Portugal’s Algarve region sees at least 300 days of sunshine per year, meaning that there’s an approximately 80 percent chance that visitors here will be basking in the warm sun all vacation long. However, deciphering just where to spend a week or two of vacation can be a little tricky, as the jagged coastline is peppered with innumerable large and small towns.
Do you want to relax in relatively undisturbed quiet next to surf-ready beaches? Or does exploring narrow cobblestoned alleyways sound more appealing? How about making rounds of nightclubs and bars night after night? The Algarve seemingly has it all, and our handy guide to some of its most popular destinations guarantees that you won’t have any problem soaking up the sun.
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There’s something seductive about visiting the end of the world — or somewhere that feels like the end of the world, at least. While Sagres isn’t technically the westernmost point in Europe (that distinction goes to Cabo da Roca, up the coast), there’s a definite away-from-it-all vibe in this little town. Perched on a series of dramatic cliffs, Sagres is surrounded by the crashing surf of the Atlantic. At night, the only sounds are the waves and wind, with the stars filling the sky overhead.
Once the launching point for Henry the Navigator’s fleet of imperialists, there’s a dash of history here (the town has a fort and lighthouse), but this isn’t the pick for those who’d prefer to be immersed in achingly charming narrow lanes and Portuguese character. Instead, the small collection of shops, cafes, and restaurants along the main street has a low-key bohemian vibe.
The real treat in Sagres is the beach — or, should we say, beaches. You’ll be hard-pressed to find prettier places to sunbathe, swim, or surf anywhere in the world. There are no boardwalks, no tacky beachside tourist shops, and no nightclubs on the sand. Instead, dramatic golden cliffs tower above long arcs of equally brilliant sand with names like Tonel, Mareta, and Beliche. The area is a magnet for surfers, and it’s not uncommon to see them walking through town, boards atop their heads.
This is a quiet place and while there are a few bars along the main drag, the dining, drinking, and hotel scene is understated. There are no mega-resorts or all-inclusives, and development is hindered by Sagres’ location within a preserved natural parkland. The calm atmosphere won’t appeal to everyone, but for those who truly want to escape it all, Sagres is a sure bet.
Hotel Pick: Those wanting a taste of luxury will find sharp decor and a striking beach at Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel. Want something a little more budget friendly? Check out the apartments at Sagres Time, or the minimalist modern rooms and lovely bar terrace at Memmo Baleeira.
Want a little more action with your beachside vacation? Then Lagos is your pick, with its combination of culture, history, and sun. The town traces its history back nearly two millennia, and its walled old town still buzzes with action today. Cobblestone streets wind between brightly tiled buildings, while town squares are filled with tourists and locals alike.
There is a ton of history here, both good and bad. Gorgeous churches like Igreja de Santa Maria and Igreja de Santo Antonio — dating to the 15th and 18th centuries, respectively — tower over the streets and make for fantastic pictures. The city’s Mercado de Escravos hearkens to a darker era, when Lagos served as a hub for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Today, a building near the city’s largest plaza serves as a tiny museum exploring that terrible chapter in Lagos’ history.
The old town is packed with charming terrace restaurants that range from bare bones seafood dives to quaint traditional Portuguese restaurants, plus sushi, Indian, Italian, and even Caribbean. Some of our favorite spots are unexpected holes in the wall, like Saibos, which is tucked away on a small side street and serves inventive takes on Iberian cuisine amid neon-boho decor. Of course, everyone should hit up the old-school pastelerias near Praca Gil Eanes as well (try a queijinho, a cheese-based dessert for which the Algarve is famous).
The coastline is no small deal, either. It’s best known for Ponta da Piedade, a series of natural rock arches and cliffs that rise dramatically from the ocean and are frequently visited by frolicking pods of dolphins. Beaches figure largely as well, and Praia Dona Ana frequently appears atop various must-see lists. It’s an iconic little spit of sand, down a steep set of stairs and wedged between towering sandstone cliffs, with jagged rock islands emerging from the water just off shore. Less crowded beach options include Praia do Camilo and Praia do Canavial. Sunbathers who don’t want to scale cliffs and stairs can cross the marina to Meia Praia, the long and wide sweep of beach just east of downtown.
Hotel Pick: Hotel options also abound here, from swish all-inclusives like Sensimar Lagos and Vila Gale Lagos to quaint and charming boutique properties like Costa D’oiro Ambiance Village (near Praia Dona Ana) or the modern apartments at Belmar Spa & Beach Resort.
