A perfect day out from coastal Algarve, Silves is an adorable medieval town among citrus groves and vineyards.
The town had its heyday in Moorish times when it was the capital of the Algarve.
The castle at the top of the hill is a monument to Islamic rule until the 13th century.
Great works of Moorish architecture are being unearthed all the time in Silves; the castle has the remains of a palace, while the archaeology museum is integrates a medieval cistern into its design.
In August this rich heritage is honoured with a fair that has markets, jousting, music, dancing and historical re-enactments.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Silves:
1. Silves Castle
Silves was in the hands of the Moors for almost 500 years, and the lasting monument from this period is the castle.
This building hasn’t been altered much since the days of the Almohad Caliphate in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Like all the best castles you can get up to the parapet, and ponder the view of the Serra de Monchique mountains from between the merlons.
An 11th-century Moorish palace was also excavated within the walls, and exciting fragments like multi-foil windows have been brought to light.
There’s a lot happening underground at the castle’s courtyard, where you can enter a 10-metre-high cistern and peer down a well that descends 60 metres into the earth.
2. Silves Cathedral
The cathedral was constructed as soon as Silves was won back from the Moors in the 13th century, and may even have been erected where the old mosque used to stand.
The architecture is mainly Gothic, and the cathedral is seen as the finest religious monument from this era in the south of Portugal.
Extra decoration was added later, but the cathedral’s fascination lies in the understated grandeur of the columns and arches in the nave, the bright red sandstone archivolts in the portal and the traceried arch between the chancel from the transept.
3. Museu Municipal de Arqueologia de Silves
The town’s excellent archaeology museum is constructed around a cistern from the days of the Almohad Caliphate in the 12th century.
This is 20 metres deep and has a helictical stairway taking you down to the tank, which has been turned into exhibition space.
Further excavations around the town have unearthed finds dating back to the Neolithic Period and including the Copper and Bronze Age, Roman times, the Visigoths and the Moors.
Moorish artefacts make up most of the museum’s collection, but make time for the Iron Age funerary stones, with written inscriptions that are still a mystery to historians.
4. Silves Old Town
Coming from the built-up tourist resorts on the coast Silves can be a bit of a shock to the system.
Things are much slower here, and you can spend your time pottering about and pausing for a coffee or cold drink at a pavement cafe.
The historic quarter clings to a hill, with the castle and cathedral at the top and is still controlled by a muscular gate ushering you onto the steep Rua da Sé.
Pause by the town hall, on a refined arcaded square by the gate, where you’ll also see the pillory a monument to the town’s autonomy and where criminals used to be punished in public.
5. Cruz de Portugal
A moment or two outside Silves on the road to São Bartolomeu de Messines is a beautiful and enigmatic National Monument.
In a little shelter is a limestone cross with the sort of ornate masonry that was in fashion in the High Gothic period.
One side is a crucifix, while the other is a pietà, showing Mary cradling Christ’s body.
Nobody is exactly sure where it came from, but analysis of the stone has dated it to the end of the 15th century.
The limestone, with its creamy tone isn’t found in the Algarve, so it was mostly likely carved further north.
6. Praia de Armação de Pêra
Silves the town isn’t on the coast, but the wider municipality includes Armação de Pêra, a fishing village turned beach destination.
The main beach is everything you could want from a beach on the Algarve: There’s a long, gently curving bay with a wide belt of golden sand lapped by ankle-high waves.
The water may not be very shallow, but the beach’s easterly aspect keeps the strong surf and currents away.
And you’ll never have to walk more than a few metres for a drink, snack or meal as there’s a continuous line of bars in wooden huts to the rear.
7. Praia Grande de Pêra
In essence Praia Grande is just a continuation of Armação de Pêra’s main beach.
The big difference being that this one is further around the bay and more removed from the resort.
Instead of bars and apartment blocks there are sand dunes and the Salgados Lagoon.
To protect the delicate ecosystem in the dunes you can only get to the beach either by walking along the shore from the resort or crossing the long footbridge that courses past the lagoon.
This walk is worthwhile as there are signs informing you about the wildlife in this almost-Martian environment.
