Portimão is the second-largest town in the Algarve, with a population of nearly forty thousand. Sited on the estuary of the Rio Arade, it has made its living from fishing since pre-Roman times and today remains a sprawling port. Most visitors are just here for a day’s shopping, taking time out from the full-blown resort of Praia da Rocha, 3km south of Portimão. The coast road west of Praia da Rocha, towards Lagos, has been engulfed by a series of massive and graceless tourist developments fronting more sweeping beaches; only Alvor, slightly inland, retains its original charm.
Portimão is fairly undistinguished – most of the older buildings were destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Its most historic building is the Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Conceição, rebuilt after the earthquake, but retaining a Manueline door from the original fourteenth-century structure; the interior is covered in seventeenth-century azulejos. The encircling streets are pleasant enough, filled with shops selling lace, shoes, jewellery, ceramics and wicker goods; the main shopping streets are around the pedestrianized Rua Diogo Tomé and Rua da Portades de São José.
The most attractive part of town is the riverfront, where a series of squares – Largo do Dique, Praça Manuel Teixeira Gomes and Praça Visconde de Bivar – are filled with outdoor cafés by gushing fountains.You’ll be approached by people offering boat trips along the coast to see the grottoes, while three-hour trips also go up the Rio Arade to Silves.
Heading up the river and under the road bridge you’ll find a series of open-air restaurants serving inexpensive grilled sardine lunches.The narrow streets just back from the bridge – off Largo da Barca – are Portimão’s oldest, with more than a hint of their fishing-quarter past.Read More
The resorts immediately west of Praia da Rocha – Vau and Praia Três Irmãos – have good beaches but little else going for them, and it is better to push on to historic ALVOR, 6km west of Praia da Rocha. The ancient port briefly achieved fame as the place where Dom João II died in 1495 and, though much of the town was razed in the 1755 earthquake, it still boasts a sixteenth-century Igreja Matriz with Manueline doors and pillars carved into fishing ropes and plants. Despite inevitable development, the old core around the church and the central Praça da República retains its character, while the harbour itself is a delight, lined with colourful fishing boats and aromatic fish restaurants. The Praia de Alvor is an enormous beach backed by café-bars.