Algarve – Without a Car

Bikes may not be public transport but they make a pretty picture!

I’ve had a number of enquiries from folks planning to visit the Algarve without a car. Where can I go?  What sightseeing can I do without a car? How easy is it to get around, they ask.  It is pretty darned easy, actually, as bus and train service is widely available.  Now remember always when you are using public transportation you have to allow lots of extra time.  Keep in mind that the except for the narrow strip along the coast, the Algarve is amazingly sparsely populated so don’t expect big city schedules and convenience.  But if you are willing to invest a little time and effort into planning and scheduling your outings, you can a lot of the Algarve and its many treasures without a car.  And it won’t break the bank either!

Bus

The good news is that local bus service is pretty decent so you can see a lot.  Eva is the Algarve bus company.  Alas, their website is all in Portuguese but there are enough pictures, etc. that you should be able to find your way around.  If you go to  you’ll see a page that shows all the towns across the Algarve you can visit using their Tourist Pass.  Eva’s buses run from Quarteira in the east to Lagos in the west, with branches off to Loule, Silves and Monchique.  The Tourist Pass is an ‘all you can eat’ over a 3-day period.  I’d recommend that you take some time to plan out your itinerary and then commit yourself to 3 days of intense sightseeing to make best use of your pass.  Locations where you can buy the pass and pick up the bus are also listed.

Check out other tabs on Eva’s very informative site.  They appear to have a tour bus run that takes you out to Cape St. Vincent.  And if you are interested in the commuter buses that follow the coast from town to town, there are bus route maps, timetables, etc.

Train

There is a commuter train that runs from the Spanish border (Villa Real de San Antonio) all the way west to Lagos.  Faro is the hub of this rail line and you’ll apparently have to change trains there if you want to visit towns further east or west.  CP is the train company.  The good news is that it has an English website   The less good news is that their information doesn’t seem to be well laid out.

Tourist Train

Finally, if you decide to stay in Albufeira or make a day trip of it, the city offers a small tourist train that meanders around various sites and lets you get on an off for a set fee.  Pick up a brochure and map at the local tourist information office or most hotels.

It always takes more time to travel around when you are using public transportation.  Make sure you allow for it.  The nice thing about hanging around waiting for a bus or train is that it is a great opportunity for people watching, for having another spectacular Portuguese coffee or glass of vinho and for just sitting quietly reconnecting with yourself.  So even if you opt for an Algarve visit with a car, you are not stuck to one village or town.  Probably 75% of the sights and activities that car drivers can access you’ll be able to get to as well.

How do I find places?

While places in the Algarve frequently have street addresses, forget simply using a map and street coordinates to locate them!  I also don’t think you need to spend mucho dinero on the GPS units car rental agencies are happy to provide.

By and large you’ll find that using landmarks is a much more efficient way to find places than is a map.  It is also a lot more fun than working with a GPS.  But is does mean that those of you who aren’t terrifically visually astute are going to have to hone your skills.  But for those of us who are very visually oriented, locating stores, restaurants, homes and public buildings can be a lot of fun because of what you’ll discover en route.

An 'obvious' Algarve street market - very atypically large & easily seen

And here’s the reason.  Streets and roads are not signposted the way we’re used to.  For one thing, what signs exist are located down low to the ground, not high up on little metal posts.  For another, street names are often painted on or carved into stone or cement markers which can’t be seen in low light situations.  So it is easier to pay attention to landmarks.

Those of you who use my Gwen’s Guide to Dining Well in the Algarve will find that I use this landmark system to lead you to the restaurants I review.  The tour guides at hotels and even directions given by car rental companies all also use this process.

Let me give you an example.  Let’s say you are trying to make your way to the wonderful Saturday morning market (mercado) at Loulé.  Here’s how I’d direct you in:

Take the N125 to the traffic circle marked “Loule/A22” or take the A22 to the Loule West exit.  Travel North until you enter the town of Loule.  At the Cyclists traffic circle, exit right and proceed along to the stop light.  Turn left and you’ll immediately see cars parked up on the curb. After 2-3 blocks you’ll see the Market Building and farmers stalls on your left.  At the main Loule traffic circle with the fountain, you can take any of the exits and find parking spots. Arrive early, tho because parking is at a premium.

Or let’s say you are looking for the Modelo Shopping Centre in Albufeira.  Here’s how I’d direct you, assuming that you were coming from the East.

Take the N125 into Albufeira, always heading West at the Globe and Worms Traffic Circles.  When you get to the Swatches circle, go 3/4 round (or 270˚) and exit onto a service road.  Go 1 block West, get in the left turning lane.  As you turn left, turn right immediately into the Modelo parking lot.

It isn’t difficult to find places, but you have to be open to doing things differently than you’re accustomed to.  And you have to be awake and alert as you travel.

On the up-side, the Portuguese aren’t as up-tight as we are about arriving on time.  So if you get lost, don’t worry about it.  Actually, if you get lost, have fun with it.  Some of my best discoveries in travel, especially in Portugal come from the times that I got lost and proceeded down a road I’d never traveled before.  And then there is the luxury of going around in circles in a traffic circle while you make up your mind which exit to take.  When you are stuck at a 4-way stop and the guy behind you is honking, you have to make anxiety provoking split second decisions.  The beauty of round-abouts or traffic circles is that you can take your time deciding and you are slowing no one else down!

And let me know if you have special ways to find places in the Alarve!