You may visit the Algarve for its beaches, after all many will argue that you will find the best beaches in Portugal here, but it’s always worth prising yourself off your sunbed and exploring the region. There are plenty of things to do in the Algarve that will give you a deeper appreciation of its culture, natural beauty and history.
Here’s my selection of what to do in the Algarve, organised from west to east. Some are fairly well-known destinations and activities, others more hidden gems.
If you already know which general area you want to explore, use one of these quick links to jump to specific Algarve destinations, otherwise read on for a sense of what the Algarve has to offer beyond its beaches.
It might be worth hiring a car for some of these but you can get a lot from your Algarve vacation by using public transport or organised tours where appropriate.
Tip: If you’re still trying to decide on the best place to stay in the Algarve, this post will help.
1. Visit Algarve’s most westerly point in Sagres
The most south-westerly town in the Algarve is more than just a surfers’ paradise although there are several beaches in and around town if you can’t bear to be away from the sand for a whole day.
Stroll around Baleeira fishing harbour and you’ll see brightly painted boats and fishermen at work, fixing their nets or piling up their lobster pots. If you get there early enough on a weekday morning, you might even catch the fish auction in action. Alternatively, take a walk along the cliff tops for some great views.
For a dose of history, the Fortaleza (Fortress) de Sagres contains a restored 16th century chapel, a blowhole and a giant stone compass behind its bulwarked fortifications.
It’s not far from the fort to “the end of the world”, a.k.a. Cabo de São Vicente. There’s not much to see here except the lighthouse and a few souvenir and snack stands but it’s worth braving the stiff winds for the views, especially at sunset.
Practicalities for visiting Sagres
If you don’t have a car, you can get to Sagres by bus from Lagos or visit as part of a guided tour. This West Algarve Tour, for example, takes you out to Sagres and makes stops at various points of interest including Lagos, Monchique and Silves (see below) before returning you to the centre of the region.
If you are staying in Eastern Algarve (Olhão or Tavira), this small group tour of the western Algarve would be more appropriate for you.
2. Where to go in Algarve to escape the crowds. Salema fishing village and Boca do Rio Nature Reserve
Moving east along the coast from Sagres, you’ll find several unspoilt beaches, such Praia Boca do Rio, which means river mouth.
The surrounding cliffs and valley are now a nature reserve with a clifftop walk that leads from Boca do Rio all the way to the pleasant fishing village and wide sandy beach and quaint fishing village of Salema. Read more about them in this article.
Practicalities: You can get to Salema by bus from Lagos but a car would be preferable if you want to explore this area at leisure.
3. Explore the cobbled streets and beautiful beaches of Lagos
Lagos old town
Although the historical centre of Lagos has undoubtedly become tourist-oriented, it retains some of its old world charm. Admire the traditional buildings and pretty cobbled streets as you wander around. The 15th century slave market, the first of its kind in Europe, was closed when we visited but offers an insight into the region’s inglorious past.
If you like gilt-covered chapels, frescoes and tiles, you should pop inside Igreja de Santo António.
Algarve beaches and the Lagos coastline
You’ve probably seen photos of the dramatic cliff stacks and beaches that form part of the Algarve coastline. When it comes to beaches, Lagos has plenty to choose from including the postcard-pretty cliff-backed coves and the wide expanse of sand at Meia Praia.
For the best views, head to Ponte da Piedade and follow the paths along the rocks to see caves from above or walk down the steps to one of the nearby beaches such as Praia Dona Ana. Or take one of the most popular Algarve boat trips around the caves and cliffs, like this one.
If you’re feeling energetic and adventurous, a more intimate way to experience the caves around Lagos would be on this 2-hour kayak trip.
4. Learn about the sardine canning industry at Portimão Museum
I love a good museum exhibition, and by that I mean one that is well-thought out with interesting displays and just the right amount of information. The second section of Portimão Museum (Industrial life and the challenge of the sea) ticked all those boxes for me.
