My Algarve Insider Tips

Ten Reasons You Must Visit The Algarve

I’m always talking about the Algarve as a great travel experience everyone must have. Having traveled the world, it is the place that keeps calling me back. I especially love off-the-beaten track Algarve where I regularly get to experience a way of life and a landscape that is fast disappearing from our urbanized existence. It isn’t that I have anything against the golf, night clubs and shopping that most people associate with the Algarve. It is that I know it offers so very much more.

A few weeks ago I began to pay attention to what I highlight when I’m describing the Algarve to people. Here’s a summary of the top 10 reasons for visiting the Algarve that I repeatedly offer to folks who are looking for a great place to spend some quality time! You could also say that these are my tips for tourists visiting the Algarve.

10.  Variety/sq kilometre: landscape, architecture, food, culture, people

Vila Real’s grid plan central square was the design benchmark back in the 1760’s when it was re-built after the earthquake & tsunami

Wait til you taste the chourico stuffed rolls that come out of this wood fired oven in Caldas de Monchique

Each area of the Algarve offers different landscapes, different types of beaches, different activities, food specialties and cultural distinction. In the east, beaches are broader and backed by sand dunes, whereas as you move west you experience more small bays & coves backed by cliffs and grottos carved into the sandstone. And then there are the rugged, wild stretches along the west coast that have a completely different look and feel than their cousins along the south coast, whether east or west.

Move inland to the mountainous Monchique area and you are in rugged hill country where chouriço sausage and presento hams as well as the fiery local medronho brandy are food specialties, compared to the seafood and wine of the coastal areas. In a wet year you’ll find waterfalls pouring down hillsides and small streams that become rushing torrents. Cork forests are still very common back in the hill country, all across the region. Terraced farms are another interesting feature of the hills and contrast nicely with the open, gently rolling pastures of the coastal plains.

Tools traditional used in baking on display at Alcoutim’s Easter Sweets Fair

In eastern Algarve the Moorish chimneys are much more frequently topped with cockerels and wind vanes than you’ll find further west. You’ll also discover the river culture of Alcoutim and see how Vila Real de Santo Antonio adapts to living right next door to Spain. You’ll also find that the flatness, grid layout of Vila Real and its style of architecture is very distinct from other Algarvean towns.

Get out an explore the secondary roads to discover the diversity of this tiny region.

 

 9.     Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine

 

Watching sunshine sparkle on waves can take hours

In bright sunshine, colours pop, patterns emerge, people feel great

Grab a cuppa joe in one of the many cafes that dot the landscape

Sun sparkles on yet another gorgeous beach

 

The Algarve boasts 300+ days of sunshine each year. Even in the rainy season it is not unusual for the sun to shine much of the day with rain concentrated into a 2-3 hour period.

8.     Churches, castles, forts & monuments: 3,000+ years of history

 

One of the region’s more impressive standing stones

Remnants of a 3rd C Roman bath house near Estoi

Walk the ramparts at Silves Castle

Neolithic people settled in the Algarve way back in pre-history and you can still see evidence of their presence at various ‘megalithicos’ sprinkled around the region. Long before the Romans, the Phoenicians and even the Greeks visited the Algarve, leaving historical evidence.

While not extensive, there are some lovely Roman ruins around the region, especially at Milreu, near Estoi, just north of Faro.

Evidence of various Moorish invasions, the Knights Templar and other medieval visitors are everywhere. While local museums are pretty modest, the array of churches and fortifications is tremendous. You can even seek out a couple of chapels made out of human skeletons.

 7.   Activities:  swim, surf, hike, bike, ramble, fish, boat, run, birdwatch, kayak, bowl

Think of an outdoor activity and you can easily find it in the Algarve (as long as it doesn’t involve snow, of course!)  There are all kinds of tour operators catering to various skill levels and it is easy to rent the equipment you’ll need.

Many cafes offer great live entertainment. The quality of musicianship is high

Fishing Rio Formosa’s inland waterways

Bird watching is gratifying and often doesn’t require any equipment

 

Cycle along a beach at low tide

Visit one of the art shows that are held regularly

Stroll one of the many boardwalks and promenades

6.   Stunning Vistas: almond blossoms, fields of wild herbs, cliff views

Almond trees in bloom sparkle in the morning sun

Wild thyme coming into blossom

The cliffs at Cape St. Vincent are magnificent

Imagine looking out across a small valley near your hotel or villa and seeing the land white with almond blossoms. Head into the hills or out onto a headland in the western region in February or March and watch fields of wild thyme, lavender or fennel come into bloom, breathing in their heady aromas.

