Lagos and Luz have some of the most beautiful and cleanest beaches in the Algarve, if not in Europe, being washed by the Atlantic Ocean, with its white expanses of sand, picturesque coves and rolling, contoured cliffs. The blue breakers along the wilder west coast make it the choice for surfers and those interested in other water sports.
A thriving fishing port and market centre Lagos is considered to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Algarve. It is a beautiful town with plenty of cultural attractions, shops and boutiques, award winning golf courses, bars, nightclubs, cafes and restaurants offering gastronomy to tempt even the most discerning of taste buds, Lagos has many varied attractions throughout the year.
The marina serves as a permanent mooring for some fabulous yatchs and boats or a stop over for the adventurers sailing to and from the Mediterranean and the Americas. The many bars and cafes in the marina offer an excellent spot to stop and relax and watch harbour life.
Lagos has an intense, lively and above all, widely diversified cultural life. It is the scene of innumerable varied events throughout the year. There is a beautiful library, Art Galleries, Municipal Auditorium, Museums and a Culture Centre.
In theatrical terms, there are shows relating to the time of the Discoveries of Henry the Navigator performed in period costume, there are festivals, concerts, choral groups, pop and rock bands, exhibitions of painting, sculpture and photography, discussion forums, film and dance.
The nightlife never stops. Fun filled hours, romantic moments, the flavours of Algarve gastronomy, bars with lively music and night clubs. This is the feel of hte nights in Lagos where life is always on the move.
Daytine brings new emotions, walks along the beaches and cliff tops, boat trips, surfing, sight-seeing, various other water sports, golf, horse riding and tennis are just a few of the delights of Lagos to tempt visitors and residents alike.
Vila Real is a major border crossing point (a short ferry ride from Ayamonte in Spain) with a handsome 18th Century square built by the Marques de Pombal, the prime minister who also rebuilt Lisbon's downtown following the 1755 earthquake.
To the west is the village of Castro Marim where there are still some remains of the 13th century castle where Prince Henry the Navigator once stayed. Castro Marim is now home to a beautiful development with villas and golf courses for those who wish to avoid the more populated tourist areas.
Tavira is perhaps one of the prettiest towns in the Algarve and remains remarkably unspoiled. Split in half by the river Gilao, crossed over by a Roman bridge, either side is flanked by beautiful, fine 18th century mansions. One of Tavira's pleasures is wandering around the cobbled streets, admiring the architecture and boutique shops, cafe's and restaurants. A ferry connects the town to a marvelous sand dune island, Ilha de Tavira, a glorious island beach with warm water, excellent for swimming in.
Olhao is a 17th centruy town built in the Moorish stylke and remains Algarve's major fishing port with daily markets to tempt the locals and tourists. In the pedestrian centre are restaurants offering the freshest fish caught the same morning. Off shore are numerous sandy islands including Ilha da Culatra and Ilha da Armona easily reachable by ferries that run every hour.
Faro is the capital of Algarve and home to its international airport. It is often overlooked as visitors just pass it on their way to the resorts, but those who choose to linger a while find a town of considerable charm. The main point of interest is the peaceful old town, with the site of a medieval castle gate. At its heart is a cobbled square surrounded by elegant buildings, including the Bishops' Palace.
In the centre of the square is the Renaissance-style cathedral, which was all but destroyed in the English attack. The interior is richly gilded and decorated with 17th and 18th-century tiles, while behind it is a 16th-century convent converted into an Archaeological Museum that includes remains from the nearby Roman ruins of Estoi.
In the modern centre of town is Faro's most bizarre sight, the Chapel of Bones in the baroque Carmo Church. The chapel's walls are entirely covered with bones and skulls from the church cemetery (put on display as a grim reminder of mortality), while the rest of the interior is Baroque, Many of the neighbouring streets are pedestrian filled with inviting cafes and restaurants. The closest beach is a stretch of white sand on Ilha de Faro, reached by frequent ferry or bus services.
Just west of Faro is Ria Formosa Natural Park, an important bird nestling area and a unique ecological environment formed by lagoons.
IEstoi is 11 km (7 miles) from Faro, and the site of several Roman ruins dating from the first or second century AD. There are thermal baths, columns, mosaics depicting sea life, and a well-preserved villa dating from the 2nd century. Some other finds are now housed in Faro's Archaeological Museum. Overlooking the site are also the remains of a temple, which was later converted into a Christian basilica in the 3rd century, making it one of the world's oldest churches. Also worth seeing in Estoi is the Estoi Palace, just off the main square. Built in the 18th century, it is one of the few buildings to escape the 1755 earthquake. It is a pink Rococo palace similar to a bigger one in Queluz near Lisbon, with romantic gardens dotted with orange trees and palms, fountains, statues, and 19th century tiles depicting naked mythological women.
