Algarve – Travel Guide and Itinerary

For our third visit to Portugal (the first was a short stay in Lisbon only, and the second was a “round-the-country” road trip), we flew to Lisbon again and then drove to the Algarve region, in the south of the country. Here I’ll share the main outline for the trip, some of the highlights and favourites we discovered and enjoyed along the way.

The Algarve region is known for its mild weather, beautiful beaches and seaside towns/resorts, striking coastal cliffs, hilly interior dotted with charming towns, as well as numerous tourist-oriented amenities and large expat communities. For this trip, we focused on the central coast, between Lagos and Faro. To get the most out of the region, we recommend avoiding the crowded/expensive high summer months (July and August) if possible, as the weather from mid-May to June and from September to mid-October is warm enough for the beach (the sea may be cold) and still lovely for sightseeing. During the non-peak season, better deals for flights, accommodation, car rental, etc., can be found as well.

We rented a car for the first 10 days of our stay, and that gave us the flexibility to manage our schedule and explore further than if we had relied solely on public transportation. Road conditions are good, and a GPS or cell phone with data worked well to go anywhere we wanted with ease. Many highways have tolls, and it’s worth it to get the ViaVerde transponder from the rental company. We paid a small fee for the use of the transponder and then all the toll charges when returning the car. This way, we didn’t have to worry about having change to pay the tolls at the collection booths nor had to pay the fee charged if we drove through an automated toll reader without the transponder. When entering the destinations on the GPS/navigation application, we liked to compare the drive options, as sometimes the difference in time/distance between toll or no toll is small and it may not be worth taking the toll roads all the time. We also noticed that driving on the smaller/no-toll roads sometimes took us through small towns, offering opportunities to discover new places and see more of the local businesses/life.

On day 1, we arrived at the Lisbon airport, bought a mobile data card for internet on the go (use on unblocked cellphones or router), and grabbed a coffee/snack while waiting to be picked up by the car rental company (Cael). We had used them on our previous trip as well and they offer great rates and a shuttle to/from their offsite lot. From there, we started on our way south to Portimao. The drive takes about 2.5 hours.

We are beach lovers and planned our daily itineraries to visit as many beaches and other coastal points of interest as possible, dedicating less time to exploring the cities themselves (yet another reason to go back and more detailed posts to come!). From our research, we knew that most beaches have amenities and sun loungers/umbrellas/canopies to rent for the day, but the cost can add up quickly and since we would most likely want to spend time at more than one spot per day, we decided to purchase two beach chairs and an umbrella (easily available at beachwear shops all over the Algarve as well as other stores/supermarkets around the country) and kept them in the car for easy access and comfort everywhere we went.

Portimao (4 nights) – a charming port city with a population of over 55,000. It was busy, but the central area didn’t feel overly “touristy” and had a lively local vibe. We checked into our hotel and started exploring! The first stop was at The House of Isabel (A Casa da Isabel), a tiny Pastry & Tea room with delicious traditional pastries/drinks, charming tile exterior, and antique-filled decor. We then enjoyed ending our afternoon at Rocha Beach (Praia da Rocha), where it was a lot busier and tourist-oriented, but after a delicious dinner in one of the many restaurants in the area, the jet-lag and sleepless flight finally caught-up with us, and we returned to our hotel early.

Our initial “base” in Portimao allowed for easy access to day trips and beach hopping around. We would usually start our day at the farthest beach (for that day), stay for a bit if we liked it, and then start driving back, checking out and/or stopping at other interesting spots planned. After a good breakfast every day, we basically brought water and sometimes a snack with us, and would find lunch options around wherever we were when hunger hit (another great reason to have mobile data!). We were very flexible and did not have one bad meal I can recall – Gotta love the food in Portugal! We also enjoyed taking a stroll along the Ribeirinha (pedestrian boulevard along the Arade River, near the centre of Portimao) after dinner on the following nights, stopping for ice-cream, local pastries or a nightcap. Special mention to a delicious Codfish Cataplana we had at Restaurante Esquina, and the friendly Pastelaria Arade (pastry shop) nearby!

