Gorgeous beaches, spectacular coast, surf, dolphins, sunshine, plus castles and countryside. What’s not to love about Portugal’s playground, The Algarve? Well, the crowds of tourists for one. In peak season, from July to September, the Portuguese leave and the sunseekers from Northern Europe move in. If you want fun in the sun and cafes and nightclubs after dark, this is the place for you. But even if that’s not your style and you like a quieter, more relaxing holiday, The Algarve has something to offer in its hillsides and smaller towns.
Day 1: Kick Up Your Heels
Lagos is the peak tourist spot. In the Western Algarve, its cobbled streets are full of cafes, bars and clubs and its wide golden beaches and secluded coves are perfect for families, couples and backpackers looking to sleep off the night before. But don’t dismiss Lagos as only about superficial fun in the sun – this town has history. During Portugal’s Age of Discoveries, many naval missions were launched from the port in the Rio Bensafrim – visit the Fortaleza da Ponta da Bandeira, a 17th century fortress that is now a museum. And the town’s pretty streets are enclosed by 14th century walls. There are plazas to while away the time in, and picturesque churches to explore (the Igreja de Santa Maria and the Igreja de Santo Antonio), as well as the Castelos dos Governadores, an Arab castle.
Day 2: Head For the Hills
Inland from the coast, rise the steep, wooded hills of Serra de Monchique, the Algarve’s mountain range. Visit the small town of Monchique for some respite from the crowds and sun, and go hiking, mountain biking or canoeing. If you prefer to relax, there are spas dotted around including the lovely spa village of Caldas de Monchique. Omega Parque Zoo, on the way to Monchique, specialises in endangered animals such as cheetahs, onyx and bamboo lemurs. Closer to the coast is the town of Silves, once the Moorish capital of the area. Now a market town for the local citrus producers, it’s full of history; explore the castle, the Gothic Cathedral and the 15th century Chapel of Joao do Rego.
Day 3: Relax in Elegance
Head east along the Algarve, stopping at the midpoint in the town of Albufeira. From here you can take a boat trip exploring the caves along the spectacular coastline – you might even spot some dolphins. Further east along the coast is Faro, the capital of the region, but keep going to the small, fishing port of Taviras. It’s a little ways in from the coast on the banks of the Rio Gilao and has a more relaxed elegance than the rest of The Algarve. A ruined castle tops the hill, there’s an old Roman bridge, Gothic and Renaissance churches, and the usual lovely cobbled streets to explore. Make sure you visit a patisserie for the yummy specialty: Portuguese tarts. Just off the coast and reachable by ferry is the island Ilha de Tavira, with lovely peaceful beaches.