Best Things to Do in Algarve, Portugal
Updated: Jul 6, 2020
Let's take a road trip out of Lisbon! Get into your car and turn out of the drive, onto the tight, busy streets of the city. Navigate your way over the Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge, take a minute to look over the water and back at the capital, before hitting the open road. It takes some time to get to Algarve, and the path empties out pretty quickly. Narrow roads open up to long stretches of highway, packed stone buildings turn to expansive marshes, and the air fills with the smell of nature.
Taking the E1 highway down lets you get out of the city and into you your lodging faster. While taking the A2 back gives you a new, much more scenic route along the coast. The sun sets in the west, so taking the A2 back in the afternoon gives you a gorgeous orange glow on the left.
Taking your exit, they scene will change from lush greenery to red and rocky. Traveling through the town centers, scope out places you'd want to visit later on. Are there restaurants that call to you? Shops that caught your eye? One of the great things about this area is that time moves slower in Algarve. A trip into town could take a whole day, even if there are only a couple of storefronts.
Once you get to your destination, take a moment to sit back and enjoy the ocean air. You made it! Now let's check the weather and thinking of what you want to do!
Where is Algarve?
If you think of Portugal as a face, Lisbon is at the tip of the nose and Algarve would be the bottom of the chin. Driving between the two areas takes roughly 2 1/2 hours on the E1 and 3 1/2 hours on the A2. The E1 is a toll road, so if you're taking a rental, you'll want to make sure you have an electronic toll payer included or some cash on hand. The A2 is toll free but that means it does not have rest stops along it. There are many small towns you can stop in for food, gas, and restrooms, though there are long stretches that are mostly desolate, so be sure to plan accordingly.
What is Algarve?
Technically in the Faro District of Portugal, the Algarve region is a popular beach destination for vacationers and European retirees. Beachgoers love the striking cliffs, sandy shoreline, and deep blue surf. Retirees are more interested in the laidback atmosphere, cheap cost of living, and warm dry weather year long.
The biggest cities in this region are Fargo, Lagos, and Portimão. If you're someone who misses the hustle and bustle, staying in these cities would be perfect for you. If you're looking for a more relaxed vacation, try one of dozen or so smaller seaside towns or moving a bit inland, where tourists rarely go.
What to Do in Algarve?
Algarve has been voted the best place in the world to retire, but let that fool you into thinking this area is just for old people! There are activities for all ages, you just need to know what you're looking for.
Not surprisingly, the top attraction for a seaside region is the beach! There are hundreds of miles of beaches in Algarve. Some beaches are easily accessible with parking lots below the bluff. These tend to be near the downtowns and boardwalks, which makes them a bit more crowded. Most of the beaches are a bit harder to get to, requiring you to walk down the steep cliff faces or travel a bit farther outside of town. Its worth it though for that extra space to spread out. If you're really adventurous, Algarve has a plethora of hidden beaches, places where you can be alone with the wind and the waves. To get to these, you'll need to talk to a local to get directions for your drive, hike, and climb.
Pro tip: if you think you have the beach to your self and want to live your dream of being nude on the beach, think about how many boats will go by your private oasis! On my last trip, I went out to Benagil Cave (more on that later) on a boat with about 15 other tourists on it as part of ta fleet of a couple other sightseeing ships. One by one, we drove up the coast passing the beaches so closely, you could yell to those on shore. The farther away from port we got, the emptier the beaches, until we reached on with just one couple on it. They were enjoying the sunshine and privacy, and decided to go skinny dipping, which would have been great until 3 packed tour boats zoomed past, causing a gown man to crawl back to his towel as fast as he could.
Located where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, the surf in Algarve can be pretty wild! During my last trip, the waves were huge and relentless, a surfer's dream! You can follow the other surfers to a local favorite or walk in from the local beach. Not a surfer, don't worry! There are several surf schools that can teach you. Just decide your budget and how many days you want to go for.
Hold onto your sandals! Tours to the Benagil Cave come in a variety of speeds, from kayaking or stand up paddle boarding tours to jet boats, and sizes, from an afternoon to the whole day. These tours leave from several ports, so double check your company and meet-up spot before heading out.
I went on a couple hour tour via a high speed boat when the surf was very rough. The tour before mine was canceled because the huge waves combined with high tide prevented boats from being able to go into the cave. On my trip, it felt like a roller coaster to get to the entrance. We rode past stunning cliffs with stripes of every color of sunset. Some rocky outcroppings became their own tall islands, and birds circled around them looking for a spot to land. When we went into a cave that was large enough to fit more than one boat at a time, and felt like somewhere pirates would hide their treasure. From there, we moved further along the coast, passing beach goers and hikers high up on the bluffs. When we got to the Benagil Cave, it looked like someone took a scoop out of orange creamsicle ice cream and plopped a bright, sky blue cherry on top. The waves were too large to go swimming in the cave, but on calmer days, you could. The trip was one of the highlights of the trip, even though I felt a little seasick on the way back, because the scenery was like nothing I'd ever seen before and the waves made a simple boat ride exhilarating!
Other Water Sports
As you can probably guess, all water actives are welcome in Algarve. Boating, fishing, jet skiing! If there is a water sport you're looking to try, there is a company that is looking to get you out on the water. You can rent a boat for the day and drive it around yourself, or get a captain to guide you around.
You can't go to a seaside town and not get fish! In Algarve, between the types of fish and the ways to cook it, you fish options seem limitless. I'd recommend going for a grilled Robalo (mild sea bass) or Dourada (mild bream). Both are tender white fish that are very popular in the region. If you are feeling at little more adventurous, try a ceviche to take advantage of the freshness or some sardines since they are what Portugal is known for.
Muscles and Clams
Seafood is more than just fish, and a number of local favorites will show you just that! Conquilhas à Algarvia is clam dish with fried onions, garlic, and sliced Portuguese sausage famous in Algarve all in a warm, white sauce. Another crowd pleaser is Cataplana de Marisco, which is made of lobster, clams, squid, and anything else that's on the chef's table that day. Regardless of what you choose, these recipes have been tested for generations and are sure to be delicious!
Looking for something to pair with your fish? Try some local wines! All 4 regions of the Algarve – Lagos, Portimão, Lagoa, and Tavira –have their own distinctive wine varieties. When ordering be sure to check you menu to see where your wine was made.
Whether you're looking for a weekend out of the city, or a beach vacation, the Algarve Region of Portugal is well worth a visit! So put your shades on and your toes in the sand, Felicidades!