of Cape St. Vincent and Sagres point is from Torre de Aspa—a viewpoint on the western side of Vila do Bispo.
Looming 902 meters over the colorful spa town of Caldas de Monchique below, Mt Fóia is the Algarve’s highest peak and makes a scenic day trip from nearby Portimão. It’s the spellbinding views that make Fóia so popular, spanning the rugged Serra de Monchique mountain range, the Alvor River, Portimão, and on clear days, the ocean-lapped cliffs along the Atlantic coast.
Hiking to the summit is a worthwhile challenge for adventurous travelers, but the mountaintop can also be reached by car, where there are two main viewpoints and a cluster of restaurants offering equally impressive views.
Silves’ regional prominence began in the 11th century when the Moors conquered the town. Giving it the name of Xelb, they constructed lavish palaces and created a cultural centre of learning for the whole Iberian Peninsular. Prior to its decline as a port due to silt build-up in its river, Silves was once the capital of the entire Algarve region. It traces its history back to 1,000 BC, and the Romans later found its location and resources much to their liking. During the 11th century, the Moors took and fortified the city, renaming it Xelb and building opulent palaces with the intent of creating a cultural center for the entire Iberian peninsula. Silves castle, a red sandstone fortress of Moorish design and décor is replete with beautiful gardens and statuary.
Beyond the Silves Castle(Castelo de Silves), the town has some of the most intact remnants of its Moorish past. Many of the Moors underground water reservoirs are still used today. Much of the town’s culture is related to historical and archeological pursuits, and there is a museum, the Museu Arquelogico (constructed above the largest, Moorish cistern, no less), that displays prehistoric articles found around the region. The Ponte Romana, a Roman bridge over the Rio Arade is a testament to its Roman occupiers, and numerous Christian monuments can be found throughout town, including a granite cross to the northeast of the city.
Just 29 km (18 miles) north-west of Faro airport, Vilamoura sits on the Algarve’s Atlantic shoreline and is the region’s classiest purpose-built leisure resort. The town and its four international-level golf courses are a destination for golfers and sailors and the location of world-class sporting events throughout the year. The hub of Vilamoura activity lies around the marina and its palm-lined esplanade, which brims over with bars, restaurants and late-night clubs as well as high-end fashion stores and classy hotels.
Despite its reputation as a party town, Vilamoura caters extensively for families. Of its two golden-sand beaches, Praia da Rocha Baixinha is a designated family-friendly beach, with lifeguards constantly on duty. Both have water sports facilities, while boat tours leave the marina daily on dolphin- and whale-spotting expeditions. Zoomarine Algarve is close by at Guia and Krazy World Zoo is inland just north of Algoz. Other local distractions from sunbathing on the beach include the Roman ruins nearby at Cerro da Vila, the monthly Sunday flea market at Loulé and the charms of Faro as well as the beaches and daily fish market at Quarteira.
More Things to Do in The Algarve
On the opposite bank of the Arade River to Portimão and linked to the city by bridge, the small seaside resort of Ferragudo is a world away from the crowded malls and yacht filled marina across the water. A traditional coastal village, where the hillsides are dotted with white-painted fishermen’s cottages and a maze of cobblestone lanes lead to the lively quay, it’s the Algarve’s best-kept secret that is unlikely to stay secret for much longer.
Highlights of Ferragudo include the ruins of the Castelo de São João, the quaint fishing port and the two sandy beaches, Praia Grande and Praia da Angrinha. The historic Ferragudo lighthouse is another notable landmark, perched at the end of a narrow promontory and offering wonderful views along the Atlantic.
With its golden sands and sandstone-carved coves, Armacao de Pera Beach (Praia Armacao de Pera) epitomizes the coastal beauty of Portugal’s Algarve. Backed by a fishing village of the same name, the beach is an ideal choice for both families and sun-worshippers: umbrella-shaded sunbeds offer respite from the midday sun while the rocky coves on either side of the beach make for a fun day of exploration.
Tavira’s origin is one of the oldest in all of Portugal, as archaeological evidence suggests it was first settled in 2,000 B.C.E. Its history is peopled with the mysterious Celtic tribe of Tartessos, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Moors and finally Christian Portuguese. While there are some remains of all of these previous inhabitants, much of the city’s buildings were completely leveled in 1755.
Since then, however, the town has been rebuilt. Its cathedral, the Misericórdia, is but one of 37 churches, giving it the sobriquet Town of Churches. Other famous churches in Tavira include Santa Maria do Castelo, which was built on the site of a mosque. It also harbors the tombs of Dom Paio Peres Correia and his seven faithful Knights. These knights were murdered by Moors despite a tenuous truce, which spurred Dom Correia to take the town back.
Tavira’s economy used to be based on fishing, but in recent years, tuna migratory patterns have changed and sullied the fortunes of the town’s fleet. Tourism now fills the economic gap, and the town is becoming a popular golf destination. Sun-seekers come here, too, in order to enjoy Ilha de Tavira, a sandbar beach accessible by ferry boat. Like Tavira, the surrounding towns have comparable beaches, and there is also Slide and Splash Aquatic Park. Since tourism has become so integral to these communities’ economic health, English is becoming more and more prevalent.
