If you want a vacation full of fun in the sun and Iberian charm, then the region of the Algarve should be on the top of your list. This slice of Southern Portugal isn’t a hidden secret either as it’s one of the most visited parts of the country, and the reasons are obvious. Firstly, the beaches are world-renowned, having been awarded Europe’s best beach destination in 2020. The cuisine is also to die for as both artisanal mom-and-pop stores and Michelin-starred restaurants are just scattered throughout the region. Aside from these, I highly recommend visiting Algarve for the stunning architecture and the rich history that goes along with it. If you map it right, you can hit a series of towns and cities that will take you along a trip through time.
Home to the famous city of Faro, we start our journey in the largest city in the region. The city traces its origins as a Roman city and even before as a Phoenecian colony. You can still see traces of this era with its wall, known as the Muralhas de Faro, which remains standing after nearly 2000 years. Make your way to the Arco de Villa to see the main entrance to the city with some touches of Arab influence. The Our Lady of the Assumption Convent can also give you a snapshot at another important period of the city – the 1500s. Here, you can see a mix of gothic and renaissance styles influenced by the royals of the time.
Head about an hour west into the interior and you’ll reach Silves which, before Faro gained influence, was the capital of Algarve. Here you can find one of the strongest symbols of Arab occupation – the Castelo de Silves. Started by the Romans, this defensive castle was built to its current state by the Moors and to this day towers above the city. You can still walk along the old patrol route along the wall which is made from limestone from the surrounding area. You can also go to the nearby Archeological Museum of Silves which was built from part of the old wall. This provides an interesting snapshot of the city from prehistory to the middle ages.
Head south towards the coast and you’ll reach the city of Portimao. Though the area has settled on since prehistoric times, the city only found its start as a way to defend the Arade river from the Moors during the reconquest. Signs of its storied past can be seen in the archeological site of Alcalar. Here you can see ancient dwellings and burial sites of a time gone by. Having been a struggling town from that point, the city saw a boom in the 19th century when fishing and canning became a dominant industry. That’s why visiting the city museum gives you a glimpse of what working at a canning factory at the time would have looked like.
Head westward along the coast for half an hour and you’ll reach the port city of Lagos. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because it’s what the largest city in Nigeria was named after. Of course, the reason why isn’t as amusing. Still, the city was a hub for discovery at that time and signs of this shining past can be seen to this day. The city is surrounded by a well-preserved wall that dates back to the Romans but cannot be toured by the public. You can also find a coastal fort known as the Forte da Ponte de Bandeira. The oldest house in the city was also once the slave market. Now, it’s a museum for slavery known as the Mercado de Escarvos.
Head west for another thirty minutes and you’ll hit Vila do Bispo on the edge of Portugal. Though small in comparison to the other cities along this route, the town held religious, economic, and strategic significance and was constantly attacked by both the English and the Moors. This forced authorities to construct forts all along the coast. Three survive to this day – Cabo de San Vicente, Santo Antonio de Beliche, and Sagres, the latter of which was founded by and became the residence of Prince Henry the Navigator and is now a national monument.
When traveling, history isn’t always top of mind for most tourists. In fact, this might be far you’re your mind as the Algarve is a paradise for holiday seekers and sunbathers. But, I like to think that if you’ll be miles from home in a far away land straight out of a fairytale, then it might be worth immersing yourself in that experience. This route is easy, close to many touristy spots, and is perfect for making the most of Europe’s most famous secret.