Stand atop a 200’ cliff that drops straight into the surging Atlantic and try to see Africa or America over the horizon. Imagine for a moment when you’re out at Cape St. Vincent that virtually all of the great discoverers sailed past this headland on their way to Africa, the Americas or the Orient – Columbus, Dias, Magellan, da Gama – you could have stood there and watched their tiny vessels plough through the seas on their way to explore the world.

Or drive into the spring hills and discover fields of poppies and wildflowers just waiting for you to snap some great photos. Look back towards the coast and don’t be surprised if you see the ocean glittering in the sun. The vistas in the Algarve are everywhere and are glorious. Drive slowly so that you can enjoy them!

 5.   Shopping:  fashions, leather, pottery, cork, linens, Port, wine, olive oil

 The Algarve boasts several large, modern shopping malls that are filled with shops carrying fashion forward clothing, shoes, lingerie and accessories.

 

An open air shopping mall is a delight to those who come from cold, raining and snowy climates

A fraction of the Aguardente available at Vitel’s Tavira gourmet shop

Pottery is one of the Algarve’s classic offerings

 

 

 

 

 

Towns like Loulé, Olhão, Tavira and Lagos also offer great shopping for fashions as well as leather goods, pottery, cork and linens.

Vila Real de Santo Antonio, across the river from Spain, specializes in shops selling linens and kitchenware.

Foodies will love the Appolonia food stores and Vitel in Tavira for their great selection of food products, wine, Port and local brandies, as well as sea salt, flor de sel and other regional condiments. Heck, for North Americans, just heading to the local supermarket is a treat with its aisles of wine and beer, its incredibly fresh fish section and the bread and local cheese section.

 4.   Food & Wine: great food, fantastic wine, fabulous service, good prices

 I’ve traveled extensively around the world and have never visited a place that has such a wide selection of restaurants and cafes. My Algarve Dining guide reviews Portuguese restaurants around the region but there is much, much more to choose from. Many international cuisine spots exist offering great Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, Thai and French fine dining.

Cataplana is a regional specialty you must discover

Restaurants in all price ranges abound. Service is amazingly good and friendly. Prices very reasonable.

Exploring Portugual’s rich culinary tradition is worth a trip to the Algarve

In general, service standards are high, staff is friendly and prices are reasonable, especially given the quality of food served. Wine is ridiculously low in price as is Port and local brandies. Whisky and cognac tend to be relatively pricey but gin is made locally so is also a good value.

I’m such a fan of Portuguese food that I’ve written a restaurant review guide for the area. You can purchase a copy locally or on Amazon.com – or get a free e-book version by sending me an e-mail.

 

3.   Safety: safe streets, safe food, safe water, safe beaches, safe people

Virtually every town has its own mercado ladened with the freshest of fruits and veg

Violent crime is rare in the Algarve, although sadly things are changing. It is, however, still a very safe place to vacation.  Unless you head for the bar strips late at night your chance of running into anyone with nefarious objectives is minimal.

If you drive up to Foia, the highest point in the region, you’ll pass a natural spring. Stop for a sip. This sign welcomes you “Water is life. This site a charming treat – with affection and love”

Food is as safe as you’d expect at home: no need to peel & cook fresh fruit and veggies before eating. Water can be drunk from the tap, although it doesn’t taste very good so most people buy bottled water which can be purchased for next to nothing. There are also numerous springs around the region and you’ll see locals stopping to fill up their plastic bottles. I’ve frequently stopped and topped up my supply and have been surprised that I can actually notice a difference in the taste and texture of different spring sources.

Beaches are incredibly clean and safe. Peddlers aren’t allowed so you don’t have to worry about being harassed to buy cheap jewelry, towels, blankets or other crap!

 2.   Beaches: large ones, small ones, surfing ones, sunbathing ones

Parque Rio Formosa with its barrier islands offer many stretches of quiet, gentle beaches

I thought I’d get blown away this stormy but exhilarating day along the west coast as the seas thundered ashore

The sands of Algarve’s eastern beaches can be deep, but are oh so beautiful

Next to sunshine, the Algarve is perhaps best known for its beaches. You’ll find one after another all along the Algarve’s southern and western coast; some go on for many kilometers, many are quite small coves. Some offer gentle waves lapping the sand except for the occasional stormy period. Others are filled with thundering surf almost all the time. I’ve seen seas along the west coast that are so wild that spume from the waves blast up over 100’ cliffs.

Except for the summer months there’s a good chance that you’ll have the beach pretty much to yourself, regardless of where you are.