Party hard or find hidden gems in the central Algarve
The central coastline of the Algarve gets a bit of a bad rap depending on what a traveler wants and who’s doing the talking. To be sure, places like Portimao, Albufeira, and Carvoeiro don’t feel very Portuguese at all. With their high-rise condo and hotel complexes, modern avenues lined with nightclubs, bars, and restaurants advertising a Full English, and plenty of amusement park-style goings-on, the central Algarve almost exclusively caters to the whims of British and Irish citizens.
Portimao has a few different regions to choose from, and the official downtown area is decidedly local. Families walk the streets, shops cater to residents, and just a few touristy restaurants sit next to the Arade River. Most of those vacationing near Portimao will flock to Praia da Rocha, which is lined with Miami-style high-rises as well as plenty of bars and nightclubs. To the east is Carvoeiro, a small town that’s packed with an outsized number of nightclubs as well as plenty of restaurants serving pub fare and curries to the British tourists who flock to its small beach.
Albufeira is the most notorious of the Algarve’s cities — with good reason. Don’t come here if you’re looking for tranquil morning runs on the beach. This is party central. Multi-floor nightclubs, proper pubs, and restaurants serving staples from the islands well to the north of Portugal take up most of the real estate in the old town. Still, it at least looks Algarvian, with leafy plazas, cobblestone streets, and a dramatic cave that opens to a striking (and strikingly busy) beach flanked by the Algarve’s cliffs. Outside of the city, nightclub-heavy areas like The Strip (along Avenida Sa Carneiro) and Santa Eulalia are go-to destinations for bachelor and bachelorette partiers from the British Isles.
There are little pockets of charm here, though even these cater almost exclusively to the tastes of tourists. Alvor is a densely-packed hilltop cluster of shops, restaurants, and pubs. Our favorite find, though, was Ferragudo. This whitewashed village climbs a steep hillside along the east side of the Arade River. Ice cream shops, pastelerias, and Portuguese restaurants ring its main plaza, while bars packed with locals and tourists line its main pedestrian street. If you’re lucky, you might catch the mournful sounds of a fado coming out of one of the tascas late on a quiet night.
Hotel Pick: We found the bulk of the region’s most uninspiring hotels in and around the central parts of the Algarve, so expectations may need to be adjusted. The best spots are outside of town. Vale da Lapa Resort & SPA has modern rooms with kitchenettes, though it’s a 10-minute drive from beaches and Carvoeiro. For a stylish option closer to Albufeira, check out the Salgados Dunas Suites hotel, which is right on the beach and a 15-minute drive to the old town.
The eastern Algarve doesn’t see the same volume of tourists as the central and western regions, and many visitors to its hub — Tavira — only arrive on day trips from Faro and Albufeira. There might be reason for that, as the beaches out this way are a little less spectacular, and the eastern Algarve lacks water parks, aquariums, and other tourist trappings. Even so, Tavira is a special place that exerts a significant pull on visitors to the Algarve.
The pace here is sleepy, with terrace cafes and restaurants lining its plazas and streets. The town is dominated by hilltop historic monuments, including the ruins of the Castelo de Tavira and the Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo. Scenic spots like the Igreja de Misericordia serve as backdrops for stirring fado concerts, and traditional pastelerias line the photogenic cobblestone alleys. There are plenty of bustling squares, and traditional Algarvian eats are on offer at places like Restaurante Lagoas Bica. You’ll see plenty of locals and tourists sipping beer and coffee at the cafes near Ponte Romana, which has been built and rebuilt multiple times since the Roman Empire.
While the beaches near Tavira lack the dramatic cliffscapes found farther west, they are no less stunning. However, you’ll need to hop on a boat departing from town for Tavira Island. The island is technically part of the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve, and is made up of wide swaths of sand, dunes, and sea grass. There are just a few places to score food on the island and while sections can be crowded, there always seems to be long, almost-empty stretches as well.
Hotel Pick: There isn’t a ton of hotel inventory right near town and what’s on offer isn’t always the best. However, Vila Gale Albacora is a historic gem set in an old tuna fishing village. Rooms are modern and there’s plenty to do on-site for kids and adults. It’s a 10-minute drive from central Tavira.
Most travelers to the Algarve will land at Faro’s airport and quickly make their way elsewhere in the region. No, there aren’t any beaches right in town, and the Algarve’s capital city doesn’t sit high on the list when it comes to tourist trappings, either. However, it has one of the region’s most authentic and bustling old towns, and the beaches of Ilha da Barreta and Ilha de Faro range from buzzing to gorgeously undeveloped. It’s worth hanging around for a few days to take in the authentic buzz of it all.
Hotel Pick: Stay smack in the middle of Faro’s scenic old town at Hotel Faro. This attractive little boutique property has bright, contemporary rooms and a fitness center, plus an off-site beach club.