5 September 2022
Europe's favourite secret
The Algarve region—touted as Europe's favourite secret—is in the southern part of Portugal, located between Faro and Lagos. At 4,997 km², The Algarve is home to just 438,864 souls, making for a peaceful retreat away from the hustle and bustle of city life. This is a place where the sun never stops shining, with plenty of sunshine a year, average highs of 32°C and temperatures that rarely fall below 15°C even in the dead of winter. With such balmy weather year-round, it’s no surprise the region is best known for its great beaches, boating on the Atlantic Ocean, world-class golf courses, and delicious cuisine; is it any wonder that so many dream of visiting? The Algarve offers such a uniquely charming insight into the natural world, bringing you face-to-face with an abundance of beauty… Whether you’re watching fishermen hard at work, exploring incredible beaches and cave formations, or spotting wild otters at the local nature reserve, the allure of The Algarve is inescapable.
What makes The Algarve, The Algarve?
1. The most charming fishing villages
The coastline of The Algarve is one of the most beautiful in the world. Home to quaint fishing towns that straddle the line between modernity and the purest seafaring tradition, this picturesque region offers a charming escape from the stresses of everyday life. Here, you can wake up to the salty smell of the sea and the sound of waves lapping against the shoreline before starting your day; sample the region’s delicacies at waterfront restaurants, or taste the freshest fish at the local market stalls. Whichever town you end up at is sure to leave its mark, but here are some of our favourites
Found at the mouth of the Rio Arade estuary - directly opposite the popular Portimão and Praia da Rocha – Ferragudo offers a glimpse of traditional village charm. Commonly overlooked by tourists, this attractive little fishing village is a true hidden gem. Explore the main square, Praca Rainha Dona Leonor, with its traditional Portuguese cafes and restaurants; discover the popular beachside restaurant Rei das Praias, which has been serving specialities such as oven-baked fish with rock salt since 1976, or follow winding cobbled streets through the old town and down to the riverfront, where you’ll find a range of other seafood restaurants serving up the catch of the day. If you’re in the mood for a hike, follow the whitewashed fishermen cottages that rise up from the old village towards the Ferragudo’s church. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Arade river, this baroque church - typical of many churches in the region - provides amazing views across to Portimão and Praia da Rocha. Inside, you’ll find Rococo style altarpieces, as well as a lovely garden with lots of benches where you can take in incredible coastal views.
Located in the south of The Algarve, this picturesque fishing town is home to a beautiful waterfront and lively harbour. With its uniquely cubic, whitewashed houses; sandbar islands Ilha da Armona and Ilha da Culatra to the south of the town, and stunning waterways and lagoons of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, Olhão is the picture-perfect Portuguese destination. From Monday to Saturday, sample the fresh produce at the local market Mercados de Olhão: a covered market situated in a Neo-Arabic building - a hint of the region’s Moorish past.
Found in the Lagoa region of The Algarve, the former civil parish of Carvoeiro is now among the most picturesque of fishing towns. Stroll along the Praia de Carvoeiro or take a short ferry trip to the Benagil caves, where you can relax on beautiful beaches hidden by incredible rock formations. For stunning coastline views, take to the Carvoeiro boardwalk. This fantastic clifftop walk along wooden walkways can easily be done in 10 minutes, but most visitors usually take longer – admiring the incredible scenery and views along the way.
Good to know: The Algarve’s Ocean Revival Project, made of 4 sunken decommissioned warships, is the largest artificial reef structure in the world and makes for a spectacular diving destination.
2. Unmatched natural beauty
The Algarve is home to some of the most stunning natural scenery you’ll find. Whether it’s incredible coastlines, imposing caves or wonderful mountain scenery, The Algarve is definitely not a place that is lacking in natural beauty.
