With many of the country’s safest and loveliest beaches, and a year-round balmy climate, it is not surprising that the Algarve is Portugal’s most popular region for holidaymakers. Inevitably, this also means that stretches of the coast – in particular from Faro west to Albufeira – are heavily developed, though even here the beaches are first-rate, as are the facilities. Elsewhere in the Algarve, especially around Sagres and Tavira, the surroundings are more attractive, with laidback resorts and low-key development.
To the west of Vilamoura, you’ll find the rocky outcrops and cove beaches for which the Algarve is best known, especially around the main resorts of Albufeira, Armação de Pêra and Lagos. The coast becomes progressively wilder as you head west, where attractive smaller resorts include the former fishing villages of Burgau or Salema, and the historic cape of Sagres – thought to be the site of Henry the Navigator’s naval school. The string of villages along the rougher west coast, as far as Odeceixe, are quieter still, with limited facilities but fantastic wild beaches ideal for surfing.
The eastern coast between Faro and the Spanish border is very different. Most of it is protected within the Reserva Natural da Ria Formosa, a series of barrier islands fronted by extensive sandy beaches. That means taking a short boat trip to reach the sands, which has helped preserve the towns from large-scale development. 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 – as well as Olhão, Fuseta, Cabanas or Tavira, all of which offer easy access to the sandbank islands.
Inland Algarve is still relatively undeveloped, especially around Alcoutim on the Spanish border. The Roman ruins of Milreu and the market town of Loulé are both worth an outing from Faro, while the old Moorish town of Silves is easily accessed from Portimão. Towards the west of the region, Caldas de Monchique is a quaint spa town in verdant woodland that makes up much of the picturesque Serra de Monchique mountain range.