The trip my girlfriend, Frances, and I took to southern Portugal at the tail end of September was a compromise. The previous few years we’d either been to Italy (where my folks have a place) or France (where hers do). Both of us thought it was time to go somewhere where neither was the local expert, but that would mean budgeting more carefully than usual.

The plan was to stay somewhere fairly remote and quiet close to the coast, enjoy the sunshine and food, and do some gentle exploring, mainly based around wildlife-watching. The following spending diary covers the first four days of a longer holiday.

The author – wearing a shirt, shorts and hat and carrying a tote bag – looks out to a shimmering sea from a cliff the colour of burnt orange.
Joe looks out to the stunning coastline of the Algarve © Joe Fullman/Lonely Planet

Pre-trip spending

Flights: €162 return from London Gatwick to Faro with easyJet.

Accommodation: €150 (my half of five nights). We wanted to get an AirBnB so we could mostly self-cater with the odd meal out. After weeks of diligent research (in which I played almost no part), Frances settled on the ‘Tiny House’, an aptly named mini wooden cabin deep in the countryside outside the town of Silves. There wasn’t a lot to it: basically a room with a double bed, fridge, stove, an outdoor shower and loo, a veranda and, beyond that, a garden with a hammock. I initially thought it would be too small, but it turned out to be perfect. The weather was so good that we spent most of our time outdoors anyway. 

Car hire: €90 for 5 days (€18 per day). This was slightly more expensive than anticipated. I had arranged a car before we left using an online deal, but then ended up taking out more insurance at the desk as I was worried about driving on unmade roads (and I have weak sales resistance). We also had to pay €8 in tolls. 

Total: €410

On the ground

Monday

Total: €18.37

11.30am: We arrived, noting with pleasure how warm and sunny it was (it would stay in the high 20s for the whole trip), picked up the car and drove to Silves, getting there around lunchtime. We parked for free on a side street. The former capital of Moorish Portugal, the town's glory days are behind it, but it’s a pleasant, sleepy little place – hilly and whitewashed with stork nests on chimney pots. 

A woman smiles while lying in a hammock. Trees and greenery surround her.
Being in a remote part of the Algarve meant privacy...and a hammock © Joe Fullman / Lonely Planet

1pm: As we couldn’t check in until 3pm, we got some lunch, which for me meant a toasted cheese and ham sandwich (€4.50) and a beer (accidentally free, as they forgot to charge us and I didn’t realise until I checked my bill later), followed by a wander round the town. After a quick visit to the castle at the top of town (€2.80), which has very impressive restored Moorish outer walls (but not a lot else), we drove to Lidl. There we stocked up on supplies for the week including butter, bread, beer, fruit, tea bags (remember we’re from England), snacks for that afternoon (pastel de nata, €0.35 each) and a pasta meal for that evening. We also picked up a couple of big bottles of water. These were particularly important as the Tiny House’s water is provided by a well, which was not only in short supply after a long, hot summer but pretty much undrinkable, so we’d need it for cooking. My share of the shopping came to €11.07.

4pm: With the car loaded, we followed the clear but lengthy driving instructions to Tiny House. It lies at the end of some long, winding and, in places, worryingly narrow unmade roads ("slow, 1st gear all the way" said the instructions and I wasn’t about to disagree) and is quite wonderfully isolated: no phone signal, no wi-fi. Once in, we celebrated with a pastel de nata and a beer. 

8pm: After our meal, we sat on the veranda and, as darkness fell, we were joined by some additional visitors. Around half a dozen geckos emerged from the shadows to position themselves next to the two outdoor lamps waiting for moths to pick off. They would be our constant evening companions throughout the week.

On the left a small blue house in the middle of dry ground and green trees. A man sits on the porch. On the right a close up of a gecko on a brightly lit orange lampshade
Tiny House (left), in all its glory, attracted some neighbourhood geckos (right) © Joe Fullman / Lonely Planet

Tuesday 

Total: €34.90

10am: Our first breakfast was bread and jam – the latter happily found in the fridge. Afterwards, we headed out to find a nature reserve we’d read about. The Quinta da Rocha is an area of wetlands next to the estuary of the Alvor River and home to various species of wading bird. Entry and parking were free, although locating it proved tricky as it’s completely unsignposted. We eventually stumbled our way there to be rewarded with views of flamingos, egrets and storks. We also saw an osprey – usually the sort of bird that you see only after months of diligent preparation and staking out.

1pm: For lunch we headed to the slightly touristy resort of Alvor where parking was again free. Besieged by hungry seagulls at a seafront restaurant, Casa da Maré, I had a grilled golden bream with salad and potatoes (€13.50) and a large beer for (€3.50). This was slightly more expensive than it should have been, as we weren’t yet comfortable with the idea of sending back the couvert, a mini starter – usually a basket of bread and a bowl of olives – that comes before the main meal, and which you have to pay for unless you actively decline it. Even though I didn’t want it, being British it took me about four meals before I could bring up the courage to say "Nao obrigado" rather than "Thank you so much". This one cost €2.80. Afterwards, we had an ice cream from a local shop (two scoops for €3.50) and went for a wander.

On the left a woman holds binoculars up to her face. On the right, a close up of grilled fish, potatoes and salad
The delights of bird-watching were followed by lunch © Joe Fullman / Lonely Planet

5pm: That afternoon, we ended up again at the Lidl in Silves where we replenished our supplies, picking up more beer, fruit, fruit juice, salad, cheese, lemonade, wine (just €2.19!) and water. My share came to €11.60.

