Lagos is a busy coastal town in the Algarve that has all the things people love about the region. There are beaches of all descriptions, from long sandy bays to tiny coves walled by ochre-coloured cliffs. These rocks create a breathtaking scene at Ponta da Piedade, where the bluffs and obelisks are riddled with caves and arches and the sea is a clear emerald colour.
Back in the centre of Lagos the old town is an exploring heaven, with Portuguese pavement in lovely patterns on its streets and sights that transport you to the Age of Discovery when explorers set sail from the port.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Lagos:
1. Ponta da Piedade
A Portuguese natural wonder awaits on a headland a few minutes south of the old centre of Lagos.
The Ponta da Piedade has cliffs, outcrops and stacks of red and yellow limestone rising to 20 metres, with gnarled walls and shimmering transparent water below.
If you come on a boat or kayak tour from the marina in Lagos you’ll get to pass under natural arches and enter caves.
But on foot is almost as memorable as you’ll descend a staircase cut from the cliff face, while at the top the view from this headland goes as far as the Cape St Vincent in the west.
2. Praia do Camilo
Not a typical day at the beach, Praia do Camilo next to Ponta da Piedade is a fabulous cove at the foot of ochre-tinged cliffs.
It’s an adventure just to get there as you have to descend some 200 steps on a safe wooden stairway etched into the rock.
Before heading down, be sure to pause and take in the azure ocean golden sands and the captivating red and yellow hues of the rocks.
The water is as calm as it gets, and you can swim round or walk through a natural tunnel to a neighbouring cove.
And when the tide goes out you can walk out to the caves in the bay.
3. Meia Praia
Starting on the left bank of the Bensafrim is a beach that could hardly be more different to the rocky coves on the other side of Lagos.
Meia Praia is immense, curling gently around the bay for six kilometres to the Alvor Lagoon.
There’s a wide arc of luxurious sand that because of its sheer size never feels over-crowded.
This is edged by dunes and shelves gently to the water.
The currents are a little stronger, and the water is a bit cooler than in the coves, but is still fine for children.
4. Old Lagos
The historic core of largos has whitewashed houses on a warren of patterned streets still partially contained by its 16th-century walls.
These are best seen on the Jardim da Constituição by the water, protecting the seat of the Governors of the Algarve province when Lagos was capital between 1576 and 1756. Close by there’s a monument to a grim period of the city’s history; the Mercado de Escravos was Lagos’ slave market for about 250 years from 1444, and is a reminder that the Age of Discovery had a human cost.
One hero from that period was Henry the Navigator, whose expeditions departed from the harbour in Lagos in the 15th century.
He is commemorated with a statue at the Praça Infante D. Henrique.
5. Praia de Dona Ana
One of the closest beaches to the old centre of Lagos is also up there with the finest in the area.
Praia de Dona Ana is just up from Praia do Camilo and is framed by those enchanting cliffs, streaked with yellow and red.
There are also outcrops on the water’s edge and out in the bay, bringing some extra drama to the scenery.
Praia de Dona Ana is a spacious beach, with a slightly coarser blend of golden sand and shells.
And the waters are almost always tranquil thanks to the protection of the rocks and the eastern aspect.
6. Zoo de Lagos
Kids will get up close to animals from five continents at this zoo a few kilometres away from the city.
Birds make up more than half of the 350 inhabitants, and are kept in clean, well-presented and relatively large aviaries.
The parrot family is well represented here, with African greys, military macaws, parakeets and cockatiels.
As for mammals the park has a small farm where children can meet and pet the dwarf goats and sheep, and an enclosure where you can interact with playful lemurs for an extra fee.
There are also more than a dozen monkey species, several wild cats and a variety of turtles and tortoises.
7. Igreja de Santo António
From the outside you might wonder how this church could be listed as a Portuguese National Monument.
There’s an unadorned whitewashed facade crested by two bell-towers, but this gives way to a resplendent nave.
Every surface is coated with detailed gilded woodcarving, azulejos or paintings.
The frescos in the ceiling vaults are a standout, and the paintings on the walls depict the life of St Anthony of Lisbon.
The church was owned by the Portuguese military from the 18th century to 1929 when it was handed over to the government for urgent repair works.
Today there’s only one service a year here, to celebrate the patron saint on June 13.
