A soft climate tempered by the Atlantic, soft sandy beaches, mouth-watering cuisine, exhilarating coastal scenery; it’s no wonder that Portugal’s Algarve is one of Europe’s favourite holiday destinations.
We’ll run our finger over the best things to do in the Algarve, from unwinding on dreamlike beaches to exploring coastal caves, teeing off at some of Europe’s leading golf courses and getting lost in charming old towns.
We’ll also add some heritage to track down, like the Church of São Lourenço, decorated with exquisite blue tiles, or Faro’s monumental Arco da Vila gate.
Lets explore the best things to do in the Algarve:
1. Ponta da Piedade
The headland south of Lagos is nothing short of stunning.
The tortured limestone stacks and cliffs have a reddish tone and are honeycombed with natural arches and caves.
You can take the steps down to the clear water, which is completely protected by the rocks and has an enchanting emerald colour.
To experience it all you can gaze at the view from the headland, which stretches all the way to Cape St Vincent in the west and then head back to Lagos to board a motorboat for a voyage exploring the caves and creeks.
2. Praia da Falésia
Pushing on for almost seven kilometres is a golden sandy beach traced by cliffs streaked with various ochre hues.
The competition is stiff, but this may be the greatest beach in the Algarve and is also one of the longest in Portugal.
Those cliffs have a lot to do with it, as the combination of the pale sand, azure sea and russet red rocks make this a beautiful walking destination in the off season.
There’s a cliff-top path through pine groves and with panoramic views.
Come at sunset when the light is phenomenal.
3. Cape St Vincent
At this cape in Sagres you’ll be standing at the southwesternmost point in Europe.
Beyond geographical significance, it’s also a jaw-dropping setting, with cliffs 75 metres above the ocean and cinematic views of the rocky seascapes to the north and also to the east towards Sagres Point.
A ton of naval battles have been fought in the ocean off the cape, and there’s a lighthouse here, built in 1846 on the foundations of a derelict convent.
There are now a couple of gift shops, as well as a small but worthwhile museum about the cape and its history.
4. Praia da Rocha
Another awesome beach, Praia da Rocha combines the Algarve’s craggy coastal scenery with its pristine sands and rolling surf.
You can get to the foot of the strange rock formations for photos, and if you don’t mind the climb can follow the coast around to discover secret beaches framed by these hulking sculptured rocks.
The main stretch is a vast, low-shelving beach with consistent waves that surfers can ride.
Behind and to the east is the 17th-century Fort of Santa Catarina, designed by the Neapolitan military mastermind Alexandre Massai.
5. Church of São Lourenço
In Loulé there’s a Baroque church from the 18th century that you owe it to yourself to see.
If the whitewashed exterior is unassuming, the inside will just blow you away.
The walls and ceiling are completely clad with fabulous blue azulejos (traditional tin-glazed ceramic tiles) dating to the 1730s.
They are so extensive that the church is often called Igreja de Louça (Church of China). The tiles were crafted by Policarpo de Oliveira Bernardes, recognised as one of the masters of the art and depict scenes from the life of St Lawrence.
6. Algar Seco
Another spot to admire the Algarve’s gnarled red rock formations can be found in Carvoeiro, a little way east of the resort’s centre.
The ocean has eroded out the cliffs here to form little hollows, caves and small rocky outcrops.
There’s a boardwalk at the top of the cliff presenting you with some great photo opportunities of the grottoes being buffeted by the ocean.
More intrepid visitors can negotiate the steps that have been etched into the rock to get down for a better view of the caves.
7. Tavira Island
This is a long, narrow barrier island a few hundred metres off the city of Tavira.
You can get there by boat, which leaves from the city’s marina and nearby Quatro Águas, or cross the bridge at Santa Luzia and catch a tourist train that runs in the summer.
You’ll know why you made the crossing as soon as you arrive; the Blue Flag beaches on Tavira Island are out of this world, even by the high standards of the Algarve.
They go on for 11 kilometres and have a wide strip of soft white sand bordered by dunes.
8. Dolphin Watching
At all of the main marinas along the Algarve you’ll see ocean boat trips advertised.
There’s deep sea fishing for instance, but the experience you’ll really treasure is dolphin spotting.