1.  People: warm, friendly, inviting, colourful & English speaking

And despite all these many attractions that the Algarve has to offer, the one that keeps me heading back are the people. Native Algarveans are modest folks who still seem to enjoy interacting with tourists. You’ll find Algarveans polite, quietly friendly and helpful. Family business is common so you’ll find husbands, wives, kids, cousins and uncles and aunts involved in many enterprises.

This dapper young dude is ready for Sao Bras de Alportel’s colourful Easter parade

Sharing a laugh with an Olhao shop keeper who liked my buns!!

And so many Europeans have made the Algarve home you can count on meeting and mixing it up with a wide array of Brits, Germans, Dutch folks, Scandinavians and Frenchmen.

Children are treasured in the Algarve and are well received wherever they go.

Vendors at the markets are almost always quietly friendly

English is amazingly widely spoken and Algarveans love it when you take the time to learn a few phrases of Portuguese. Hello (informal – ola, formal – bom dia) goodbye (adeus) and thank you (obrigado for men, obrigada for women) in Portuguese can take you a long way.

Give yourself the gift of a visit to the Algarve. It’s as easy to have a camping or hostelling experience as it is to luxuriate at one of the many five-star resorts. Indeed, the incredible variety is one of the charms this region offers, as I’ve already mentioned.

You may be surprised at how often you are drawn back to the Algarve once you’ve had a chance to experience all that it offers!

 

Algarve Spring’s Gentle Unfolding

Unlike Algarveans, we Canadians don’t have a lot of experience of true Spring! We know all about snow and cold one week that changes to warm summer temperatures just a couple of weeks later. We aren’t accustomed to landscapes that lie unfrozen, yet fallow, for several months and then which slowly, ever so slowly, begin to come alive again. For us Canucks, ground is either frozen or is bursting with life. There isn’t a whole in between those two states!

I realized as January unfolded into February that the land wasn’t really changing all that much, although almond trees brightened the countryside and magnificent storks began to take up residence on chimneys, church steeples and the many platforms erected for them. But as the sun got stronger, the nights grew warmer and the days lengthened the land began to soften and to change. Wildflowers started to brighten the roadsides with pinks and yellows. Farmers began to till the land and plant seeds. Field started to sprout recycled 5L water bottles, upturned to make effective little greenhouses for tender vegetable seedlings.

And then one day as I drove slowly down a back road near Silves, windows down to appreciate the lively birdsong and soft breezes I was hit by the sweet, pungent aroma of orange blossoms. How heady is that scent; so indicative that spring has fully arrived, finally. Almond blossoms spent, small trees lining roadways were now sporting fuzzy, soft green fruit that would turn into almonds. I hadn’t really realized before this spring that when the Portuguese talk about ‘dried fruit’ they really are referring to nuts produced on fruit trees.

Next I became aware of tiny little figs beginning to develop, almost before leaves were fully opened. Patches of gorgeous Easter lilies adorned entrances of farmhouses, as did daisies, jasmine, and irises. And finally wild herbs began to bloom: sage that had run wild, thyme, lavender and wild fennel all began to add their fragrance and bright colours to the countryside.

Before I finally left for home near the end of April, I realized that this was the first time in my life that I’d been somewhere to experience a proper Spring. It was delightful to be present to this unfolding of life. You could almost feel the earth begin to uncurl, to rub winter’s sleep from its eyes, take a cautious look around and finally to sigh with renewed vigour before finally sitting up and announcing that a new year was fully underway. I can’t wait to have that experience again!

Hiking Rocha da Pena

The walking path is clear even through rocky terrain

The Rocha da Pena is a fine outcropping of rock outside the village of Pena in the Algarve, perfect for the serious hiker and some serious hiking.  The smaller settlement of Rocha lies at the foot of the rock, and is the recommended starting point of the trail.  The trail is a circular one of about 7 kms.  It climbs up one side of the hill, takes you across the top and then down the far side to Penina (“little” Pena), before bringing you on the road back to Rocha.  I thought I’d walk for about an hour or so and see what progress I was making, and if slim, retrace my route.  But I had all morning ahead of me.

So off I set.  Unless you are pretty fit, this is an exhausting climb!  It’s 2 kms to the top and it took me about an hour.  But I didn’t get to where I thought I was going!  I had reached instead the North Belvedere.  The view was spectacular, across the valleys and hills to the north.  But over the edge was the unmistakable “X” indicating “not this way.”

Route markings are clear but can be missed if you're looking down!

The signage in general is pretty good, but not always.  I retraced my path looking for the turning I had missed.  I found it, but not before seriously considering forgetting the rest of the trip.  The path almost doubles back on itself, and you have to look around the clearing at the top of the main climb to find it.

