Dramatic coastal walks, never-ending sandy beaches, fabulous food and wine, friendly locals, historic towns and villages, not to mention reasonable prices, it’s small wonder that Portugal, and in particular the Algarve, is a favourite holiday destination with us Brits. Even in this one region, there’s a great choice of things to do and places to visit. If you’re planning your first trip, this guide will help you whittle down your must-do wish list, but even if this is your fiftieth Algarve holiday, I hope you’ll find some new inspiration and fresh ideas. You’ll find a map at the end of this article highlighting all the locations mentioned.
Things to do in the Algarve
Whether we’re looking for a cheap beach holiday or a more exclusive break enjoying the championship golf courses, the Algarve is a fabulous choice. Here’s my (and my fellow travel bloggers’) guide to the best things to see and do, eat and drink during your next Algarve holiday.
The best Algarve beaches and clifftop views
Ponta da Piedade
Top of my list of things to see when I visited the Algarve was the stunning limestone cliffs that have been sculpted by the wind, waves and rain to form the spectacular coastline. Ponta da Piedade, near the western town of Lagos, is one of the most dramatic and it’s dotted with beautiful sandy coves. I visited in February when it was wonderfully quiet and took a boat ride to see the cliffs from the sea. I wish I’d had the time to while away an hour or two with a picnic on one of the beaches. You can see more of my images and read my tips about visiting for yourself here, Ponta da Piedade.
The Benagil Sea Cave
Claire Sturzaker from Tales of a Backpacker told me “One of my favourite things to do in the Algarve is to take a boat trip to the Benagil Sea Cave. You can arrange a Benagil Cave tour from several towns along the coast, including Lagos, Portimão, Albufeira and the small village of Benagil, (weather permitting). The whole coastline around Benagil is beautiful, and you’ll see lots of different caves and rock formations on your way to the Benagil Cave. You can also combine a tour with dolphin watching or a barbecue while active travellers might also like to hire a kayak or SUP board to get up close and personal with the caves.”
Praia do Marinha
Reputedly one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, if not the world, Praia do Marinha near Lagoa, is another of Algarve’s iconic beaches flanked by stunning limestone cliffs. I visited at sunset which would typically be a busy time of day here but being February it was wonderfully quiet. The beach is popular with families and snorkelers thanks to its calm, clear water and it is the start/end point of a fabulous coastal walking route, Seven Hanging Valleys Hike.
Quinta do Lago
The only way to reach this gorgeous beach and it’s seemingly never ending sand dunes is via the longest wooden bridge in Europe across the Ria Formosa Natural Park but that all adds to the magic making this beach unique.
Cabo de São Vicente
Wendy Werneth, The Nomadic Vegan, recommends a visit to Cabo de São Vicente. Wendy says “Just a few miles beyond Sagres is a craggy headland called the Cabo de São Vicente (Cape of St. Vincent). While Cabo da Roca near Lisbon is the westernmost point of mainland Europe, Cabo de São Vicente is the southwesternmost point. Up until the 14th century this was the end of the known world.
This storm buffetted promontory is a wonderful spot to watch the deep blue waves crashing against the magnificent 60 metre high cliffs. Most people come here for the sunset, which is spectacular. Be sure to arrive with plenty of time to spare, as the car park can get crowded at this time of day. The Cape is usually quite windy, so it’s a good idea to dress warmly, even in summer.”
The best boat tours in the Algarve
As well as the Ponta da Piedade and Benagil Sea Cave tours mentioned above, another not-to-be-missed boat tour is to the islands off Faro in the Ria Formosa Natural Park. It was a beautifully calm day when I took this trip and it was wonderful to skim across the sea, watching the sea birds flying in front and beside us.
We visited two islands Farol and Ilha Deserta (pictured above). The latter was particularly lovely as the sun was sinking low in the sky and the beaches and buildings took on a golden glow. We headed back to Faro as the sunset – the perfect ending to a fabulous afternoon out. Alternatively, you could take a private tour for two with champagne just to enjoy the sunset, the perfect choice for a romantic Algarve holiday.
Things to do on an active Algarve holiday
The Algarve is perfect for anyone who likes to keep active on holiday. Swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, standup paddle boarding, and surfing are great choices in the height of the summer while golf, walking, hiking and biking are more suited to the cooler months.
