The Algarve, the southernmost part of Portugal, has such a variety of villages and scenery that it would be a shame to spend all of your holiday time in just one corner of the region. So here’s my advise: book a hotel somewhere in the middle, rent a car and make daily excursions on four wheels, in various directions. It’s the perfect way to explore the many sights. Here’s some inspiration!
The Algarve can be divided in three parts: Western, Central and Eastern. To keep it simple and doable by car, I’m sticking to Western and Central Algarve for these five highlights. If you stay in or near Portimão, right on the border of Western and Central Algarve, you have it all: you’re close to the some of the most beautiful beaches AND you’re near a lot other attractions in different directions. Like these
1. Portimão – The rocky coastline of the south
We’re in Portimão, so we might as well start there. The fishing village is famous for it’s huge stretch of coastline and lovely broad and sandy beach, Praia da Rocha. If you’re traveling in July or Augusts, chances are there will be too many people sunbathing and swimming to actually see where the beach ends and the ocean starts. Any other time, the beach is practically empty and the view magnificent. For an even better view: right in-between the beach and the port there’s the remains of the Santa Catarina Castle. Go to the highest point of this medieval fort (there’s a café on top) and you’ll be overlooking the whole area. The port isn’t too impressive but the beach on the other hand… If you prefer a more private strip of sand for a lazy few hours, no problem: there’s dozens of small beaches scattered around the coastline near Portimão. Some have small sheltered coves, other have amazing rock formations off the shore, some are very accessible and close to the road, others are a challenge to reach. But they’re all beautiful.
2. Monchique – The highest point
About 30 kilometers north from Portimão you’ll find Serra de Monchique, a thickly wooded volcanic mountain range that is also a national park. The highest peak of Monchique (and of the entire Algarve) is the Pico da Fóia. The top itself is spoilt by an unattractive military site, but the views are splendid. Fóia is ‘only’ 902 meters high, but because the environment lies so much lower, it feels like you’re standing on top of an enormous mountain. In clear weather, you’re treated with a wonderful bird’s-eye view of the neighboring villages and the surprisginly green, rolling woodlands.
3. Silves – the castle village
Returning from Monchique to Partimão, take the N124 east instead of continuing south. Soon enough, the village of Silves will cross your path. It’s a collection of white and yellow houses with orange roofs, neatly nestled on a hillside. But it’s the remains of a large Moorish fort on the hilltop that is really stealing all the attention. It’s definitely a top tourist attraction, but not nearly as touristic as the coastal towns. Park your car somewhere at the foot of the hill (somewhere near the banks of the Arade River) and slowly make your way to the top and the Castelo de Silves. You’ll discover the pretty central square, wander through neat little cobblestone streets and pass the Cathedral and rows of small but endearing houses, with facades revealing a long history.
4. Lagos – the marina
I have a thing for boats, whether they’re sailing the seas or packed together in a harbor. They’re fancy or worn-out, they’re broken or brand-new, but they’re never ugly. Lagos, about 30 kilometers west of Portimão, used to be an important port in the Middle Ages. From here, Portuguese explorers sailed out to sea to explore the African continent. Up to this day, Lagos still has a impressive marina and fishing port. There’s boats in all varieties, from posh sailboats to lovely, colorful fishing vessels. Start by strolling down the pleasant Avenida dos Descobrimentos for a nice view of the entire marina and then cross the river to see the local fishermen at work. There are some pretty good seafood eateries around here and many opportunities to venture into the sea: private sailboat owners offering short sunset tours, larger companies organizing excursions to go dolphin watching and fishermen taking you out for a fishing or grotto tour in a small vessel.
5. Sagres – The cliffs of Cabo de São Vicente
From Lagos, it’s another 40 km to Cape St. Vincent or Cabo de São Vicente, in the municipality of Sagres. The cape (it’s the most southwesterly point on mainland Europe) feels like the end of the world: it’s about 100 long and 60 meters high and you’re surrounded by nothing but waves, sloshing against the giant cliffs. People come here to enjoy the view (it’s very accessible by car and it’s a very scenic road) or to do some birdwatching (a lot of birds are nesting on the cliffs, like eagles and falcons) and chances are you’ll also see people fishing here: they stand on the edge of the rocks with their fishlines reaching tens of meters down probably in the water! The lighthouse on the cliff is said to have the most powerful light in Europe… If you head back to Portimão, you can take the same main road via the village of Sagres, but you might want to drive further into the National Park (Parque Natural de Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina), into the maze of rickety dirt roads. The late afternoon sun lights up the cliffs along the west coast, creating an enchanting orange glow.