Author Matt May
The Algarve region of Portugal attracts around 10 million annual visitors, mainly from northern and eastern European countries, but also from Lisbon and the north of Portugal. The popularity of the Algarve is founded on a warm climate, sandy beaches, value for money, excellent seafood and the relatively low cost of the region compared with other European holiday destinations.
As the Algarve has flourished as a holiday destination over the last 30 years, small fishing towns and villages such Albufeira and Tavira have developed into bustling tourist resorts. Although much of the Algarve is not as developed as the Costa del Sol, the larger towns such as Albufeira have many similarities to their Spanish counterparts of Fuengirola and Torremolinos.
From the family-oriented resorts of Tavira, the golfer's paradise of Vilamoura, the rugged wild west of Lagos and Portimao, to the pubs, clubs and bars of Albufeira, the Algarve caters for all holiday tastes.
Away from the coast, the Algarve scenery is surprisingly green (especially in winter) and very fertile. Almonds, olives, citrus fruits, avocados, peppers and many other fruit and vegetables are grown here year-round.
In the summer months the Algarve experiences a huge influx of tourist visitors, and prices of flights and accommodation rise sharply, but the Mediterranean climate makes the region popular throughout the year, with many visitors choosing the quieter months to explore the area.
Prices in the Algarve are very reasonable although slightly higher than Spain in general, but if you shop around and are prepared to visit out of season you can certainly find value for money deals.
The scenery of the Algarve is at its most spectacular in the west, and is characterised by cliffs and rocky coastlines, with small sandy beaches nestling in coves and bays. The eastern Algarve offers a flatter landscape with long stretches of sandy beaches and calm waters.
Although the climate of the Algarve is typically Mediterranean, the coastline is Atlantic, so the sea water can be cold, especially to the west where swimming in some areas can be dangerous due to the large waves and currents.
Below is our guide to some of the most popular resorts in the Algarve, including some ideas of places to visit.
Albufeira is the largest, and most developed resort of the Algarve. There are several large sandy beaches surrounding Albufeira town centre, all of which become very busy in the summer months. The town has 2 main focal points for tourists - the "Old Town" area and "the Strip", both of which lead to wonderful sandy beaches.
Albufeira Old Town which was originally a small fishing port, is now a bustling maze of streets lined with bars, restaurants and tourist shops selling clothes, jewellery and other tourist souvenirs. The main shopping street of the old town leads to the beach, but if you take the time to explore the backstreets, there are many older buildings such as the Santa Ana church which overlooks the old town.
The Albufeira Strip area is located a couple of km to the east of the old town. The Strip is renowned for its bars and nightclubs, and is certainly the place to stay if you want a "Spanish Costa" style holiday. The Strip is basically a single road stretching for around a kilometre with tourist souvenir shops, bars, cafes and restaurants and plenty of English tourists all year.
The Strip is popular with groups of youngsters in the 18-30 age group, and the pricing here is very reasonable due to the high level of competition. A pint of local Sagres beer will generally cost less than € 2, and a meal for 2 can easily be found for around € 20-25. If you are looking for a quieter resort, then Albufeira is probably not the place to book a holiday.
At the southern end of The Strip is a huge sandy beach (Praia da Oura), with many people swimming from April to October on warmer days. There is a steep climb from the beach back to the Strip area, but there is a small tourist (road) train which can be taken.
Many of the Albufeira bars have "Happy Hours" during which drink prices are reduced significantly. Be careful as measures are a lot larger than in the UK.
Travelling just a few kilometres to the west of Albufeira, the bars and shops are replaced by a landscape of orange and lemon groves, eucalyptus trees, pine forests, and cliffs with rugged beaches and spectacular waves and rock formations.
There are plenty of quieter beaches to the west of Albufeira, providing ideal locations for windsurfing, diving and other water sports. Some of these beaches involve climbing down steps, but many have ramps which make them suitable for wheelchair users.
To the west of Albufeira is an abundance of wildlife especially in the spring and winter months, and the area is a haven for birds such as storks, egrets, wintering swallows and many species of butterflies.
