Portugal is a favorite destination for visitors from all over the world, and the region they’re most likely to head to is the fabulous Algarve. Beaches, stunning rock formations, historical sites, vibrant towns, and quaint villages, plus the nature reserve of the huge lagoon of Ria Formosa, make for an incredible variety of places to enjoy and explore. The best way to do so is by renting a car and going on a leisurely two-day road trip.
The best times for exploring Portugal’s beautiful Algarve region are spring and fall. In the summer, it can get very hot despite a breeze from the sea. In spring, the region is full of flowers. In fall, you can see (and sample) the harvest of fat grapes.
Arriving from overseas, you will probably land at Faro’s international airport (also called Algarve Airport).
Faro is the largest city in the Algarve and located right in the middle of the region, which makes it an ideal place to rent a car. But don’t just rush off. Faro itself wants to be explored, too, which you can do before embarking on your road trip, which I recommend dividing into two parts. Much of the old town is pedestrianized, with many pavements adorned with marble mosaic. The colorful and sometimes rather grand houses give you a first impression of Portuguese style.
If, like me, you wish to spend the night in Faro before setting out for part one of your road trip, Eva Senses Hotel is a great place to be. Ideally located with a view over the port and an easy walk along the promenade toward the old town, you can relax in a rooftop pool and elegant rooms.
Don’t miss the famous chapel of the bones. The ossuary is located in the beautiful 18th-century church of Our Lady of Carmel. Follow a sign within the church, then enter a small courtyard where the chapel is at the back. One thousand bones and skulls of monks who once served in a nearby monastery decorate every surface of the chapel. It’s not at all ghoulish but rather a point of reflection on how fleeting life is and to enjoy the moment. It also says so on an inscription over the low door.
Back in sunlight, meander through the streets and down to the port for dinner. Combine Portuguese culture and fabulous seafood by listening to the haunting fados, Portugal’s traditional ballads, whilst indulging in seafood platters (cataplana) of enormous proportions at the Restaurante Centenario.
Heading west after your night in Faro gives you the advantage of having the sun at your back, which is convenient on your way to Cabo de Sao Vicente, the westernmost point in Portugal.
First stop should be one of the liveliest and most popular beach resorts in the Algarve: Albufeira. You can’t wish for better, cleaner, or wider beaches that are family friendly, too. There are, in fact, three beaches, so you have a choice. Have a swim and, after that, stroll around the pretty old town that’s brimming with bars and restaurants, colorful houses, and shops.
For a snack in between anywhere in the Algarve, try bifanas, a sandwich like no other, available at practically every street corner.
In this romantic former fishing village turned tourist resort, the Algarve coastline is the most eye-catching aspect. The town is actually carved into steep, red sea cliffs, with a few tiny beaches in between. A mile north looms the even more impressive Algar Seco rock formation. If you want to take the time, you can climb the steps down. Close by is Praia da Rocha, maybe the most photographed of the rocks. The town has a colorful history of pirates and naval battles, but apart from a ruined castle, nothing that stands today reminds of this past.
Whereas the emphasis of the trip, so far, has been on the fabulous coastline, Lagos is steeped in history and has several monuments to bear witness. Visit the 17th-century Bandeira Fort, the Santo Antonio Church, and a reminder of a darker part of the past: Europe’s first slave market, Mercado dos Escravos. Enjoy the pretty waterfront and the lovely streets of the town center.
The further you proceed toward to westernmost point of Portugal, the rougher the terrain gets. Sagres is distinctly unglamorous but has a reputation for the best surfing in the country. One look at the turbulent waves of the Atlantic Ocean, and you’ll see why. The most remarkable attraction here is Sagres Fort because it was from here that Henry the Navigator started his 15th-century exploration of the uncharted waters of Africa. A giant wind compass within the fort reminds you of how sailors navigated centuries ago.
Head for the lone lighthouse of Cabo de Sao Vicente, and you’ll feel as if you have really arrived at the end of the world.
It’s time to turn around and explore the other side of the Algarve: the mountains!
