With its spectacular sandy beaches and picturesque rocky coves, it is not surprising that the Algarve is Portugal’s most popular region for holidaymakers. This has inevitably led to some heavy development. Large segments of the coast from Faro west to Albufeira have suffered most, with endless villa complexes creating a rather depressing Mediterranean-style suburbia. On the plus side, facilities are first-rate, as are the beaches. Elsewhere in the Algarve, especially around Sagres and Tavira, the surroundings are far more attractive, with relaxed, small-scale resorts located near superb beaches or island sandbanks.
The coastline in fact has two quite distinct characters. To the west of Faro you’ll find the classic postcard images – namely a series of tiny bays and coves, broken up by weird rocky outcrops and fantastic grottoes. They’re at their most exotic around the major resort towns of Lagos, Armação de Pêra and Albufeira. Other recommended stops include Alvor and Ferragudo, which still retain some character and are close to fine beaches. Inland are the interesting old market towns of Loulé and Silves, the nineteenth-century spa town of Caldas de Monchique and the neighbouring market town of Monchique. West of Lagos beyond Luz, development has been restricted by the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, which embraces most of the coastline. As a result, erstwhile fishing villages such as Burgau and Salema retain a fair amount of charm, while the south coast ends at a dramatic cliff-edged plateau around Sagres, with fine beaches and a lively surfing scene. The coast north of Sagres is the least developed part of the Algarve – partly because this stretch of the Atlantic is distinctly cold and often pretty wild. Low-key villages such as Carrapateira, Aljezur and Odeceixe all have magnificent local beaches that attract a younger crowd including surfers, campervanners and backpackers, with plenty of beach parties and nude sunbathing.
East of Faro, there’s a complete change as you encounter the first of a series of sandy offshore islets, the ilhas, which front the coastline virtually all the way to the Spanish border. The resorts here have a more Portuguese feel than those in the central stretch, and first-choice bases here would be Faro itself – capital of the entire region – Olhão, Fuzeta, Cabanas or Tavira, all of which offer access to the sandbank islands. Most of the other resorts on this stretch – with the exception of Monte Gordo – are fairly small-scale, while the Portuguese coast peters out at Vila Real de Santo António, a historic small town that preserves a fair bit of character. Vila Real lies near the mouth of the Rio Guadiana, which forms the Spanish border.
Inland Algarve is still relatively undeveloped, especially around Alcoutim on the Spanish border, and there are other scattered attractions in the Roman ruins of Estói and the market town of Loulé, both north of Faro, and the old Moorish town of Silves, easily reached from Portimão. The outstanding area, however, is the Serra de Monchique, the highest mountain range in the south, with cork and chestnut woods, remote little villages and a beautiful old spa in Caldas de Monchique.Read More