Think southern Portugal, think hordes of European families enjoying their hols in seaside resorts, pensionados playing golf and students hitting the booze in party towns like Albufeira. If you’ve made it to this blog, chances are this is not your idea of a dream holiday. Neither is mine. But hey, each to their own. However, although difficult, it is not impossible to escape the crowds in the Algarve.
There’s much more to southern Portugal than mass tourism and package holidays. Past summer I took a train from Lisbon to spend a week in the Algarve and I got to know a different side of this beautiful coastal region. Yes, it does get busy here in the summer months, but look beyond the main tourist centres and you can still find beautiful quiet beaches and quaint authentic towns. If you’re looking for a relaxing holiday without drunken students or jampacked beaches, then these are some of the places I think you should check out.
Upon arrival at Faro Airport, most international tourists head west in the direction of Albufeira. But drive eastwards, and you’ll discover a part of the Algarve that hasn’t yet sold its soul to mass tourism. The town of Tavira is perhaps one of the most delightful places I got to know during my trip. This appealing riverside town does get busy in summer, but because of the large number of regional visitors from Portugal and nearby Spain, it has somehow managed to retain its local charm. The cobblestone streets are filled with lovely cafes and restaurants that do not just cater to tourists but also locals. I really enjoyed dinner at the rooftop terrace of Briso do Rio and had delicious Portuguese-style tapas at Nó de Gosto. And do not miss Delizia da Ponte for the best ice cream in town. Curious what other food you should try here? Check out my blog post about my favourite Portuguese dishes and drinks.
From the riverfront at Rua das Salinas, regular ferries depart to Ria Formosa. This national park is comprised of a series of salt water lagoons that stretch all the way from here to Faro. Expect long sandy beaches, pinewoods and wildlife. There’s no motorised traffic here, adding to that getting-away-from-it-all feeling.
For some reason Faro doesn’t have a great reputation. But the fact that most tourists seem to skip the Algarve’s capital only means that there’s more of it for you and I to explore and enjoy. I for one, quite liked Faro. True, some parts feel a bit rough around the edges, but the city has quite a few things to offer, too. A beautifully renovated old town, for instance. The Cidade Velha consists a network of small streets with whitewashed buildings and is surrounded by a centuries old defence wall. It feels surprisingly calm here. Walking around this area, you would not think you’re in the heart of one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe!
The port town of Olhão mixes the old town charm of Tavira with the grittiness of Faro. It’s most well-known for its seafood market, which is the largest in the Algarve. Every morning, apart from Sunday, hundreds of fish mongers and other merchants line up inside and outside the Mercado Municipal. A walk through the beautiful market buildings, which date back to 1915, is a feast for the senses. If you’re after fresh produce and a lively local atmosphere, this is the place to be. When you’re done with shopping, go and try freshest of fresh seafood in one of the many nearby low-key restaurants. I had a fantastic grilled seafood lunch at Vai e Volta.
On the other end of the Algarve lies Lagos. Though considerably more touristy than Faro or Olhão, the size of Lagos means that the city somewhat manages to absorb the number of visitors. There are a couple of busy streets with the usual tourist shops and restaurants, but take a turn and you’ll suddenly find a quiet alleyway or picturesque square. There’s also a lovely riverside boulevard that’s covered by palm trees. Across the river – towards the train station – the area gets a bit scruffier. But it’s here that you’ll find a couple of great seafood restaurants, such as Tasca da Lota. However, the best food I had in Lagos was at A Petisqueira. They do brilliant contemporary style (sea)food dishes. Lagos also has the best bakery in the entire the Algarve, as far as I’m concerned. Padaria Central makes some of the best pastries I tried on my trip. Their bolinho (Berliner doughnut) is too good!
Lagos is a nice base to discover the western Algarve. Some of the most beautiful beaches are at walking distance from the town centre. They include Praia do Pinhão, Praia Dona Ana and Praia do Camilo. Moreover, many other beautiful and quieter beaches as well as picturesque villages are only a short drive away.
Beautiful (and secluded) beaches
Because let’s be honest, the beaches are what most people come to the Algarve for. And I have to admit, many of them are absolutely stunning. We’re not necessarily talking about long stretches of white sandy beach, but rather hidden coves surrounded by steep cliffs and turquoise waters. But be prepared, because this is the Atlantic Ocean (not the Mediterranean Sea) and the water here is often freeezing! In addition, jet streams mean it can get very windy down here. So, if it’s swimming you’re after, you may want to find accommodation with a pool. However, if you’re into surfing, then the Algarve is the place to be. You’ll find some of the best surfing conditions in the world here. Popular surf spots include Praia do Amado and Praia da Bordeira. Even if you don’t surf, it’s worth checking out these beaches because they’re simply gorgeous. What makes them even more appealing is the lack of crowds. When I was here in August, there were only a couple of dozen other people here.
Other beautiful and secluded beaches are Praia das Cabanas Velhas (which also has a nice beach bar restaurant) and Praia da Figueira, but there are many, many more to choose from. You can hit the water if you’re brave, but a peddle board is a popular alternative.
The end of Europe
Did you know that the southwestern most point of the European continent is located in the Algarve? Cabo de São Vicente has for centuries been the last piece of European land that sailors saw when embarking on their discovery voyages around the world. The steep cliffs and sweeping winds make this place feel rather inhospitable. It’s therefore all the more surprising that so many visitors make their way to Cabo de São Vicente, especially on summer evenings. But let’s be honest: there’s nothing quite like watching the sunset from the end of Europe, even if you have to share the views with a couple of fellow tourists.
The Algarve is more than beaches and seaside towns. The northern side of the region is mountainous and scattered with hilltop villages, many of which are relatively undiscovered. You don’t have to drive far to find peace and tranquillity, away from the coastal crowds. Pretty towns such as Monchique and Loulé form the perfect backdrop for a holiday surrounded by nature. But there are plenty of smaller villages that are worth discovering, too. After a recommendation from our B&B host in Lagos, for instance, we decided to check out the hilltop village of Pedralva and really enjoyed it. Apart from a fantastic slow food restaurant called Sitio da Pedralva there’s not much going on, but that’s exactly what you’d come here for.
So there you have it. The authentic Algarve does still exist. Let’s hope it will remain like this.