If you’re planning a trip to the southern region of Portugal, check out my insider Algarve tips before you book your holiday. Find out when to go, what to pack, what to do and what Portuguese food to try to make your Algarve vacation a success.
Best time to visit the Algarve
Despite its overwhelming popularity as a summer holiday destination, the Algarve is a good place to visit all year round, as long as you’re prepared to do other things besides lie on a beach.
This is a rough overview of what to expect from each season.
Winter in the Algarve
Northern Europeans like to winter here as the temperatures are better than in northern countries but it does still get chilly, especially at night and indoors. Don’t expect to be swimming or sunbathing but on sunny days, you can enjoy time on the beach with your clothes on or enjoy the countryside on walks or cycle rides.
There will be some rain and, like the rest of Portugal, the Algarve does sometimes get hit by severe winter storms so it pays to keep an eye on and heed weather warnings, especially in coastal areas.
Apart from the Christmas and New Year period which attracts more visitors, expect everywhere to be quiet. So quiet in fact that some restaurants and shops may close for the winter.
Accommodation is therefore cheap and easy to find, except for the festive period, but make sure it has some form of heating.
Algarve 365 is a cultural programme designed to liven up the off-season months and boost year-round tourism. Check out the programme of events to see what’s on between October and May.
Spring in the Algarve
Spring is probably my favourite time to visit the Algarve. Although there is still a chance of rain, temperatures are normally warm during the day so although it’s not sunbathing weather, that’s better for me because I prefer to walk around old towns or go on hikes in the countryside. Especially because fields are still green and the flowers add splashes of colour.
March and April can still be quite rainy but by May and June, temperatures are in the mid to late 20s and most days are sunny and there’ll be plenty of space on the beaches.
Tourist-centred businesses come out of hibernation in time for the Easter holidays so there will be more choice in terms of restaurants and activities.
Summer in the Algarve
If you want my advice, I’d avoid July and August unless you like jostling for space on crowded beaches and in the surrounding cafés and restaurants. Parking is tricky too so if using a car, make sure your accommodation provides a parking space.
Most of the coastal areas will be busy with either foreign or Portuguese tourists, especially in August. That said, the main touristy areas are between Lagos and Vilamoura so if you head further east or west, things may not be quite so hectic.
In terms of activities, by the end of June it’s too hot for hiking (sometimes up to 40ºC!) but ideal for beach time, assuming you can find a space. As well as a myriad of boat trips and other excursions, there are also plenty of fun summer events, such as the Medieval Fairs in Silves and Castro Marim in August.
Come September and the crowds will have largely dissipated but the weather is usually still good enough for the beach but cooling down to the point where hiking is enjoyable. Hotel prices are more agreeable, too.
Autumn in the Algarve
Like spring, autumn is an unpredictable season. Rains may start in October or summer may seem endless. November is usually quite rainy. Daytime temperatures are still pleasant but you’re unlikely to be doing much sunbathing. Be prepared to do more cultural activities.
Once there’s been some rain, the landscape starts to green up again, making outdoor activities more colourful.
It’s also harvest season so look out for fresh batches of figgy delights.
What to pack for your Algarve vacation
The golden rule with packing for a trip to Portugal is to be prepared for changeable weather, even in summer. This means light layers. And non-slip shoes – you’ll thank me when you see the slippery cobblestones.
Casual for the day and casual-chic (or just casual) for evenings works fine in Portugal. Unless you’re going to a particularly fancy venue, doing business or out to impress, there’s no need to dress smartly.
In winter, sunny days might be warm enough for you to strip down to a t-shirt and possibly shorts if you’re sitting in the sun but for wandering around, bring jeans, sweaters, a warm coat and wear full, non-slip shoes or boots rather than sandals. At night, it will get chilly so bring something warm to wear. You’ll probably need an umbrella at some point. And sunglasses.
Spring and autumn are probably the hardest to pack for as you could realistically get any kind of weather. Check the weather forecast before packing to see what’s most likely in store for you. Flexibility will be key so have warm clothes plus a few lighter options. In late spring and early autumn, sandals should be feasible for the day but maybe not at night. A lightweight raincoat or at least an umbrella is advisable.
In summer, loose, lightweight natural fibres will help keep you cool in the daytime. You’ll want a shawl or sweater for the evenings or perhaps boat trips. Sandals will be fine day and night unless you need shoes for a specific reason.
How to get around in the Algarve
Faro, the regional capital, is the main transport hub for the Algarve. Faro international airport also has flights to Porto – worth considering if you’re trying to see as much of Portugal as possible in a short space of time.
