Portugal: A Visit to the Algarve for Great Beaches and Good Food

Portugal’s southern region, The Algarve, is very well known in Europe but many others have never heard of this beautiful Atlantic coastal area of amazing beaches, inexpensive food and wine and pleasant hotels.

Three major cities along the coast.

Albufeira is the largest city

Located in the center of the region, about 267 km south from Lisbon down the E1 toll highway you merge with the east-west A22. Then another couple of miles south you find the town and beach.
The city is a former fishing village that is now a major tourist destination, especially in the summer months. It has wonderful sandy beaches, an active nightlife of bars and clubs and plenty of restaurants; some right on the beach.  The downtown area by the beach is a shoppers paradise for souvenirs of all kinds.

Lagos is a 45 km drive west.

You can take the A22 or you can take the slower, two-lane local roads for a better view of the local countryside and small villages. Lagos is best known for its walled old city which is full of shops, coffee and pastry bars, outdoor cafes.  The beaches at Lagos are hidden in a sandy cove which is reached by climbing down steep wooden steps.

Faro, the capital of the Algarve

40 km to the east from Albufeira is the only airport in the region. It has direct flights to and from Lisbon as well as flights from many other cities in Europe and England.  Faro is known for the remains of an ancient Moorish wall and gate to the city as well as a 13th-century cathedral.

Fun, Food, Sightseeing

Driving in Portugal

The toll roads in Portugal are similar to the interstate highways in the U.S. or the autobahns in Germany. We were warned by the rental car agent that there are no police patrolling the highways. Instead, there are electronic boxes hidden away monitoring the traffic that automatically sends tickets to speeders.
Fuel is expensive compared to what we pay in the States. We had a hybrid electric with a diesel engine which was a good choice considering the cost of filling it up. We figured the fuel cost about $7.50/gallon which explains why the streets are filled with motorcycles and electric motorbikes.
Driving the local roads you find the Algarve is a maze of small towns and picturesque villages with houses and stores built right up to the roadway. It requires slow, leisurely, careful driving. Also, every intersection is a “roundabout”  which took some getting used.

The Beaches

Ah! The beaches of the Algarve. The reason for all the driving was to find and explore the beaches hidden away in coves down the steep, narrow streets of small villages. We quickly figured out that the signs saying “de Praia” were telling us how to get to the beach.

Relaxing on the soft sand

One of the interesting ones is the Beach of Caves. From the top of a hill, open below us suddenly appeared this beautiful vista of a small beach in a cove surrounded on both sides by steep cliffs.  The main feature of this beach is the caves that require taking a small boat out into the Atlantic and then around the cliffs to get to the caves which are spectacular. Other beaches are somewhat less dramatic but each is unique in its own way. The one closest to our resort was a short walk down the hill.  Walking down the street and around a curve there below you is the wonderful view of a beach surrounded by high cliffs. This beach has large rock outcroppings on the beach and just offshore that have been created over the millennia. The sand is soft and deep and just demands that you spread out a blanket and lay down in the warm sand for a nap.

A view of the beach

View of the high cliffs

What and where to Eat

The Portuguese have a very sweet tooth. Everywhere there are pastry shops and coffee bars selling freshly made pastries, rolls, and various kinds of sandwiches. The one thing you see everywhere is the Pastel de Nata or Portuguese Custard Tart. The small, bite-size little tarts are filled with a sweet, creamy custard; too sweet for our taste but beloved by the locals. It is a must try at least once. Where to eat is anywhere you see a restaurant or cafe that looks interesting.  Restaurant meals will usually start with the appetizers that you didn’t order. You will be charged a few cents or a euro or two for whatever you eat. They usually consist of bread and butter, some olives, maybe some sardine paste and sliced tomato or carrots and some cheese and/or some cured meats. A typical meal cost 15-30 euros The two most popular and most common fish dishes are Bacalhau (codfish)and sardines. Bacalhau is on every menu for lunch and dinner and is prepared in innumerable ways. The Portuguese claim there are 365 different ways to prepare it. Sardines are another favorite of the Portuguese but are a seasonal fish only available fresh in the summertime. When we were there the season was over but one local restaurant had them on their menu and so we tried them. They are usually grilled or bar-b-qued and served with roast potatoes. Delicious! There is a sardine festival in the town of Portimao in the Algarve in June. Another popular dish is Frango com Piri-Piri. This is grilled chicken with Piri-Piri sauce. What is Piri-Piri sauce? Depends on the restaurant but generally, it is made from chili peppers, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, lemon and paprika.  Highly recommend this one. There are many different seafood, pork and other meats served in many different ways.  Most everything is fresh and made locally. The fruits and vegetables are locally grown and very good.

What to see Inland

Inside the walls

There is more to the Algarve than the beaches. Following local high ways north from the beach area, we visited  Silves, about 35 kilometers north of Albufeira. Here is one the best preserved ancient castles in Portugal. Thought to have been originally built by the Romans, it became what it is today by the Moors in the 12th and 13th century. If you’re a history buff this is a must see. There is also an ancient cathedral and the town of Silves as well as other interesting sights.

Ancient soldier guarding the gate

Looking across the countryside from the wall

We drove further into the country on our way back and found ourselves in the middle of an area of miles of fruit trees, predominately orange groves but also carob, almonds, dates and olives as well as the famous cork oak trees. Here was ore beautiful countryside of farms, small villages and scenery.

The End of The World

Sunset at the End of the World

The south-west corner of Portugal (and therefore of Europe) for centuries has been called “The End of the World”.  On this remote, desolate piece of

The end of the world. HIgh cliffs and pounding surf

land,  the sound of the sea is ever present and the deep blue Atlantic Ocean is all around you. History tells us that this is the place where, in the 15th century, King Henry created his school to train the seafarers who were sent out to discover the world.  It is reached by driving west to the end of the A22 and then following the signs first to the town of Sagres and then out to this spot. It is hard to express the desolation and beauty of this last piece of land before you fall off into the Atlantic, off the high, sheer cliffs where Europe comes to a rather violent end in the pounding surf below.  The land appears to be empty but there vegetation growing which has adapted to this strange climate of salty winds constantly blowing over it.  From here those ancient seafarers sailed off into the unknown to conquer and change the world.

The barren landscape

Joseph Kaplan

I’m a semi-retired businessman and real estate broker who likes to write, play golf, Bridge, walk and travel. I’ve been a residential real estate broker in both Florida and North Carolina for the past twenty years,  working primarily as a buyer’s agent. I enjoy working with people and helping home buyers negotiate the sometimes frustrating process of buying a home. Previously I had a 25-year career in the health care industry as a nursing home administrator and as the developer and operator of a multi-facility group of health care facilities in five states. I’m married with three sons and six grandchildren and living in semi-retirement in the mountains of Western North Carolina