As you might expect from a coastal town, Portimão, like much of the Algarve, relied on fishing long before tourists came along. In the 20th century, sardine canning was big business, employing much of the local workforce in some capacity.
The museum is housed inside one such factory, the Feu Hermanos, and uses life-sized models to take you through the canning process from delivering the fish to designing the labels for the cans. Husbands and wives worked in the same factory and their children pretty much grew up there. Mothers would nip into the nursery room to feed their babies before returning to their post.
I found it fascinating so I hope you will too. The other permanent exhibitions explore the region’s history going back thousands of years as well as the underwater world.
Practicalities for visiting Portimão Museum
Rua D. Carlos I, Portimão. Open 1st September to 31st July: Tuesdays from 14.30 to 18.00, Wednesday to Sunday from 10.00 to 18.00 | August: Tuesdays from 19.30 to 23.00 and Wednesday to Sunday from 15.00 to 23.00. Closed on public holidays. Adult entrance €3, family ticket €4.50.
5. Head to the mountains and spa town of Monchique
A winding drive into the green hills of the Serra de Monchique will give you a different perspective on the Algarve.
At 902 metres altitude, Foia is the highest point in this region of Portugal and on a clear day, the views are incredible. You can drive up but if you’re fit and fancy a hike, try this 7 km circular walking trail and make a detour to the summit.
Caldas de Monchique spa village
Depending on which direction you approach the town of Monchique from, you may first reach the hamlet of Caldas de Monchique, which is a pleasant place to have lunch. There are some cute shops here selling hand made ceramics and other crafts if you want to shop for some Portuguese souvenirs.
The thermal springs here have been renowned for their healing properties since Roman times, hence the modern spa complex nestled in the woods. You’ll need to book ahead if you want a treatment. If you have more time to spare, you could stay overnight at the Macdonald Monchique Resort & Spa and allow yourself to be fully pampered. Check availability and prices.
If such treats are beyond your budget, simply pick a path leading away from the spring and take a wander through the woods to find the small chapel.
Monchique town centre is a maze of cobbled streets lined with quirky shops, some of them seem as old as time itself. You’ll find brass figurines scattered around town and a Moorish water wheel in the main square.
If you plan on spending more time here, head for the park if the weather’s good. It’s got an outdoor swimming pool, paths and picnic tables.
I’d also recommend popping into the workshop of award-winning ceramist, Leonel Telo. Even if you don’t get to see him at work, his shaded garden is chock full of pieces for sale.
Practicalities for visiting Monchique
There are buses from Portimão to Monchique but to get the most out of a day trip to this part of the Algarve, a car or guided tour is best.
For example, you could explore Silves and Monchique by sidecar on this fun historical tour.
Or take this full day tour to explore the highlights of the western Algarve including Sagres, Lagos, Foia, Caldas de Monchique and Silves.
6. Conquer the Moorish Castle in Silves
The highlight of a day trip to Silves is definitely its red sandstone castle, which dates back to the 8th century. You can walk along its walls and admire the views or cool off in the ancient underground water cistern.
The restaurant just outside the castle has live music and a very jolly holiday atmosphere. Yes, it’s touristy, but although I didn’t eat there, the customers seemed to be having fun; some were even dancing.
There are plenty of other outdoor cafés where you can while away the time and people watch if that sounds too noisy for you. Before you leave Silves, make a point of stopping by the Praça de Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad where you’ll find several marble statues in a pool.
Probably the best time to visit Silves is during the medieval fair in August but it makes a pleasant change from the beach at any time of year.
Practicalities for visitng Silves
If neither of the Western Algarve tours mentioned above appeal, you can get to Silves on a boat trip up the River Arade from Portimão or Ferragudo, although the water was a bit whiffy when I visited. There are also buses from Portimão and Albufeira.
7. Combine outdoor art and Algarve wine tasting at Quinta dos Vales
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Quinta dos Vales but I’m glad I made the effort to visit.
