Portugal is in the midst of a major tourism boom with travelers flooding into this previously pretty low-key European country (well, in comparison to its big-name neighbors like Spain and France) in droves. Jetsetters familiar with this tiny Iberian nation will certainly know of the Algarve. For everyone else, let me give you a quick crash course on the sunny south of Portugal.
While I typically shy away from comparing destinations, it does help provide a frame of reference. So here it goes: The Algarve is basically the Portuguese equivalent of the French Riviera or Italy’s Amalfi Coast — warm, beachy, busy in the summer. That’s certainly not to say these places are mirror images. The Algarve coastline stretches for roughly 96 miles. For anyone doing the math, that’s a fraction of the Côte d'Azur but about three times the size of the buzziest coastal part of the boot. Along the way, travelers will find countless golden beaches, soaring cliffs, white-washed fishing villages, and seafood eateries.
And while many Europeans flock to the Algarve during peak season, it still somehow manages to fly under the radar for many U.S. tourists. Despite being a mecca for holiday goers across the pond, rates remain quite reasonable. It’s possible to snag a hotel room and restaurant reservation or unroll a towel on the golden sand (in most places) even in July. And it’s all-around just way more easy-going than some of the better-known summer hotspots across the continent.
If you like picture-perfect weather, beautiful beaches, and surfing (or just enjoy watching others ride waves), it’s time to discover all the Algarve has going for it.
Travelers are drawn to Lagos because of its eye-popping beauty, walled old town, and lively nightlife. The historic center exudes a vibrant atmosphere with many cafes, restaurants, bars, gelaterias, and boutiques. Albufeira attracts crowds with its beaches and bar-hopping opportunities. While most folks think of it as a bustling beach resort (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course), this well-trodden seaside stalwart also conceals a hidden historic side at the top of the hill. “People focus on the beach and bars and don’t even realize these streets exist,” says Maria Pessegueiro, a local guide who works with Kensington Tours.
The Golden Triangle — the affluent area between Faro and Albufeira that’s often referred to as “the Beverly Hills of the Algarve” — encompasses the ritzy resorts of Vale do Lobo and Quinta do Lago as well as Alamancil. Expect championship golf courses, mansions, Michelin-star restaurants, and celebrity sightings. Another well-heeled nearby town to add to your itinerary? Vilamoura.
Olhão has a pair of historic market buildings as well as a boat-lined waterfront, and some cute shops — including Casa Sergio, which sells very chic home goods. It’s also the jumping-off point for exploring off-shore destinations such as Culatra Island. One of my favorite spots in the Algarve, this tiny gem in the Rio Formosa will immediately steal your heart with its sun-faded charm, low-slung houses, seafood joints, and sandy beaches.
The less-frequented Alte is a typical village about 20 minutes inland from Albufeira with cobbled streets and trees dressed in crochet knit by local women. Pessegueiro also turned us onto Silves, the ancient capital of the Algarve, which still shines with its enduring Moorish presence via its red-brick castle and fragrant orange groves.
The Algarve boasts some of the best beaches in all of Europe. While other seaside locales make up for rocky shorelines with buzzy beach clubs, this bikini-ready stretch of southern Portugal doesn’t have to try so hard.
Habitually ranked among the most iconic and attractive beaches in all of Portugal, Praia de Marinha sits in the western part of the Algarve, not too far from Benagil Cave. Praia da Falésia stretches from Vilamoura to Olhos de Água. If Lagos had a crown jewel (and I say if because there’s still competition for that title), it would have to be Praia do Camilo, a cliff-backed cove with golden sand and blue water that’s accessible via 200 wooden steps. Also in the running for the honor? Praia de Dona Ana. Located on the western side of Albufeira, Praia de São Rafael provides far easier access to its scenic shoreline. Culatra Island makes the perfect beach-focused day trip with ferries and water taxis departing from Olhão or Faro. Peaceful Praia da Fábrica is a spit of sand with shade-giving woven umbrellas and loungers for rent ($12 for the day) that sits on the other side of a marshy estuary. At high tide, you take a little boat across. When the water recedes, it’s possible to walk over. Challenging breaks make Praia do Beliche in Sagres a go-to for surfers.
The always-sunny skies and high temps give the Algarve forever summer vibes, which means that the coast doesn’t clear out when peak season ends. In fact, you can comfortably go for a dip and catch some rays on the glistening shores well into October.
