Portugal's Algarve region is well known for its beaches, which are among the best and safest in the country. Combined with a year-round sunshine it is no surprise the Algarve is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe.
Set in the far south of the country the Algarve climate boasts an incredible 300 sunny days a year, which loosely translated means guaranteed sunshine! How you spend that time in the sun is up to you, but we'll give you a few ideas with some of the best things to do in the Algarve. Whether that's playing a round on some of Europe's best golf courses, hitting the surf or exploring some of the regions amazing coastal geology we've got you covered.
We like to look a little beyond the popular coastal resorts of the central Algarve. It isn't hard to find more laidback traditional villages replete with cobbled streets and whitewashed cottages further along the coast, and you'll never be far from a great beach. The region isn't short of history and culture either with great traditional food and old towns to explore.
So, without further ado and in no particular order, the best things to do in the Algarve...
If I had to choose a place to stay on the Algarve that has something for everyone then I wouldn't hesitate on picking Lagos. This charming town has a pretty historic centre of cobbled streets and whitewashed buildings enclosed within 16th century fortified walls.
But Lagos isn't just about history, it is also one of the hippest and liveliest spots on the coast. There are numerous bars, restaurants and night clubs along with a host of great little shops.
Beyond the town itself, Lagos' main draw is its beaches; arguably the best, and certainly the most iconic, on the Algarve. The best known beaches are set among the stunning sandstone rock formations that lead out to Ponta de Piedade. These otherworldly sea stacks, arches and grottoes form the backdrop to a number of sheltered coves, best known of which is Praia de Dona Ana. There are other beaches, with Meia Praia offering a something of a contrast with its miles of unbroken sand.
Possibly one of the most macabre and downright weird places to visit on the Algarve is the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) in Faro.
The name itself is fairly self-explanatory up to a point. Although what it doesn't convey is that the afore-mentioned bones have been used for decorative purposes to cover the walls in what, from a modest distance, would appear to be pretty patterns.
It is estimated that the bones of over 1,200 Carmelite monks were used to create this ghoulish display. The purpose of all this was intended to remind us mortals will end up in this state one day - so start repenting...
The hill town of Monchique makes a lovely change to the sand and sea that most visitors to the Algarve focus on. This pretty little market town is set deep inland from Portimao, an nestles amongst the eucalyptus and pine trees of the Serra de Monchique.
With its winding cobbled streets and bustling central square Monchique is a great place to spend a few hours. It also makes the ideal starting point to explore the fantastic hiking country that the hills of the Serra offer. The terrain is a mix of high open moor and dense woodland with all trails leading to Fóia, the highest point in the Algarve.
The Ria Formosa estuary forms a complex of lagoons,marshes and saltpans which extends 60Km along the coast provides habitats to a wide range of wildlife. To one side the mainland and towns such as Faro, Olhao and Tavira, to the other a series of barrier islands formed of fine sand and sweeping dunes.
One way to experience this natural park is by boat with regular trips running from the mainland to explore the islands and lagoons. This is a naturalist's (and possibly naturist's) paradise with a host of birds such as flamingos and purple swamp hens frequenting the waters. If you're lucky you may also spot seahorses in the crystal clear waters of the lagoons.
You don't need to take a boat to enjoy the Ria Formosa though. There are a number of walking trails such as the Sao Lourenco, Olhao and Quinta do Lago Nature Trails. In addition to getting close to nature you can also visit the saltpans and salting tanks which date back to the Romans, 2,000 years ago.
Praia da Cordoama
When people think of the Algarve they tend to be referring to the south coast with its resort towns such as Albufeira, Portimão and Lagos. These tourist hotspots grew up around the beautiful beaches and generally placid waters which make them such a winner for family holidays. But the Algarve has another, very different coast.
Somewhat shorter than the south coast, the Algarve's west coast makes up for this in sheer drama. Stretching from Sagres to Odeceixe this is a rugged coastline of high craggy cliffs punctuated by wild stretches of broad, sandy beaches. Facing the full brunt of the Atlantic the sea here is often out of bounds to all but the most experienced surfers. It is probably this that has spared much of the coast from being developed. That and the fact that a considerable portion forms the protected Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park.
All the beaches along this stretch are worth visiting. There are great surf beaches such as Arrifana and Castelejo along with Blue Flag beaches like Cordama and Odeceixe. Our particular favourite is Praia do Armado in Carrapateira.
If you are looking for a night out on the Algarve then Albufeira's legendary (or notorious) Strip may be what you are looking for. This kilometre long neon-lit runway of clubs, pubs, bars and restaurants is where it's at. In the summer the Strip becomes a throbbing mass of tourists and stag/hen groups intent on partying to its logical conclusion. As well as cheap booze the strip is also home to some of the region's top nightclubs, most notably Kiss and Liberto's.