Where to snorkel in the Algarve
One of my favourite beaches for snorkelling is Praia da Marinha, said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe. Other great spots for discovering what lies beneath the waves include Praia da Ilha da Culatra, Praia do Camilo, Praia Dona Ana, Praia de Benagil and Praia da Ilha de Tavira.
Where to kayak in the Algarve
The Algarve is a wonderful place to kayak, whether your a beginner or a pro and even beginners can join an organised tour exploring the many coastal highlights such as Ponta da Piedade, the Benagil Sea Cave or the Ria Formosa Natural Park.
Where to surf in the Algarve
James Cave who writes the Portugalist loves surfing in the Algarve. He recommends you head to the west coast “With close to 365 days of great waves and more than 300 days of gorgeous sunshine, the Algarve is a surfer’s paradise. If you’ve ever considered learning to surf, the Western Coast of the Algarve is the place to come and do it. The best way to learn is to book a multi-day surfing boot camp but, if you’d like to test the waters, you could book a few individual lessons instead. You’ll find numerous surf camps across the Western Coast as well as surf hostels, surf rental stores, and surf teachers – everything you need to get you up on that board.”
The best Algarve golf courses
Quinta do Lago
Whether you’re a golfing beginner or an old hand, head to Quinta do Lago for the ultimate golf experience. With three championship courses, namely the North, South and Laranjal courses, and Southern Europe’s only TaylorMade Performance Centre (for the ultimate set of golf clubs individually matched to you and your technique), there’s plenty to attract the golfing elite. Add in an excellent driving range, putting green and mini golf course, not to mention the outstanding Paul McGinley Golf Academy, Quinta do Lago is perfect for any age or level of experience. The only catch is that you need to book up to a year in advance to play on the championship courses.
The best Algarve hiking, biking and walking routes
Barragem de Bravura trail
Starting point: Barragem de Bravura, GPS: 37.201454 N, -8.698751 W
Length: 5.5 miles (circular)
Time: 3 to 4 hours
This walking route is recommended by Jaillan Yehia from Savior There. She discovered it while staying at a juice retreat in the Algarve. Jai told me that “The Algarve is famous for its coastline, but not so well known for its lakes. The Bravura Lake, just north of Lagos, is one of the only inland bodies of water in the region. This off the beaten track spot is a peaceful natural haven for walkers, cyclists and bird watchers, being home to eagles, kingfishers and cormorants as well as many types of butterfly. The dam was created at this southern point in the 1960’s to preserve local farmland. Unlike much of the Algarve, you’re likely to have spectacular views of these turquoise waters all to yourself on your visit.
If you’re seriously fit, instead of the shorter circular route shown here, you can take on the entire 7-hour walk around the lake.. More adventurous travellers can take the inclined walkway down to the foot of the dam for a spectacular but slightly scary alternative view, before climbing up the stairs to the top again. Even those with limited mobility can simply park your car and marvel at the view.
Bring sunscreen, plenty of water and snacks should you need them – and if you’d like to have a dip, you will need suitable footwear. There are no facilities nearby, over than a lone cafe, that is not always open.”
Starting point: Marinha Beach, GPS: 37.0524635 N -8.2446181 W
Length: 7.4 miles (there and back, total)
Time: 4 to 6 hours
Anisa Alhilali from 2 Traveling Texans recommends the Seven Hanging Valleys walking trail. Anisa points out that “The Algarve coastline is some of the most beautiful in the world. It’s the perfect setting for a hike. The Seven Hanging Valley hike goes along the coast from Praia de Vale Centeanes to Praia do Marinha. The route is 3.7 miles long, making it a 7.4 miles roundtrip. Along the way, you can make a stop to take a boat tour to the Benagil Cave or relax at the stunning Praia do Carvalho. For the most part, it’s a pretty easy walk although there are some stairs and a few steep sections. The views are worth the effort, so don’t forget your camera!”
São Lourenço trail (Quinta do Lago and the Ria Formosa Natural Park)
Starting point: Quinta do Lago, GPS: 37.035242 N, -8.027176 W
Length: 3.9 miles (there and back, total)
Time: 2.5 hours
I discovered this route while staying at the Quinta Do Lago Country Club, a fabulous base for exploring the Algarve right by the Ria Formosa Natural Park, an area of lagoons and salt marshes, protected by a long stretch of sandy islands. The São Lourenço trail is an easy 3.9 miles (there and back route) through the park, a real treat for nature lovers, especially bird watchers. It’s perfect for walking or cycling. A little less than halfway along the trail you’ll come across the longest wooden bridge in Europe from where you can get some excellent views of the main water channel. The bridge is the only way to reach the sand dunes of Quinta do Lago beach if you fancy a dip in the sea. Read more about the natural park and the area in general in my Guide to Quinta do Lago.