The award-winning wine estate contains sculpture-filled gardens where you might encounter kissing hippos, multicoloured horses and fat ladies dancing gracefully. There’s also a small farm with cute pigs, donkeys and deer.
Oh, and the wine, which you can taste in the shop or arrange for a tour and tasting session (in advance).
See my article about Quinta dos Vales for more information.
8. Visit a pottery workshop in Porches
You’ll see lots of beautiful ceramics in the Algarve and there are a few production centres that are responsible for much of what you see. One such village is Porches, between Albufeira and Portimão. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you start to see endless displays along the roadside.
Feel free to stop at any that take your fancy but if you’re spoilt for choice, a good option is Porches Pottery. They will welcome you into the workshop so you can see the artists hand-painting pieces and get a better understanding of the work that goes into creating them.
They also have a pleasant café bar lined with tile panels.
Practicalities: Porches Pottery, EN125, Porches 8400-451. Open Monday to Friday from 9 am to 6 pm and Saturdays from 10 am to 2 pm.
Porches Pottery – Our Ceramics from Porches Pottery on Vimeo.
9. Hike the Seven Hanging Valleys coastal walking trail
The gorgeous sandstone coastline extends eastwards from Lagos towards Albufeira, taking in the Benagil cave and other idyllic beaches. There are many ways to appreciate them, including a clifftop walk along the Seven Hanging Valleys walking trail.
The full linear trail is 5.7 km so unless you have two cars, you’ll need to walk both ways. If over 11 km seems a bit far for you, do what I did and start at Praia do Carvalho. Walk east past the famous Benagil caves and stop at Praia da Marinha then walk back when you’re ready (about 5 km in total). See the walk leaflet for more details.
Tip: There’s little shade so use sunscreen and wear a hat (not one that will blow off the cliffs in a gust of wind though) and sensible shoes. Although you don’t need full on walking boots, flip flops and flimsy sandals are not sturdy enough for the uneven terrain.
If walking is not your thing or you’d rather see the caves and cliffs from the water level, there are several boat trips that allow you to get up close and personal with these fascinating rock formations. Check out this 2-hour Benagil boat trip from Portimão
10. Marvel at sand sculptures at FIESA Sand City
One of the best things to do with kids in the Algarve is to take them to FIESA Sand City, the biggest sand sculpture park in the world. It attracts top international artists who create an incredible outdoor exhibition with the theme, and the sculptures, changing every year.
I went a few years ago for an animal-themed display, which was imaginative and great fun. See my article for more photos and practical tips.
11. Visit the authentic village of Alte
Alte means high so this village is aptly named as well as being a pleasant place to spend a few hours. One of the pre-finalists in the 7 Wonders of Portugal Authentic Villages contest, it retains its character and charm with only a passing nod to tourism in the form of ceramic shops.
As you wander through the village, you’ll see painted tiles depicting how local women used to cut sheaves of esparto grass, soak it in the river then bash it on a stone in order to soften it up before weaving baskets and mats. Read about the Alte Esparto route in this post.
The pretty village church has a Manueline stone doorway and you’ll see lots of colourful details on the whitewashed houses as you a wander around the village to the riverside complex at Fonte Pequena.
As well as plenty of stone picnic benches inlaid with pebbles, there are several hand-painted poems on the walls, mostly by Candido Guerreiro who was born in Alte. A white marble sculpture in the river pays tribute to the village women who used to do their laundry there.
Behind the Fonte Pequena restaurant, you’ll find a small museum with various stone mills and a wooden cart. You can shop for ceramics here or at one of the ceramics shops in the village centre. In the summer, there’s also a swimming pool you can use.
Practicalities: There are infrequent buses from Loulé to Alte but a car or tour would make life easier.
If you’d rather take a jeep tour of the countryside that includes free time in Alte and the views from Rocha da Pena, take a look at this full day Algarve Mountains tour.