On day 2, we drove out to Alvor Beach in the morning, then stopped at Tres Irmaos (Three Brothers) Beach, saw the beautiful scenery from above the cliffs around Submarino and Joao de Arens Beach (there’s a nudist area on the east side), checked out Barranco das Canas and Alemao Beach, then spent some time at Vau Beach (Praia do Vau), where we found a lively hub of restaurants and sampled some delicious snacks while enjoying the view. Continuing on, we saw Careanos Beach and Tres Castelos (Three Castles) Beach from above, and ended the day back at Rocha Beach.

On day 3, we headed further west, past and around the city of Lagos, for a stop at Luz Beach (Praia da Luz), spent some time at the lovely Porto de Mos Beach, then headed to Ponta da Piedade for some of the most amazing views in the region – short scenic boat tours depart from a small dock down the steps at the water level. Next stop was the famous Camilo Beach (Praia do Camilo) – access to the beach is down 200 wooden steps to the cove below (and then back up to leave!). Following that, a quick stop at Dona Ana Beach (Praia Dona Ana) brought us back closer to the centre of Lagos, where we also stopped at Meia Praia, Student Beach (Praia dos Estudantes), Batata Beach (Praia da Batata), and enjoyed views of the Ponta da Bandeira Fort, the medieval Lagos Castle, the city marina/fishing docks, and busy area by the Bensafrim riverside district. We had a late lunch nearby at A Barrigada Restaurant – a delicious all-you-can-eat fresh grilled fish/seafood accompanied by boiled potatoes and tomato salad.

On Day 4, we crossed the Old Bridge (Ponte Velha) over the Arade River to head east of Portimao, stopped at Pintadinho Beach (Praia do Pintadinho), Ponta do Altar Lighthouse (Farol da Ponta do Altar), and spent some time walking around Carvoeiro to check out the bustling town with its hilly terrain and cute small beach. The beach and surrounding areas were very crowded with the set-up for a festival and finding parking nearby was a challenge, so we didn’t stay long and continued on. From Carvoeiro, we took the scenic road to Algar Seco and enjoyed privileged viewpoints of the coastline and rock formations. There’s also a nice boardwalk between the two points to walk at leisure. We drove by luxury homes and hotels/resorts until the next stop at the famous Benagil Beach (Praia do Benagil). Parking spaces right by the beach are very limited, in part due to the terrain and narrow road, but a large free parking lot is located further up the hill, across from the Litoral Restaurant (it’s a steep trek down and back up). After parking, we walked the trails leading to the edge of the cliffs, literally above the famous Benagil Caves, and came to a spot where we could see the inside of the cave from above, as there is an opening on the roof. At the beach, we bought tickets for a boat tour to the caves and enjoyed the nice sandy stretch, clear water and beautiful surroundings until our allotted tour time. Our boat tour guide from Taruga Tours was great, and a visit to the caves is a total MUST do! – rental kayaks are available at the beach as well and kayakers are able to reach/stop at many of the nearby caves and small beaches accessible only from the sea. Thoroughly exhilarated and amazed after our tour, we returned to the car to drive to our last planned stop of the day, the popular Instagram hot-spot Marinha Beach (Praia da Marinha) with its breathtaking views and undeniable beauty. A perfect place to end the day before driving back to Portimao.

On Day 5, we checked out of our hotel in Portimao and started the drive to our next “base” further east. We stopped at the Nossa Senhora da Rocha Chapel and Lookout and were amazed by the views into Praia Nova and the Senhora da Rocha Beach (Praia da Senhora da Rocha). The next stop was at the Cova Redonda Beach (Praia da Cova Redonda), where a long set of steps leads to a lovely stretch of sand surrounded by luxury hotels. We continued on to Tremoços Beach (Praia dos Tremoços) and then checked out the Vale do Olival Beach (Praia do Vale do Olival). As we kept going east, we realized that the terrain was changing, and the high seaside cliff walls were becoming lower cliffs until we got to Armaçao de Pera Beach (Praia de Armaçao de Pera), where the beach is only a couple of steps lower than the road. We LOVED the area around the beach, very lively (at least in the warmer months) with a nice ocean-front promenade, countless shops and restaurants, and lots of residential buildings and houses, a visible contrast from other areas where there are mostly hotels surrounding the beach. We spent the rest of the day in Armaçao de Pera and then drove to our hotel in Quarteira in the early evening.

