Guide to the Algarve, Portugal

With ruggedly beautiful beaches, friendly people and enchanting Old World appeal, the Algarve can be a romantic getaway for a couple or a destination for the whole family.

While the unique charms of The Algarve have largely been kept secret from many Americans, this picturesque part of Portugal’s sun-soaked south coast has long been a favorite hideaway of savvy British travelers.

They flock here for its sparkling year-round sunshine, its ruggedly beautiful beaches, friendly people and enchanting Old World appeal. The most famous recent visitors to this southernmost region of Portugal includes British Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince William; while Welsh songbird Bonnie Tyler (“Holding out for a Hero,” “It’s a Heartache”) has owned a flower-festooned villa here for many years.

Algarve vacation rental #1236787
Algarve vacation rental #1236787
But word of the Algarve’s alluring secrets are now beginning to reach America, and it’s rumored that Angelina and Brad have purchased a cliff top villa called Casa do Pinhão.

Blessed with a balmy Mediterranean climate, that gives it brilliant sunshine through its long summers (which run from March until October), yet also keeps it toasty warm all winter long - the Algarve was once an independent kingdom. Today this regal coastline is renowned for its wild physical beauty as well as its two vibrant towns of Albufeira and Vilamoura, with their chic restaurants, bars, open-air discothèques, and clubs.

Roughly the size of Delaware, the Algarve [the name means “the west” in Arabic] is a charming getaway for a romantic couple or a spacious destination with plenty to do for the whole family. For beach and nature lovers, its main attraction will be its long and stunning Atlantic coast, complete with more than 80 beaches, sandy bays and quiet sheltered coves. In fact, with its soaring sea cliffs, the Praia da Marinha has been rated as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world by the CNN Travel Channel. Meanwhile, from local marinas it’s easy to book boat-tours to see the wild Atlantic dolphins which frequent Europe’s cleanest seas.

Great year-round golf & heavenly horseback riding

With its constant sunshine and warm sea breezes blowing in from North Africa all winter, this region of Portugal is also known for its many world-class golf courses, more than 42 at last count. Most feature sweeping views of the nearby mountains or the Atlantic Ocean, which alone would make the Algarve a dream destination for dad. Game fishing is also easy to arrange here, with tuna and blue or white marlin being the main prize catches.

Horseback riding has long been a popular Portuguese pastime, and in the Algarve it’s both low-cost and safe, whether for first-timers on a horse-farm, or for more experienced riders who would enjoy an early morning ascent into the mountains, or an unforgettable sunset gallop along the foamy Atlantic waves.
Golf Tee, Albufeira, Algarve
Golf Tee, Albufeira, Algarve; Photo courtesy of Porto Bay Hotels & Resorts

European charm, but English spoken everywhere

Portugal is genuinely one of Europe’s prettiest countries, and the small towns that dot this scenic coast are filled with traditional whitewashed houses, café-lined plazas, and narrow back roads just begging to be explored.

Though the Algarve – with its exclusive hang-outs and chic boutiques has become popular as a celebrity playground for Europe’s rich and famous, the proud Algarve-born locals take little notice of them and treat all visitors with equal warmth. And they’re happy to tell their guests of the many traditions that make their region unique. One of these is the impossibly cute Portuguese Water Dog, a distinctive canine breed that originated seven centuries ago in the Algarve. Probably the world’s best known of this handsome breed is Bo – President Obama’s family dog.

Because of this region’s enduring popularity with British vacationers, English is widely spoken everywhere. There’s even an English language newspaper, the Algarve News; and in summer English radio stations reveal where the best buffets are served, and what time each evening the sun sets into the Atlantic.

Exploring, shopping

Troço Monchique, Via Algarviana
Troço Monchique, Via Algarviana; Photo courtesy of Joao Alves
With its excellent roads, exploring the Algarve on day-trips can be great fun, whether to take the scenic drive in to the hills to the Saturday market at Loulé, or to check out the swanky marina of Vilamoura with its million dollar yachts. There’s also ancient Roman ruins, enchanting 700 year old churches and a half dozen castles, the most celebrated being the ruined fortress in the lovely old town of Silves. Here and in other towns you’ll also find examples of Portugal’s famous hand-painted pottery and its unique azulejostiles. Other bargains include leatherwear and copper handicrafts.

For travelers who like to keep fit by hiking or biking, the Via Algarviana is a true delight. The 100 mile long nature trail runs from Eastern Algarve through a coastal national park and across several mountain ranges (rich with bird life) to the western end of the Algarve. The whole route would take two weeks, but many people opt for day or weekend hikes. Then, perhaps the surest way to recover from all that alfresco aerobics is to drop into one of the Algarve’s many excellent spas.

Dining & Nightlife

For those unfamiliar with Portuguese cuisine, it’s similar to Spanish food, but with a special emphasis on fresh-caught seafood - thanks to Portugal’s large fishing fleet, which has made the Portuguese the biggest seafood lovers in Europe. Cod, prawns, sardines, and sea bass are national favorites, with char-coal grilling a popular cooking technique. Both lamb and steak are excellent, too. Much of Portugal’s food has been infused with the exotic flavors of its former African and Asian colonies, including the use of chilies, garlic and coconut. The results are dishes that burst with unfamiliar flavors. Dinner is often served with the country’s lovely light summer wine, vino verde. But other Portuguese wines are robust, with high tannin, more pungent than most Californian wines.

Aside from local cuisine, there are many authentic British and Irish pubs, and even German taverns, where the atmosphere is good fun and the prices great value. After dinner, there are funky Euro-style nightclubs and several casinos that stay open late, the best known being Casino Praia da Rocha.

Getting there and getting around

Faro, the capital of the Algarve, can be reached from London’s Gatwick Airport in about three hours. U.S. citizens traveling to Portugal need no visa if they intend to stay less than 90 days.

The most popular way to get around the Algarve is to simply hire a rental car at Faro airport on arrival. All the familiar brands are on hand, including Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz, Thrifty. As in the U.S., driving is on the right-hand side, and Americans visiting Portugal can drive with a valid U.S. driver’s license for up to six months.
The Mad Rush, Albufeira, Algarve
The Mad Rush, Albufeira; Photo courtesy of Fabrizio Sciami

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