If you think all there is to the Algarve is sun umbrellas and crowds of holidaymakers, it’s time to think again. Rent a car or jump on a bus or train, and whether you’re heading along the coast, into the interior, or up into the mountains, there are many towns and villages that have a culture and history all their own.
When you're heading to southern Portugal, these are five cliché-defying towns absolutely worth visiting.
Regularly described as the prettiest town in the Algarve, if you’re going to pick just one place to check out during your trip, Tavira is it. All white walls and red terracotta roofs, cobblestones small fishing boats, Tavira is the kind of traditional Portuguese town that tourist brochures are made of.
Sitting on either side of the picturesque Gilão river, with a so-called “Roman” bridge linking the two sides, Tavira lies just inland from the Atlantic Ocean, with several attractive beaches nearby. A ruined castle overlooks the town from a convenient hilltop and is well worth the sweaty walk uphill to visit for an hour or two.
With plenty of restaurants, both along the riverfront and on surrounding streets, finding a good meal is far from difficult. While much of the town was destroyed in the huge earthquake that shook the region in 1755, there are still plenty of historic spots, including a rebuilt church that originally dated from the thirteenth century, to satisfy history buffs.
Speaking of history buffs, visitors with an interest in Moorish art and architecture should head inland and straight for Silves, a former capital of the Algarve.
The Silves Castle looms from a nearby hilltop, and it’s worth visiting the town just to check it out. You’ll pay less then three euros for an entry ticket, a bargain considering the well-preserved walls and gardens of this impressive fortress.
Archaeological remains place fortifications on the site as far back as the Bronze Age, but what remains today dates from the Moorish occupation of the castle between the eighth and 12th centuries. Excavation of the area continues to this day, with additional buildings and artifacts being regularly discovered.
Other sites of note in the town include parts of the old city walls, attractive churches, an archaeological museum, and the Silves Cathedral, a former mosque that is now on the Portuguese register of national monuments. Surrounding the town are valleys full of orange groves.
Vila Real de Santo Antonio
Right on the border with Spain sits Vila Real de Santo Antonio, a relatively new town (by Portuguese standards) that dates back to "only" 1773.
Formerly a major fish-canning center, industry is now more diverse, split between tourism, fishing, and trade, often with Spanish visitors who cross the Guadiana river to take advantage of cheaper prices.
There’s more to the town than inexpensive fish and textiles, however. Accessible by bus, train, car or ferry (from Spain), Vila Real de Santo Antonio is less than two miles from Monte Gordo, a small village with a long stretch of white sandy beach, and several woodland trails to explore. If you’re looking for an excuse to jump in the ocean, sea temperatures are typically a few degrees warmer here than elsewhere on the Portuguese coast.
Coupled with an attractive riverfront, large central square, and several tempting restaurants, a visit to Vila Real de Santo Antonio is a highly-worthwhile day trip, far away from the crowds of the western Algarve.
Most visitors would find the small town of Estoi easy to overlook. Sitting inland, northeast of Faro and just off the A22 motorway that bisects the Algarve, Estoi’s main claim to fame actually lies half a mile or more from the town itself.
The oldest parts of the Milreu Roman ruins date back to a farmhouse from the first and second centuries AD, but the most interesting buildings were constructed a century or two later. A large, opulent villa, complete with thermal baths and underfloor heating, was later coupled with a temple, complete with mosaic floors that are still visible today.
The temple’s usage changed over the centuries, in line with the dominant religion of the day. Initially thought to be used for a water cult, it had become Christian by the sixth century and switched to a mosque after the Moors invaded in the eighth century.
While much of the site collapsed and was abandoned after the 1755 earthquake, the farmhouse itself was occupied until relatively recently, and is still used for art exhibits today.
With entry a very reasonable two euros (half that for senior citizens), there’s little excuse not to take a detour via Estoi to check out this fascinating slice of Roman history on the Iberian peninsula.
If your tastes lean more towards epic views to lapping waves, forget the coastline and head for the hills. Monchique, in the Algarve’s mountainous interior, is the ideal base for delicious regional food and an endless array of hiking opportunities.
The town is best approached by car, but once you’ve arrived, you’ll find it much easier to park up and explore the narrow, steep and winding streets on foot. Meat-lovers should be sure to order some of the spicy local chouriço sausages and morcela (black pudding), and the medronho liqueur is a regional specialty that's also well worth trying. Beware, though – it’s often described as firewater by the unwary!
To work off all that food and drink, pick one of several walking trails. The steep paths will get the heart pumping, for anything from short nearby hikes to multi-day treks on the Via Algarviana that passes right through the town.
A popular round-trip walk takes you to Foia, the highest point on the Algarve, with views as far as the Atlantic Ocean on a clear day. It’s ten sweaty miles to the top and back again, but if you don’t fancy hiking quite that far, there’s a road that goes all the way to the summit, and local taxi drivers will be more than happy to take you up there.