Wednesday

Total: €10.35

11am: After a pre-bought breakfast of pastries and fruit, we headed to the beach at Praia da Marinha, parking for free at the top of the cliffs. Described online as one of the "10 most beautiful beaches in Europe" (although aren’t they all?), I was expecting it to be packed. But as we were close to the end of the season, it was relatively empty. I’m not really a beach person but even I could see it's very picturesque: a curve of sand set within rugged cove. I did my best to squintingly read my book in the blazing sun while Frances swam. 

1pm: On the beach, we ate sandwiches we had brought. We then went for a long walk along the clifftops, admiring the views and the many people ignoring the signs not to get too close to the edge. This stretch is famed for is wave-cut rock formations, particularly Benagil, a great cathedral-like cavern where a succession of boat trips journey to throughout the day. We had considered taking one ourselves (it would have cost €30), but decided in the end that the free views from the cliff tops were impressive enough. 

A view of the beach filled with people from high above on top of a cliff.
The beauty of Praia da Marinha © Joe Fullman / Lonely Planet

2.30pm: After about an hour or so of walking, we reached the village of Benagil itself, a small watersports centre where we had a cola (€2.50) and a large beer (€4.50) at a bar by the beach. We then did the same walk we’d just done but in reverse, getting back to the car in just under an hour. 

6pm: Another supermarket run to get more fruit, bread and wine as well as some eggs for that evening’s meal of omelettes. My share came to €3.35.

Thursday

Total: €32.25

6pm: After a day spent lying in the hammock reading, exploring the walks around Tiny House and generally not doing much, we headed into town for a drink at the Café Ingles, which sits just below the castle. Frances had a mojito while I had a beer (€3.50)

8pm: It was then on to Silves’ best-regarded restaurant, Rui, which specialises in seafood. The guidebook’s threat that we’d have to "fight for a table" turned out to be an exaggeration but it was certainly packing them in compared to the nearly empty sushi place next door. We couldn’t decide if we wanted the couvert or were still too cowardly to turn it down. Either way, we ended up having it (€3.75), followed by fish: baked cod for me (€11.50) and sole for Frances with a bottle of red wine (€8.50). To finish, we shared a dessert of ice cream in a frozen lemon (€5).

Half-eaten dishes of fish lie around a table with glasses of red wine.
Rui's food was so good it had to be eaten before any photography happened © Joe Fullman / Lonely Planet

Friday

Total: €66.80

7.30am: For the most part we were happy to improvise our days and take things as they came but there was one activity we both definitely wanted to do before leaving: dolphin watching. It wasn’t going to be cheap but we figured that it would be worth it – provided we saw some dolphins, of course. 

The port of Lagos, about a 20-minute drive from where we were staying, is one of the main centres for trips, with boats heading out several times a day beginning at 9.30am. We got there early to ensure our places, parking for free on a road just back from the water (it’s €2 on the front itself). There were kiosks offering tours all the way along the front, each eager to solicit our custom. To show we were people of discernment and not willing to take just any old thing, we stopped at the second one we passed. To be fair, all the operators offer much the same prices and service, and they all work together, calling each other when dolphins are spotted, so it doesn’t make a huge deal of difference who you go with. It was €40 each for a trip leaving at 11.30am (it’s usually around €5 cheaper if booked online).

On the left, two dolphins swim in the water. On the right a close-up of the author in a boat wearing a life jacket.
Joe prepares to go on the boat to find dolphins © Joe Fullman / Lonely Planet

10am: We had a late breakfast at a street-side cafe: a ham and cheese toasted sandwich (€2.60) and a coffee (€1.70) for me. Then, armed with a free map picked up at the Algarve Water World kiosk, we wandered round the historic centre taking in the sights until it was time to board our boat.

11.30am: Come the hour, we arrived at the dock, put on our life jackets, and did that slightly demeaning wobbly hop thing everyone does when getting on a boat. The day was absolutely baking, so I’d dressed in shorts and a shirt. But once the boat was up to speed and racing into the wind, it was absolutely freezing. I’d advise taking an extra layer. But our shivering was soon forgotten when, about 20 minutes in, we found a pod of 15 dolphins. I was a little concerned we might be bothering them, but if the dolphins were get upset, they were extremely adept at not showing it. In fact, they seemed fascinated by the boats, coming up close to investigate, swimming alongside us and jumping out of the water almost constantly to perform acrobatic twists and turns for no other reason, it seems, than to show off. We were very impressed, taking approximately 600 photos, of which around five are in focus. 

2pm: Dolphin watching had given us an appetite, so back on land we headed to the second restaurant we saw, the M. Rest. & Grill, located in a narrow street alongside various similar establishments. There, I had piri piri chicken (€8.50) and a beer (€4) which, in my post-dolphin excitement, I forgot to photograph. However, we did finally work up the courage to politely ask the waiters not to bring the couvert

A dolphin's fin breaches the water
Dolphin-watching was a success © Joe Fullman/Lonely Planet

4pm: Having decided on our previous beach visit that we needed more protection from the sand, we headed to the row of market stalls on Lagos’ seafront where we each bought a beach towel adorned with pictures of fish for €10, which we road tested straight away at a nearby beach, the Praia da Dona Ana (they did the job). This was another short stretch of idyllic sand set behind alarmingly tumbledown-looking cliffs. Frances did more swimming while I read, this time in the shade; I’d learnt my lesson. Again, parking was free.

The final tally:

€162.67 + flights (€162) + accommodation (€150) + car rental and tolls (€98) = €572.67

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