8. Mercado Municipal
Nowhere gives you a glimpse of everyday life in a Portuguese town like a market, and the one in Silves hums with activity six days a week.
Even if you’re not in need of fresh fruit, vegetables meat or fish, you should still pop in for animated conversation and friendly haggling.
The liveliest day is Saturday when traders from around region come to town and set up their stalls in the square.
The building went up during the Estado Novo regime in the middle of the 20th century and has nods to Silves’ medieval tradition.
9. Ponte Velha
Another legacy from medieval Silves is this proud 15th-century bridge over the Arade.
There’s a debate about whether this was built using material from an older structure.
Silves was at the intersection of two Roman roads so there’s a good chance that there has been a crossing at this spot for 2,000 years.
Either way it’s a worthy landmark, and its whitewashed walls look fantastic against the green river and hills behind.
There’s a row of plane trees along the bank where you can take a breather enjoy the scene for a moment.
10. Slide & Splash
Anyone visiting with children or teenagers will have no choice but to plan a day at this waterpark.
Slide & Splash is one of the largest attractions of its kind in Europe and has a list of slides to wear out even the most energetic kids.
The main rides are all cleverly positioned together on a rise so you can splash down in one pool and start queuing for the next flume straight away.
The park also has a few handy bonuses you don’t always find in waterparks: You can bring your own food, while the restaurant is actually pretty good and has lighter options instead of juts fast food.
Slide & Splash is also massive, with sprawling green spaces where you can rent a parasols and sun loungers.
11. Silves Medieval Fair
Where better to hold a medieval fair than the former capital of the Kingdom of Algarve.
For about ten days in the middle of August, Silves’ medieval townscape becomes the stage for re-enactments , music and dance.
You can sample medieval cuisine and watch falconry demonstrations, snake charmers, jugglers, street theatre and jousting tournaments.
The town is filled with the sights, sounds and smells (luckily only the good ones) of the Algarve in 1,000 years ago, and at the market more than 200 artisans and traders tout their wares next to the castle walls.
12. Boat Trips
Armação de Pêra is also a launch pad for cruises to caves on the craggy coastline west of the town.
There are 18 to discover, and a lots of companies vying for your business.
Many of the skippers are fishermen during the winter, running cruises for the tourist season.
The caves are extraordinary, especially on sunny days when the yellow rock is layered with red and orange tones.
If you only see one cave, make it the Gruta de Benagil, illuminated from an opening in its ceiling like a natural skylight.
13. Horseback Riding
Outside Silves the low hills are light brown, with lonely cork oaks on the hillsides and eucalyptus and citrus groves in the valleys.
On higher ground you can see the formidable Serra de Monchique, the sea, Portimão and Silves in one unforgettable view.
The Country Riding Centre will take your experience into account and arrange a short hack through the countryside, or something longer or more adventurous.
Children as young as two are catered for, so you don’t need to worry if you’re a novice.
The horses are placid and responsive, and more experienced riders will be able to try a trot or canter.
14. Wine Tourism
Silves has more wine producers within its boundaries than any other municipality in the Algarve.
There are eight in all, and they come under the “Vinhos de Silves” label, which you might spot on the wine menus at local restaurants.
The warm climate and ripe grapes lends both reds and whites warm, robust flavours.
The wineries in Silves have also started catering to visitors, putting on tours and allowing you to taste and buy their wines on site.
Quinta do Francês is in range to the northwest, and a memorable drive through the foothills of the Serra de Monchique.
Also close is the Quinta da Vinha, while the Lagoa agricultural cooperative also puts on daily tours and tastings.
With both the mountain wilderness and the coast in its territory, the cuisine in Silves can change depending on where you’re dining.
If you’re in the hills, game like boar, partridge rabbit are all roasted in straightforward hearty dishes (all great with local reds). But by the water fish and seafood are in order, be it salted mackerel, stuffed squid or cataplana and caldeirada, two typical Portuguese seafood stews.
Caldeirada comes with a blend of fish and shellfish in a broth with tomatoes and potatoes, and is even the subject of an annual festival in Armação de Pêra every June.
And at the market get your hands on some citrus fruit like oranges and mandarins, grown right here in Silves.