Algarve travel guide
An insider’s guide to Algarve, featuring the region’s best hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, attractions and things to do, including how to travel there and around. By Mary Lussiana, Telegraph Travel’s Algarve expert. Click on the tabs below for the best places to stay, eat, drink and shop, including the best things to do and the best beaches.
You could sum up simply by saying the light. For the light on the Algarve is fantastic. To draw the curtains each morning and see the high blue skies and the bright, energising light never fails to raise my spirits, even after 12 years of living here.
The wild, western Algarve surrenders to the power of the Atlantic – it is all about nature, about surfing and the sea Credit: sergeialyoshin – Fotolia/Sergey AlEshin
But there is much more than that. It’s a region of hidden delights, of golden beaches framed by beautifully wrought limestone rocks, of small, simple restaurants where the taste of the fish – just caught, just grilled and drizzled with a local olive oil – will pull you back time and time again.
There are so many layers to the Algarve. Inland, up in the hills of Monchique, you will see a way of life that has disappeared from much of Europe. Days revolve around the seasons – killing the pig and gathering provisions for winter; collecting chestnuts and picking berries to make the local firewater. Olives, oranges, carobs and almonds are pulled from the trees and sold at markets. In villages of small cobbled streets, you’ll find whitewashed houses, cafes with cloth-capped men having their bica (espresso) and women grilling sardines in the streets.
The sea is part of a different layer of Algarve life – one that’s also closely bound to nature. You can see locals wading into the Atlantic at low tide to find cockles and barnacles, and all along the coast, fishermen, who learnt the trade from their fathers, go out for squid and octopus, for sardines and tuna. Against this backdrop of real life is the layer for holidaymakers.
The sea is part of a different layer of Algarve life – one that’s also closely bound to nature Credit: Alamy/Steve Bentley / Alamy Stock Photo
By the fringes of the sea, in the centre of the Algarve, resorts line the cliffs – some are attractively set in lush gardens, such as Vila Joya or Vila Vita Parc (see Hotels); others (not included here) are soulless, concrete monstrosities.
In the east, it’s as though time has stood still: there are wonderful, small, authentic guesthouses (Fazenda Nova, Vila Campina) and the wave of mass tourism that washed over much of the Algarve has not touched this region, leaving a tranquil landscape of whitewashed villages and groves of cork and olive trees.
The wild, western Algarve surrenders to the power of the Atlantic – it is all about nature, about surfing and the sea, about bird watching or spotting dolphins, or walking cliff-top paths from one deserted sandy cove to another. The recent surge in excellent accommodation (Martinhal Resort, Memmo Baleeira) plays to that rather than dominating it.
Whichever part of the Algarve you choose, you will find friendly, welcoming people; excellent local wines – at superb prices – and delicious food, from the freshest of fish to regional, cured hams, packed with flavour.
In the built-up areas, such as Albufeira or Vilamoura, there are still wonderful beaches off the beaten track, but to get under the skin of the Algarve and to see it at its best, head instead the places below, for they combine all the ingredients for a perfect holiday while giving a real sense of place. Surely isn’t it for that, as well as seeking the sun, which we travel?
When to go
The Portuguese tourist board could make a poster of the seasons in flowers, with the delicate pink almond blossom framed against the blue sky in February, the blue-blossomed jacaranda tree lining the streets in May, the shocking pink bougainvillea framed against the blue sky in July and the flaming red poinsettia tree in December – still against a blue sky. In short, weather-wise it is pretty safe most of the year.
Whichever part of the Algarve you choose, you will find friendly, welcoming people
For deserted beaches, come outside school holidays. The best months are May, June or October, when the sun is hot and visitors few.
High summer – July and August – can mean crowded facilities in the central Algarve, but head inland, past orange, olive and cork groves and storks nesting on telegraph poles and chimneys, to find a quiet rural paradise that has changed little over the centuries.
In December and January, although it’s colder at night, there’s often warm sunshine in the middle of the day and, of course, much lower hotel rates, so although swimming would only be for the truly hardy it is a wonderful time to have the Algarve to yourself.
In December and January, although it’s colder at night, there’s often warm sunshine in the middle of the day and, of course, much lower hotel rates
However, if your visit is going to revolve around eating out and sightseeing, bear in mind that in winter, many restaurants close, as do certain tourist attractions, such as water parks and zoos. Some airlines cut their flight timetables in winter, which results in higher prices for the flights that do run, so book well in advance for the cheaper fares. The most likely times to encounter heavy rain are late October and November.
Where to go
Despite being one region, the Algarve is diverse from east to west and north to south. Best understood by getting off the beaten track and seeing a life unchanged whether in the unspoilt mimosa filled inland hills of Monchique or down by the coast, in Salema, where fisherman sit mending their nets on the beach having pulled in their catch.
One of the main purposes of this site is to pass any of our layman’s advise and experience we have had over the last 4 years on to anyone who is having issues with their Boundary Disputes.