Endless contours of rocky, limestone cliffs hiding caves and secret beaches. Pillars of orange rock jutting from the turquoise sea. Open stretches of blonde sand with a single trail of footprints and barely a soul in sight.
Though hardly a well kept secret, it’s no surprise that the stunning thread of coastline that makes up the Algarve region is home to some of the best beaches in Portugal.
Visiting just before the start of the high season, we were still able to find stretches of beach where it was just us, alone on our own slice of paradise. Hours were spent exploring every nook and hideaway of the clifftops between Lagos and Faro, dozing on the beach to the sound of the gentle waves and gorging on incredible seafood dishes. If the water had not been quite so icy, we may have never left.
This is our guide to the very best places to visit and things to do in the Algarve – where to find the best beaches, our favourite rustic small towns, what to do there, and where to stay in the region.
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Things To Do In The Algarve
We used Lagos as our base for our visit to the Algarve, though we really didn’t spend all that much time in the town itself.
Besides stuffing yourself stupid with plates of moreish garlic prawns, spending an afternoon exploring the cliffs and bays between the town and Ponta da Piedade is one of the best things to do in Lagos and a wonderful way to enjoy the final hours of sunlight.
The town centre is a hive of tourist activity with restaurants and shops buzzing throughout the day.
We tried out a few of the local specialities: cataplana, a tomatoey seafood stew, Piri Piri chicken and fish with rice, but the dish we came back to time and again was the fried shrimp at Adega da Marinha. This casual cafeteria-meets-sports-bar set up is nothing fancy, but their seafood specialities are great value for money.
Sitting beside the marina with a glass of refreshing vino verde in hand, devouring fresh prawns in a rich garlic, lemon and ginger sauce, we felt there were few better ways to kick off a trip to the Portuguese coast.
If you are looking for a base for your trip, Lagos is one of the best places to stay in the Algarve. There are good bus and train connections to nearby towns and beaches, or if you have a car, most highlights in the region are within an easy 90-minute drive. The beaches alongside the town are also some of the most beautiful in the region.
Lagos also boasts an excellent selection of accommodation to choose from with locally run guesthouses and hotels to suit any budget. Search for rates and availability here.
For a more homey experience, Airbnb is another great option. We stayed at a wonderful apartment near the old town for a very reasonable rate. Check rates and availability here.
New to Airbnb? Sign up here and receive up to $30 off when you make your first booking.
Marinha has a reputation as being the best beach in the Algarve and, unsurprisingly, it was the busiest one we visited.
Even in the hours of dwindling sunlight when most of the shore was cast in shadow people were continuously making their way down the long staircase to the beach.
There’s no doubt, Praia da Marinha is one of the prettiest beaches in the region with rugged sandstone pillars dotted dramatically across the sand, but we’d recommend visiting first thing in the morning if you want to avoid the crowds and enjoy the beach bathed in sunshine rather than shade.
The beach is accessible by car but there are no food services here.
A visit to the mesmerising Benagil Cave is easily one of the best things to do in the Algarve. Benagil Beach itself is nice enough, but the main attraction here is the massive cave beach hidden around the corner.
Bobbing along the cliff wall and getting that first glimpse of the secluded beach as you round the bend was definitely a highlight of our trip to the Algarve. Two archways enter the cave and lead up onto the beach with the only light shining through a hole in the sandstone ceiling which creates a halo of sunlight on the sand.
If you’re a decent swimmer, getting to the cave is pretty straightforward. Facing the ocean, head to the far left of the beach and the cave is just a short swim around the cliff – around 200 m depending on the tide. Low tide is the best time to go when the cave beach has plenty of sand exposed and the water is calmer. High tide is also manageable but the waves can get a little sloshy leading onto the beach. We would not recommend attempting the swim in big swell and always keep an eye out for boats while in the water.
If you’re not keen on swimming, boat tours are offered directly from the beach for around €25, or you can combine Benagil Cave as part of a longer boat tour along the Algarve coast. Check here for prices and reservations.
Parking here can get pretty tight in the area so arrive early. Otherwise, the beach is serviced by the public bus and there are several restaurants nearby.
The pretty stretch of beaches surrounding Praia do Vau is beautifully serene with a healthy supply of cafes and restaurants. The clifftop walk westward from Vau is a must with coastal arches, concealed caves and pretty turquoise bays making it one of the best places in the Algarve to explore.
The main beach at Vau is where most people stop, lay out their towels and settle in for the day, but if you continue along there are some much quieter beaches to be found. Around the first cliff you’ll reach Barranco das Canas and further along is the tiny Boiäo.
When we visited on a Saturday in May, Vau was quite busy, but further along there were only a handful of colourful umbrellas to mark our neighbours on the beach.
Vau is accessible via the main parking area behind it. Barranco das Canas can be reached through the adjacent dirt parking area and for Boiäo just continue walking along the beach.