Book your private airport transfers online:
Using trains in the Algarve
Faro is also the end train station for the intercity trains to Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto. If you’re staying somewhere in central Algarve, you’ll likely get off the train before it heads east to Faro.
Tip: don’t try to use accents when you type place names into the trains website, e.g. write Olhao, not Olhão.
Using the bus in the Algarve
For other destinations within the Algarve, you’ll need to use the bus, a taxi or Uber. There are several bus companies serving the Algarve and the timetables are too complex for me to deal with here.
Be warned that services are often geared around schoolchildren and workers so may be considerably reduced at weekends and holidays. If you intend to get around the Algarve by bus, this website is a very useful resource.
Driving in the Algarve
Whether or not you will need a car depends on what you want to do in the Algarve. If you want a relaxing beach holiday and have accommodation within walking distance of a beach and restaurants, you don’t need one. In fact, a car would probably just cause headaches in summer months.
If you want to explore the Algarve towns and villages, there are many places you can get to by public transport if you have plenty of time and check timetables in advance.
However, if you want flexibility to go to off-the beaten-track places, or go on any country walks, a car will give you more freedom. There are rental car offices in major towns and at the airport.
Bear in mind that the A22, the main road that runs across the Algarve region, has an electronic toll system so you’ll want the electronic device supplied by your car hire company. It’s far safer and quicker to pay the tolls and use this road than risk the old EN125. Once you head away from the coast and into the hills, the roads become winding and narrow so use caution and patience.Compare rental prices with Rentalcars.com
Check Portuguese toll road website for an idea of toll costs.
Tours in the Algarve
If you want to see as much as possible in a short space of time, these two small group guided tours from the Albufeira/Vilamoura area cover some of the most important sights in the Algarve:
Go East (Mondays and Wednesdays): Castro Marim Castle, 18th century Vila Real de Santo António, Moorish Tavira, Santa Luzia village, Olhão fishing town and market and historical Faro (choose between a boat tour of the Ria Formosa or walking tour of the old town) – See details and book online
Go West (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays): Cabo Vicente near Sagres, Lagos (choose between a boat tour of the caves or walking tour of the old town), Foia Mountain, Caldas de Monchique spa village, Silves Castle – See details and book online
There are, of course, plenty of other tours, some of which I have included in my article about things to do in the Algarve.
Best places to visit in the Algarve
Much of the tourist offer is concentrated in central Algarve, between Lagos and Vilamoura. There are plenty of stunning beaches backed by dramatic sandstone cliffs, especially to the west of Albufeira, although the coastline varies considerably throughout the region.
I particularly like the west coast, which is wilder, and usually quieter, than any of the south coast beaches – if you have a car, head for Castelejo beach near Vila do Bispo. At low tide you can walk from here to the next beach along.
If you’re after more than beaches, there are plenty of interesting small towns and villages to discover. Among my favourites are Tavira, Fuseta, Olhão, Faro, Silves and Alte.
See my article about things to do in the Algarve for more information about these places and many others.
Algarve food and drink you should try
If you’re not in the least adventurous about sampling Portuguese food, you’ll find plenty of familiar international options in the tourist resorts. However, it would be a crying shame to miss out on some of the region’s delicacies.
I’ll start with a starter – as well as a dish of olives, you’ll often be served a dish of marinated carrots when you sit down at a restaurant. Tuck in, they’re delicious and cheap! For a hot starter, try ameijoas à Bulhão Pato, which is clams cooked in garlic, lemon and coriander.
For your main course, you could keep it simple and have fresh grilled fish, piri-piri (i.e. chilli) chicken or go all out and order a cataplana. This is the name of the domed copper pot that’s used to cook and serve either fish and seafood or meat in a tomato, pepper and onion broth.
Figs, almonds and carob are major crops in the Algarve and my favourite local cake, três delicias (three delicacies), combines all three in layers. I’m also slightly addicted to the queijo de figo. This means fig cheese but only because of the shape. The ingredients are usually figs, sugar, almonds, fennel, cinnamon and chocolate.
Tip: Try it with a 10-year-old tawny port for a taste explosion.
The colourful marzipan cakes are a bit sweet for me but they are soooo pretty!
As for drinks, you will undoubtedly encounter medronho at some point. Distilled from the berries of the strawberry tree, this strong spirit is also known as firewater. It can be a bit harsh so try the honey version, chilled, for a smoother shot. Or go for the less potent carob liqueur.
If this has given you an appetite for Portuguese food, check out this post for some more suggestions.
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