With 130 beaches covering nearly 125 miles of coastline, it’s no surprise The Algarve is voted as the best beach destination in Europe. This is a place whose diversity of beaches is unmatched: from cove beaches that can only be accessed via the sea, to white sands on the Algarve islands. If you want to make the most of your beach-exploring time in The Algarve, spend a day beach hopping on an Algarve boat trip; trips are available from Vilamoura marina, Albufeira marina, Portimão and from Lagos marina all year round and will take you to see the best beaches the region has to offer.
Praia da Falésia, Albufeira: If, like me, you’re a fan of a great sunset, this 10km strip of sand offers one of the region’s most impressive views of the coast. Backed by stunning white and ochre cliffs, carved into fascinating shapes by the elements and topped by pine trees, the Praia da Falésia is home to some incredible sunset views. The cliffs take on a fiery hue as the rocks seem to glow from within, before the sun descends into the sea.
Ilha de Tavira, Tavira: The eastern coast of The Algarve is unlike the dramatic cliff scenery of the west. Characterised by the estuaries and sand islands that make up the Parque Natural Ria de Formosa - an important habitat for bird and marine life - this is where you’ll find wide, peaceful stretches of beach, a cemetery of anchors, and even a nudist zone!
The coast of Portugal is known for its stunning caves and rock formations, but The Algarve has a particularly impressive collection. From partially submerged caves to ones that house their own secret beaches, this is a place whose magic is hidden within rock formations, sculpted over millions of years by the sea and wind. Walk along the precarious clifftops of Ponta da Piedade to take in fantastic views over the sea, or take a boat trip along the coastline to see the amazing caves and rock formations up close and personal.
Benagil: One of the Algarve’s - and in fact, Portugal’s - most magical sights, the world famous Benagil Cave can be found close to the beach of Benagil in the district of Lagoa. Home to its very own hidden beach, this huge cave has a distinctive opening in its ceiling, illuminating the sandstone and beach below to create the feeling of a magical grotto. Perhaps adding to its exclusive feeling, the only way to get to the Benagil Cave and beach is via the water, so whether you choose to hire a boat, kayak or take a stand-up paddleboard, this is one beach day you’ll know you’ve earned.
Elephant: Though The Algarve is abundant with coastal caves and dramatic cliff formations, the Elephant Cave is one that can’t be missed. Touted by locals and tourists alike as one of the most imposing cave formations in the area, you’ll find the Elephant Cave in the stunning Ponta de Piedade area, surrounded by some of the most striking natural wonders. Take a boat trip from Lagos for the opportunity to get up close to these magnificent mountains, or if you prefer a self-drive experience, take a kayak or stand-up paddleboard.
Sea cliffs towering over wind-whipped waves, impressive woodlands, sandy islands and biologically rich wetlands all come together to set the stage for your Algarvian adventures. Whether you’re hoping to spot unique wildlife, get active or just spend some alone time in nature, The Algarve has an abundance of nature reserves to help you get in touch with your wild side.
Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina: Nature shows off just how dramatic she can be at this western Algarve nature reserve. Peppered with craggy headlands and wild, windswept beaches illuminated by lone lighthouses, this breathtaking reserve runs from east of Sagres all the way up to Porto Covo in the Alentejo. Whether you’re a surfer or hiker, this reserve offers access to the most exhilarating parts of the Algarvian sea. Surfers flock to tiny villages like Carrapateira and Aljezur, where they can take advantage of the region’s most imposing waves. Hikers come from all over to traverse the Trilho dos Pescadores: a 227km trail that ranks among the world’s most spectacular coastal walks. Keep your eyes peeled for the region’s unique plant and animal species, which includes otters. These cheeky critters are rarely spotted in other European marine habitats, so they’re a sight worth seeing! You might also come across white storks, who build nests along the coastal cliffs - one of the only places in the world where they do so…
Reserva Natural Ria de Alvor: The Reserva Natural Ria de Alvor offers a break from the drama of The Algarve’s coastal cliffs. This is a nature reserve whose quiet beauty is perfect for mindful walks and meditation. One of Western Algarve’s most important wetland habitats, Reserva Natural Ria de Alvor is home to mudflats, sandbanks, and marshy areas that make it the perfect place for birdwatching. In the Spring and Autumn, you might even spot rarer species like the purple heron. Follow the reserve’s boardwalk paths across a sweeping expanse of wetlands, follow dirt trails inland and along the Alvor River to the village of Mexilhoeira Grande, or walk along the reserve’s beach of Praia de Alvor. You’ll find all sorts of wildlife, from foxes and hedgehogs to tiny lizards that call the crevices of this nature reserve home.