The Strip is located a taxi ride away from the town centre. If you are looking for banging nightlife in Albufeira itself then you won't be disappointed with the bars on Rua Cândido dos Reis in the pedestrianised old town centre.
About halfway between Faro and the Spanish border is the riverside town of Tavira. In terms of elegance and charm there isn't really anywhere on the Algarve that can surpass it. Replete with cobbled streets, red tiled roofs and whitewashed cottages, Tavira is also dotted with grandiose flourishes.
The town runs along both sides of the River Gilao with a number of bridges connecting the two halves. The most elegant of these is the Ponta Romana which crosses the river directly in front of the main square. Now pedestrianised, the bridge dates back to the - you guessed it - Romans! The riverfront is the ideal spot for a stroll with palm-lined gardens and numerous cafes.
At the heart of the town is a medieval castle the ramparts of which offer one of the best views in town. Possibly the best view in town resides next door in a 100 metre tall converted water tower featuring a camera obscura which projects a view of the town onto a huge screen.
And if all that didn't tickle your fancy and you only came to the Algarve for the beaches Tavira still won't disappoint. Set at the mouth of the river and a short boat trip away is Tavira Island (Ilha de Tavira), a 12km stretch of sandy shoreline backed by dunes. Ideal for a escaping the crowds, and even baring all if that's your thing.
The Algarve is well-established as a golfing destination with the region boasting more than 40 courses. Set throughout the Algarve's diverse terrain these provide a good deal of variety and include some of Europe's premier golf courses.
Designed by the likes of Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus there are courses challenging enough for all standards of golfer. Many of the best courses are attached to upmarket resorts such as Vale do Lobo with its 72 par "Royal course", or neighbouring Quinta da Lago.
Whist there are enough golf courses in the Algarve that you are never too far from one, many of the top-end courses are located around the central section. Vilamoura in particular is a golfing hotspot with no less than 5 quality courses including the acclaimed Victoria Vilamoura. But wherever you choose to play golf you can be assured of fine weather, well manicured greens and a stunning backdrop
Silves was once the most important town in the Algarve. The heart of the Moorish presence during the Middle Ages it was seen as the ultimate prize during the Christian reconquest of the region. To protect this thriving and sophisticated cosmopolitan town the Moors fortified Silves to withstand even the most concerted attacks.
The resulting castle is one of the Algarve's greatest landmarks. The imposing red sandstone battlements dominate the town below and enclose a vast compound within.
Although the Moorish castle proved impregnable it did not stop the Crusader forces of Sancho I from laying siege to Silves for 3 months. Eventually a deal was negotiated with the towns inhabitants offered safe passage, but Sancho's forces reneged and killed thousands as they fled.
One of the Algarve's biggest tourist attractions, Zoomarine is located around 7 km north of Albufeira. If you have kids and are staying in the area then, beyond hitting the beach, this is possibly the best family day out to be had. This is the Algarve's answer to Sea World, but without the ethical issues.
Zoomarine is a mixture of typical water-park slides and rides along with a wealth of animal exhibits. Promoting environmental education and conservation, the park is home to seals, sea lions and tropical birds. There are also displays an presentations featuring birds of prey, and perhaps the biggest draw, dolphins.
Visit an Island
Ilha Culatra beach
As we mentioned above, the Ria Formosa in the eastern Algarve is separated from the ocean by a series of barrier islands. Not only do these islands protect the coast and delicate ecosystems of the Ria from the waves, they provide a seemingly endless stretch of sandy beach. Whatsmore, they are never busy, making them a beach-goers paradise.
Perhaps the most visited of all these islands is the Ilha de Faro which is just a stone's throw from the airport and can easily be reached by a bridge. As well as a fantastic stretch of beach there are also a good number of restaurants and cafes serving up the local speciality of razor clams and rice.
Possibly the best of these islands to visit is the Ilha de Tavira. This vast sanbank stretches over 10km westwards from the town of Tavira and is reachable either by ferry from the town or by a miniature railway from the resort of Pedras d'el Rei. The massive beach is divided into a few sections with the best for families being the pine-backed Praia da Ilha de Tavira closest to the town. Further along is Praia do Barril with its surreal "Anchor cemetery" and beyond is an area often frequented by naturists.
If you really want to get away from it all then head for the Ilha da Culatra. Reached only by a 30 minute ferry ride from Olhao this island is unsurprisingly quiet. With so much uncrowded beach and dunes Culatra is a well-known spot for nude sunbathing. Of course if you really want to get away from it all then the Ilha Deserta lives up to its name.
Set just to the north west of Sagres Cabo de São Vicente is Portugal, and indeed continental Europe's lands end. Claiming to be the most south-westerly point on the continent it was believed to actually be the end of the world during medieval times.