For nature lovers, photographers and walkers, the unspoilt beaches at Gale and Castello Everista are perfect, with cliff top walks offering many spectacular views.
To the east of Albufeira the landscape becomes flatter, and long stretches of sandy beaches replace the rocky scenery of the west.
Aljezur is a small town located on the western coastline of the Algarve around half an hour's drive to the north of Sagres and Lagos. The town was built on the banks of the Ribeiro de Aljezur (River of Aljezur), and is overlooked by Aljezur Castle which is a popular tourist landmark.
The coastal scenery around Aljezur is spectacular featuring high cliffs which offer stunning vistas of the coastline. There are a number of beaches around Aljezur, many of which are popular with surfers due to the large waves. Perhaps the most stunning beach near Aljezur is "Praia de Odeceixe", which is formed at the mouth of the Odeceixe River. The huge beach is an ideal spot for canoeing and kayaking.
Alvor is a traditional Portuguese fishing village located on a sheltered natural lagoon which opens out into the sea. The town is a maze of narrow cobbled streets, with an old parish church at the centre.
There are plenty of restaurants in Alvor serving a variety of cuisine, catering for most tastes. The quayside restaurants provide fresh sea produce at very reasonable prices. Fish stews and grilled sardines are local specialities
Deep sea fishing and boating trips are available at the harbour. Although Alvor has become a very popular holiday location, the enclosed narrow streets have restricted the advances of developers, and much of the town's original charm has been preserved. Many of the cobbled streets have bars with live music and different types of restaurants
A few minutes to the west of Luz on the road to Sagres is the picturesque resort of Burgau, formerly a small fishing village that has managed to retain much of its authentic character despite the increase in tourism in the town.
The protected location of Burgau affords protection from the strong western winds which often characterise the area in the cooler months of the year.
Although Burgau is now firmly established on the Algarve tourist map, with new apartments appearing around the outskirts, the centre of the village is largely unchanged, and is somewhat reminiscent of a small Cornish village.
Burgau is one of the quieter resorts of the Algarve, making it popular with families and older visitors.
Burgau Beach Bar which overlooks the main beach has an excellent reputation for value for money wine and dining. The bar also does breakfasts at the beach and the locally caught grilled sardines are a speciality. The bar also has Wi-Fi if you want to share the experience with your friends.
Carvoero is a small but very popular family resort located midway between Portimão and Albufeira. The resort is one of the most picturesque in all of the Algarve, comprising whitewashed houses built around the small bay. Like most of the Algarve resorts, Carvoeiro was formerly a fishing village, but has now developed into one of the most popular smaller resorts in the Algarve.
Although Carvoeiro beach gets very busy in summer, there are plenty of boat trips available to some of the less accessible beaches that surround the town.
A couple of kilometres to the west of Carvoeiro is the renowned Rei das Praias fish restaurant at Ferragudo which is set in an idyllic location overlooking one of the best beaches in the area.
For lovers of jazz and blues, the Albatroz Jazz and Blues Bar offers live music with a variety of events and entertainers including traditional Portuguese Fado nights.
Although Faro is not renowned as a beach resort (the city centre of Faro has no beach), Faro beach located around 3km from Faro Airport is particularly popular with Portuguese visitors. Parking can be tricky if you arrive late in the peak summer season (mid- July to late August). The sea gets deep very quickly at Faro, so it is not ideal for small children or non-swimmers.
Faro city is not renowned as a tourist resort, but is well worth a visit. Faro offers an attractive marina surrounded by restaurants, plenty of shops and a historic old town with narrow streets which offer welcome shade during the hot summer months.
One of the most picturesque resorts in the Algarve, Lagos is best known for its spectacular rock formations and sea caves which characterise the area of coastline around the resort. The Lagos area offers some of the most beautiful coastline in all of the Algarve.
Apart from having some of the best beaches in the Algarve, Lagos is the perfect base for walkers and nature lovers as it has good access to some excellent coastland footpaths. The best months for walking in the Algarve are from September to May when the temperatures are cooler.
