The Algarve is the name of Portugal’s southern region. It is by far the most developed region in terms of tourism, which represents the motor of its economy. This is true especially in the summer months, when its half a million inhabitants are outnumbered by the tourists who flock to the Algarve from all corners of Europe and the world. Its combination of sandy and rocky beaches, grottos, wonderful sunny weather, historical sites and a wide range of activities on offer make it especially appealing to tourists. Moreover, although it can rival any popular holiday destination in Europe in terms of beaches and fun, the Algarve is considerably more affordable than some other resort regions in Europe, particularly in the Mediterranean. All this has guaranteed it a loyal base of holidaymakers, a great number of whom have even decided to either settle in the region or purchase a holiday home, most notably British expats. This has made the Algarve a region in which English is widely spoken and there are even local English newspapers.
Historical sites abound in the Algarve, including Roman ruins, particularly in the region of Lagos. Due to the long presence of the Moors in the Algarve’s history, there are numerous instances of Moorish influences. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 also brought destruction to the Algarve, but even more devastation was caused by the ensuing tsunami, which affected all areas except the city of Faro, the capital of the Algarve. Today, the Algarve is a multicultural and safe region with excellent infrastructure and leisure facilities, such as golf courses, camping sites and upscale resorts. In addition to Faro, notable towns and resorts include Lagos, Albufeira and Tavira.
Being the capital city, Faro is also the cultural and commercial center of the Algarve. It is a university town and possesses an airport, marina and a fast train connection to Lisbon and Porto. If you are flying in to the Algarve, you will inevitably pass through Faro. Do not miss visiting this interesting city even if it is not on your itinerary. Its old city walls have survived the ages, together with sixteenth century houses. Some interesting sites to see in Faro include the thirteenth century cathedral in the center of the city, which is presumed to have once been a Moorish mosque, the squares and the museums, such as the Archaeological and Lapidary Museum and the Ethnological Museum.
Situated in the western part of the Algarve, Lagos is undoubtedly the most popular resort town in the region due to several reasons. First of all, it is reputed as having the best beaches in the Algarve. Besides large beaches, it also boasts numerous small beaches that are situated between rocks, some of which are only accessible at low tide. These beaches are very intimate and private; if you go far enough, you will feel as though you were the only person on holiday there. Lagos is also famous for the nearby grottos. A visit by boat to the grottos can be made for a mere ten euros per person and is highly recommended. In the event that you are traveling with a bigger group of people, you can bargain down the price even more. Other attractions include swimming and diving with dolphins, surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing. If you are not a professional in any of these, there are great surfing schools that will teach you how to master the board in no time.
Between Lagos and Faro lies the small coastal town of Albufeira. Its name comes from the Arabic word for “lagoon” and it is one of the most visited tourist resorts in the Algarve. It boasts a marina, countless restaurants and bars and golf courses. Known for its thriving nightlife in the summer months, Albufeira also has several well known beaches, such as Fisherman’s Beach and Praia da Oura. Since tourism is the town’s main source of income, recent years have seen the building of many new tourism developments, including many modern apartment blocks, which inspired the locals to assign it the name of “Legoland”.
Last but not least on this list is the town of Tavira. Slightly smaller than Albufeira, Tavira lies between Faro and the Spanish border. It was an important settlement throughout history, situated on the banks of the Gilão River. Its most significant attraction is the Tavira Island, which boasts 11 kilometers of sandy beaches, arguably the best in Portugal. Tavira Island is also one of the few places in Portugal where practicing naturism is legal. The island can be accessed by ferryboat from the town as well as by a floating bridge. It is particularly popular with bird watchers and swimming enthusiasts.
These are just a few tourist resort towns in the Algarve. The entire coastline is replete with beautiful sandy beaches and welcoming small towns and villages. If you have a chance, it is highly advisable to rent a car and go for a drive along the coast up to the westernmost town of Sagres, the best place in Portugal for surfing and body boarding.
Most people coming to the Algarve get off the plane at Faro and head for the spectacular bays and coves to the west. Much less well-known are the long, sandy beaches to the east.
This coastline falls within the Ria Formosa National Park, of great interest to nature-lovers, especially bird watchers. (It bears many similarities to its neighbour over the border in Spain, the famous Coto Doņana.) This means development has been limited and crowds are easy to avoid. The estuary of the Formosa forms a series of islands, ilhas (Faro, Barreta, Culatra, Armona and Tavira), essentially sand-spits with long, dune-backed beaches, behind which form mud flats, lagoons and salt marshes.
The best place to use as a base for exploring the area is the town of Tavira, an atmospheric, working tuna-fishing port with an important history. Accommodation can be hard to find: ask in the tourist office if you have not booked. Stroll around, try the local speciality (fresh tuna with onion) or a cataplana, have a drink or two… The town has a nice ruined castle, and twenty-one churches. Most of these are not in use or only used on occasional days of the year, but can be visited if you ask around.
Tavira is about 2 km by road away from the actual sea. The best way to reach the Ilha de Tavira is by a boat leaving from the pier in the town, down the river through the salt marsh. Or there is a shuttle service from a wharf immediately opposite the island. This is very long, nearly 14 km, and narrow. When you get off the boat, you have to thread past a number of holiday homes and a campsite (which you should book for, if you are so minded) to get to the other side of the island. When you reach the beach, as with all these places, it is likely to be crowded, but a five- or ten-minute walk will take you to more open spaces. It is officially a nudist beach, though you will not notice until you get away from the throng – nudists are surprisingly modest, sometimes.
Another way to reach the island is to go to Pedras d’el Rei, a holiday village a few kilometres west, and catch the miniature railway across the mud flats to the beach of Barril (same island, different beach).
Car rental is your best bet for moving around, locally or further afield. Buses are reasonable, but infrequent, though CP, the Portuguese railway company, is quite convenient, whether you are heading west towards Faro or east towards Vila Real de San Antonio, on the border with Spain.
The sister ilhas of Armona and Culatra, the charming hamlet of Luz de Tavira, and Santa Lucia, an octopus-fishing village, are all nearby and worth visiting. Have a nice time.