The southern Portuguese region of the Algarve is one of Europe’s most glittering jewels. Despite remaining unspoiled by mass tourism, the region is awash with first-rate facilities and tourist amenities. It’s clear why millions of holidaymakers travel there each year – they flock for the sheer number of beaches, dramatic seaside rock formations, charming villages, nearly endless sunshine, and friendly Portuguese culture. The Algarve also remains one of the best value destinations while still offering more than its fair share of luxury.
Image by Garaigoikoa, used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)
1) The Beaches
Making up the southern portion of mainland Portugal, the Algarve boasts over a hundred and fifty miles of beautiful coastline and too many beaches to count. From small rocky scalloped coves to long sandy stretches that seem to go on forever, the coast here almost makes visitors feel like they get a beach each! Coupled with the dramatic limestone rock formations that pepper much of the coast and the deep blue waters, it’s obvious why the Algarve’s many beaches attract so many visitors.
Praia da Marinha, Lagoa
Perhaps the Algarve’s most iconic stretch of beach, Praia da Marinha adorns many of the tourist brochures of the regions and it is easy to see why. With multiple sea stacks, arches and steep cliffs blending with the pristine sand and balmy waters below, it is no wonder visitors flock to this picturesque beach each year. If you only visit one beach in the Algarve, it should really be this one. Regular boat trips also let you see the stunning geology up close, and the clear waters are ideal for diving and snorkelling.
Praia da Falésia, Albufeira
Boasting nearly four miles of golden sand, Praia da Falésia is among the longest beaches in the Algarve. Backed by towering, pine-tree-covered red cliffs, this large beach has more than enough room for everyone. Known for its laid-back atmosphere and well-stocked amenities, Praia da Falésia remains an excellent spot to lie back and enjoy the Portuguese sunshine.
Praia da Galé
An archetypal stretch of Algarve beach, Praia da Galé offers lovely soft sand and warm waters. The area is also full of caves, rockpools and striking rock formations perfect for children to explore. Found between the towns of Albuferia and Armação de Pêra, the coastline has small secluded beaches as well long uninterrupted ones ideal for a morning stroll. The area is popular with holidaymakers and has lots bars and restaurants nearby, including the famous two-Michelin-starred Villa Joya.
Ilha de Tavira
Tavira Island is found to the east of Faro and is made up of a long and unspoilt Blue Flag beach. Only a stone’s throw from the mainland, the sandbar island has no permanent settlement. This makes Ilha de Tavira a serene place to enjoy the seaside all year long. It’s also a small part of the Ria Formosa Natural Park – a conservation area well known for its vibrant bird life.
Image by p_v a l d i v i e s o, used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)
2) The Destinations
The Algarve may be a small region, but there is a rich diversity in the destinations it offers. From touristy resorts, to authentic Portuguese villages, there is plenty of scope for a unique holiday each time you go.
The largest city and capital of the Algarve region, Faro is a major tourist hub all year round. Often overlooked by visitors en route to their villa or resort, the city has a wealth of cultural activities to enjoy. It is also one of the best places to experience an authentic slice of Portuguese life. In its well-preserved medieval old town, you’ll find a host of museums, cobbled lanes, and historic churches that offer a flavour of the area’s rich and storied history. With a very different vibe to the major resort towns of the area, Faro is a must-see place if you’re looking to capture the real Algarve.
The quintessential resort town, Albufeira might not provide the best example of the “real Portugal”, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an ideal spot for a holiday. This area is rich in tourist-focused amenities, being awash with bars, cafes, and restaurants. It also acts as an excellent hub for the beautiful nearby waterfront with beaches like Praia da Galé and Praia dos Alemães close by. The town’s modern marina offers boat trips to explore the area’s rocky coves, see its dolphins and wildlife, and even go diving.
Perhaps the finest tourist town the Algarve offers, Lagos will please culture lovers and action seekers alike. With historic city walls protecting its old town, the city’s long heritage is very much on display. But away from the cobbled lanes and chilled piazzas, you will discover a modern city ideal for a short break. Beautiful Praia da Batata beach is just minutes from the town centre and the seafront offers a range of water sports and boat tours to enjoy.
By heading to the region’s western edges, you’ll be greeted by some dramatic windswept scenery and a selection of the most scenic fishing villages in Portugal. One of the finest places to go it the town of Sagres. Located right on the most south-westerly point of the Iberian Peninsula, Sagres was greatly linked with the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Today, the town offers rugged scenery, first-class surfing, and dramatic views out across the Atlantic Ocean.
3) Things for the kids
While perfect for a for a getaway no matter your age, the Algarve is the ideal destinations for a family holiday. With more than enough attractions to keep the kids entertained, a holiday to this part of Portugal is sure to be a hit. Here are some of the top child-friendly attractions in the region:
Despite being open seasonally, Zoomarine remains the Algarve’s most visited attraction. As popular with adults as it is with kids, the water park combines its ecological attempts to protect and preserve Portugal’s marine life with a wildly entertaining water park full of slides, pools, and other entertainment. The park gives your little ones a chance to learn, have fun, and interact with dolphins at the at the famous Dolphin Emotions centre.
Fiesa Sand Sculpture Festival
A delightfully unique event, the Fiesa Sand Sculpture Festival is a must-try experience for any trip to the Algarve between May and October. As the name suggests, it is a festival of sand sculptures – the largest in the world – and provides a memorable day out for the children to see amazing sandy creations both big and small.
The Algarve one of the world’s premier golfing destinations. In fact, it can lay claim to more than 25 championship courses. But there are plenty places for the wee ones to practice their swing, too. Family Golf Park, found in Quarteira, tempts budding golfers with two fantastic and well-maintained courses. Meanwhile, Mini Golf Quinta do Lago in central Algarve boasts a miniature version of some of golf’s most famous holes!
Zoo de Lagos
Another continual family favourite, Zoo de Lagos is sure to delight the kids. While not the largest zoo out there, it does contain three hectares of beautifully maintained grounds with all manner of animals to see, from cobras and crocodiles to primates and pelicans.
4) Food in the Algarve
The Algarve’s residents, like the Portuguese in general, love their seafood. And as they are surrounded by the waters of the Atlantic, there is no shortage of it either. Cafés and restaurants often have a catch of the day on offer, letting you enjoy some of the freshest fish you’ll likely ever try. Other seafood like sardines, shellfish, and calamari make up a number of the area’s signature local dishes. From mouth-watering recipes like Clams in Cataplana, Camarão Portuguesa (garlic prawns) to Algarve-style oysters, the seafood dishes here could be among the best you try.
Arianne Fabrice is a travel journalist who specialises in the popular resort destinations in and around Europe. Having worked for some of Paris’ premium travel mags, she’s recently moved into English-language publications.