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!