Fun fact: There are natural thermal springs in the Algarve. Visit Caldas de Monchique to experience the healing powers of its heated waters. The famed waters reach 32 degrees celsius and are believed to cure rheumatism and respiratory issues.
3. The tastiest of cuisines
There’s something particularly special about mealtimes while on holiday: luxuriating in multiple courses, savouring new flavours as you sample the local food & wine, and going home having expanded your horizons, taste buds and belly… If there’s one place worth eating your way through, it’s Portugal. The 2019 Michelin guide lists 26 Portugal restaurants—six with two stars and 20 with one star—a majority of which are in the Algarve. If you want to try the best local food, head to Carvoeiro to find the Michelin-starred Restaurante Bon Bon, headed by Chef Rui Silvestre. Silvestre is a pro at using local food and wines to create food he calls “artisan cuisinier”, highlighting the local cuisine in a way that you’ll never forget. Or, if you’re feeling something even more traditionally Portuguese, head to the Vista Restaurante at the Hotel Bela Vista and Spa, run by Chef Joao Oliveira: winner of the Boa Cama Boa Mesa guide’s Gold Fork award, the Portuguese version of a Michelin star.
The Portuguese are no strangers to delicious food, so be sure to keep an eye out for other local delicacies like Algarvian scarlet prawns, razor clams, grilled sardines or octopus, Iberico ham made from pork fed with acorns, salted codfish, and clams in a cataplana: a traditional dish cooked in a clam-shaped copper pan. For dessert, there’s the country’s signature Pastel de Nata: pastries filled with a sweet custard topped with a sugar brûlée. Another popular dessert is Doce Fino: an almond paste-based marzipan that comes in different shapes such as fruit and animals.
If you’re partial to a glass or two of vino, you’ve come to the right place! Portugal has long been known for its fortified port wine. You’ll find authentic Portuguese port bottles marked with “Porto” on the label in any supermarket or while browsing local market stalls. The Algarve is home to four wine regions (Denominação de Origem Controlada): Lagos, Portimão, Lagoa, and Tavira. The region is known for its white and red varietals from wineries including Quinta dos Vales, which produces a range of red, white and rose wines at different price points. It also features the art of owner Karl Heinz Stock. Other wineries in the region are Paxa Wines, Quinta do Barranco Longo and Quinta do Francês.
Good to know: The Algarve is home to 5 out of 14 of Portugal’s Michellin-star chefs, so if you’re a foodie, no need to worry about where to find the next incredible meal. You can hit the beach during the day then easily find world-class dining in the evenings.
4. The golfing's good
Ever wanted to try your hand at golf? The Algarve might just be the perfect place to start… Home to thirty-four 18-hole and six 9-hole golf courses, five courses in the region have been ranked among top 100 golf courses in continental Europe and six made it into the recent Rolex World’s Top 1,000 Golf Courses: the championship Victoria Golf Course, the Millennium Golf Course, the Pinhal Golf Course, the Laguna Golf Course and the 27-hole Vila Sol Golf Course. The most famous, however, is the Dom Pedro Old Course Golf Club, designed by acclaimed British golf course architect Frank Pennink in the late 1960s and set amid towering pine trees. This is one of the world’s most famous golfing regions, and with so many fantastic golf courses just a chip and putt away from each other, it’s no wonder why golfers of all abilities flock to the area.
