In the early fall of this year we made two one-week trips down to southern Portugal, the “Algarve” as it is most commonly known, to become familiar with the region. We have close friends from Canada that are serious about buying down there and moving over for a few years, and so they wanted to find the area that was best suited for them, and then start house hunting. As those are two of our favorite past times, we joined in on the search. They did find a home, and we may just might have found one for ourselves as well, as we really enjoyed our time in the Algarve.
Our first impression of the Algarve, from people we had previously talked to and what we had read, was that we wouldn’t like it. And is why we left it last to visit, over central and northern Portugal. We thought it would be like the over-built, crowded, high-rise ridden coastline of southern Spain. And to be truthful, there are areas like that, but they are few. Most of it is made up of small beach and hillside towns, nothing too large, joined together by small country roads and one main freeway.
What I quickly realized is that it could give us what I was primarily looking for: good surfing, boarding, biking, golf, hiking, and fine weather nearly all year round. Basically an alternative to what we’ve had in Mexico for many years, but are now looking for the same in Europe. The Algarve seems to be it.
The Algarve is commonly broken up into three primary regions: East, West and Central. In the west you have an amazing cliffs shoreline that is often seen in marketing material for the Algarve, whereas the Central and Eastern parts are more flat, with sand dunes and estuaries, meaning the beach is a long way from the mainland. We want easy access to the beach, hence we prefer the west. The weather tends to better as well.
The towns we have not liked are the busy, touristy, over-built ones, which are primarily Portimao, Armco de Pera and Albufeira to some degree.
Portimao is the most over-built with tall high-rises that line the beach and back, something like Miami. We drove through and just kept driving. Seems to have a great beach in front, but this isn’t what we are looking for. If you are on vacation and looking for action, this is the place. Armco de Pero is a smaller version of Portimao, situated close to Albufeira.
Albufeira doesn’t have the high-rises, although the real estate is really huddled close together on the hillside looking over the small town. But it is very much a party town. The streets are similar to those found in Lagos, but instead of being lined with dining tables for restaurants, it is one bar after the other. This place must be insane during the summer months and spring breakers must love it. But not for us.
We spent some time in Faro, but didn’t enjoy it very much. The old section of the town called “Villa Adentro” was interesting and where we stayed, and there are some pedestrian only streets outside its walls, but they just don’t have the style, character and feel of Lagos or Tavira.
Beach at Barril, near Tavira
To get to the beach you can take a water taxi for a few euros to a very nice beach with a restaurant on it. You can rent a sumbrella and two lounge chairs for about 20 euros for the day. A great place for long beach walks. Another great beach is a Barril, near Santa Luzia and Tavira. You walk over a small bridge and then take a train across a sand dune to the beach. The train was once used to transport fish across the dunes to the mainland, now it just hauls tourists. There are a number of restaurants and it is also a great walking beach, but tends to get quite crowded.
Riverside town of Tavira in Eastern Algarve
Our favorite towns were Lagos and Tavira; Lagos on the west side, right on the ocean and Tavira on the east side along a river and some ways from the beach. But both are cute, well-kept, clean towns with interesting shops and restaurants that can keep you busy for some time exploring. Tavira resides on the banks of a river with short bridges connecting its shores. It isn’t far from the mouth of the river, but the beach is still a ways away. Not as big as Lagos but fun to explore. A day may be enough.
Lagos is at the top of our list and we look forward to spending more time there. If we were going to stay in one place to explore the region, it would be Lagos, or the small town of Luz near by but further to the west. Both are unpretentious, have great beaches, and lots of restaurants and shops. And Lagos as well has a marina and is a popular place to catch boats that then visit the coastline cliffs of Carvoeiro.
Beach near Aljezur
We also made a side trip over to Sagres, the westernmost point of Portugal, where the surfing looks good, and the up the coast highway to Aljezur. From there we headed east, up into the mountains to the town of Monchique, which has some amazing viewpoints and is a fun town to walk around.
The area we enjoyed the most (as far as long-term living) is a bench situated around the beachside town of Carvoeiro, that includes about 10 km of an incredible coastline with steep, golden cliffs, and the small regional towns of Lagoa, Porches and Vale de El Rei behind. Although most of the coast is made up of steep cliffs, there are some very picturesque beaches such as Carvoeiro, Benagil, Marinha and Carvalho, which are accessible by road and a hike down, while others are only accessible by boat.
What is really quite nice is the pathway they have created that follows the coastline from Carvoeiro to Marinha, similar to the “sentiers” of France. Much of it it hugs the cliff side, with railings put up for protection. It can be a difficult hike and you have to be careful of where you step. Most of the real estate is set back, protecting the coast, and making this walkway possible and definitely more pleasant.
Hard to see, but the coastal trail follows this coastline
Restaurants we have liked (so far):
Algar Seco Parque
Faro Old Town
Faro Old Town