The Algarve, with its 300 days of sunshine, attracts millions each year but if you stick only to the beaches and golf courses, you’ll be missing out on the breadth of experiences on offer for those who look beyond.
With 200km of rugged, unspoilt, coastline there is plenty left to discover, and five centuries of Moorish rule have left south Portugal with a rich history and gastronomic heritage. It’s safe to say there are still secrets to be found in this lovely corner of the Mediterranean.
Many people skip visiting Faro, instead heading straight for the resorts, but it would be a mistake to miss out on this vibrant, historic city. Take a few hours to get lost in the old town, complete with narrow lanes, churches, and ruined city walls, and the picturesque harbour.
While you’re here make sure to try out one of the many restaurants specializing in locally sourced ingredients and traditional recipes that have fed generations. Try local delicacy the cataplana, an aromatic fish stew stuffed with octopus and cockles, at Tertúlia Algarvia. There is no better spot for a cocktail at sunset than the Cosmopolitan Bar at the top of the Hotel Faro, with its panoramic views over the Ria Formosa.
With its pretty, Azulejo-tiled streets and gritty industrial heritage, Olhao (Olhão) has always attracted artists and creatives. The town, situated a short drive from Faro, was built on the fishing industry. Although this is still an important economy for the people there, it is shrinking and when the factories started to close graffiti artists used their walls as a canvas.
Today, much of the whitewashed centre has been transformed with street art that celebrates Olhao’s heritage, and in the suburbs dilapidated buildings and abandoned churches showcase extraordinary Portuguese talent. If you are looking for art you can take home, there are plenty of independent boutiques selling ceramics, crafts, and clothes by local artisans.
A system of sandbanks, reefs and islands, the Ria Formosa national park stretches 60 km from Ancão beach to Manta Rota beach, almost next to the Spanish border. A constantly shifting labyrinth of waterways, it is stunningly beautiful. The park is important for flora and fauna, as well as wildlife, but is also home to isolated, island villages that have hardly changed in decades. They live in harmony with their surroundings, and were founded on local fishing and oyster cultivation. These communities have worked hard to resist over-tourism and have managed to maintain the integrity of their way of life.
The only way to explore this region properly is by boat. You can take a ferry to the islands, including Armona, Deserta, Farol, Fuzeta, Tavira and Culatra, from the town of Olhao or Faro and it is easy to do in a day. If you want to go private, or wish to explore some of the harder-to-reach corners, hire a catamaran or motor yacht with skipper from iSea Charter based in Faro. You can go at your own pace, stop where you like and swim in the calm lagoon waters.
Some 395 bird species have been recorded in the Algarve, including seabirds, shorebirds, ducks, and birds of prey. Unlike in other European countries, it is a year-round activity, and many can be spotted in the winter months. Large wetlands such as the Ria Formosa and the Sapal de Castro Marim Nature Reserve make for a bird paradise, and many species use the Algarve in their migration routes. You might even spot a flamingo chilling in the midday sun – they are in the Olhao and Fuseta areas for a big part of the year.
Algarvian cuisine is heavily influenced by centuries of Arab and Mediterranean conquerers, and it is an aromatic melting pot of texture and flavour. Replete with natural resources, from tuna and olives to oysters, the region is a foodie playground. The seafood is, of course, fresh as can be, but it is by heading inland and finding yourself surrounded by olive groves and carob trees that you can really learn why food here stands out. Algarve Treasures runs tours that celebrate local gastronomy, including breadmaking workshops, where you bake using a traditional outdoor stone oven on a working farm, vineyard visits, and lunch on an aromatic herb plantation.
Centuries ago the eastern Algarve produced salt to preserve the fuel the Roman Empire ran on, but now it cultivates some of the most sought after crystals in the world. Sal Marim, in Castro Marim, sells Fleur de Sal to Michelin starred restaurants across Europe, and owner Jorge Raiado just loves to share his passion.
You might not expect anything grand from the Algarve’s small towns but Vila Real de Santo Antonio is going to prove you wrong. Sitting on the bank of the Guadiana river, which marks the border with Spain, it was flattened in the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon. Luckily, and the same architect that rebuilt the capital travelled south as well.
Here the Marquis de Pombal created a small-but-perfectly-formed example of his famed Pombaline style. Designed around a central square in a grid system, he incorporates simple neoclassical design elements, with whitewashed fronts and terracotta roofs. Contrastingly, the riverside promenade is a decadent display of turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau designed by Swiss architect Ernesto Korrodi. The largest, most impactful example is the Grand House Hotel, with its ornate facade, and views overlooking the marina’s luxury yachts.
Whether you’re a surfer looking for your next wave, or more of a paddler cooling down on a hot day, there are a huge variety of options off the Algarve’s coast. The dramatic western side is best for those with experience in the water, as conditions are wild when the Atlantic crashes into the edge of Europe. The eastern Algarve gets calmer and warmer, as it gets closer the mouth of the Mediterranean. Boats launch from towns like Lagos, Portimão, Albufeira, Faro, and Olhao to watch dolphins, turtles and whales, and you can explore the coastline’s famous grottos and caves by yacht or kayak.
Outdoorsy-types should head to the western coast where the Costa Vicentina is Europe’s last wild coastline, with no big developments and very few urban areas at all. The national park extends south from near Lisbon and down the edge of Portugal to Porto Covo in Alentejo. Non-profit Rota Vicentina, which is an association of 200 local businesses, has introduced 750km of hiking trails and 1000km of rural cycling routes to enjoy.
Protected by strict environmental laws, this is the best-preserved coast in the Algarve, and sustainability is high on the agenda, with a focus on investing in the environmental protection of the territory and staying loyal to local communities. Create your own combination of the three trails, the Historical Way, Fishermen’s Trail and the 24 Circular routes.
The Algarve is known for having some of the best beaches in the world and you really can’t visit without trying at least one. You may be picturing rows of umbrellas, but it isn’t hard to find yourself in an isolated spot on your own, especially on the eastern side of the region. Praia da Ilha Deserta, on an island on the Ria Formosa, is completely unspoilt by development and has to be accessed by ferry, as is Praia da Culatra.
If you need a few more facilities, or are staying in the west, Praia de Dona Ana, Praia de Benagil, and Praia da Falesia are all great choices to enjoy the dramatic coastline the Algarve is famous for. Praia da Bordeira is further north on the Atlantic coast, and is perfect for windy walks or surfing.
This article was written in partnership with Visit Algarve. Find out more at www.visitalgarve.pt
Written by: Jaymi McCann