Having just taken a marvelous trip to the Algarve region of Portugal I wanted to share some of the top spots to visit should you make a trip there yourself. The region is absolutely beautiful, food is amazing (especially if you love fresh seafood), and there is plenty to keep you busy. I highly recommend the area. Here are some tips for exploring the Algarve region of Portugal.
I chose the area for a Thanksgiving trip because it’s usually the warmest region of Europe during this time of year and I found a very affordable trip package online. (It’s a surprisingly affordable place to travel and the flight from the US isn’t too bad.) I also like visiting areas during off season because I’m not a fan of crowds. It was still surprisingly busy, but not overwhelming. Weather was around 70 degrees each day and 50s in the evening. Perfect!
We rented a car and took day trips from our hotel in Armação de Pêra. These are the places I highly recommend visiting:
Lagos is a large resort town in the Western region of the Algarve. There is plenty to do here so you can really spend a full day exploring. We parked by the water where a nice paved sidewalk runs along the water leading up to the Forgaleza de Ponta de Bandeira (see above).
*Tip: bring along coins so you can use parking machines found in most of the towns in the area.
Take your time exploring some of the vendors set up along the sidewalk and then make your way to the Forgaleza de Ponta de Bandeira. It’s a 17th century fortress which now houses a museum dedicated to the Age of Discoveries. (It’s closed on Mondays, so we didn’t get to visit). Head across the street to the main city square. There are two beautiful churches – Igreja de Santo Antonio and Santa Maria. The city walls date from Roman times and make for great exploring and picture taking.
Stop and have lunch at one of the wonderful restaurants you will find in the square. (Fish soup is served everywhere and is divine). Next, get in the car and head to the Ponta de Piedade and Praia da Dona Ana. Both of these places feature dramatic sandstone cliffs jutting out into the sea. Ponta de Piedade features plenty of space for hiking. There is a lighthouse and an assortment of caves and grottos. The landscape is absolutely stunning and postcard-worthy.
Parque Natural da Ria Formosa
The Parque Natural da Ria Formosa is located in the Eastern region of the Algarve, close to the Faro airport. The park is made up of sand-dunes, lagoons, marshland, saltpans, and freshwater lakes that follow 37 miles of coastline. You can drive to the park headquarters (it will pop up on a GPS) and pay the small entrance fee. You’ll receive a map of the area and be on your way.
*Tip: sightseeing in general around the Algarve is cheap – maybe 2-3 Euros per person at most places – but make sure you have cash available.
The area available for hiking isn’t too extensive so it takes about an hour or two depending on how much time you take to observe and explore. There are a few bird-watching hides – if you want to bird watch I highly suggest bringing binoculars. I’m bummed I didn’t bring mine – there are dozens of species of birds to see and the surrounding scenery is gorgeous. My guide book suggested hiking boots instead and I don’t think these are necessary at all. A good pair of sneakers will do just fine unless it’s been raining extensively.
There is an old mill house you can wander and from the roof you’ll spot a nearby fishing town, Olhão. I suggest heading there for lunch after you’ve seen everything you want at the natural park. It’s a seaside town with an industrial feel as you drive in – very clearly a fishing and shipping town. But, the town square is bustling with places to eat and has an energetic feel. We enjoyed a delicious seafood lunch of clams, squid, and fish served whole on the bone.
Sagres is the most southwesterly town in continental Europe and is literally breathtaking. I suggest starting your day at the Fortaleza de Sagres, an 18th century fort. Much of Henry the Navigator’s original fortress has succumbed to the elements, but what is left makes for an interesting trip. You can walk along the cliff walls and take in the remaining fortress walls. There is also a unique Rosa dos Ventos – a wind compass of some sort although it’s not clear exactly how it functioned in its time.
Sagres is also home to a beautiful natural park, Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, and plenty of other beaches to enjoy. Lastly, I’d suggest visiting Cabo de São Vicente. The views from this windy cape will make you feel as if you’re at the edge of the world. The lighthouse includes a small maritime museum which is worth a visit.
Silves is an inland town with a strong Moorish history. The main attraction is the Castelo – a well-preserved castle dating back to Moorish times, possibly built on Roman fortifications. You can climb and walk the huge red sandstone battlements and enjoy great views of the city. There’s a little cafe, various exhibits, and raptors housed there as well.
If you’re the museum going type I’d suggest the Museu Arqueológico. It’s basically a walk through history with a nice assortment of artifacts from the region. Once you go to the top floor you can go out and get a sweet view from the center of the city. There are perches throughout the city that were home to storks and you can easily see them from this vantage. We saw dozens of storks flying around the city – it was mesmerizing watching so many large birds flocking together.
There are so many other wonderful places to explore in the Algarve – we barely scratched the surface, but we loved every second of our trip. Let me know if you have somewhere to add as a “must-see” in the Algarve!