I’ve always loved travel in Portugal, whether it was the tumbledown charm and boozy visits to the wineries of Porto, drinks at viewpoints and guzzling pasteis de nata in Lisbon, or striding out in awe over the bubbling volcanic landscape of the Azores. But, truth be told, I’d never had much fascination with the Algarve: I assumed the region would be all crowded beaches, modern buildings and overdeveloped resorts.

That’s why, when I finally visited the region, its natural beauty, delicious cuisine and fabulous array of outdoor activities took me completely by surprise.

An aerial view over people stand-up paddle boarding amid golden sandstone cliffs and sea stacks, lapped by turquoise water.
Ponta da Piedade is one of the Algarve's standout natural attractions © francesco riccardo iacomino / Getty Images

Faro and the Fonte da Benémola Trail

I flew into the region’s capital, Faro. I only made a quick stop, but I’d recommend spending time here as this small city, with its timewarp walled old town, rewards exploration. I checked out the architectural hodgepodge of the cathedral and the creepy yet mesmerising Capela dos Ossos, fashioned from the bones and skulls of monks. 

I met wonderful guide Diana from operator Portugal4U and we drove inland to discover the Fonte da Benémola Trail near Loulé. Diana is super-friendly and has a wealth of knowledge about the Algarve, so she was great company on this circular walk through verdant rolling farmland, the route teeming with birdlife and fragrant thyme and lavender.

Looking over a sunlit square, paved with stones in a circular geometric pattern; the centre of attention is a handsome green tiled house, alongside white buildings and trees.
Praça Luís de Camões is one of Lagos' prettiest squares © Alvaro German Vilela / Shutterstock

Lagos and Ponta da Piedade

Next I headed west through the hilly countryside of Algarve’s interior before winding down to the easy-on-the-eye town of Lagos, which charms you with a combination of meandering lanes, 16th-century walls and squares full of gorgeous tiled houses. I’d recommend eating in Don Sebastião, which serves exemplary seafood in a rustic dining room, the highlight being a huge underground wine cellar which you can tour by prior arrangement.

I made a detour to the Ponta da Piedade headland just south of Lagos, possibly the most famous symbol of the Algarve with its extraordinary kaleidoscope of golden sandstone cliffs and sea stacks, lapped by paradisiacal turquoise water.

Dolphin spotting in Sagres

The further west from Faro you go in the Algarve, the less built-up the resorts and the more you experience the unspoilt and rugged beauty of this region. The journey reaches a thrilling end at Sagres, the last town before Europe’s southwesternmost point. Sagres is essentially an easygoing little surfer town that fits harmoniously with its windswept, almost apocalyptic natural setting. It's surrounded by high cliffs battered by the furious Atlantic below, punctuated periodically with beautiful sand beaches.

After checking in to the modern, nautical-themed hotel Memmo Baleeira, my first activity in Sagres was a dolphin-spotting boat trip with fantastic outfit Mar Ilimitado. The journey itself, in a speedy RIB vessel, is all part of the fun, the boat whisking you past men fishing from clifftops and out into the heaving blue mass of the Atlantic. 

Introducing Portugal

Once far out to sea, the search for marine life began. I was struck by the passion and respect the biologists had for these wonderful animals. The first pod we came across didn’t seem interested in interacting with us, so rather than go close and disturb them we journeyed onwards. We spotted another pod from a distance and stopped. This bunch proved to be much more sociable, and approached us to swim playfully under and around our boat. More and more dolphins joined, and the guides estimated there might have been as many as 100 in the pod, which is a rare sight. The experience – on a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight and surrounded by marine life – was truly one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen.

Writer Tom wears a wetsuit and holds a surfboard, with rocky cliffs, the beach and Atlantic Ocean behind him.
One of Tom's few triumphant moments with a surfboard © Tom Stainer / Lonely Planet

Surf’s up

I’ve never surfed before so I couldn’t miss the opportunity to go for a surfing lesson the next day. The instructors at Freeride were fantastic, taking us through basic rules, gear set-ups and safety in the water before letting us loose in the waves under close supervision. I’ll be honest, I was hopeless, but after a fashion, and a couple of hours, I was up and surfing on my board (for at least a couple of seconds before spectacularly wiping out). My body, unused to the assault of the ocean, was incredibly sore for a couple of days afterwards, but it was well worth it.

An aerial view over a fortress in a dramatic location at the end of a promontory; heavy waves crash against the cliffs below.
The Fortaleza de Sagres occupies a commanding clifftop location © Daniel Majak / Shutterstock

Exploring the Sagres coastline

A leisurely seafood lunch, with gorgeous views over the marina and bay from the sunbaked terrace at A Tasca, hit the spot. Then in the afternoon I walked the clifftop coastal path to the Fortaleza de Sagres, a sprawling fortress site teetering on the edge of this spectacular stretch of coastline.

Later that evening, I made my way to the Cabo de São Vicente, Europe’s final frontier. It’s a perfect place to watch a huge sunset sink into the Atlantic as the wind rattles around you, and contemplate the wild splendour of this corner of Portugal.

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Tom travelled to the Algarve with support from Visit Algarve. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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