Portugal’s Algarve Coast (credit: Thinkstock)
Most travelers to Portugal will stay in Lisbon, the country’s capital and largest city. But these same travelers might not realize that this fascinating city in the western Iberian Peninsula was not always the top tourist destination in the westernmost country of mainland Europe. Indeed, up until recent years, the more popular destination was along the southern edge of the mainland portion of the country, known as the Algarve. Alternatively referred to as Europe’s best-kept secret, or simply the best holiday destination in Portugal, the Algarve is known for its world-class beaches, breathtaking vistas and spectacular oceanfront resort hotels. This guide provides information on travel, hotel accommodations, places to dine and a few of the very best attractions.
Most international travelers visiting Portugal will fly into Lisbon Portela Airport (Aeropuerto de Lisboa), the international airport just north of Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. However, visitors to the Algarve Coast might be better served by flying into Faro Airport, although airfare will be higher and would require a connecting flight from Lisbon or another European city, such as Frankfurt, London, Madrid or Paris. Alternatively, visitors can arrive in Lisbon, then transfer to a train (Comboios de Portugal) to the Faro along the Algarve Coast. A one-way train trip in either direction averages just over three hours.
Arriving visitors into Lisbon have several ground transportation options into the city, including taxis, hotel shuttles, Carris city buses and the underground rail line, Lisbon Metro from the Metro de Lisboa station in Terminal 1. A trip on the Metro Red Line takes just 16 minutes to get to city center and five minutes to Gare do Oriente, one of the largest train stations in the world.
The easiest and most common way to get around the Algarve Coast is with a rental car. Visitors can pick up a rental car for as little as $10 per day at the Faro Airport from reputable American rental car agencies like Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar and Hertz.
According to the Consulate of the United States, Americans possessing a valid U.S. driver’s license may drive in Portugal for up to six months. However, because Portugal has one of the highest rates of auto accidents and fatalities in Europe, travelers are urged to drive with caution and to consider carrying additional auto insurance for rental cars. Drivers are also encouraged to carry an International Driving Permit, although it’s not mandatory. An international driver’s license may be obtained through AAA or the National Auto Club.
The following are recommendations for overnight accommodations throughout the Algarve region, including many of the finest hotels in Spain.
- Conrad Algave (Almancil)
- Dunas Douradas Beach Club (Almancil)
- Epic SANA Algarve Hotel (Albufeira)
- Falesia Hotel (Albufeira)
- Four Seasons Country Club (Quinta Do Lago)
- Hotel Baia da Luz (Lagos)
- Quinta de Cebola Vermlha (Boliqueime)
- Vale d’Oliveiras Quinta Resort and Spa (Carvoeiro)
- Vila Gale Praia (Albufeira)
- Vita Vita Parc Resort and Spa (Porches)
Part of what makes the Algarve a popular destination is the large collection of restaurants and cafes. Here are 10 spots known for excellent service and outstanding cuisine.
- Albufeira Gourmet Churrasquiera (Albufeira)
- Bird’s Nest Restaurant (Loule)
- Docaria Almeixar (Albufeira)
- Nougat Tea’n (Faro)
- O’Paulo (Albufeira)
- Pastelaria Arade (Portimao)
- Pozzetti Gelato Artigianale (Albufeira)
- Restaurante Dom Carlos (Albufeira)
- Solar do Farelo (Varzea do Farelo)
- Tasca David’s (Ferradudo)
With an alluring Mediterranean climate, the beaches are the place to be in Portugal’s southernmost region. In fact, nearly all of Algarve’s top attractions are praias (beaches) or water sports like surfing, wakeboarding, snorkeling and diving. Among the best rated beaches in the region are Odeceixe Beach in Aljezur, Praia da Falesia in Olhos de Agua, Praia de Marinha in Carvoeiro and Praia da Falesia in Albufeira. Visitors will also enjoy spectacular vistas at places like the world-famous Ponta de Piedade in Lagos, Cape Saint Vincent in Sagres and Algar Seco in Carvoeiro.
Castle Of Silves (Castelo De Silves)
Located in central Algarve, Castelo de Silves is one of the country’s finest and best preserved examples of ancient Moorish architecture. Built between the 8th and 13th centuries, the Castelo was one of the primary fortifications in Portugal and is one of the top attractions in the country. The historic castle was designated as a national monument in 1910.
Visitors interested in the game of golf will be pleased to know there are more than 40 golf courses and 35 golf clubs spread across eight locations, including the Algarve. Among the most prominent golf courses are Monte Rei, Alto Country Club, Gramacho, Quinta do Lago, Penina — the first golf resort to open —Vale do Lobo, one of the first tourist resorts to open in the country. Monte Rei Golf and Country Club is widely considered the best golf club in the country and features a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, with another championship course, designed by the golf legend known as the Golden Bear, in the planning stages. Other golf aficionados will argue that Quinta do Lago is a better choice, backed by a 2015 Golfer Travel Award as Portugal’s Best Golf Resort.
Ocean Revival Undersea Park
Water recreation is, without question, one of the top draws to southern Portugal. With top-rated tour operators like Trigana Boat Trips, Cape Cruiser and Dolphins Driven and equipment rental business like Amado Surfcamp and Extreme Algarve, there is no shortage of things to do. But one truly exceptional freely accessible attraction might be worth a visit, providing the necessary equipment is available. Located off the Algarve Coast, between Alvor and Portimao, is Ocean Revival Underwater Park, the world’s largest single artificial reef and the largest reef in Europe. Divers will be able to explore four sunken Portuguese naval ships, where diving conditions are ideal on more than 300 days per year. The only diving center recommended by the Ocean Revival organization is Subnautica in Portimao.
Ria Formosa Nature Preserve
Located eight miles east of Faro, Ria Formosa is one of Portugal’s Seven Natural Wonders and the only one of its kind in the Algarve Region. The enormous nature preserve covers more than 49,000 acres and features five barrier islands and a critically important wetlands with an incredible diversity of native plants and wildlife. Internationally acclaimed as a premier birding destination, more than 20,000 aquatic birds migrate here, including the rare Portuguese Purple Gallinul. The Natural Wonder is also home to one of the world’s largest populations of seahorses. A great way to view portions of Ria Formosa is on board a tour boat from Faro or Olhao.
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com