12. Shop for local produce at Loulé Market
The pleasant town of Loulé is in central Algarve and, thanks to its inland location, has not been overrun with tourists. It has plenty of shops selling quality crafts and ceramics but the biggest draw is its colourful Neo-Islamic market.
Open daily from 6 am to 3 pm, the most popular time to visit is Saturday morning. This is when nearby villagers bring their wares and set up stalls in the streets, adding to the colour and interest.
There are other things to do in Loulé, including a couple of art galleries and the castle, which contains a simple archaeological museum and a replica traditional kitchen so you can see how bread used to be made and see sausages dangling above the fireplace.
If you’re interested in local crafts, Loulé Criativo organises workshops and tours.
Practicalities: Several buses from various Algarve towns come to Loulé if you’re not driving. Get more out the experience with a foodie jeep tour that takes you to Alte, Loulé and a premium winery in Tôr – check details, availability and prices.
13. Learn about cork production in São Brás de Alportel
As you walk around the streets of this quiet little town, as well as some fine street art, you’ll notice some rather grand looking houses. These were likely built with money from the cork industry that once thrived in this area.
Visit the Costume Museum to get an insight into the history and progression of the local cork business. As a bonus, you’ll get to see traditional clothing from this period and a collection of carts and carriages that were used for transporting people, oil, water and wine.
If you can, schedule a visit to one of the nearby cork factories, such as Nova Cortiça, to see with your own eyes how the bark is transformed from thick gnarly sheets into wine stoppers and fashionable fabric.
14. Explore the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve
This vast area of lagoons, wetlands and mini islands begins at Quinta do Lago and continues along the eastern Algarve coast almost to the very end. Constantly changing with the winds and tides and protected by barrier islands, it’s a haven for wildlife and ideal for salt production.
There are countless ways to enjoy its natural beauty, be it following the cycle paths and walking trails, a catamaran tour, taking a ferry to a pristine sandy beach on one of the islands, riding a horse or even a Segway.
Click on any of these selected Ria Formosa tours for more details and online booking:
15. Get your cultural fix in Faro historical centre
Faro is a great place to go for a dose of history wrapped up in an attractive old town with great views of the Ria Formosa. I particularly enjoyed the Municipal Museum, housed in a 16th century convent. Within its ancient walls, you’ll find the spoils from nearby Roman sites such as Milreu, a magnificent mosaic, illustrated Moorish legends and other treasures.
Also within the old city walls, known as Vila Adentro, is the cathedral, which is well worth a visit. The views from the tower justify the entrance fee but there’s more to appreciate if you like art and architectural details. It has a small bone chapel but the best one in Faro is in a different church.
There are plenty of interesting shops and good restaurants within the old town and a few decent independent art galleries scattered around.
Find out more about what to do and where to stay in Faro in this post.
Or check out this fun 90-minute cultural Segway tour of the city to get your bearings before deciding which sights to visit.
Practicalities: Faro is pretty much the hub for Algarve transport with an airport, intercity and regional train lines and served by several bus companies.
If you’re short on time, you could combine your trip to Faro with other highlights in the eastern Algarve on a full day small group tour. This one also goes to the fishing towns of Olhão and historical Tavira – get more details and book online.
16. See an original Roman Villa and a medieval farmhouse in Milreu
The entire Milreu site was once a Roman family villa and working farm. You can still see the remains of the temple and various rooms and bathhouses with some attractive mosaics.
In the 16th century, a medieval farmhouse was built over the ruins. It’s been restored in a way that allows you to appreciate the features from that period as well as the Roman era so it’s worth going inside.
Tip: Go early or later in the day for the best light and note that there’s no shade so protect yourself from the sun on hot days.
