When newcomers think of the Algarve, the first thing that probably spring to mind is the combination of hot summer sun, long sandy beaches, rugged cliff tops and a week or two glued to a sun lounger.
That’s easy to satisfy if you are playing host, but visitors looking for an autumn or winter break, or even just a long weekend away, will delight in the myriad of hidden gems – architecture, arts, history and culture that span way beyond the pine-tree lined golf courses.
I’ve been coming to the Algarve for more than 25 years, and while I love nothing more then sunbathing with a good book and a bola de Berlim (the ones sold on the beaches via the white picnic boxes are the best around, for sure), I also love exploring, and relish a ‘dull day’ where we can go for a drive and discover a different part of the coastline.
I’ve put together a few activities visitors should enjoy.
Faro Old Town One of my favourite places for a walkabout is the Algarve’s capital, Faro. For many, it’s a means to an end: home to the Algarve’s only airport, millions of people pass through it on a yearly basis when taking their holidays, probably without ever venturing into the city itself. But drive ten minutes further down the road and they’ll find themselves in the bustling capital filled with a mixture of old and new. There is so much beautiful architecture to see – an Instagrammer’s dream. A lot of the old town dates back to Moorish times and buildings like the Arco da Vila, which acted as the city’s gateway, still features the remains of an original Moorish wall. It is also home to a number of Storks who have chosen to nest on its intricate bell tower. It’s considered bad luck to kill a Stork in Portugal and these magnificent birds arenas much an attraction as the building which they are nesting upon.
There’s also the Igreja do Carmo Church, an 18th-century Catholic church which is also the resting place of more than 1,000 monks. It’s baroque exterior, although stunning, is nothing compared to the aesthetic treasures that lie within it.
Then there’s the Muralhas de Faro, made up of the fort walls that once enclosed the city. And if you need a bit of retail therapy, look no further than Forum Algarve, the mall filled with everything from Zara to Rituals. There’s also an array of shops, café, restaurants and bars outside of the mall. I especially love Parfois in the old town – a Portuguese chain filled with accessories and clothing (think Topshop in the good old days). Another favourite of mine is the Cosmopolitan Rooftop Bar at the very top of Hotel Faro which overlooks the Marina, boasting panoramic views of the city; the perfect place to enjoy a cocktail at the end of a busy day sightseeing and shopping.
Tavira If you’d like something a little more scenic, I’d highly recommend a stroll through the cobbled streets of Tavira in the western Algarve. Sometimes referred to as “the Little Venice of Portugal,” it’s famed for its Roman bridge over the River Gilão. This picturesque town was founded in 400BC and in medieval times, the bridge served as an important transport route. Today, it’s surrounded by cafes and restaurants overlooking the river, perfect for a late afternoon lunch. There’s also a medieval castle with lovely views out over the town, a central plaza which often has live music and a sandbar island beach. The town is also known for its Fado, a famous Portuguese music genre that can be traced back to 1820s Lisbon – and it’s big in Tavira. The Fado com História Auditorium provides daily shows featuring the Portuguese guitar, classical guitar and a “voice travelling through some of the most representative traditional Fados”. The performances are also accompanied by a film showing some of the most famous moments in its soulful history and Port tasting at the end.
Ria Formosa If sport is your thing, and you are looking for something other than the golf or tennis that the Algarve has become synonymous with, the Ria Formosa National Park is for you. Made up of a mixture of saltwater lagoons, mudflats and sandy dunes, it’s perfect for a leisurely wander or energetic hike. Located between Manta Rota in the East and Vale Do Garrão in central Algarve, it’s a haven for wildlife. This tranquil space is also the perfect place to visit out of season. For the nature lovers among us, there’s a plethora of birds ranging from Kingfishers to Flamingos, as well as reptiles, and you may even see the odd dolphin; we were lucky enough to spot a pod racing past from our spot on the beach just a few weeks ago. I absolutely love walking and nature trails, and one of my favourite things to do is walk along the beach at sunset – the Algarve definitely does good sunsets no matter what time of year.
Go-Karting in Almancil The Portuguese F1 Grand prix was held at Portimão in May, and for those who fancy themselves as a bit of a Lewis Hamilton, Karting Almancil never fails to disappoint. The family fun race park is brilliant if you are in a big group or looking for somewhere to entertain both the older and younger members of the family; a couple of hours of highly competitive fun.
Sightseeing at Carvoiero This traditional resort town is home to some of the Algarve’s most dramatic and rugged coastline and rock formations. From its long and winding boardwalk, built into the cliffs, you can take in panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and the coastline surrounding you. From there you can also take a boat to the famous Benagil Cave, which is featured in many a tourist guide. The water around the cave is perfect for kayaking and paddleboarding but the real attraction is inside the cave itself. Once your boat reaches the middle of this cavernous beauty, the idea is to look up through the massive natural hole in the top of it that acts as an open window, showering sunlight on the beach below. It’s extremely busy in the summer months, so visiting off season is well worth it.
The Lighthouse at Sagres One of the most remote regions of Portugal, Sagres (not to be confused with the beer), is the southwestern most point of the Algarve, and mainland Europe. It’s a haven for surfers due to its windswept landscapes, and range of waves from beginner to pro. But the town is also home to The Lighthouse at Cabo de São Vicente. One of Europe’s brightest beacons, it is said that it can be seen from up to 60km away. You can walk around the lighthouse and the extended site also houses a fortress dating back to the 15th century, which is said acted as a defence against the numerous pirates who tried to come onshore there. Rugged and vast, when you’re looking out to sea, it can feel like you are standing on the edge of the world.
Words: Lucy Mayer
Lucy Mayer (@littlemissnews) is the News and Travel Editor at 107.8 Radio Jackie. The Algarve is her home from home