The categories of beaches and attractions certainly overlap a lot in the Algarve, however, there are some non-sand-fringed spots that travelers should check out. Admittedly, many do provide sea views. Cabo de Sao Vicente and Ponta da Atalaia in Sagres are two such locales for end-of-the-world vistas. The Seven Hanging Valleys Trail runs along the rugged coastline and supplies eye-popping perspectives of the rock formations and wave access.
Among the busiest places to be in the Algarve is on a boat or kayak exploring the waters in and around Benagil Cave. Tourists come from far-and-wide throughout the year, though I’d use the word swarm to describe how congested things get in July and August. But, yes, it’s beautiful and you’re bound to get a great snap for social media (especially if you’ve mastered the art of cropping out other people).
For a little “me time” of the natural variety, consider a trip to Spa Salino in Castro Marim to float in the salt ponds, slather on mineral-rich mud, and do yoga. If your schedule allows, definitely hit the Saturday morning market in Loulé. The entire town comes alive with vendors selling everything from fresh produce and local honey to pastries and fish.
While Douro Valley and Alentejo may be better known for wine than the Algarve, that doesn’t mean you’ll have a hard time finding a crisp white or fruity rosé to sip on a hot summer day. Pessegueiro let us in on a little secret and that’s the excellent vino being made in the region. “There are about 50 small producers doing some really interesting things,” she says. “I particularly like Quinta João Clara outside of Silves and Quinta dos Vales in the Lagos area.”
Most people associate the Algarve with seafood that was swimming in the ocean not that long ago. It’s also well-regarded for honey, oranges, and carob. With a mashup of traditional recipes that continue to wow and culinary talent doing ambitious things, the south of Portugal leaves a lasting impression on critics, foodies, and hungry travelers.
Almancil is known as a hub of award-winning dining in the region. Set in an Algarve-style house with sun-drenched, flower-framed patios, Pequeno Mundo gives off invite-only supper club vibes with food and atmosphere to match. Savor traditional Portuguese dishes such as seafood cataplana at Alambique. For beachside eats straight from the local seafood market in a contemporary setting, 2 Passos delivers. Michelin-starred Gusto By Heinz Beck at the Conrad Algarve, impresses diners from around the globe with its elegant fare, decor, and service. The highly anticipated Austa promises to be the next hot ticket when it opens later this summer.
Rather than creating a menu, Loki, an intimate eatery in Portimão, turns to nature for inspiration. Chef João Marreiros creates a daily series of dishes based on whatever delicious, seasonal ingredients are available that day — and, of course, his creative whims. Set along the Ria Formosa in Cabanas, Restaurante Noelia & Jeronimo serves tender octopus and fish rice alongside waterfront vistas. People go to Culatra Island for the beach, but it’s also one of the best places to chow down on fresh-caught seafood — this according to our water taxi captain, who I fully trust. To that end, you can’t go wrong with the catch of the day from Cafe Marretas. Off-the-beaten-path Sages has a couple of really nice spots to eat. A Sereia is great for a casual lunch of grilled sardines and garlic prawns. Formento specializes in veg-forward small plates and natural wine.
Feeling fancy? Some of the best gourmet destinations in the region take up residence at high-end hotels. Ocean Restaurant at Vila Vita Parc Resort & Spa and the Chef Dieter Koschina-helmed restaurant at Vila Joya both have two Michelin stars.
The Algarve is awash with hotels and resorts for vacationers to hang their woven straw hats and sarongs. With an enviable perch right on Praia da Rocha, a palm-framed piscine, and individually designed rooms decked out with bespoke furnishings and tiles accents, Bela Vista Hotel & Spa, an upscale Relais & Chateaux property in Portimão, exudes beach house vibes. The Conrad Algarve in Quinta do Lago is another swish option with an infinity pool, spa, five bars and restaurants, and a beach club on Praia de Vale do Lobo.
While most of the action goes down by the coast, many of the best boutique retreats are located just a bit further inland. If you’re looking for a laid-back pace and a bit of countryside charm that’s still within driving distance of the waves, I highly recommend Octant Vila Monte. A five-star refuge that’s stylish and breezy, leisure-seekers will enjoy spending hours sipping fruit-infused water by the adults-only pool and traipsing through the citrus tree-scented gardens. The hotel also operates shuttles to Praia da Fuseta. Casa Modesta is a white-washed dreamscape with nine architecturally striking rooms that all have private patios. It’s the sort of place where time moves slower as you wander through the organic vegetable garden and laze on a hammock.