The coast of the Algarve in southern Portugal is a seemingly endless series of some of Europe’s finest beaches. They are seriously spectacular stretches of sand: the climate and atmosphere are Mediterranean, but this is the Atlantic so good waves and watersports are available alongside more sedate, family-oriented paddling zones. There are more than 150 beaches to choose from but we’ve done the hard yards to bring you our favourites.
Praia da Marinha, Lagoa
The south coast of the Algarve boasts several beaches with photogenic limestone rock stacks produced by erosion and dissolution. Their orangey-brown colours make them perfect for morning or evening photography, but they also provide a spectacular backdrop for beachside lounging at any time. Our favourite is Marinha, 8km southeast of Lagoa, where the cliffs have been chopped and changed into a series of pinnacles, crevasses and caves. No surprise that it’s the postergirl of Algarve beaches, and regularly ranked among the best beaches in Europe. To get here, try the picturesque 5.6km walk along the clifftops from Praia Vale Centeanes, near Carvoeiro.
Best for: photographers, ramblers, families
Praia da Falésia, Albufeira
This long straight strip of sand 10km east of Albufeira offers one of the region’s most impressive first glimpses of coast as you descend from the clifftop car park. It’s backed by stunning cliffs in white and several shades of ochre, gouged by weather into intriguing shapes and topped by typical pines. The areas near the car parks get packed in summer (especially as high tides cover much of the beach), but the strip is more than 3km long so it’s easy enough to find plenty of breathing space. It’s a good beach for strolling, as the cliffscape constantly changes colours and shapes, and there’s a surprising range of hardy seaside plants in the cracks and crevices.
Best for: runners, painters, botanists
Praia de Odeceixe, Odeceixe
Crossing into the Algarve from the north, the first beach is one of the region’s best. Praia de Odeceixe is a tongue of sand at a river mouth flanked by imposing dark and jagged schist cliffs (that's a tongue-twister at the best of times…). It’s a particularly good option for families, as smaller children can paddle on the peaceful river side of the strand while older kids tackle the waves on the ocean side. At the beach itself is a surf school and eating options and the pretty village of Odeceixe is a half-hour walk away along a charming country road. The Rota Vicentina, a long-distance walking path that leads right to the southwestern tip of Portugal, passes through here and there are great day walks in the vicinity.
Best for: families, geologists, hikers
Ilha de Tavira, Tavira
The eastern coast of the Algarve is characterised by the estuaries and sand islands making up the Parque Natural Ria de Formosa, an important habitat for bird and marine life. A series of spectacular island beaches sit offshore: Ilha de Tavira, easily reached by boat from the historic town of Tavira, has lots of sand to explore (it’s 11km long), offering wide, lonely stretches of beach, an anchor cemetery, a nudist zone, birdlife, sociable bars and lagoon-side paddling for small children. There’s a campsite here and some holiday rentals, so you can stay over and claim the island as your own.
Best for: campers, birdwatchers, toddlers
Meia Praia, Lagos
Stretching for 4km alongside the lively surfer party town of Lagos, this is a fun, social beach that fills up with families, locals, backpackers and more but always has plenty of spare sand to find a spot to snooze away the hangover. There are several good bars and restaurants on the beach itself, so you can make a day of it here before heading back into town to hit the bars and do it all over again.
Best for: party-lovers, families, seafood-lovers
Praia de Cacela Velha, near Manta Rota
Lonely and lovely, this bow-shaped spit of sand is divided from the mainland by an estuary. It can be reached by walking a couple of kilometres west from the beach at Manta Rota, or by hiring a boat across the estuary from Fábrica, near the postcard-pretty village of Cacela Velha. It’s perhaps the least crowded of all the Algarve beaches, so there’s plenty of space to contemplate the eternal, pace the boardwalks to examine the dune ecosystem or swim in the waters, where a shallow gradient makes it reliably warm. There’s a low-key LGBT scene here in summer.
Best for: skinny-dippers, philosophers, romantics
Praia da Arrifana, Aljezur
In the Algarve’s west, Arrifana is a seductive fingernail-shaped cove embraced by cliffs, 10km southwest of the gateway town of Aljezur. Just to add to the picturesqueness, it also sports an offshore pinnacle and a petite traditional fishing harbour. The beach is wildly popular with surfers of all abilities and there are several surf schools in the area. The beach break is reliable, but there’s also a right-hand reef break that can offer some of the Algarve’s best surfing when there’s a big swell. There’s a small, very popular beachside restaurant and clifftop eateries near the ruined fortress up above, which offers breathtaking vistas. Good diving is also possible here.
Best for: surfers, divers, fisherfolk
Praia da Amoreira, Aljezur
The handsomest beach in the Aljezur area, this sits on the northern side of the very photo-worthy river mouth of the Ribeira de Aljezur and is backed by wild dunes. It’s a beachgoer’s beach, the sort of place that presents a different aspect every day. It gets decent waves more often than not and there's a bar-restaurant here but no other facilities. The beach is 9km northwest of Aljezur and it’s also accessible from the southern end (near Praia do Monte Clérigo) if you don't mind getting a bit wet wading across the river. The riverbank is good for paddling and watching birdlife: you may even see an otter if you are quiet.
Best for: snackers, body-boarders, wildlife-watchers
Praia de Vale Figueira, Carrapateira
One of the remoter west coast beaches, this is a long, wide and magnificent stretch of whitish sand with an ethereal beauty, backed by stratified cliffs hazy in the ocean spray. It lies 15km northwest of Carrapateira and is reached by a rough, partly paved road at the end of which you will find no facilities. The beach faces due west and has pretty reliable surf, especially when a southeaster is blowing. It’s one of those lonely, romantic beaches that’s even great to stroll on when the weather’s nasty.
Best for: surfers, lovers, loners
Lonely Planet writer Andy Symington is in the midst of a sandy, sun-filled research trip for Lonely Planet's first Pocket Algarve guidebook, out later this year.