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Things to do in the Algarve

The best of the Algarve

The Algarve is Portugal’s most popular region, a title that’s well deserved. Its beaches are world class, but there’s plenty to do without a bucket and spade, too.

  1. Explore Lagos
  2. Marvel at the São Lourenço dos Matos
  3. Make for Silves
  4. Discover Ponta da Piedade
  5. Stay in Tavira
  6. Freak out at Igreja do Carmo
  7. Surf at Sagres
  8. Shop for fish in Olhão
  9. Relax riverside by the Rio Guadiana

The south-facing coast of the Algarve is where you’ll find the archetypal Portuguese cove beaches, fringed by rock stacks and gentle cliffs - and it doesn’t take much to escape the high-rise resorts and golf courses. With a year-round balmy climate and enough things to do in the Algarve to please the entire family, what’s not to love?

1. Explore Lagos

If you’ve a penchant for old towns, you’ll love Lagos. It’s one of the most attractive in the Algarve, too, its centre enclosed in fourteenth-century walls at the mouth of the Ribeira de Bensafrim. And did we mention the beaches? Lagos’s main attraction is its proximity to some of the best sands in the region, as well as the series of coves, caves and rock stacks for which the Algarve is famed. Well, what are you waiting for? You can explore the rock formations and grottoes on a boat trip from Lagos, from where Portugal’s navigators once set sail.

Best for: Algarve in microcosm

While you’re there: Don’t miss the Mercado dos Escravos, site of Europe’s first slave market and a reminder of Portugal’s dark history.

2. Marvel at the São Lourenço dos Matos

You’d be forgiven for thinking this simple white church was just a simple white church. But inside is one of the most extraordinary displays of hand-painted azulejo tiles you’ll ever see. Every square centimetre of this 15th-century Baroque beauty is covered in the stuff.

Best for: Miles of tiles

While you’re there: The only element of the church not blue and white is the carved, gilded altar - a stunning sight.

3. Make for Silves

A superb castle - defined by its dramatic red walls - tells you that you’ve arrived at Silves. This historic town was once a Moorish stronghold. Any suckers for dazzling views? The castle walls offer impressive panoramas over the town and surrounding hills. Pay a visit to the town’s cathedral, too, built between 1242 and 1577 on the site of the Grand Mosque.

Best for: A Moorish legacy

While you’re there: The tombs lining the cathedral walls are of bishops and Crusaders who died taking Silves back from the Moors.

4. Discover Ponta da Piedade

Did you know that Ponta da Piedade means Point of Piety? Neither did we. What we did know is that Ponta da Piedade is the mother of all stack and cliff formations, a stunning terracotta family of bridges, terraces and grottos. Watching the sunset from the lighthouse here is one of the best things to do in the Algarve.

Best for: A Rocky Explorer Picture Show

While you’re there: Boat trips depart from the foot of the steps that have been cut deep into the sides of the cliff.

5. Stay in Tavira

Tavira has no beach. Fact. But don’t let that put you off - despite its inland position, this is the most interesting and pretty of the eastern Algarve’s towns. Tavira straddles both sides of the broad Rio Gilão, its old town made up of white mansions with hipped roofs and wrought-iron balconies. And when we said there was no beach, we weren’t being entirely fair: it’s an easy ferry ride to the superb island beach of the Ilha de Tavira. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of line to call this enormous stretch of dune-backed beach the best in the eastern Algarve. If you’re looking for a holiday deal, there are plenty of Algarve holiday packages to choose from.

Best for: Charming old-town vibes

While you’re there: Make sure to wander along the riverfront, with its tranquil vistas and palm-lined gardens.

6. Freak out at Igreja do Carmo

For ghoulish delights, it’s worth seeking out the Baroque Igreja do Carmo in Faro. Monks’ skulls and bones line the weird and wonderful Chapel of Bones, arranged into neat geometric patterns. Now that you’re in Faro, check out its impressive Museu Municipal, one of the oldest museums in the whole of Portugal (founded in 1894).

Best for: Daytime spooks

While you’re there: Faro abuts the lovely Ria Formosa nature reserve – join a boat tour and explore the lagoon.

7. Surf at Sagres

Surfer dudes and chicks of all persuasions should make for Sagres immediately. The beaches around Europe’s most southwesterly town are rated as some of the best on the continent - whatever your surfing skills. And for that end-of-the-world feeling, head out to Cabo de São Vicente, the most southwestern point of mainland Europe, and explore the Algarve off the beaten track

Best for: Surfing the day away

While you’re there: Explore Henry the Navigator’s Fortaleza, which looms over Sagres town.

8. Shop for fish in Olhão

With a superb market in its highly atmospheric old town, Olhão is also the departure point for boat trips to some fabulous offshore-island beaches. Join the hustle and bustle and see the catch of the day at theMercados de Olhão - better still, come on a Saturday morning, when the market extends along the riverfront, a riot of chickens, flowers, fruit and local characters. Stock your wallet and prepare to be reeled in like the rest of the customers. Olhão’s most prominent building is the seventeenth-century parish church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário. Outside, at the back of the church, an iron grille protects the chapel, where townspeople traditionally gathered to pray for their sailors when there was a storm at sea.

Best for: Local bustle

While you’re there: Peer through the church grille to see the wax ex voto models of children and limbs left to bring good fortune.

9. Relax riverside by the Rio Guadiana

Anyone still stuck for what to do in the Algarve, or hoping for something a little different, should make for the Rio Guadiana. This river - marking the border with Spain - offers some of the region’s least spoilt scenery, meandering north to the pretty village of Alcoutim.

Best for: Getting away from it all

While you’re there: Alcoutim’s castle sports fine views, and the entrance fee includes access to a small archaeological museum.

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