A venerable town on a hill near the coast, Loulé has a quaint old centre, weird and wonderful folk celebrations and a choice of monuments like churches and a castle. It’s all in stark contrast to the tourism infrastructure on the coast, which is like nothing you can find anywhere in the Algarve. Vilamoura is the largest tourist complex in Europe, with access to ten beaches, more golf courses than even a pro can handle and a swish marina where hundreds of luxury yachts bob in the water.
When it comes to sea, sand and all of the little things that make holidays in the sun sweeter, Vilamoura has you covered. Loulé is its older sister, where the culture and history await.
Lets explore the best things to do in Loulé:
1. Vilamoura Marina
A very upmarket place to mingle, wander by the water, shop and dine, Vilamoura’s Marina is new and touristy but all the better for it.
The natural harbour is an ancient lagoon filled from wall to wall with luxury yachts, and then surrounded by amenities and hotels.
You could get an ice cream or cold drink and stroll awestruck at these vessels, or take the weight off at a bar terrace or tuck into an arroz de marisco at one of the choice of restaurants.
And if you want to book a cruise, nature-spotting trip or jet ski adventure this is literally your first port of call.
2. Castle of Loulé
Although it looks like a typical medieval fortress today the story of Loulé’s castle begins more than 2,000 years ago.
At this time it was a Castro, a Bronze Age defensive settlement, and then a trading post for the Phoenicians and Carthaginians.
Later the Romans were in charge, and after that the Visigoths, while the Moors took over in 715 when the fortress started to take on its current appearance.
There’s a branch of the municipal museum inside, recreating the castle’s medieval kitchen and showing the various finds from archaeological digs.
And naturally you can’t pass on the chance to climb the 14th and 15th-century battlements and cast your eye over the town like a medieval watchman.
3. Cerro da Vila
Right in the middle of the modern development at Vilamoura’s marina is an enthralling Roman archaeological site.
This was a southwestern outpost for the vast Roman commercial network.
There are remnants of a garum factory, making the fermented fish sauce that was a staple of the Roman diet.
You can also find dyeing tanks, baths and the ground floors of several wealthy homes.
These still have some painted stuccowork and multicoloured mosaics in place, and there are artefacts like ceramics, mosaic fragments and interior decoration at the site’s small museum.
4. Mercado de Loulé
Both an integral daily amenity and a beautiful monument, Loulé’s market hall could be mistaken for a Moorish palace from the outside.
The structure is from 1908 and has lobed arches and towers with oriental domes on the outside.
These give way to an enormous metal and glass hall, with rows of stalls along a central aisle a couple of hundred metres long.
Get there as early as possible for fresh produce and giftable artisan products, while there’s also a separate space for fish and seafood caught only a few hours before.
5. Praia da Falésia
Either side of the marina in Vilamoura are miles of beaches with silky golden sand.
The closest to the west is the Blue Flag-rated Praia da Falésia, which is walled by reddish cliffs and goes on for 5.5 kilometres.
In autumn and winter these rocks are worn by the rain and wind to feed the sand on the beach, and it’s not unusual to see little dunes at the base of the cliffs.
As for the water, it has only moderate currents and is swim-friendly as there are no rocks hiding in the surf.
6. Igreja de São Lourenço de Almancil
If you’d like to discover an authentic Portuguese church, make for Loulé’s Almacil parish, which has a jaw-dropping example from the 1600s.
It’s a Baroque monument, with typical ornamental scrolls on its pediment outside, but the source of the interest is the awesome tilework.
These monochrome azulejos were painted by the Oliveria Bernades, one of a line of master tilemakers from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The tiles recount the life of St Lawrence an fill every surface of the interior, except for the floor and gilded altarpiece, which was carved by another Algarve master, Manuel Martins.
7. Old Centre of Loulé
The compact core of Loulé could hardly be more different to Vilamoura and its upscale tourist enclave.
As we’ve seen from the castle, Loulé has been settled for upwards of 3,000 years, and the centre has the cloistered squares and narrow alleys of a proper medieval town.
As is the way in historic Algarve centres, every house is painted white and topped with ceramic roof tiles.
There are also a couple of hints of Loulé’s old walls, like the stone archway leading to the main church at Largo da Matriz.
And there’s no sign today but the Jardim dos Amuados, with palms and neatly plotted flowerbeds, was a Moorish cemetery 1,000 years ago.