Silves is a quaint and peaceful town of whitewashed walls and cobbled streets that makes a perfect half-day trip. The town is relatively quiet during the day, but you’ll find a number of charming cafes serving up fresh orange juice and the Portuguese favourite, torta de nata (custard tarts).
The red-walled fortress atop the hill though is the main thing to do in Silves. From here you can walk the walls and be rewarded with views over the countryside freckled with olive trees. Entrance fee is €2.80.
Silves is accessible by bus and train although the train station is 2 km out of town with a rather unpleasant walk along the highway.
This little red lighthouse just outside of Lagos is the perfect place to watch the sunset after a day spent lolling on the Algarve’s sun-kissed shores. Follow the long staircase down to the water or soak up the last rays of sun from the clifftops.
The point is accessible by car or you can walk the lovely 3 km trail that weaves along the clifftops from Lagos.
Standing on the edge of the cliffs, wind lashing your face and no sign of land or life anywhere across the water, it’s not hard to believe that navigators once stood here imagining that the horizon signified the edge of the Earth.
At the tip of Sagres Point is the fortress where Henry the Navigator devised much of his plans for explorations to the west. There isn’t a whole lot to see inside but from the clifftops and fortress walls, there are views to the once believed edge of the Earth and across to Cape St. Vincent. Entrance fee is €3.
Cape St Vincent is the most south-westerly point of Europe, and as the German hot dog stand reminds you, this is the last stop before America. Walk out along the clifftops and watch the waves that have travelled across the Atlantic collide with the jagged coastline or the windsurfers artfully glide through the whitewash.
Between Sagres Point and Cape St Vincent there is a small protected beach that makes a popular surf spot in the Algarve. A few surf schools in the area rent out boards.
Both areas are accessible by car and there is a cafe and food trucks available at Cape St Vincent.
We didn’t visit windswept Bordeira on the Algarve’s west to swim, but we did soak it up from the boardwalk that runs south along the headland. Between clumps of yellow flowers, the walkway leads to the edge of the cliff where waves crash violently against the rocks.
The sea here is quite rough, but the river outlet at the southern end has calm waters perfect for swimming.
After a scenic drive through the forest followed by a potholed nightmare beside the wetlands, we emerged at the northern tip of Amoreira.
Tucked away in the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coastal Natural Park, the backdrop of rugged black rocks, choppy seas and ocean mist hanging heavy in the air was a stark contrast to the idyllic shores and orange cliffs where we had spent the previous days on the Algarve’s east. However, the wide swathe of silver shore and a slackening breeze made this isolated beach just as inviting.
The river outlet is accessed via a car park and boardwalk at the southern end of Amoreira. There is also a carpark at the northern end and a café a serving food and drinks.
Faro’s old town is a sleepy little place of rambling laneways dressed in bougainvillaea and plazas fringed in fragrant orange trees.
In the high season Faro is likely a little more lively, but in the quieter months, it’s mostly used as a jumping off point for other regions in the Algarve.
Faro has the main airport in the Algarve and has great bus and train connections within the region and to major centres around Portugal including Lisbon and Porto.
We were based in Lagos during our time in the Algarve and stayed at a lovely Airbnb apartment with a great location and excellent self-catering facilities. Check rates and availability here.
New to Airbnb? Sign up here and receive up to $30 off when you make your first booking!
In the summer, Lagos is known as somewhat of a party town, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also find some quiet accommodation as well. Whether you’re searching for a cosy guesthouse or a bustling hostel, Lagos has some excellent places to stay. Some options that look particularly nice:
Boutique Tag Hostel. With a lovely location right by the water, friendly staff and thoughtful touches sprinkled throughout the property, it’s no surprise that travellers rave about their stay here. An airy rooftop terrace and communal kitchen also make this a great place to stay. Dorm rooms and private rooms are available. Search for rates and availability here.
Olive Hostel Lagos. Located right in the old town of Lagos, visitors love the homey vibes at the hostel, alongside the morning yoga and free welcome drinks which sound like an excellent bonus to us. A guest kitchen is also on offer with both dormitory and private rooms available. Search for rates and availability here.
Due to it’s proximity to the airport, Faro is another popular place to be based. Search for rates and availability in Faro here.
There are good bus and train connections between the main towns and beaches of the Algarve. Hubs in Faro and Lagos also have good connections to Lisbon and international services running to Seville in Spain.
Hiring a car is a far more convenient way to explore the Algarve and can often be the most economical option, especially if there are two or more people. Particularly when visiting the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina where bus services are infrequent and won’t take you right to the coast, a car will give you the freedom to explore these pretty coastal roads and isolated beaches without having to rely on a bus schedule.
Several major car rental agencies operate out of Lagos and Faro airport while local operators often give more competitive rates. Search car rental options here.