The town of Silves, in Portugal’s Algarve region, has been inhabited since paleolithic times. Links to the past are found throughout the fortified town, from the imposing Moorish castle to the Roman bridge and the cathedral, which was originally built as a grand mosque before being converted into a church in the 13th century.
Portimão’s main beach ranks among the Algarve’s most popular holiday resorts, and its easy to see why, with its stretch of golden sand, scenic promenade and seafront boulevard lined with restaurants, bars and nightclubs. With calm swimming waters, Praia da Rocha is a top choice for families and there’s plenty of entertainment on offer, including boat cruises, jet skiing, paddle-boarding and snorkeling, plus a number of waterparks nearby.
The beach is at its most scenic at sunrise and sunset, when the coastal cliffs are dramatic framed against the ocean – for the best views, look out over the beach from the seafront ruins of the 16th-century Fortaleza de Santa Catarina.
Set along the estuary of Alvor River, this relaxed harbor town oozes character and charm, with a historic core radiating out from a 16th-century hilltop church. Watch as fishing boats offload their catch—destined for riverfront restaurants—at the harbor, and join fellow vacationers sunning themselves at Praia do Alvor beach.
Alcoutim is a hillside town of cobbled streets, small squares and a paved promenade, situated along the banks of the Guadina river, about 40 km (24 mi). This river promenade features a few cafes and restaurants that overlook the water. Here, the river narrows. If you need a breather in your vacation, watching the boats idle past this narrow point while sipping a coffee at a café is a great way to take a break from sightseeing; the backdrop of low, green hills is as good a substitute for historical points of interest as any. At the front of the river is a 16th century church bearing the coat of arms of the Marquises of Vila Real and the Counts of Alcoutim.
If your time is flexible enough to allow you a moment to watch the river go by, you may also want to explore the countryside. The hills are verdant and covered in wildflowers, providing a a pastoral landscape for Alcoutim’s neighboring towns (Pereiro, Martinlongo), as well the ruins of a 13th century castle and 12th century church in nearby Mértola, which is a mere 30 km (18 mi) drive away.
Another short drive to the south takes you to the town of Castro Marim. Of note here are the ruins of its Moorish castle, which offers a wide view of the surrounding salt pans and the Spanish countryside across the border. Castro Marim is also home to a nature preserve.
Situated inside the Tower of Tavira on the Algarve in Portugal is Tavira's Camera Obscura, a dark room that uses mirrors and lenses to project images from the city below out onto a screen. During each session, a local guide talks about the history, culture, and monuments of the city while showing visitors different highlights through the camera.
Found near the marina in the buzzing seaside town of Vilamoura on Portugal’s sun-kissed Algarve, the Cerro da Vila Museum (Museu de Cerro da Vila) encompasses an acre of Roman ruins, parched by the sun, and a small but surprisingly informative museum of finds excavated at the site. Dating back to the first and second century AD, when the Algarve was controlled by the Roman Empire, the remains include granaries, the villa of a wealthy merchant—where sections of well-preserved mosaic have been uncovered—a necropolis and the remains of a public baths complex as well as evidence of a sophisticated water supply that was served by a dammed river 1.25 miles (two km) away.
Although the major finds at Cerro da Vila are Roman, it is believed that the spot was occupied until the 11th century; alongside the Roman artifacts in the archaeological museum are medieval and Visigoth pieces as well as treasures from the 500-year Moorish occupation of southern Portugal.
With roots going back to Roman times, Quarteira was for many years a backwater fishing village, but today it is a buzzing seaside resort with the restaurant-lined promenade of Avenida Infante de Sagres backing the Atlantic Ocean. Primarily a family resort and very popular with Portuguese visitors, Quarteira has a long stretch of soft, sandy beach with shallow waves for children to swim in safely. Kids will also love the water rides at nearby theme parks Zoomarine Algarve and Krazy World Zoo.
A local fish market takes place every morning at the west end of the beach; the menus of the local restaurants and bars always offer grilled sardines, prawns or tasty caldeirada stew made with fish caught that day. Other local distractions from sunbathing include the international golf courses at Vilamoura – this neighboring resort is an easy walk westwards along the seafront – the charms of Faro’s old walled city and the rivers and lagoons of the nearby Parque Natural da Ria Formosa (Ria Formosa Natural Park). However, Quarteira is probably best known for its weekly Wednesday flea market, which attracts visitors from all over the Algarve.
A tranquil alternative to the bustling resorts further along the coast, the small market town of Almancil is worth a detour if only to marvel at its landmark church. The exquisite baroque Church of St Lourenço dates back to the 17th century and is renowned for its intricate azulejo tilework, which details elaborate scenes from the life of St Lourenço.
Additional highlights of a visit to Almancil include the nearby Vale do Lobo (Valley of the Wolf) resort, where the golf course was famously designed by British champion Henry Cotton, and the glamorous Quinta do Lago, one of the Algarve’s most upmarket resorts and a favorite with visiting celebrities and politicians.
Standing watch over Portimão at the mouth of the Arade River, the once-mighty Santa Catarina Fortress now lies in ruins, but retains much of its former grandeur, with its stone-brick curtain walls still largely intact.
Portimão’s maritime fortress was built by Alexandre Massai in the 17th-century to protect the port from pirates and invaders, but today it serves as the photogenic backdrop to the sandy Praia da Rocha beach. Explore the chapel inside, dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, or head there at sunset for a dazzling view along the coast.
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