The best independent guide to the Algarve
The best independent guide to the Algarve
The Algarve is the beautiful coastline of southern Portugal and is a wonderful destination for your holiday.
It is a region of extreme diversity and contrasts; there is pristine natural scenery, traditional fishing villages and party focused resort towns. The sheer variety of the Algarve means that will appeal to a wide range of tourists, for families, thrill-seekers or those seeking a cultural experience.
This article will detail the 10 sights and activities of the Algarve and show to you why you must visit.
Related articles: Best beach - Algarve day trips – Which town for my holiday?
The map below shows the location of the top 10 sights and activities; the sights are marked in green and the activities in yellow.
The following section details the best sights and activities of the Algarve and explains why they are in our top 10 list.
Vila Real de Santo António is a peaceful town, sitting on the mighty Guadiana River at the far eastern side of the Algarve.
Vila Real contains a grand Baroque town centre reminiscent of Lisbon, and a pretty waterfront overlooking the river and the Spanish border.
To the south of Vila Real are deserted beaches and departing from the harbour is a ferry which crosses into Spain.
Vila Real is an enjoyable day trip if you are on holiday in the east of the Algarve.
The Praça Marquês de Pombal is the main plaza of Vila Real
Vila Real is busting with Portuguese character
If you wish to discover the authentic side of the Algarve, then you should visit Loule's markets.
At the centre of Loule is a daily market (except Sunday) housed in a traditional Moorish inspired building, with stalls selling locally grown produce, fish and handicrafts.
On Saturday, Loule comes alive with a further two markets, a large and chaotic gypsy market held on the edge of the town, and a farmer's market near the covered market.
Along with the markets, Loule has a charming old quarter and is another enjoyable destination for a day trip.
Related articles: Guide to Loule
The covered market of Loule
The Algar de Benagil (Benagil Cave) is one of the most spectacular natural features of the Algarve coastline.
Benagil is a massive sea cave with golden strata walls and an enclosed sandy beach, which is illuminated by sunlight flooding in via the wide hole in the ceiling.
Benagil cave is inaccessible from the cliffs above, and is reached via tour boat, kayak, SUP or even swimming from the adjoining beach.
Algar de Benagil is magical when no one else is there, but in the summer expect it to be rammed with tourists, and hence not higher in our top 10 list.
Don’t expect to find Benagil cave this deserted…
Castro Marim has always been a strategic defensive town, being close to the Spanish border, and has a rich history.
The town was bitterly fought over between the Christians and Moors until the 12th century, and during the 14th century it acted as a stronghold for the Knights Templar. After Portugal gained independence from Spain in 1640, Castro Marim was greatly strengthened with the construction of the Forte de São Sebastião.
Unsurprisingly the main sights of Castro Marim are the two castles, but it is also a calm and non-touristy town with a very different atmosphere to the hectic resort towns. Close to the Castro Marim is the Sapal Nature Reserve, a series of saltwater marshes with a large population of flamingos.
If you have a car, Castro Marim and Vila Real can be easily combined in a single day trip.
The Forte de São Sebastião
The Capela dos Ossos (Bone Chapel) in Faro is one of the strangest and most macabre sights of the Algarve.
In this creepy chapel, the bones of over 1,100 monks line the walls, and the skulls of the deceased are even used to create geometric patterns.
On the entrance to the chapel is an inscription which reads (in Portuguese) "Stop here and consider, that you will arrive at this state too" – Now if that is not motivation to travel more and make the most of your life…
Related articles: Capela dos Ossos - Faro guide
The Capela dos Ossos contains the bones of over one thousand monks
It's hot, you're on holiday, and of course you want to go to a waterpark!
Luckily the Algarve has three outstanding waterparks; Slide and Splash, Aqualand and Aquashow. These waterparks offer gravity-defying flumes and near-vertical slides, and will provide excitement for all ages.