At Lagos Marina there are many types of boat trips available including dolphin watching and a glass bottom boat.
To the west of Lagos is the family resort of Praia da Luz ("Beach of Light"). The resort which is based around a series of villa complexes, and apart from the large, smooth sandy beach, is best known as the location from where Madeline Mccann disappeared in 2007.
A few kilometres inland from the resort of Portimao is the hillside town of Monchique. Although the Algarve is not a mountainous region, the hills around Monchique (Serra Monchique) are the highest in the Algarve at an altitude of up to 900 metres. This means cooler temperatures which can be very refreshing in the heat of summer (but quite the opposite in winter when temperatures can be several degrees lower than on the coast).
If you are looking for a place to base yourself away from the bustling and often crowded Algarve coastline, the more sedate surroundings of Monchique offer a more cultural holiday experience which is ideal for walkers, bird watchers, photographers and cyclists.
Close to the Spanish border, Monte Gordo is renowned for its huge, sandy beach and warm sea water temperature (supposedly the warmest in the Algarve due to its proximity to the Mediterranean), the former fishing village of Monte Gordo was one of the first tourist destinations on the Algarve and one of the first hotels in the area was built here in the sixties.
The resort is busy all year-round, and is particularly popular with the Germans and Scandinavians, many of whom spend the winter months here in holiday homes, rental apartments and on the large campsite close to the town centre.
Monte Gordo is home to the exclusive Robinson Club Quinta Da Ria, a predominantly German resort which is favoured by UK athletes for warm weather training. The GB Olympic track and field team stayed here in 2012 for their final preparations for the games.
If you walk to the far west of the resort, there are glimpses of Monte Gordo's heritage in the shape of the small, brightly-coloured fishing boats which when they are not at sea are left in dry-dock on the beach. In the evenings, fishermen work on the boats repairing nets and preparing the boats for the next day.
Located at the mouth of the River Arade, Portimão is one of the most densely populated areas in the Algarve, and is the largest town on the Barlavento/Western area of the Algarve. The waterfront area of Portimão has seen a lot of recent development, and there are some picturesque riverside views.
Where the River Arade meets the Atlantic Ocean lies one of the most spectacular beaches of the Algarve. Praia da Rocha (beach of rocks) offers some of the finest rock formations in the Algarve. Infact the coastline around Portimao mainly consists of sandy beaches, cliffs and stunning coloured rock formations.
There are boat trips available from the marina at Portimao from which to explore the rocky surroundings and cave formations of Praia da Rocha.
The popular Capicua Bar at Praia da Rocha Marina is one of the liveliest venues in town offering DJs and House music into the early hours.
To the east of Vilamoura the adjoining resort of Quarteira, which is a more typical Algarve town with a long sandy beach, and where prices are slightly lower.
Quarteira is more popular with the Dutch, Germans and Portuguese visitors from the north than the British, and somehow seems to have fallen off the radar for UK holiday visitors. This certainly isn't due to the beaches which are some of the finest in the Algarve.
There is an ongoing issue with street crime against tourists in Quarteira and Vilamoura, and for this reason we would not recommend wandering around these areas late at night, except for in the tourist areas which are well-policed.
Quarteira is the home of the popular Aquashow Water Park which is an ideal family day out if you are taking children. There is a hotel which has recently been constructed next to Aquashow if you fancy a weekend break with the family.
As with most of the Algarve water parks Aquashow is only open from April to October, with higher prices being charged in the peak holiday season.
Situated just to the west of Faro Airport, Quinta do Lago (Lake Farm) and Vale do Lobo (Valley of Wolves) are 2 of the Algarve's most exclusive resorts. Built adjacent to some of Algarve's best beaches and the 2 of the region's best golf courses, the resorts attract a lot of older clientele looking for a peaceful break. Although both resorts are open to the public, there are some gated communities containing both private and rented villas.
Both Quinta do Lago and Vale do Lobo have their own bars, restaurants and shops, but be aware that prices are more expensive in these resorts than in neighbouring areas. Head for the nearby town of Almancil for cheaper eating out and supermarket prices.