There are large numbers of common and bottlenose dolphins in the ocean off the Algarve, so you’re almost guaranteed to have a successful expedition.
This is also made easier by the creatures’ inquisitive nature, and before you know it pods of up to 50 will be keeping you company.
The best companies bring a marine biologist along to give you added insights about the dolphins habits and physiology.
9. Lagos Old Town
The historic centre of Lagos is a joy to roam through.
It is encircled by large chunks of its old walls, which were updated in the 1500s on top of much older Moorish defences.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries Lagos was the capital of the Algarve, and you’ll be aware of its status at the town’s museum, which has hundreds of years or artefacts including coins dating to the 4th century.
You can devote the rest of your time to just ambling around the narrow cobblestone streets, happening upon historic buildings like the 15th-century slave market (Lagos was once the centre of Europe’s slave trade) and the Baroque Church of Santo António, which is also festooned with blue azulejos.
10. Arco da Vila
In 1812 one of Faro’s Moorish waterfront gateways was given a Neoclassical update.
It was commissioned by Francisco Gomes de Avelar the Bishop of Faro and drawn up by the Italian architect Francisco Xavier Fabri.
There’s a belfry (crowned with a stork’s nest), clock, balustrade and in an alcove above the portal is a statue of Thomas Aquinas hewn from marble.
And as you walk through the portal you’ll still be able to see traces of the original Moorish stonework.
It’s quite a thrill to know that you’re treading the same path as hundreds of years-worth of visitors to the city.
11. Forte de Nossa Senhora da Rocha
Capping a promontory near Lagoa is a fortified enclosure that dates back to before the arrival of the Moors in the 8th century.
There isn’t much evidence of the fortress as it was pulled down in the 19th century, but you will find an old hermitage with a terracotta tile roof.
The whitewashed walls and cliff-top position create an almost ethereal scene.
You can peek through the gates of the chapel or bask in the majestic ocean vistas and look down at the neighbouring Praia Nova and Praia da Senhora da Rocha beaches.
So far nearly everything has been on the coast, but the Algarve has an extensive inland region.
This is most picturesque around the Serra de Monchique, a mountain range acting as a buffer between the Algarve and Alentejo to the north.
This includes the Pico da Foia, which at just over 900 metres is the tallest mountain in southern Portugal.
Outside the summer Monchique is the best place in the region for walks, in cool hills coated with strawberry trees.
One hillside above the town has the remnants of a 17th century convent, while the centre of Monchique is also a joy for its cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses with colourful window and doorframes.
Up to the 1960s the game of golf was practically unheard of on the Algarve.
Fast forward 50 years and it’s a very different story.
This is up there with the best golfing destinations in Europe.
Considering the size of the region, the choice is unbelievable: There are 42 courses at 35 different clubs, so it’s fair to say that wherever you are in the Algarve you’ll never have to travel far for a round.
A few of the best to keep in mind are Oceanico in Vilamoura, Palmares near Lagos, Quinta da Ria and the pair of innovatively designed courses at Quinta do Lago.
These are always obligatory if you’re holidaying with children, and fortunately the Algarve has a few waterparks competing with the best in Europe.
Side & Splash in Estômbar is the largest in Portugal, and one of the largest on the continent, with 16 slides and pools and almost two hectares of open grassy areas for sunbathing.
Aquashow Park in Quarteira is maybe for older children as some of the slides are not for the faint-hearted, like FreeFall, the highest slide in Europe at 32 metres.
Zoomarine Algarve meanwhile has an animal park with live shows together with its new “Beach” area with a wave pool, fine white sand and waterslides.
15. Algarve Food and Drink
On the Atlantic it will come as no surprise that the fish and seafood is divine in the Algarve, whether it’s crab, oysters, squid or a shellfish medley in rice dishes.
But the fish that shows up the most is the humble sardine, which is just right grilled and served with salad and a white wine.
Chicken piri-piri is another star; it’s barbecued chicken marinated in a sauce made with the piri-piri chilli, which was first imported by Portugal from its former colony in Mozambique.
For an authentic accompaniment to your morning coffee you can grab a pastel de nata at a bakery.
This is a tasty custard tart flavoured with almonds.