Slide and Splash is the largest waterpark and offers insane flumes, rapids and pools for younger children. Further details of the waterparks can be found on their websites:
The many flumes and slides at Slide and Splash
The slides and pools of Aqualand
The Cabo de São Vicente is the southwestern tip of mainland Europe, and up until the 14th century was thought to be the end of the known world.
This dramatic and wind-blasted headland is ideal if you appreciate nature's raw beauty and immense power. Colossal waves crash against the towering cliffs, and powerful winds sweep the cliff tops preventing any meaningful vegetation from growing.
A visit to Cabo de São Vicente is often combined with a trip to Sagres.
Related articles: Sagres guide
The light from the Cabo de São Vicente lighthouse can be seen up to 58km out to sea
The Parque Natural da Ria Formosa are the protected saltwater lagoons, mudflats and waterways south of Faro and Olhão.
These waterways are important stopover for migrating birds and are a thriving ecosystem for small marine life – they also have the world's highest concentration of seahorses.
The natural park designation also safeguards the traditional fishing communities of the region, who employ classical fishing methods (such as using clay pots to catch octopus, and handpicking shellfish).
A highlight of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa is the Deserted Island (Ilha Deserta) and the Cabo de Santa Maria, the most southerly point of mainland Portugal.
The best way to discover the Ria Formosa is via a guided boat tour, with boats departing from the harbours in Olhão or Faro.
The calm waterways of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa
Ferragudo is one of last remaining unspoilt fishing villages of the central Algarve, and is a delightful place to visit. Within the village is a traditional fisherman's quarter, a charming harbour front and an abundance of Portuguese character.
Ferragudo lies on the sheltered waters of the Arada estuary, and to the south of the village are the golden sands of the Praia Grande beach and the picturesque Praia dos Caneiros.
Ferragudo is a delightful fishing village
The Algarve's regional dishes tend to be fish and shellfish based. This is no surprise with a coastline of over 200km and fishing being the main industry of the Algarve until the advent of tourism.
One of the finest meals to try during your holiday is a Cataplana. This is a delicious seafood stew served in a clam-shaped copper cooking pot, and is designed to be shared.
There are many variations of Cataplana (as the name refers to the cooking pot) with meat, shellfish, or fish varieties, but they all have the same characteristics, delicious and filling!
A seafood Cataplana is to be shared
The Anchor Cemetery is a permanent memorial to a failed fishing community and the eradication of tuna fish stocks from the Algarve seas.
Tuna fishing from Barril beach became uneconomical from 1964, and the hundreds of anchors used to hold the complex nets were placed in the sand dunes.
Today the anchors stand rusting, but tourism has brought new life to Barril beach, and is one of the finest beaches of the eastern Algarve.
Related articles: The Praia do Barril
Hundreds of anchors were used to secure the complex nets structures needed to fish for tuna
Vilamoura is a world-class centre for golf, with five championship 18-hole golf courses within the town.
The most famous course is the "Old Course", hence named as it was designed by Frank Pennink in 1969, and predates most of the modern development in Vilamoura.
The 73-par course is set amidst established pine forests, and offers beautiful vistas and perfect greens.
The Praia da Marinha is frequently regarded as the most beautiful beach in the Algarve.
Marinha is a stunning beach, with golden sandstone cliffs, soft sands, and cool turquoise sea waters. Within these waters are numerous rock pools, which at low tide are teeming with marine life, and give the beach its name.
At the western end of the Praia da Marinha is a double sea-arch creating a unique "m" shaped headland.
Idyllic is the only way to describe the Praia da Marinha
The double arch of the Arcos Naturais
Sagres sits at the far western end of the Algarve, and is a location of towering cliffs, vast beaches and powerful Atlantic waves.
These waves provide some of the best surfing in Portugal, while the town has an underlying trendy vibe hidden below its ramshackle appearance.
Part of Sagres appeal as a surfing location is that the headland faces three different directions, and means there is always a beach with the perfect swell. As Sagres is a popular surfing town, there are many rental shops, surf schools, decent hostels and a laid-back vibe.
