Here are some of my favourite things to do when I’m in the Algarve. You’ll notice that they mostly involve wandering around, poking into corners and generally soaking up the wonderful tranquility and ambience that’s available once you get a few feet away from the tourist strips. There’s a map of the Algarve region at the end of this post so that you can get an idea of where these spots are.
1) Visit Caldas de Monchique
This revitalized Victorian spa village is an absolute delight. Yes, you can book spa treatments or have lunch but you can also simply park your car and explore this tiny valley on foot. Take a break from the crowds and heat as you wander along streams, under massive trees and amongst wonderful flower beds. A tiny oasis half-way up the mountain to Monchique has become a must on my trips. And if you go in the morning you might get to see the giant outdoor wood oven baking the famous Chouriço in Bread that you can buy at the coffee shop.
2) Wander around Alte
I resisted a visit to Alte for a long time, certain that it’s claim to fame as ‘the prettiest village in the Algarve’ meant it was just a tourist trap. Not so, although parking can be tough. Get out and explore, ramble around this pretty little place.
Make sure you have your camera handy and good shoes on your feet for all the cobblestones and laneways running off at steep pitches. Alte isn’t so much about things to do as it is one of those places that is just fun to ‘be’. Take your time, enjoy the slow pace, meander, get lost, take time for a prolonged coffee. Rediscover the joys of time well wasted!
3) Watch the sun set at the end of the world
Cape St. Vincent is the most southwesterly piece of land in Europe and offers dramatic cliffs, spectacular views and vast open headlands ready for exploration.
Considered ‘the end of the world’ by the ancients it makes for a great visit anytime. But if you go at sunset you’ll be treated to a special, mystical experience. Even on a dull day where the actual sunset is minimal, don’t be surprised if the afterglow is spectacular.
The Cape may be isolated for sure, but is well worth the trip out and the return trip in the dark.
4) Visit Loulé Market on Saturday morning
Foodies will fall in love with the Loule farmer’s market which is held every Saturday morning. The market building is open all week long, but each Saturday local farmers head to town and offer their wares in the streets and alleys that surround the Mercado building.
Flowers, bedding plants, fruits, vegetables, herbs, homemade cakes, eggs, cheeses, chourico, presunto, bacalhau are all on offer by friendly locals. Get there early while parking is a possibility and before the tour buses arrive around 10ish.
Down the street from the Farmer’s Market in the Historic District you’ll also find a craft/art/antiques market that sets up around 11ish each week. Check the town’s website for a listing of what’s on offer because there is a different focus every week.
You can also walk to the Gypsy market near the ‘Flying Saucer Church’ but I’m not a big fan of it. The Farmer’s Market has captured my heart and imagination. Beyond a tradition on my trips to the Algarve, it has become a ritual, possibly even a fetish!!
5) Watch the fishing boats be hauled up on Armaçao de Pera beach
Most days around 11 am the local fishermen arrive back in town and the tractors get busy hauling them across the sand to rest well above the high tide mark. It is fun to just hang around and watch this tradition. Once the fishermen begin sorting their catch you might be lucky enough to buy a fish or two for dinner. The beach at Armacao de Pera is a beautiful, long arc of sand that offers great beach walking too.
6) Walk the waterfront and alleyways of Olhão
Just east of Faro, Olhão is one of the last towns in the Algarve with an active commercial fishery. You can drive past the commercial port and see the big draggers and trawlers tied up at the dock and then proceed down to the waterfront which offers a lovely boardwalk lined with palm trees.
Right in the centre of the promenade are two market buildings that are bustling every day except Sunday. One houses fruits/veggies/meats. The other is dedicated to fish. If you cross the street at the market building and head inland you’ll find a series of wonderfully mysterious narrow alleys and traffic free streets. It is so much fun to just wander around, mouth hanging open at the sights, listening to the cathedral bells chime and taking in the gentle bustle of a working Portuguese town.
There are still a few older widowed women who dress traditionally in black as they go about their daily business. Sometimes when you catch a glimpse of them turning into one of the many tiny alleyways it is as if a ghost from the past has drifted into today. In spring you’ll be delighted by watching the storks that nest on the cathedral roof. Yet another to grab a coffee at one of the many sidewalk cafes and simply enjoy the pleasure of relaxing as the world goes about its business.
7) Watch clamming in Tavira and the lagoons of Cabanas
The Rio de Formosa stretches all the way from Faro past Tavira. This is a complex series of low barrier islands, lagoons and waterways that give the Eastern Algarve a very different look and feel than the Western part of the region.
Just east of gorgeous Tavira is the small community of Cabanas. As you drive in you might be dismayed by the layers of tourist accommodation you go through. But head down to the waterfront and you’ll discover a fabulous boardwalk that stretches for a couple of kilometers inside one of the barrier islands. When the tide is out you’ll find local fishermen engaged in the backbreaking work of harvesting clams and other shellfish from the mud flats.
I marvel at how hard these folks are willing to work for what appears to be very small returns. I assume that their catch is for personal consumption because I know that clam farming is big business in the region and that most of the clams you’ll eat in restaurants comes from the commercial sources.
8) Explore the Vila Real waterfront and take a ferry to Spain
Vila Real de San Antonio sits right on the tidal river that separates Spain and Portugal. Totally re-built after the infamous 1755 earthquake, it has a fun waterfront to wander along, plus a nice square to explore and tons of shops selling linens, bedding and other household goods. I usually eat on the Portuguese side of the river. Prices are significantly less expensive than in Spain and you get a lovely mix of traditional Portuguese fare as well as Spanish tapas.
While the ferry isn’t free, at about €1.50 for a one-way trip, it is a fun way to spend a bit of time and to get to experience a touch of Spain while you’re at it. You can drive across the bridge, but I always park my car (for free) near the ferry terminal and enjoy viewing the two very different towns from the water.
Remember that Spain is in a different time zone, 1 hr ahead of Portugal.
9) Walk the Central Algarve beaches at low tide
There are so many great beaches throughout the Algarve that you can easily find one to walk at any time of day. But just east of Albufeira are a series of small beaches that have interesting cliffs and many rock formations that only become accessible at low tide.
If you park in the lot at Maria Luisa Beach, you can walk from there over to Olhos D’Agua beach and have a fun time dodging outcroppings, looking for interesting shells and exploring the many natural grottos that have been created by the tides. You’ll probably have time to head over to Falesia Beach as well but you can also head into Olhos D’Agua, treat yourself to a coffee and then walk back to Maria Luisa through the village.
10) Walk the cork forest trails near Sao Bras de Alportel
While the tourism brochures don’t give Sao Bras high praise as a destination, I’ve come to enjoy its low-key presence. And not far away from town you’ll discover a whole network of easy-to-difficult walking trails that wander through the cork forests.
Take a picnic lunch and enjoy some time away from the water discovering the wooded charms of the region. You’ll be guaranteed a memory that not many other tourists will leave with.