8. Museu Municipal Dr José Formosinho
Despite its huge tourist infrastructure Lagos remains a city with an absorbing story to tell, so you might be keen to make the most of attractions like this.
The museum is in a side building for the Igreja de Santo António and was inaugurated in 1934. Every chapter of the area’s past is covered, from the Neolithic period, through the Luso-Iberians, Romans and Moors to the Age of Discovery.
There’s a scale model of the city, numerous coins, tools for traditional local trades like cork production and a sumptuous collection of religious art from the church’s sacristy.
9. Centro Ciência Viva de Lagos
If you’re holidaying with your family and want to escape the midday sun, there’s a neat science museum in the centre of Lagos.
This is in Casa Fogaça, an 18th-century manor house, and maps out all of the innovations that made the Portuguese Age of Discovery possible.
There are interactive displays that explain cartography, shipbuilding and astronomy.
These are combined with more general exhibits on science and technology, and curious children can find out how 3D printers work, use morse code, design their own radios and run wild in the educational playground in the courtyard.
10. Lagos Marina
It’s natural that you’ll be drawn to the ocean in Lagos, for watersports, trips to Ponta da Piedade and out on nature-spotting cruises.
The launchpad for all these activities is the elegant marina in Lagos, which is a short way in from the mouth of the Bensafrim.
If you’re on foot you have to cross a bascule bridge that traverses the entrance and you can look over the forest of masts belonging to sleek pleasure vessels and local fishing boats.
As well as being the place to go for water-based activities it’s also one of the city’s social centres, with bars and restaurants that do a roaring trade.
11. Dolphin Spotting
Although you’re never guaranteed to see dolphins in the waters off Lagos you’ll have a great chance on an expedition.
Most of the cruise companies in the harbour use are on quick and eco-friendly RIBs (rigid-hulled inflatable boats) and normally last for two hours.
You’ll don a wind-resistant jacket and power out to the open ocean with an skipper who will be relying on tips from other vessels, and expertise to track down pods of the porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and Risso’s dolphins that live here.
Most companies claim there’s a 90% chance of seeing a dolphin, and you’ll know why you made the effort the second you glimpse one.
12. Forte da Ponta da Bandeira
This maritime fort is at the mouth of the Bensafrim, defending the harbour and former anchorage.
It dates to the end of the 17th century and is one of a line of forts, redoubts and batteries erected in the wake of the Portuguese Restoration War, which raged for almost 30 years between Portugal and Spain.
This building is from a time of sophisticated artillery, so has a low profile and not much decoration.
But to enter you have to cross a drawbridge, and there’s an endearing chapel inside with period tiles.
The roof has bartizans at each corner, and there are views of the rocky coast to the south and Meia Praia on the other side of the river.
Nearly all the beaches near Lagos face east so are protected from the open ocean.
But on the other side of the Ponta da Piedade there are rolling waves, and novice surfers can learn the basics at Praia Porto de Mós.
On calmer days you could hire a stand-up paddleboard or body board for a few hours of fun.
East of Lagos is the Alvor Lagoon, which is the Algarve’s kite-surfing honeypot.
This is down to the lagoon’s calm and shallow waters, combined with the steady coastal breezes.
14. Other Cultural Venues
It helps to remember that Lagos isn’t just a tourist destination, but a healthy town with its own cultural scene.
The Centro Cultural (CCL) is an arts venue, with an auditorium seating 300 and an extensive temporary exhibition area with three galleries.
Check the listings when you arrive to see if anything takes your fancy.
There’s also a museum in the marina, documenting the Age of Discovery with 16 tableaux depicting pivotal events or typical scenes from the period.
One depicts the Battle of Aljubarrota with Spain, another the hold of a caravel, and you’ll encounter figures like Luís de Camões whose influence on the Portuguese language can be compared to Shakespeare for English.
Restaurants on the Algarve serve fish and seafood caught no more than a few hours before.
Lagos has a number of its own specialities like poached mackerel, goose barnacles, deep-fried squid, pork with clams and the old favourite, grilled sardines.
One seafood dish that always feels like an event is cataplana, which describes the cookware and the meal itself.
This is a large copper pot with an attached lid, and it’s to prepare a kind of seafood rice with clams.
Like a paella this will be served in the cataplana itself and is supposed to be shared by two or more people.