Related articles: Sagres guide
The Praia do Beliche beach, just to the north of Sagres, is one of the most popular and best locations for surfing
The Castelo de Silves is an imposing redbrick castle that stands high above the town of Silves, and from here the Moors (9-12th century) ruled over the entire Algarve.
Silves was both an important stronghold and trading town for the Moors, and remnants of this illustrious past are seen throughout the town. There are massive walls, formidable gateways and a Gothic cathedral that was originally a mosque.
Silves is a charming town with a distinctly Portuguese ambience, and makes for an enjoyable day trip from the coastal towns.
Related articles: Silves introduction
The red sandstone battlements of the castle rise high above the town
Large pods of dolphins are routinely seen along the Algarve coastline, as they travel between the Mediterranean's warm waters and the food-rich Atlantic Ocean.
One of the best ways to see these magnificent animals in their natural environment is via dolphin watching boat trip, which can be joined from any of the major resort towns.
Frequently these boat trips include a tour of the dramatic coastline around Benagil cave (No.9), with its sea arches, pillars and grottos carved into the sandstone cliffs.
Note: The tour operators respect the dolphins, keeping the boats safe distance away and never distressing them. If we felt the animals were ever distressed, we would never recommend it as an activity.
A dolphin surfacing just in front of Benagil cave and the Praia da Corredoura beach
The Ponta da Piedade is the picturesque headland south of Lagos, and is the most beautiful natural feature in the Algarve.
The headland is formed of miss-shapen cliffs and jagged rock formations, which have been carved into the golden sandstone cliffs by winter storms. Within the Ponta da Piedade are sea arches, hidden grottos and precariously balanced sea pillars, all lapped by the turquoise sea waters.
The cliffs are scenic when viewed from the landside, but to appreciate the real beauty, charter a small boat from Lagos harbour to navigate around the base of the cliff formations.
Related articles: Lagos introduction – The Ponta da Piedade
Golden cliffs and turquoise sea waters, the Ponta da Piedade is stunning
The unique cliff formations are best viewed by boat
With its themed bars and crazy atmosphere, "The Strip" in Albufeira, is always a fun experience. Its sheer variety of bars, clubs and general insanity of the street can't be beaten, and rivals any of the other party destinations in Europe.
Along the Strip are over 50 different bars and 5 nightclubs, all tempting drinkers with neon signs and drinks promotions. In the summer the atmosphere tends to verge on excess, but if you want to drink and party to your limits, then the Strip is the place for you.
Related articles: Albufeira introduction
When tourists imagine the quintessential Portuguese town, they are thinking about Tavira.
This delightful town straddles the Gilão river and boasts a castle, thirty churches, and traditional tiled houses lining cobbled streets. There is no prettier town in the Algarve than Tavira, and being located in the much quieter eastern Algarve, it still retains its authentic Portuguese atmosphere.
Along with being the finest town in the Algarve, Tavira is also close to the pristine beaches on the Ilha de Tavira.
Related articles: Tavira guide
The Ponte Romana crossing the Gilão River in Tavira
You may wonder why a 6km hiking trail has been named as the best activity of the Algarve. We suggest you walk it, and then you will understand why.
This clifftop trail encompasses everything good about the Algarve. There are hidden coves, untouched beaches and some of the most beautiful natural scenery in southern Portugal. The route also passes the much-photographed Benagil Cave, which can be easily reached by boat from Benagil beach.
The Percurso dos Sete Vales Suspensos begins at the Praia da Marinha beach (number 4 in this list), and ends at the beautiful Praia do Vale de Centeanes beach. Personally, we recommend continuing further to include the Algar Seco caves and finishing at the delightful town of Carvoeiro.
Related articles: The Percurso dos Sete Vales hiking trail – Carvoeiro introduction
Thank you for reading our guide, and we hope it has inspired you to plan your holiday to the Algarve!