West of Faro is Almancil, from where it is possible to reach the luxurious holiday villages of Vale do Lobo and Quinta do Lago. Prestigious Vale do Lobo is not too far away, with its high standard of accommodation, sports facilities and concern for the environment having earned it an award of "Best Resort of the Millennium." It also offers a wonderful beach that remains uncrowded even in high season.
Quinta do Lago is just as attractive, with the biggest golf area in Europe made up of four excellent 18-hole courses listed among the best in the continent. The pine-covered beachfront and its opulent villas is a favoured retreat of movie stars and European presidents.
Not as aesthetically pleasing as these resorts is Quarteira, a town made up of high-rise hotels and apartment buildings. It is an inexpensive alternative to the luxurious resorts with a long golden beach that stretches all the way to affluent Vilamoura, which can also be reached by bus.
Vilamoura is Europe's largest leisure complex. Development has been environmentally friendly and tasteful, with its glamorous 4000 acres containing three golf courses, several tennis courts, a riding school, and fishing and shooting facilities. Its huge marina, one of the largest in Southern Europe, is filled with restaurants, cafes, and shops, and nearby are the Roman ruins of Cerro da Vila, which date from the 1st century AD. They include scant remains of a bath complex and a house with mosaics, and in the beautifully landscaped surroundings are sumptuous villas. Fashion photographers have often used the calm waters of Vilamoura's beach as a backdrop, and Praia da Falesia and Olhos de Agua are two other very attractive beaches nearby, as are Balaia and Santa Eulalia to the west.
Its magnificent natural position, splendid beaches, and vibrant nightlife have transformed Albufeira from a quiet cliff-top fishing village to the top destination in Algarve. Nevertheless, it remains quite pleasant, with the pretty old town having managed to retain its charm, made up of narrow pedestrians streets lined with whitewashed houses. The fishermen's colourful boats also still line the rock-protected beach Praia dos Barcos, although they now compete with sunbathers for space. Another beautiful beach 3km (2 miles) away is Praia da Oura, with small sandy coves set between eroded ochre rocks, and immediately to the west of town are the excellent beaches of Sao Rafael, Gale, and Castelo, which tend to be a little more peaceful.
Those wishing to take a break from the sun can visit the 18th century Church of Sao Sebastiao for its museum of sacred art, or walk down "the Strip" to the east of town. Lined with cafes, restaurants, bars, and clubs, it is especially popular at night.
Further west is Armacao de Pera, with some rather unattractive high-rises, but with a pleasant promenade and one of Algarve's finest beaches that stretches for miles, offering plenty of room even in high season. Two kilometres (about 1 mile) along the coast is Senhora da Rocha, a beautiful picture-postcard beach.
Other options to escape the crowds are found by the alluring village of Carvoeiro with the beautiful beaches of Carvalho and Benagil nearby. Carvoeiro and its tiny triangular beach get quite crowded in the summer, but ferries drop visitors off a series of sandy coves. A particularly beautiful spot is Algar Seco, with clear waters ideal for snorkeling. One of Algarve's most beautiful beaches is just to the east of the village, the splendid Praia da Marinha.
To the west is Portimao; a heavily developed modern town notable for its shopping. The reason for a visit is Praia da Rocha, a magnificent beach known for its strange yellow rock formations standing in the blue-green sea. It is the widest cliff-backed stretch of sand in Europe, stretching on to become Praia do Vau, with more towering rock formations.
Lying across the estuary from Praia da Rocha is the picturesque village of Ferragudo, also with two fine beaches. Fortaleza de Santa Catarina, a 17th century fort in Praia da Rocha, now a cafe-restaurant, offers splendid views of Ferragudo from its terrace.
Another cruise goes up the Arade River, taking visitors to historic Silves, the former capital of Moorish Algarve that rivaled Granada in splendor and influence. Not much remains from those times, and today it's a sleepy little place with an imposing castle standing above the surrounding orange and almond groves. Just outside the castle is a 13th-century cathedral, largely Gothic and containing the tombs of the crusaders who helped conquer the town, and an archaeological museum, with a large Arab cistern.
Not too far from Silves is Alte, one of the prettiest villages in Algarve. It has a timeless serenity, with white houses and their characteristic chimneys, and a small 16th century church.
Portimao is a beach resort, fishing port, commercial centre and tourist attraction. Pleasant holidays are ensured in all seasons because of the warm ocean waters, the mild climate of the Algarve and the many sunny days in winter. Golf players for instance can play all year round on top quality golf courses.