Favourite towns and villages in the Algarve
I only visited this town briefly after exploring the Ponta da Piedade but I really loved it. There was a laid back sleepy vibe offseason but we discovered some great bars and restaurants, my favourite being Casa do Prego off a quiet cobbled street near the centre of the old town. The food was fabulous and affordable (described as modern Portuguese) and I bet the rooftop bar comes alive in high season.
Karen Davies from Motoroaming says “While the Algarve’s coast is a huge draw, be sure to also venture inland to Silves and immerse yourself in a piece of Portugal’s traditional culture. Just 20 minutes from Portimão, Silves offers a plethora of joys. With its lofty location instantly gratifying the visitor, its crowning glory is the 8th-century castle and fortress walls. The Roman bridge that spans the ancient waterway, the Islamic park and Gothic cathedral also compete for attention, not to mention the street art (pictured below). Explore the maze of cobbled streets and step back in time. Imagine the battles that must have echoed around these city walls as you soak up the town’s authentic charm.”
Lena from Four on a world trip says “When visiting the Algarve coast, you shouldn’t miss Loulé and its covered market. The town lays tucked away landwards between Faro and Albufeira and is a great destination for rainy days but also to shop for groceries or souvenirs. The market offers a good range of local products such as classic Piri-Piri sauce, cheese, honey or the delicious Pastel de Nata. And you’ll most likely be offered samples of many of those delicacies!
It’s also worth planning in some extra time to roam around the cobbled stoned alleys in Loulés old town – the colourful houses are a great photo spot, and as it’s pretty far from the beach, you might even find yourself wandering alone.”
Exploring the old town of Faro was one of the highlights of our whole trip to the Algarve. It’s magical, yet many people pass it by. Don’t! The cobbled streets, beautiful architecture and excellent restaurants make it a real must. Don’t miss the cathedral and the view from its tower, a walk along the waterfront at sunset or this beautiful Art Deco bank off the main square.
Tavira was the first place I ever visited in Portugal a great many years ago. Nicknamed the Venice of the Algarve it is undoubtedly one of its prettiest towns with authentic Portuguese charm. Don’t miss a trip to Tavira Island and it’s long sandy beach and salt pans that attract wading birds, such as flamingos and spoonbills.
The best things to eat and drink in the Algarve
When I’m travelling, I love joining food and drink tours and tastings to discover the best of the local cuisine, such as this food-themed walking tour in Lagos. Whether you’re on an extended backpacking tour or one week Algarve holiday, they’re a great way to discover the best local restaurants and traditional dishes. A bonus if you’re are travelling solo is that you won’t have to dine alone!
The picture-postcard coastline that the Algarve is so famous for unsurprisingly brings plenty of the freshest of fish and seafood to the table with many great restaurants making the most of both the sea’s bounties and its vistas. At Maria’s in Vale do Lobo picture windows look out across the dunes to the sea and the setting sun. Inside, the sea theme continues with bleached driftwood tables, white clapboard walls and splashes of bright turquoise. In summer, the retractable roof and sliding glass doors makes the most of its stunning location. The result, whatever the time of year, is a stylish and unstuffy setting, inviting you to relax and enjoy the panoramic views. I can vouch that the food is excellent too.
One of my favourite meals in the Algarve is Cataplana, a traditional Portuguese stew, cooked in the distinctive flying-saucer-shaped cataplana pan, a legacy of the Arabs from North Africa. This versatile dish may include monkfish, prawns, clams, octopus, cod, Portuguese chouriço sausage and occasionally meat, with an assortment of fresh vegetables and ideally paired with a local white or green wine.
Protected from the cold northern winds by a stunning mountain range separating it from the rest of Portugal and with more than 300 sunny days a year, its small wonder that the south-facing vineyards of the Algarve produce some fabulous wines from full-bodied reds to delicate whites.
A great way to learn more about local wines is on a wine tour. This Boat and Jeep Coastal Tour with Wine Tasting from Portimão sounds fabulous if a little extravagant. I haven’t been on it, but I’d love to.
Photography by Kathryn Burrington, Travel With Kat unless otherwise stated.