Soaring cliffs, sea caves, golden beaches, scalloped bays and sandy islands draw over four million visitors to the Algarve each year. Surrounded on two sides by the Atlantic, it's a paradise for surfers, especially along the refreshingly undeveloped west coast.
In the south, tourist hotspots harbouring massive conglomerations of holiday villas and brash resorts have action-packed activities – from splashy water parks to water sports – and vibrant nightlife spanning beach bars to sizzling nightclubs. Natural treasures here include the bird-filled lagoons and islands of the protected Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, stretching for 60km from west of the capital, Faro, to the enchanting fishing village of Cacela Velha.
Up in the hilly hinterland are historic castle towns and whitewashed villages, rolling countryside covered in cork, carob and almond trees and citrus orchards, rural farmhouse restaurants, and the wonderful Via Algarviana hiking trail crossing the region's breadth.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Algarve.
One of the Algarve's – and Portugal's – most emblematic sights, this huge natural seaside cave has a hole in its ceiling through which streaming sunlit illuminates the sandstone and beach below. The only way to access the interior is via the water. Numerous companies along the coast, such as Taruga Tours, run boat trips, and hire kayaks and SUPs (stand-up paddleboads) to paddle here yourself. Swimming to the caves is discouraged due to strong tides and currents, and high watercraft traffic. From the cliffs above, you can look down to see the hole in the cave's roof.
Encompassing 18,000 hectares, this sizeable system of lagoons and islands stretches for 60km along the Algarve coastline from west of Faro to Cacela Velha. It encloses a vast area of sapal (marsh), salinas (salt pans), creeks and dune islands. The marshes are an important area for migrating and nesting birds. You can see a huge variety of wading birds, along with ducks, shorebirds, gulls and terns. It's the favoured nesting place of the little tern and the rare purple gallinule.
One of the Algarve's most dazzling churches, this twin-towered baroque masterpiece was completed in 1719 under João V. After the 1755 earthquake, its spectacular facade was paid for with Brazilian gold, and the interior is gilded to the extreme, with numerous cherubs. Accessed through the church at the back, the 19th-century Capela dos Ossos is built from the bones and skulls of over 1000 monks as a reminder of earthly impermanence. It's quite a sight.
The centrepiece of the Cidade Velha, the sé was completed in 1251 but heavily damaged in the 1755 earthquake. What you see now is a variety of Renaissance, Gothic and baroque features. Climb the tower for lovely views across the walled town and estuary islands. The cathedral also houses the Museu Capitular, with an assortment of chalices, priestly vestments and grisly relics (including both forearms of St Boniface), and a small 18th-century shrine built of bones. The blocky, castle-like cathedral occupies what was probably the site of a Roman temple, then later a Visigoth cathedral and a Moorish mosque. Only the tower gate and several chapels remain of the original Romanesque-Gothic exterior – the rest was obliterated in 1755. The interior has very elaborate baroque side altarpieces, and the altar itself is flanked by matching vaulted Gothic chapels. The baroque pipe organ was built in 1715 by Johann Heinrich Hulenkampf.
This russet-coloured, Lego-like castle – originally occupied in the Visigothic period – has great views over the town and surrounding countryside. What you see today dates mostly from the Moorish era, though the castle was heavily restored in the 20th century. Walking the parapets and admiring the vistas is the main attraction, but you can also gaze down on the excavated ruins of the Almohad-era palace. The whitewashed 12th-century water cisterns, 5m deep, now host temporary exhibitions. Guarding the entrance is a 3m-high bronze statue of King Sancho I. There's a snack bar within the walls, and a small exhibition of ceramics that were found in the excavations. It's a relaxing spot for a picnic, but watch children on the unsecured ramparts.
Protruding 2.5km south of Lagos, Ponta da Piedade is a dramatic wedge of headland with contorted, polychrome sandstone cliffs and towers, complete with a lighthouse and, in spring, hundreds of nesting egrets, with crystal-clear turquoise water below. The surrounding area blazes with wild orchids in spring. On a clear day you can see east to Carvoeiro and west to Sagres. The only way to reach it is by car or on foot.
Just below the castle is the sé, built in 1189 on the site of an earlier mosque, then rebuilt after the 1249 Reconquista and subsequently restored several times following earthquake damage. In many ways, this is the Algarve's most impressive cathedral, with a substantially unaltered Gothic interior of dramatically high, ribbed vaulted ceilings, stained glass and intricately carved tombs. The Christ sculpture, the Senhor dos Passos, is one of the main processional figures of the town's Easter celebrations.
Housed in a 19th-century fish cannery, the ultramodern, award-winning Museu de Portimão is the city's number-one draw. The museum focuses on three areas: archaeology, underwater finds and, the most fascinating, a re-creation of the fish cannery (mackerel and sardines). You can see former production lines, complete with sound effects – clanking and grinding and the like. An excellent video (in Portuguese) of the fishing industry reveals each step in the process, from netting the shoals to packaging.
Hour-long tours at this gold medal–winning olive oil producer take you around part of the 20-hectare estate showing you the five different varieties of olive trees that are handpicked in autumn, and the Roman-era press in a granite mill where the fruit is ground to a paste before the oil is extracted and filtered, finishing with a tasting. Even if you're not doing a tour, you can stop by its onsite shop to buy oils to take home.