It’s not hard to understand why Portugal’s southern Algarve region has been one of Europe’s most sought-after seaside regions for many a year. With nearly 200 kms of pristine beaches and craggy coastlines, sun worshipers have been flocking to the Algarve for decades. And why not? It stays hotter here for longer – allowing revelers to stretch out their warm-weather fantasies beyond summer’s official expiration date.
Plus, its location on the Atlantic Ocean means it’s just as perfect for watersports as it is for doing nothing at all. But there’s much more to this popular and picture-perfect holiday enclave than sand and surf. Below, we iron out the first-time must-dos (from the best surf breaks to fine-dining restaurants) of southern Portugal.
Central Coast Beaches
Because of how beloved the Algarve is with locals and Europeans alike, some of its beaches can be extraordinarily busy. This is particularly true in the middle of the region. The areas around the towns of Faro, Portimão, and Albufeira are usually mobbed by tourists, especially during the peak vacation months of July and August, when it can be difficult to find a spit of sand on which to drop your beach towel. But nearby Lagoa (just east of Portimão) offers a good balance of solid tourism infrastructure and off-the-beaten path discoveries. Praia da Marinha is largely considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world thanks to its stunning cliffs (especially the ones jutting out of the ocean) and clear waters. It’s location at the bottom of these cliffs make it a bit of a challenge to reach, but it’s well worth it for the views alone.
The center of the Algarve is also where the fanciest resorts are stationed, and within them are some of Portugal’s most famous restaurants, including a few Michelin-starred dining rooms. Chef Hans Neuner’s elegant, romantic Ocean Restaurant at Vila Vita Parc Resort (near Lagoa) can host only 35 guests at a time, who are treated whimsical dishes that orbit around seasonal, local ingredients like sardines from Sagres and prawns from Tavira. Then there’s Vila Joya (pictured right), a 2-Michelin star restaurant in Albufeira, which many consider to be the best reservation in the country. Here, the kitchen gets a bit more innovative by marrying Portuguese ingredients with more international inflections like clams with yuzu and pork loin with polenta.
Moving west, the town of Lagos, which is the biggest party hotspot in the Algarve, attracts everyone: families, locals, surfers, backpackers, and stag parties include Lagos on their itineraries. Its biggest beach is the curvy, four-km-long Meia Praia, which is visited by everyone who comes to town. There’s a host of restaurants and bars that line the sand, making it a fantastic all-day destination. Just west of Lagos, Sagres is the southwestern point of continental Europe and the site on which Henry the Navigator set up his nautical school so there’s some fascinating sea-faring history to explore here.
Seriously Good Surfing
This is where the Algarve’s waters start to get wilder. It can often be windy here so beach time can be cut short. And while it might not be ideal for tanning, Sagres and the areas directly north of it offer some of the very best surfing in Europe. There are plenty of surf schools here for beginners. More experience wave chasers should go up to Cordoama, a very pretty yet less-trodden beach that offers steady swells for surfers and bodyboarders. Unlike in the cities and towns cocooned in the center of the Algarve, there aren’t very many well-known eateries, but excellent seafood is everywhere. You may just have to stumble upon them by chance. For example, Babugem at Praça da República in Sagres is a fabulous and inexpensive stop for fresh fish – just go with whatever was caught that day.
The further east you get, the less overwhelming the Algarve becomes. Hordes of northern European tourists are replaced with Portuguese families and couples; packed beaches are much rarer. Start at Olhão, which is known for its eye-catching fish market, a remnant of the region’s Moorish past. Further on, just a short drive from the border of Spain is family-friendly Tavira. It’s a charming town high on Portuguese vacationers’ lists for good reason: it offers a fantastic combination of nature and the beach. It’s right on the cusp Parque Natural Ria de Formosa, which is worth the visit for its rich wildlife and fantastic estuaries, and there’s plenty of stretches of sand for whiling the day away. Ilha de Tavira, which can only be accessed by boat from the town of Tavira, is a can-do-it-all kind of beach: you can go bird watching, there are nudist sites, and you can even camp overnight. But even those who are better off the water would have plenty to discover in Tavira: there’s an ancient Roman bridge in town as well as many historic churches to visit in addition to quaint shops and modest restaurants.
Where to stay in the Algarve