How to Plan A Trip to the Algarve – Beyond the Beaches!

Faro, Algarve

The Algarve is the much-beloved summer southern destination of both Portuguese and Europeans alike, with a stunning topography of golden cliffs descending to meet the Atlantic Sea. Many hotels here even offer elevators to reach the beach below! The region is dotted with seaside towns but also has some very interesting interior excursions available for those who want to take a break from the beach and learn more about Portuguese culture. There are some excellent golf courses located here as well, and the region is often more than ten degrees warmer than other parts of Portugal in the winter.  Despite its popularity, it’s possible to plan a unique trip to the Algarve, beyond the beaches if you so desire. 

Choose this region if you’re interested in sun, sea, picturesque cliffs, water sports, and outdoor activities!

This area is truly one of the most photogenic in all of Portugal – the dramatic cliffs against the gorgeous Atlantic Ocean at sunset are sublime. But I would argue that this region could take more planning and thoughtful itinerary design than other areas of Portugal. Here’s why:

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Know The Geography

“The Algarve” is the southernmost region of Portugal but stretches from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to the Spanish border to the east. While on the map it’s a two-hour drive across its length, it’s not quite so easy to navigate. The seaside towns and the beaches are not necessarily close to near the one major highway that travels east to west. Each time you change locations, you’ll be backtracking or detouring to get back to that highway to continue your journey. This is why knowing exactly where you wish to visit in the Algarve can be useful as you need an accurate location to judge how far away your excursion or hotel may be from your end destination.

The topography and vegetation in the Algarve can be quite diverse as well – so I always ask my travelers “what do you want to take photos of?” to make sure to match their expectations when we set off to plan a trip to the Algarve. The area between Lagos and Faro, for example, is most known for the dramatic cliffs, sea grottoes, and beautiful rock formations. It’s the area most likely to spring to mind if you’ve ever seen photos of the Algarve.

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But there are other shifts in the scenery as well. The extreme western part of the Algarve (from Sarges to Odeceixe), known as Costa Vincente, is one of the least developed stretches of coastlines in all of Europe, with a strong emphasis on nature preservation, surfing, and wilderness – a far cry from the popular resort towns in the traditional Algarve. Because it’s fully exposed to the power of the Atlantic Ocean, you won’t find calm little swimming groves or tranquil waters here – expect wind-eroded cliffs and long stretches of beaches pounded by the full strength of the ocean. But this exposure means it’s an excellent destination for surfing, bodyboarding, and windsurfing – as well as walkers who want to explore the miles of cliffside trails available. If you plan your trip to the Algarve around off-the-beaten path locations, it’s possible to find beaches here unmarked by even one cafe or paved parking lot – just careful wooden boardwalks leading you to miles-long coastlines.

Traveling east, the upper-central Algarve has areas with red limestone clay earth between the mountains and the coastline – with typical Mediterranean shrub growth and opportunities to find fig and olive trees. And the northern part of the Algarve (before crossing into the Alentejo region) is distinguished by a small mountain range giving you plenty of hiking opportunities, swimming in hot springs, and discovering the traditional ways of rural life in Portugal. Don’t overlook excursions into these areas of the Algarve – I encourage you to “go beyond the beaches” here!

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Be Aware: Everyone Else Wants to Go Here Too In the Summer

Insider tip: Try to avoid the Algarve in July and August, when lodging will be hard to find and prices will sky-rocket as thousands of Europeans and Portuguese alike descend for their summer holidays. Of course, this is also perfect beach weather time, so weigh your priorities if you’re seeking fewer crowds but still want to be able to go swimming. During the off-season, however, the scenery is no less gorgeous while the hotel prices will be much more reasonable!  

While the area between Lagos and Faro is “the” destination for beach resorts, continuing east the area between Faro and Tavira (Eastern Algarve) is much less frequented by tourists but no less beautiful. Consider this as an option when you plan a trip to the Algarve.  As a savvy traveler, you can experience the sunshine and beauty of the Algarve by choosing less touristy towns with plenty of welcoming vibes, delicious food, and gorgeous photo-ops. Talk to your travel advisor if you plan to be traveling during the high summer tourist season, and what type of atmosphere you’re looking for – there are still some great alternatives even if you’re looking to avoid crowds.