Quarteira (3 nights) – is a small town in the central area of the Algarve with about 22,000 residents. Its golden sand beach, lack of cliffs along the shore, and calm sea waters, when added to a good location with easy access to other famous beaches and towns/cities nearby, provide great value as one of the top spots in the region, popular with Portuguese tourists. What it lacks in traditional architectural charm, it makes up with the beautiful wide beach, tourist amenities, an extensive selection of restaurants, bars, shops and cafes. We believe that Quarteira is a more relaxing destination, not a “party hub”, which for us was perfect!

On Day 6, we left the hotel in the morning and drove straight to the scenic Sao Rafael Beach (Praia de Sao Rafael), and then checked out the small and rocky Arrifes Beach (Praia de Arrifes). Getting into Albufeira next, we found a (rare) parking spot and started exploring on foot. The three beaches near the city centre – Peneco, Pescadores and Inatel – were very nice and offered lots of amenities. On our way out of the city, we checked out a few other beaches – Alemaes (Praia dos Alemaes), Oura (Praia da Oura), Santa Eulalia (Praia de Santa Eulalia), and the wide stretch of red cliffs and golden sand in Falesia (Praia da Falesia) – before heading back to Quarteira to finish the day at Forte Novo Beach (Praia do Forte Novo).

Albufeira, a hilly city west of Quarteira where the shore is again formed around cliffs, and a very popular destination for expats and foreign tourists, most noticeably British – we found plenty of pubs and restaurants offering Brit fare, although, with over 500 restaurants, cafes and bars in the city, many other cuisines are offered as well. Albufeira is the largest of the resort towns in the Algarve, and the historic center or Old Town (Cidade Velha) has kept much of its traditional Portuguese architecture and charm while still offering numerous amenities. The portion developed more recently (identified as “New Town”) boasts a “Strip” full of restaurants and bars, modern gated communities, upscale villas and luxury buildings. The narrow streets and many one-way roads, added to a population that can increase over 20-fold in the summer months, made it hard to navigate and a bit too crowded for us. For those staying in Albufeira and able to walk the steep terrain, there is no lack of dining, shopping, nightlife and entertainment options. Bonus points to them for the open-air escalators from the Pau da Bandeira Lookout (Miradouro) to the beach-side square (Largo 25 de Abril) below, something we had never seen before, but appreciated! 🙂

On Day 7, we drove east to Faro and noticed a huge change of pace as we were met by a much busier and more urban environment, heavy traffic, multi-lane highways and overpasses. We passed by the Faro International Airport before crossing the bridge to the lovely Faro Beach (Praia de Faro). It was a gorgeous day and we were so impressed by the beach – its light sand, inviting water and flat terrain – that we decided to stay there and just relax, enjoying a break from the earlier days of beach-hopping. There are free parking lots next to the sand (the largest one is right across the bridge, but we noticed spaces were full by around 11 am) and a large selection of restaurants and bars line both ways along the stretch, so we almost had too many options to get meals, drinks and snacks! Feeling happy and re-energized, we left Faro and returned to our hotel at the end of the day.

On day 8, we packed up the car and left Quarteira to head north on the way back to Lisbon. We had planned a stop in Loule, and discovered an adorable town full of charm, history and architectural influences – from the Moors to medieval kings and more! Walking around the Loule Market and nearby streets in the historic centre, we were enchanted by the colourful alleys, lovely shops, ancient walled castle, and we loved the feeling that the town had a life of its own, not revolving mainly around tourism. We got back on the road and stopped for a late lunch in Setubal before arriving in Lisbon (3 nights).

On day 9, we spent some time in Sintra and Cascais, revisiting favourites and finding new ones. We returned to Lisbon in time to meet local friends for a lovely dinner near Martin Moniz and wandered the lively streets of the historic district until late at night.

On day 10, we had a relaxing day at Fiqueirinha Beach and loved seeing the striking scenery of the area again, returning to the “base” in the late afternoon.

On day 11, we dropped off the rental car at the airport in the morning, hopped into the subway from there and spent the rest of the day enjoying familiar attractions and exploring some new spots in Lisbon using transit.

On day 12, we left our accommodation early and headed to the airport to catch our flight, already missing this wonderful country – We’ll certainly be back!

Have questions about the Algarve or favourites to share? Let us know in the comments below. 🙂

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