You have two options for reaching Monchique: Either head back to Lagos and from there, go north on the N124, or follow the coast up to Carrapateira, then inland, turning east at Aljezu.
Either drive leads you through eucalyptus and cork woods and a landscape formed by lava flow. In fact, the entire Serra de Monchique is volcanic. During your drive, you’ll see roadside stalls selling famous Portuguese ceramics that are worth a stop.
Monchique itself is an idyllic mountain village with whitewashed houses featuring unique skirt chimneys. It’s full of art galleries and there’s an open oven in the center of town where a lady bakes and sells fresh buns. Being volcanic, Monchique’s thermal waters have been cherished since Roman times and you can have a dip in one of the spas.
Monchique’s other specialty is a very potent liqueur called medronho. Designated driver: Abstain. Everybody else: Enjoy and get tipsy.
After this long day of driving, it’s time to check in somewhere for the night. My recommendation is to head in the direction of Carvoeiro and stay at the luxurious and peaceful Vale d’Oliveiras resort and spa. You can swim in an infinity pool, have a drink at the pool bar, and enjoy a massage followed by an excellent dinner in the dining room.
The next day’s road trip covers the eastern part of the Algarve close to the border with Spain.
You have to head back in the direction of Faro, but make a stop at the relaxed and charming town of Estoi, just five miles inland from Faro.
Estoi is a great change from the hustle and bustle of the coastal tourist resorts, and two main attractions here make the town a must-visit. One is Estoi Palace with its pink rococo facade and pretty garden, now a posada, as Portugal’s luxury hotels are called. Have a coffee or drink and then proceed to Villa of Milreu, a Roman complex centered around a villa dating from the second century A.D. Outstanding: the mosaics!
Back at the coast and in Olhao, you’ll see that the style of architecture is different. White houses are square with roof terraces and outdoors staircases, clearly influenced by North Africa. The exception is the bright red brick building, which is the fish market. Park your car, look at the enormous variety of fresh fish and seafood, and sample it at one of the many stalls with a few chairs and tables.
Then go and book the ferry to Ria Formosa and Isla Culatra, an unforgettable nature and sealife adventure.
9. Ria Formosa
This is a vast lagoon and nature reserve formed by the river of the same name. Sandbanks are everywhere, inhabited by birds and flamingos. Fishermen work oyster banks, and a few islands sit in the lagoon, the best-known among them being Culatra.
The ferry ride in a catamaran from Olhao takes about 20 minutes. In case you miss the return ferry, there are also water taxis available. Of course, the water is shallow and calm, a big difference from the beaches at the ocean. Passengers are visitors as well as locals from Culatra, loaded down with their weekly shopping hauls.
10. Isla Culatra
As soon as the ferry docks and you step ashore, you find yourself on an island where time stands still. A small white church stands near the dock; fishermen sit by their boats and mend their nets. No holiday homes are allowed and there are no cars. Transport is by bicycle, carts, or on foot.
A wooden footpath leads through the center of town, which features colorful fisherman’s cottages, several of them converted into small snack bars. Culatra features two sandy beaches, one on the Atlantic side, where you can swim and sunbathe until you feel it’s time to return. You can also hike or bird-watch.
Before returning to Faro to turn in your rental car, you may want to make a short stop in the charming town of Tavira. Not unlike Olhao, traditional Portuguese architecture mixes with North African influence here, and the homes are grouped around narrow, cobbled streets and interspersed with several churches.
I have mentioned ceramics as typical souvenirs from Portugal, but now it’s time to mention all the fashionable things that are made from Portuguese cork. From shoes and handbags to coasters, you’ll find delightful and innovative products in Tavira, the center of Portugal’s cork industry. Cork All has two shops in Tavira where you just might find the ideal piece to take home.
Before visiting, you might have thought of the Algarve as a beach paradise, which, of course, it is. Once you have been, however, and ventured off the beaten path, you’ll be enchanted by the variety of nature, history, and culture and might be tempted to come back to explore even more.