The beaches of Praia da Rocha and the old fishing town of Alvor - both close to Portimao - are particularly beautiful and alluring. The variety of beaches, adventure trips like jeep safaris and boat excursions, fishing, events, festivals, and the vibrant nightlife on the coast balance pleasantly with the tranquillity of the Serra, a mere 20 km. away and trails trough the Bio-park Monchique where abundant flora and spectacular views over all of the Algarve await you. Go in the opposite direction and take to the sea. Boats are available in the modern marina or on the boulevard along the river for inshore and big game fishing. They will also take you out to the caves along the Algarvian coast, dolphin spotting at Ponta da Piedade, or on a scenic trip from Portimao upriver to Silves. Nature reserves like Ria de Alvor provide shelter for numerous birds and passerine migrants they are ideal for bird watching.
Although the ancient coastal village of Alvor is now a very popular holiday location the one-ended narrow streets have restrained the developers from changing too much. Many of the these streets now boast bars with live music and different types of restaurants but leading off there are still memories of the older fishing village. In the area are a number of holiday resorts that feed these streets with tourists. The village is well located facing a natural lagoon opening out onto the ocean. There is a choice of a long open sandy beach or a number of small coves tucked under the cliffs.
The town of Monchique is with few exceptions happily untouched by the 20th Century invasion of tourism. It lies in the saddle created by the two high hills, Foia and Picota, the former reaching to 902 metres above sea level. As “mountain” people the world over the 10,000 inhabitants of this town have retained the rustic atmosphere with steep cobbled streets and small dark doorways containing various artisan trades. The surrounding area flourishes on the production of cattle, pigs, cork and wood. Another important local product is the popular "medronho", the name of a strong schnapps type of drink made from distilling the fruit from arbutus bushes. Foia and its sister mountain of Picota at 774 metres provide dramatic views of the coastal plain to the south and to the western Atlantic coast.
Between Monchique and the town of Portimao is the village of Caldas de Monchique that was developed in Roman times as a Spa. Here a visitor can try the curing elements of the sulphur smelling hot spring water that emerges at a constant temperature of 32ºC. There are two further hot spring sites one of which is to the south of Picota hidden in a valley. Its name is Fonte Santa and it is rumoured to have special healing effects. Some people make annual visits and in its history some centuries ago it has been recorded as being visited by both the King of Portugal and the King of Italy. The two nearby villages of Alferce and Casais are both typical unspoilt locations reflecting the spirit of rural mountain life. The village of Marmelete is to the west and located on the road that connects to the many sandy beaches on the western Atlantic coast. The small rural town of Aljezur with its hilltop 12th Century castle and its 14th Century parish church is further west on this same road.
TIn Lagos there is a fine sandy beach beneath the imposing wall of an ancient Fortress which still stands guard over the harbour entrance. Perhaps the most impressive beach in the area is Meia Praia, a 5 kilometre stretch of golden sand. It begins on the eastern side of the railway station and has water sport facilities, sun-beds and sun shades for hire.
The string of small beaches on the western side of Lagos including the picturesque Praia D´Ana and Porto de Mos appeal to those who prefer smaller more intimate coves, although some can only be reached by boat or by the famous cliff walk which is only recommended for the sure-footed. A short boat trip from Lagos takes you round the rock formations and grottoes of Ponta da Piedade, between Luz and Lagos. The boats depart from Praia D`Ana. Boat trips to Sagres give you the possibility of seeing the beautiful coast line from Lagos to Sagres. These trips start from the pontoon in the harbour.
West of Lagos, development has been restricted by the Parque Natural do Sudouste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, which embraces most of the coastline. As a result, fishing villages such as Luz, Burgau and Salema still retain a fair amount of charm, while beyond the road cuts high above the sea across a cliff-edged plateau and down to Sagres, with its dramatic scenery and busy nightlife.
The coast north of Sagres, heading towards the Aljezur, is the least developed part of the Algarve partly because the Atlantic Ocean is distinctly colder and often pretty wild here. Once called "Sacrum Promontorium", Sagres was considered sacred in pre-historic times and people believed that the Gods gathered here. It is still a small fishing village, with a population of approximate by 2.000, living of fishing and tourism.
Low-key villages such as Vila do Bispo, Carrapateira, Aljezur and Odeceixe all have magnificent local beaches that attract a rather more alternative crowd than resorts on the southern Algarve, with plenty of beach parties, nude sunbathing and surfing.
The beautiful West Coast of the Algarve with its dramatic cliffs and rock formations is still unspoilt and there are some fantastic beaches - famous for surfing, fishing and bird-watching and usually un-signposted and hidden from the road by high sand dunes.
Aljezur itself is a little visited, but quaint old town, founded by the Arabs in the 10th Century. If you climb up to the ruins of the old Castle, you can enjoy spectacular views over the surrounding countryside and Aljezur makes a good central point for a scenic drive through the West Algarve. Take the EN 125 from Lagos to Vila do Bispo and then head North, over the hills of the Dog’s Spine Ridge and down into Carrapateira, where you will find the first of the wonderful West Coast beaches.