Practicalities: Roman Ruins of Milreu, Rua de Faro, Near Estoi, Faro. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 am to 1 pm and 2-5 pm. €2
17. Visit the authentic fishing town of Olhão
People often ask me about non-touristy towns in the Algarve. While Olhão waterfront is lined with restaurants and there are plenty of boat trips to the islands in the Ria Formosa, the rest of the town is very much workaday.
At first glance, it may strike you as run down and there’s no denying that many of the buildings have seen better days and when the wind’s blowing in the wrong direction and the tide’s out, there’s a distinct whiff in the air. There is, however, a distinct charm to the place.
The shopping streets still contain independent shops that serve local people’s needs, although you will find some delightful craft and gourmet shops sprinkled throughout the cobbled streets. There are also a surprising number of sculptures, usually representing a local legend, and some great street art that celebrates the local fishing and canning industry.
The red brick market is a must see and as you’d expect, has the freshest of fish and seafood as well as other local delights. Mike and I became addicted to the fig cheeses and bought a stash of them to bring home.
Practicalities: Olhão is on the regional train line so pretty easy to get to even without a car.
18. Savour the relaxed charms of Tavira
Tavira is one of my favourite Algarve towns. Low rise, unhurried, low key with plenty of interesting things to discover. Straddling the Gilão River, with the iconic Roman bridge as its centrepiece, this is a place to relax in an outdoor café and watch the world go by.
You could, of course, venture into the former water tower to see Tavira through an ingenious camera obscura or just stroll around the flower-filled gardens in the ruined castle. There are a few small museums which explain Tavira’s Islamic heritage and several shops selling quality crafts and artwork that you would be happy to display in your home.
See my previous article about Tavira for more ideas.
Practicalities: Tavira is served by bus and train so a car is not essential.
19. See Pombaline urban planning at its best in Vila Real de Santo António
Just across the river from Spain and at the the very eastern end of the Algarve lies Vila Real de Santo Antínio. Purpose built to support the local fishing industry, the grid of streets opposite the marina were designed by the Marquis de Pombal. He’s the man responsible for redesigning Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake which also affected much of the Algarve.
A fan of orderly lines and designated spaces based on activities such as shoe-making, butchers’, goldsmiths and other trades, Pombal’s new town (Vila Real in Portuguese) is fascinating to explore. You’ll find panels in the street which go into far more detail than you’re likely to need (unless urban planning is your thing) but even if you just quickly skim the information, you’ll pick up some insights into 18th century Algarve.
Practicalities: If you’re not driving, the easiest way to get here is by train.
20. Get muddy in a salt pan spa in Castro Marim
Salt production has been an integral part of life in Castro Marim for thousands of years. The wetlands surrounding the small medieval town, topped with a castle, are chopped up into rectangular salt pans that attract flamingos and other birdlife.
These salty waters are not only appealing for feathered creatures. The water and clay contain precious minerals that are good for us humans, too. One enterprising salt farmer has realised the potential of this and transformed one of his salt pans into an outdoor spa.
Cake yourself in wet mud and let it bake dry in the sun then float your cares and dirt away in the salt water for silky smooth skin.
Find out more in this article.
If that sounds too dirty for you, Castro Marim is still an interesting place to visit – you can see Spain from the castle.
Practicalities: There are regular buses to Castro Marim from neighbouring Via Real de Santo António (see above) but not directly to the salina spa.
If this is your first Algarve vacation, take a look at my insider tips.
Algarve guide books and maps
Pack a dedicated regional guide book and map to help you make the most out of your stay in the Algarve.
Click to see more about these on Amazon:Algarve Travel Guide: 54 Cities/Towns/Villages gives you an overview of the most significant settlements in the Algarve with practical information that’s useful for holidaymakers as well as those researching a place for relocation.
If you’re just coming to the Algarve for a holiday, this pocket guide covers the key places of interest and more Algarve Marco Polo Spiral Guide (Marco Polo Spiral Guides)
You may find a map comes in handy too: Algarve Marco Polo Map 1:150,000 (Marco Polo Holiday Maps)
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