The Vale do Lobo resort is especially popular with celebrities and has been used on occasion by the England national football team and a number of Premier League teams for warm weather training.
Both Vale do Lobo and Quinta do Lago have access to huge sandy beaches which are very popular in summer, but are less crowded than nearby resorts such as Albufeira and Vilamoura.
If you are looking for spectacular scenery, planning some walking or bird-watching then the wind-swept coastline near Sagres is a great choice for a holiday location. Sagres is around a 2 hour drive west from Faro, and resembles Wales in terms of its landscape. Sagres is the most south-westerly point in Portugal, and with the winds sweeping in from the Atlantic, Sagres offers something a little different to the developed coastline which typifies much of the Algarve.
The beaches here can be dangerous due to the huge waves, and a number of unsuspecting people have been swept away in recent years. Sagres Fort is set on cliff tops above the sea and is a great place to view the fantastic landscape.
Although Sagres looks idyllic for surfers and other watersports, even experienced surfers need to take extra care when pitching themselves against the huge waves of the south-western tip of Portugal.
Although Tavira has been developed significantly in recent years, the town retains much of its original charm. The river (Sequa) runs through the town to the sea, and creates picturesque views of the river side houses.
A visit to the Old Town (Centro Historico) is recommended with its historic church and many beautiful medieval houses with Gothic windows and doorways dating back to the 16th century. There is also a museum located in the Palácio da Galeria.
In the summer months the Praça da República area situated on the bank of the river is teaming with life. Outdoor restaurants and a market which continues into the evening make this one of the most popular resorts of the Algarve.
Whilst Tavira does have beaches close to the town, the best beaches are located a short ferry ride away on the idyllic Tavira Island, which is part of the Ria Formosa nature reserve. The beaches on Tavira Island are some of the finest in the Algarve, and are not very busy compared to many of the Algarve resort beaches. If you are prepared to walk a few hundred metres you will find secluded areas. There are a few bars and restaurants on the island and you can hire sun shades and sun loungers. There is also a large campsite on Tavira Island, and if you are considering camping this is one of the best locations to camp in the Algarve.
The purpose built resort of Vilamoura is one of the more exclusive on the Algarve and is especially popular with golfers. Vilamoura Marina is similar in many ways to Marbella in Spain in terms of the clientele and "look and feel" although Marbella has higher prices. Beyond the Marina area there are long sandy beaches to the east and west, and a large number of purpose built holiday flats and self-catering apartments, many of which are owned by British and Germans who use them as holiday homes.
The eastern most point of the Algarve, and located on the border with Spain is Villa Real de Santo Antonio. The town is a quiet destination, and far less developed than most of the resorts to the west of Faro.
In 1991 a road bridge was built between the Algarve and Spain, making Spain easily accessible by car. Alternatively, for foot passengers only there is a ferry from Villa Real de Santo Antonio to Ayamonte in Spain. The ferry crossing takes about 15 minutes.
Many visitors to the Algarve decide to visit Spain for a day trip. A great day trip involves driving to Villa Real, leaving the car in Portugal and getting the ferry across to the small town of Ayamonte. Visitors to Ayamonte won't be disappointed as it has an attractive old town and church, set in a pedestrianised shopping area which is a short walk from the ferry drop-off point.
There isn't a beach in Ayamonte, but if you have a car you can drive across to the large Isla Canela Beach which is located a short drive from the town centre across a bridge.
If you are planning to drive across the border into Spain, there is likely to be a surcharge of around €25-50 if you are driving a rental vehicle - check with your rental agent before you travel or when you collect the vehicle.
Additionally the A22 motorway which connects Portugal with Spain is now a toll road, so it may be advisable to use the slower N125 instead.
More ideas of things to do in the Algarve.
If you are looking for a budget holiday, accommodation prices are considerably cheaper outside the main holiday periods of Easter, July and August. We have a Faro Hotels guide if you need accommodation close to Faro Airport.
The pigletinportugal.com website has some excellent information on the best beaches of the Algarve including photographs.