In fact, some of game's greatest names have left their mark on the Algarve by designing the region’s most recognisable courses. Another such course is the D. Pedro Victoria Golf Course, designed by the late Arnold Palmer. This is a jewel in the crown of the five courses near the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort, having hosted the Portugal Masters since 2007 and the World Cup Championship in 2005. It’s a little on the expensive side, as just under $200 for 18 holes, but if you’re a die-hard gold fan, why not try your hand on these pedigree pastures?
Good to know
Book restaurants in advance! To secure a reservation at top places, book at least a few weeks in advance (and for some particularly popular restaurants, such as Vila Joya, it’s worth staying onsite, since hotel guests get priority for the limited restaurant seatings). If you’re not planning on dining at award winners, book a few days in advance, or around seven days ahead of time if planning a weekend reservation. Peak dining hours are from 7pm to 9pm.
Travel by public transport! The Algarve is fairly well connected, with a train line that connects Lagos in the east with Vila Real de Santo António in the west, with stops at Portimão, Tunes, Faro and Tavira. There are also train connections down from Lisbon. The Algarve also has a new bus service which runs numerous lines across the region, including an Aerobus (No 56) from Faro airport to major towns like Albufeira and Lagos, as well as special sightseeing buses like the 52 EVA Cliffs Line that takes in some stunning stretches of coastline.
Bring something classy! There aren’t any formal dress codes at restaurants, but the Portuguese tend to dress up a bit at nicer places, so make sure to include something smart-casual when leaving the tourist resorts.
Layer up! You’ll get plenty of wear out of sandals, short-sleeve shirts and summer dresses in the Algarve. But the ocean breeze really cools things off at night, so be sure to throw in a few warmer layers.
Brush up on your Portuguese! Many speak English in the more touristy areas of the Algarve. Locals, however, always appreciate foreigners making the effort to speak the language. When entering a shop or restaurant, it’s common courtesy to say "bom dia" (good day) or "boa tarde" (good afternoon) to those around you – an easy way to make sure you get off on the right foot.
Prepare snacks! Apart from cafes, most places close between meal times, roughly from about 2.30pm to 7pm. Sundays can also be tricky when it comes to dining as many restaurants close entirely for the day or open only at lunchtime. This is a good time to have some snack food on hand – ideally sourced from the nearest mercado (market) the day before (since markets also typically close on Sundays!).
Appetisers aren’t free! Nothing that comes to your table is free. Bread, cheese, olives and sometimes other appetizers are often brought to the table shortly after you sit down, but these come with a couvert charge ranging from €2 to €9 per person and upwards at pricier places. If you don’t want them, a polite "no thank you" ("não obrigado/não obrigrada" said by a man/woman) will see them sent back to the kitchen.
Stay safe! The Algarve, like the rest of Portugal, is considered a very safe place. The main concerns are pickpocketing and bag snatching, which are more common in busy tourist areas. If you hire a rental vehicle, don’t keep valuables in the car – if you must, keep them hidden out of sight in the trunk/boot. And don’t leave your items unattended on the beach (or anywhere else for that matter).
Use your judgement when swimming! The ocean currents can be strong and unpredictable. If you plan on swimming, go to beaches with lifeguards and pay attention to the warning flags – green means it’s safe to swim, yellow means use caution and stay near the shore, and red means do not enter.
LGBT friendly! The Algarve is very tolerant of all kinds of travellers, LGBT or otherwise. Although not as cosmopolitan as Lisbon or Porto, the Algarve has its share of gay beaches, bars, clubs, and accommodation.
Teeming with tiny treasures
It’s really no surprise that The Algarve is considered Europe’s favourite secret. From rare sightings of unique wildlife to unique beaches hidden within even more unique cave formations, this The Algarve is considered Europe’s favourite secretThe Algarve is considered Europe’s favourite secret that make you feel like you’re the only lucky person to have discovered them…