Once a formidable seafaring kingdom that dominated merchant routes to Africa, South America and the Orient, Portugal today boasts with bucolic scenery, year-round sunshine, and low-key, laid back vibe places for a perfect relaxing holiday.
Its fantastic beaches cater to all tastes – while they’re perfect for lounging while enjoying the sunset over the Atlantic and dining on the amazing fresh seafood, they also offer excellent surfing spots.
One of its historical cities, Lisbon, also offers a lively club scene while the other, Porto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the best place to sample one of the best known Portuguese products – port wine.
The south-facing coast of the Algarve is the country’s tourist epicenter. With many of the country’s safest and loveliest beaches, and a year-round balmy climate, it is not surprising that the Algarve is Portugal’s most popular region for holiday-makers.
To the west of Vilamoura, you’ll find the rocky outcrops and cove beaches for which the Algarve is best known especially around the main resorts of Albufeira, Armacao de Pera and Lagos.
The eastern coast between Faro and the Spanish border is very different. Most of it is protected within the Reserva Natural da Ria Formosa, a series of barrier islands fronted by extensive sandy beaches. That means taking a short boat trip to reach the sands, which has helped preserve the towns from large-scale development.
The resorts here have a more Portuguese feel than those in the central stretch, and first-choice bases here would be Faro itself, capital of the entire region.
An interesting mixture of old and new, Faro is originally a Roman settlement, becoming Christian later, but was largely destroyed by the Great Earthquake of 1755 – so there’s a few historic sites to visit.
What interest it does retain is centered within and around the pretty Cidade Velha (Old Town), which lies behind a series of defensive walls overlooking the mudflats.
With its international airport, impressive shopping malls and high-rise apartment buildings, Faro has a big-city feel although its central area is quite manageable and easy to get around.
Being a university city, it can also provide for lively nightlife and clubbing. More about this place.
Albfeira has long been one of the Algarve’s most popular resorts – and it’s easy to see why. The old centre is a highly picturesque medley of whitewashed houses atop low sandstone cliffs facing a fantastic town beach. Albufeira is undeniably fun, attracting a varied mix of holiday-makers.
Although the 1755 earthquake destroyed much of the town, there’s still a Moorish feel to a few parts of central Albufeira – the original Arabic name of the town, Al-Buhera, means “Castle-on-the-Sea”. There are some fine beaches either side of the town, too.
Armacao de Pera
Armacao de Pera, 15km west of Albufeira, fronts one of the largest beaches in the Algarve, which spreads east all the way to Gale. The remains of the town’s fortified walls are at the eastern end of the resort, where a terrace in front of a little white chapel provides sweeping views.
But the town beach is fine and if the main section is crowded, just head further east, beyond the cluster of traditional boats on the fishermen’s beach towards Gale, where things are quieter.
Lagos is one of the Algarve’s most attractive and historic towns, its centre enclosed in largely fourteenth-century walls at the mouth of the Ribeira de Bensafrim. For all its historical significance, Lagos’s main attraction is its proximity to some of the region’s best beaches.
To the east is the long sweep of Meia Praia, while to the west – from Praia de Dona Ana to Porto de Mos – you’ll find the series of coves, caves and rock stacks for which the Algarve is best known. Boat trips run along the coast all year round, while a popular side-trip is inland to Lagos Zoo.
Whether you are up for an adventurous vacation or a lush relaxing time on the beach, South Portugal is teeming with places to visit and experience the historical as well as the modern, laid-back, fun Portugal.