Fishing boat on the Gilão River in Tavira. Things to do in the Algarve

You may visit the Algarve for its beaches 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 some of the best day trips in the Algarve, organised from west to east. Some are fairly well-known, others more hidden gems.

It might be worth hiring a car for some of these but you can get to most of these Algarve points of interest by public transport or organised tours if necessary.

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. Cooltour’s Go 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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

2. Escape the crowds in 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 post.

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.

See my article about renting a car in Portugal.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 past.

If you like gilt covered chapels, frescoes and tiles, you should pop inside Igreja de Santo António.

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 a boat trip 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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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: 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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

5. Head to the mountains and spa town of Monchique

Foia Mountain

A winding drive into the green hills of the Serra de Monchique will give you a different perspective on the Algarve. At 902 metres, 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 nice place to have lunch. 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 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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Monchique

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: 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: If neither of the tours 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.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

See my article about Quinta dos Vales for more information.

Kissing Hippos, Sculpture by Karl Heinz Stock at Quinta dos Vales, Estômbar, Algarve, Portugal
Kissing Hippos, Sculpture by Karl Heinz Stock

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

Beach holiday in Portugal
View of the beach from the cliffs of Benagil, Algarve, Portugal

10. Marvel at sand sculptures at FIESA Sand City

Sand City in Pêra, the biggest sand sculpture park in the world, attracts the top international artists to create an incredible outdoor exhibition. The theme, and the sculptures change every year.

I went a few years ago for an animal-themed display, which was imaginative and great fun. In 2018, you’ll see familiar places and faces from the world of arts and entertainment including Star Wars characters and sets. See my article for more photos and practical tips.

Suggested tour: Combine your visit to Sand City with a sculpture workshop and a jeep tour of inland Algarve where you can taste local honey and liquor and, if the weather allows, go for a freshwater swim – get more details and pricing.

Practicalities: If you’re not doing the above tour, you need a car to get here – Fiesa Sand Sculpture Festival, Areias de Pêra (on the E524, between Pêra and Algoz), Pêra. Open daily from March 1st to November 10th from 10 am. Closing time varies but in summer (15th July to 15th September) it’s open until midnight (see website for more details). Adults €9.90, children €4.90.

The Historian Bison sand sculpture
The Historian Bison sand sculpture

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’re into photography, this minivan tour takes you to several photogenic and off-the-beaten-track spots in the Algarve, including Alte.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

The ‘World Of Cork’ tour is a 6-hour guided tour that includes the museum, a short walk through a cork oak plantation, a visit to a cork factory and a bonus stop at an olive oil producer – see the full details and check availability.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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, 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 Santa Luzia, historical Tavira, the castle at Castro Marim and the open air museum that is Vila Real de Santo António – get more details and book online

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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. 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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Suggestion: Take a 30-minute tuk tuk tour to get your bearings then explore the town on foot at your leisure.

See my previous article about Tavira for more ideas.

Practicalities: Tavira is served by bus and train so a car is not essential.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 or coming on the full day East of Algarve tour, the easiest way to get here is by train.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 – especially with the benefit of a guided tour.

Practicalities: There are regular buses to Castro Marim from neighbouring Via Real de Santo António (see above) but not directly to the salina spa.

Floating at Casto Marim salt pan spa, Eastern Algarve
Floating at Casto Marim salt pan spa. Photo: Kyle Rodriguez, Enjoy the Algarve Magazine

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)

First time in Portugal?

25 tips

Subscribe to get these 25 Essential Tips For Your First Trip To Portugal in handy PDF format plus newsletters containing free insider travel tips, blog updates and information about relevant products, services and special offers by email.

See my privacy policy

No spam. Unsubscribe at any time Powered by ConvertKit

21 Comments

  1. I love this article! I’ve been in Algarve since April and staying till October and was really struggling finding new places to see! This gave me some good new ideas 🙂

  2. Julie – I’m not a beach bunny so this and your other post on the Algarve will really help guide my time there – thank you!

    1. Author

      Happy to hear it, Sherry. Hope you have a great time!

  3. Try Tavira for a delightful visit . A historic and picturesque town with lots of cafes and restaurants, plus access to beaches by ferry.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Caroline. I agree, Tavira is lovely.

  4. what about Portimão…beautiful 🙂

  5. These all look so inviting, Julie. Some of the walks sound fabulous. I can’t wait to come to Portugal when I leave Oman!! 🙂

  6. These are really attractive suggestions. I’m planning to move to the region later this year and all the individual locations will be new discoveries for me. It will be nice to feel I’ve got all the time in the world to explore them properly.

    1. I’m sure you’ll have a great time, Michael, especially if you can avoid the peak tourist season. The walks will be easier while the weather’s a bit cooler too 😉

  7. Great suggestions, Julie! In all our visits to the Algarve we’ve never been into Monchique itself- just the spa town or up to Foia. I remember reading in a long ago Rough Guide that it was touristy, but that’s such a relative thing. Must go because it looks good.
    As you know we’ve been to Alte many times, but that walking route was new to me, so I’ve downloaded it and will give it a go sometime.
    Many thanks! 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Jo. I’m glad that even someone who’s spent far more time in the Algarve than me can find something of use / interest in this post. I haven’t tried the walk so if you do it before I do, I’d love to know what you think.

  8. The best way to discover the Algarve is in a Sidecar!
    You can go where no bus or car can go, and your feet are too tired to tread, you avoid traffic and go beyond the usual tourist sites by traveling along picturesque roads. As the driver and guide is local, you will leave with stories and photos that even the “natives” do not know about: he will take you to visit the famous attractions and discover the hidden secrets. In a sidecar you can feel the breeze, the wind in your hair and enjoy the views, whilst you also become some sort of tourist attraction, as people often try to take pictures of the bike or simple honk to say “hi”. A really must do experience that you can discover at http://www.bikemyside.com. Definitely worth checking out!

    1. It’s on my wish list already!

  9. Silves was my favourite – I really liked it there but next time I go I’ll check out your other recommendations.

  10. Hi! I would add that if you’re visiting Monchique and you fancy some serious exercise, you can use it as a base to climb Foia, the Algarve’s highest peak – just don’t recommend doing it in 28C heat like we did last year!

    Best wishes,

    Ben

    1. Hi Ben, thanks for the tip 😉 I struggle with hills at the best of times so I’d definitely avoid attempting the climb in the heat. Was the view worth it?

Over to you. Please share your thoughts in a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.