The views are stunning & the cliff drops can be dangerous

But once found, you are on a wonderful path across the top of the Rocha.  Far from easy to follow for the first part, though it is comforting to see the markers.  You spend a lot of time watching your feet to avoid the many embedded rocks and stones.  The path is narrow and winding through scrub, with some small climbs and drops, but then you emerge on the top of the cliff, looking out south over the parking lot where you have left your car, and beyond to the Atlantic.  To your right you will see the Iron age defensive stone wall, and in front, across the saddle you will clearly see the wider path you will shortly be following.  Kind of neat.  You have struggled and probably sweated to get here, and there’s the clear path ahead.  Not a soul around (nor another human being) and you are on top of the world!

One still has to watch one’s feet, but there is little doubt which way to go.  It took another hour or so following my feet, including a side trip to the very top, to return down to Penina.  The way I went, anti-clockwise, is probably the best way to go, since the down slope is steeper than the way up: going down is always easier than going up!

The village of Penina from Rocha de Pena

It took me about 3 hours to complete the circuit, at a leisurely pace.  There is a lot to look at as you climb if you are interested in flora, fauna and rocks.  The more you look the longer it will take you.  I didn’t see much: watching one’s feet means that all you see is the ground.

Ahh, but the pleasure of a cappuccino in the cafe in Rocha when you get there.  But if you want to discuss the weather or politics with the cafe owner, your Portuguese had better be pretty good, since the owner speaks no English!

This guest post was provided by Colin Griffiths, a fellow Canadian. Colin is a Brit, living in Ontario, who recently enjoyed a month’s holiday in the Algarve, walking here and there, drinking the wonderful local wines and eating their super cheeses, and revelling in the early spring bird watching.

Dancing Flamingoes

Finally. On my most recent Algarve trip the flamingoes near Castro Marim and Vila Real de San Antonio came out to play! These large, exotic birds are a regular feature of the far eastern reaches of the Algarve. And yet, for me, they had remained elusive until this trip. They provide easy birdwatching for those of us whose primary purpose is shopping!

As an additional thing to do in the Algarve, I decided to break with routine and instead of shopping at the Loulé Market one Saturday morning, I headed east to check out the action in Vila Real. And what a treat that turned out to be. As I drove along the highway between the A22 and Vila Real, I spotted a small flock of flamingoes on the tidal flats. I got some nice pictures and then headed into town one very happy camper.

Algarve Basket Maker

Imagine my surprise when it turned out that Vila Real on a Saturday morning has quite a bustling, vibrant place. There’s a craft market in the central square filled with vendors offering hand made baskets, jewelery, linens, baked goods, honey, cork products and other goodies. Someone drove down from the Alentejo with a truck full of chouriço, presunto, cheese and olive oil. This added quite a festival air to the many shops with their linens and kitchen items spilling onto the sidewalks. I had heard that many Spanish folks came over for some serious cross-border shopping, and sure enough the sound of Spanish was heard everywhere. My fancy was also tickled as I watched folks rest on one of the many benches of the town square under a canopy of ripening oranges. For a Canadian, citrus fruit always seems like a marvel. And to think of resting in the shade of an orange tree seems downright magical!

Taking a Break Under a Loaded Orange Tree

There were also a couple of chestnut roasters offering this delightful winter treat at various corners. And a guy selling parakeets had a huge cage of pastel blue & green birdies singing up a storm. The kids were absolutely enthralled with his display. He even had a large green parrot that many adults seemed to get a kick out of trying to feed without losing part of their fingers to his thick, curved beak.

Down by the waterfront there was lots of action. A couple of groups of young sailors were racing down the river using the full force of a stiff breeze to try out their new techniques. And for the first time in several visits I saw a number of people working on their yachts and sailboats, perhaps getting them ready for the cooler weather of the winter rainy season.

After several hours of wandering about, savouring the sense of life this usually sleepy town has on a Saturday morning I decided it was time to head home. Imagine my surprise to discover that my flock of flamingoes was still there in the shallow tidal waters. This time I got a bit of video footage and became aware of their dance. They shuffle and skip lightly on their feet in the shallow water, stirring up the rich mud so that they can filter out the minute sea creatures that are their diet. Whatever they were eating, it wasn’t shrimp because these flamingoes were white, not pink, the colour of their features derived from the colouring of their food.

All in all a great Saturday morning. And while I missed the sea of vegetables, fish and other produce on offer in Loulé, I’ll definitely head back to Vila Real de San Antonio when I need a break from routine on my frequent Algarve trips.