The cape still retains a feel of this with its towering craggy cliffs jutting out into the seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean.
Beyond the natural drama and beauty of the headland there is also an atmosphere which draws from the locations rich history. Known by the Romans as the "Sacred Promontory" the site is said to be where the body of St Vincent of Saragossa was brought ashore. A monastery once existed here, and some of the ruins are still visible, incorporated into the lighthouse buildings.
Perhaps the best time to visit Cabo de São Vicente is as the sun goes down over the expanse of ocean beyond. This can often draw a crowd and if you want to avoid this another great time to visit is during a big westerly storm.
Now a staple on the global surf map, there was a time when Portugal wasn't really considered a surfing destination. How things have changed. And whilst it is Ericeira, Peniche and Nazare that draw the most attention it has long been known that the waves in the far south can be equally good.
Much of the Algarve faces south meaning it doesn't pick up quite as much swell as the west coast. This can actually be a blessing during the winter months when huge Atlantic swells roll in. Positioned at the very south-westerly tip of Portugal, what Sagres offers is beaches facing practically every direction. So whatever the swell and wind, there will be good waves to be had nearby.
Beyond the town beaches stand-out breaks include Zavial to the east and Ponta Ruvia to the north.
Boat trip Benagil
Algar de Benagil
The calm azure waters of the Algarve are the ideal place for taking a boat trip. There are excursions of all kinds leaving the marinas dotted along the south coast - fishing, diving and all kinds of watersports are all on offer.
Perhaps the most popular though are the coastal sightseeing cruises. These give visitors the opportunity to explore the fantastical rock formations and grottoes that are best seen from the water and often inaccessible from the land.
There are two hotspots along the coast for boat trips, and both offer stunning coastal scenery. Ponta de Piedade in Lagos is pretty spectacular with its maze of sea stacks and coves, but the coast around Benagil trumps this with the amazing Algar de Benagil. This famous cave is only reachable by water and encloses a hidden beach within its cavernous interior.
Arco da Vila
Set within a ring of medieval city walls, Faro's historic Cidade Velha (Old Town) makes for a great afternoon's exploring at a leisurely saunter. The historic heart of the city is a jumble of winding cobbled streets punctuated with a number of impressive architectural sights that reflect the city's golden age.
Sometimes described as a city within a city you must first enter the heart of the Old Town through one of the portals. Grandest amongst these is the Arco da Vila, a grandiose neo-classical archway topped with a clock and bell tower which seems to have a permanent stork's nest on top.
Within in the old walls , at the heart of the Old Town is the 13th century cathedral. Although quite modest in size it is definitely worth visiting for the sumptuous interior, views from the belfry and the Chapel of Bones (see above). Also worth a visit is the 17th century Igreja de São Francisco with its stunning azulejo tile work.
Faro's Archaeological Museum is housed within the cloistered convent of Nossa Senhora da Assunção which is pleasant enough to warrant a visit in its own right. Highlights include a collection of Roman and Moorish artefacts, and a gallery of religious artworks. Perhaps the single most impressive exhibit is the huge Roman mosaic of the sea-god Oceanus.
If Zoomarine had an arch-rival for most fun to be had on the Algarve then surely it would be Aqualand. Also located near Albufeira this is one of the biggest outdoor waterparks in Europe and there are endless thrills and spills to be had on the slides, flumes and pools.
This is a place for all the family with rides for all ages. For the littlest visitors there are the shallow pools of the water playground whilst for the adrenaline junkies out there rides such as the Banzai and Kamikaze are almost as exciting as their names!
The park is set among landscaped gardens with manicured lawns and shady palms. Ideal for picnics there are also a number of onsite eateries.
Vila Real de Santo António
Set on the border with Spain, Vila Real de Santo Antonio may well have been designed and built to impress the Spanish across the Guadiana River. Originally just another Algarvian fishing village, Vila Real was all but wiped out by a huge tidal surge, effectively giving the town planners a blank canvas.
When it came to rebuilding the town in 1773 the job wasn't just handed to any old public official, but the legendary Marques de Pombal. Besides ruling the Portuguese Empire at the time the Marques also directed Lisbon's rebuilding after the devastation of the 1755 earthquake. It is this "Pombaline" grid system of streets that was also implemented in Vila Real de Santo Antonio along with a few other grandiose nods to the nation's capital.
The town's main square is unsurprisingly the most impressive part of town, and without equal in the Algarve. Named after its creator, the Praca Marques de Pombal features a bold black and white mosaic of paving stones radiating out from a central obelisk. Beyond this the square is lined with a selection of fine 18th century houses and shops along with some shade in the form of fruit trees.