8. Capela de Nossa Senhora da Conceição
One of the sights in the old town is this endearing 17th-century chapel just next to the castle.
It was once at the northwestern entrance to Loulé, and came about in the 1640s after Portugal re-declared independence from Spain.
King John IV issued a decree consecrating Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Our Lady of the Conception) patroness of Portugal, and ordering chapels and churches to be built in her honour at the entrance to towns.
If you know your bible stories you can interpret the lovely blue and white tile panels, while the altar the luxurious woodwork and gilding that are a trademark of the Portuguese Baroque.
9. Praia da Vilamoura
Praia da Falésia is the pick for seclusion and unadulterated nature.
But families and people who want easier access to services should pick Praia da Vilamoura, on the east side of the marina.
The sand at this beach has a lighter hue, but the same soft texture, and in the summer you can hire sun loungers and parasols or get pamper yourself at the “Purobeach” area, with massages, waiter service and those gigantic four-poster canopy beds for extra luxury and privacy.
And if you’re in town to party there’s a party area with a DJ and live music.
Golf-hungry visitors had better pack their clubs when they come to this part of the Algarve.
The benefit of being at the largest tourism complex in Europe is that you’ll have no fewer than five golf courses in your backyard.
These are the Vila Sol course, which has 27 holes and is connected to the man resort, the Millennium Golf Course, Victoria Golf Course, The Laguna Golf Course and finally the Pinhal Golf Course.
There is no greater concentration of golf clubs in the entire Algarve, and you’ve got a different option for every weekday.
And if you extend your radius to the entire Loulé municipality there are more than ten to pick from, all within 15 minutes.
Fifteen minutes tops from the town of Loulé is a factory attraction that cuts to the core of the Algarve’s cork business.
It’s an experience that will change your idea of what goes into this product and also what can be done with cork as a material.
It all comes from the spongy bark of the cork oak tree, and you’ll learn how it’s processed and shaped for any number of appliances, from wine stoppers to notice boards, flooring, shoes and other fashion accessories.
There are insights into the biology of the cork oak tree and lots of opportunities to touch the cork at each stage of the process.
12. Trilho da Fonte Benémola
While a lot of your attention will be on the coast, you shouldn’t neglect this nature walk in the arid upland north of Loulé.
Fonte Benémola is literally a green oasis in an otherwise dusty landscape of pine scrub and cork oak.
The natural spring that feeds this greenery flows at the same steady rate no matter the season and brings a freshness to this little hollow even in July and August.
There are orchids, wild herbs and picnic tables in sheltered spots by the water.
At regular stops on the trail are information boards telling you about the human and natural history of the spring and the various animal species that make a habitat here.
Past the Fonte Benémola is the peaceful rural town of Salir, resting on a hilltop.
Like Loulé it was a Celtic settlement before the Romans, but its most important period came in the 12th-century when it was guarded by a Moorish castle during the Almohad caliphate.
It was a strategic prize in the Algarve, and strongholds like this ensured that the region wouldn’t be retaken by the Kings of Portugal until the end of the 13th century.
The castle is in ruins, but there are enigmatic chunks of the authentic Moorish walls and towers, and a new local museum to explain what you’re looking at.
14. Annual Events
Normally at the end of February, Loulé’s carnival deserves a detour if you’re in the Algarve for some winter sunshine.
It’s a three-day extravaganza, ending on Shrove Tuesday and involves wonderfully gaudy and outlandish dresses, floats with irreverent political satire and a transatlantic atmosphere that blends Portuguese traditions with a Brazilian samba flavour.
And then there’s Noite Branca at the end of August.
You wouldn’t think that this annual celebration was only ten years old going by the amount of people that take to the streets.
Everybody dresses up in white fills the centre of town for parties and parades with yet more imaginative costumes.
15. Outdoor Activities
Once you move away from the coastal communities Loulé has a lot of nature totally unaffected by tourism.
On the eastern edge are the wetlands that become the massive Ria Formosa lagoon, which can be visited on special boat tours from Faro 15 minutes away.
On land you can do a high-octane form of nature spotting in a 4×4 buggy, riding up a rocky riverbed.
A more tranquil way to get back to the wildnerness is on a horseback safari via one of the clutch of stables and equestrian centres around Vilamoura.
And lastly if your eyes are on the ocean there’s a couple of companies at Vilamoura’s Marina, like Algarve Seafaris, setting sail for the Atlantic to find dolphins.