Another insider tip….Tavira is one of the best-known towns in the Eastern Algarve – but still relatively unknown to the tourists swarming the western areas! It still contains an authentic Portuguese experience while providing modern tourist facilities and some fantastic hotels. The town is built on two sides of the River Gilao and provides picturesque opportunities to stretch your legs and explore – perhaps shopping at the ceramic and handmade art stores that have not yet been overtaken by the souvenir shops found in other areas. You’re also able to take tours to the Ria Formosa lagoon, a nature preserve build around barrier islands, and nearby salt pans. And gorgeous beaches are just a short ferry ride away.

Transportation in the Algarve – What to Know

Most visitors to Portugal fly into either Porto or Lisbon. There’s an airport in the Algarve in the capital of Faro, but this is mainly served by other European airports, so it often isn’t an option for North American visitors. This means that to even access the Algarve, you’re looking at a 3-hour journey south from Lisbon.

If you don’t have a private transfer (I can arrange this), your options are to self-drive or to take the train. But the train has its own unique challenges. There’s really only a direct train route from Lisbon to Faro, and sometimes Albufeira. You then have to switch to a regional train that oddly doesn’t stop at all important Algarve destinations. With the transfer, train wait times, and multiple connections, it’s sometimes quicker to pay for a longer taxi to your final destination after arriving at Faro instead of waiting for the next train!

If you are only spending a few days in the Algarve, taking public transportation from Lisbon can cut into your vacation time, so it’s worth considering renting a car or hiring a driver-guide. This is why for short stays in the Algarve I often limit my suggestions to centrally-located towns to maximize your itinerary. If you have a bit more time or a private driver-guide, it’s easier to go a bit further afield when you plan your trip to the Algarve.

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Activities – How to Plan A Trip to the Algarve

Here are some highlights of an Algarve itinerary, in addition to enjoying the fantastic pools and/or beaches of your hotel! Make sure to leave plenty of time for enjoying delicious seafood as well and people-watching on the boardwalks, perhaps with some ice cream in hand?

  • Visit Sagres at dusk for some of the finest sunsets in all the country. While there is a wonderful hotel here, be aware that it’s quite far from many other areas of the Algarve and also extremely windy (more suitable for surfing than swimming). I prefer to visit on a day trip or to spend just one or two nights before moving to a more centrally located area for further excursions.
  • In the centrally located major town of Lagos, from where Portuguese navigators departed on their ships during the Age of Exploration, head to the Ponta de Piedade headland, one of the most photographed sites in the region. There’s a lighthouse at the end of the road as well as stairways and boardwalks letting you explore the cliffsides. It’s a great place to capture some fantastic photos and get a feel for the beauty of the region, especially if you’re on a tight itinerary without much wiggle room.
  • If in the south-central Algarve region, take a boat out to explore the sea caves and watch for dolphins, or sign up for a day of surfing lessons.
  • Silves, the ancient capital of the Algarve, is not on the coast, and so can provide an interesting cultural excursion during your stay. It was an important stronghold during the Moorish occupation in the 9th-12th century. There’s a fantastic red brick castle here and it’s a great place to have lunch and do some strolling around the town square on a day-tour in the region.
  • Learn about beekeeping on a small group tour and taste several different varieties of honey.
  • Explore the mountainous town of Monchique, with heavy forests and dramatic viewpoints from the highest point of the Algarve, away from the coastline.
  • Head into the hills for hiking and walking tours or cliffside coastal walks. Or, take a jeep safari off-road with a small group tour, showing you secret viewpoints and fantastic photo ops with a local guide.
  • Learn about wines in the Algarve with tastings and small farm tours. Visit local markets and try out different olive oils or learn how to make traditional bread.
  • Take a boat tour of the Rio Formosa National Park, with plenty of bird watching available including pink flamingoes!
  • If staying in Tavira, don’t forget Seville is less than 2 hours away – doable for a day trip or to combine with your itinerary in Spain!

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The Algarve is the southernmost picturesque region of mainland Portugal, best beloved by foreign tourists for its sunshine and gorgeous beaches – but don’t overlook the many opportunities to continue learning more about culture, history, and gastronomy here! With careful planning for your trip to the Algarve, you can not only have an amazing sun-drenched vacation but also see some of the best highlights of this area without falling into tourist traps or accidentally picking the wrong locations. 

What do you think – could you spend a whole week here or are you looking for a different type of region for your Portuguese itinerary? Reach out to get started on the planning process!

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