If you’ve heard of Portugal’s Algarve region, it’s likely to be for one reason: the beaches. The area receives seemingly endless sunshine, with warmer, calmer seas compared to elsewhere in the country.
Because of this, the area has been popular with visitors from Britain and northern Europe for many years, and coastal spots get very crowded during the peak summer season of July and August.
Fortunately, there’s plenty to do that doesn’t require staking out a patch of sand at 5 a.m. Here are five of the best Algarve activities away from the beaches.
Go Birding at Ria Formosa Natural Park
Designated as a natural park, the Ria Formosa lagoon is formed by a series of sandy barrier islands between the coast and open ocean. Close to Faro, these 45,000 acres of marshes and canals are a vital nesting ground for many migratory birds, with hundreds of different species visiting each year. It’s not unusual to spot flamingos, cranes, egrets, and many more.
Companies offer various excursions to Ria Formosa, and you can participate in kayaking, catamaran tours to some of the barrier islands, and guided cycling trips that get you closer to the bird action. If you’d prefer to explore on your own, there’s a long boardwalk path that lets you do just that.
As well as the main city of Faro, other nearby spots worth visiting include the colorful fishing village of Fuseta and Olhão, with its Moorish-influenced architecture and high-quality seafood.
Away from the coastal resorts in the west, life continues in the Algarve much as it did before the tourists started showing up. Head east from Faro, toward the Spanish border, and you’ll find a very different side of the region.
Tavira, on the Gilão River, is often described as the "prettiest town in the Algarve." Rather than generic resorts and even more generic Irish pubs, you’ll find churches, whitewashed buildings with terra-cotta roofs, cobbled streets, and small fishing boats bobbing gently at the dock.
There are plenty of quality restaurants beside and near the river, and a ruined castle on a hilltop you can walk up to in order to work off the calories afterward.
If your interests lie more toward shopping, keep going even further east until you hit Vila Real de Santo António. Sitting right across the river from Spain, it’s an attractive town, well known for its linens and kitchen equipment.
Ferries cross the invisible border several times a day, a boon to Spaniards who flock over at the weekend to take advantage of cheaper prices.
Take a Hike
Since it's predominantly a beach destination, you wouldn’t necessarily expect the Algarve to have much in the way of good hiking trails. In reality, though, there’s an abundance of good walking in the region, for those of all fitness levels.
A designated GR trail, the Via Algarviana, crosses the Algarve from Cape St. Vincent at the southwestern tip of the country to Alcoutim on the border with Spain. Walking largely in the mountainous interior, the total route covers around 180 miles, but shorter sections can be easily tackled as day hikes instead.
An even longer trail, the Rota Vicentina, starts at the same lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent but heads north up the Atlantic coast all the way to Santiago do Cacém, which is 280 miles away. For a short taster, check out the four-mile Telheiro beach circuit, which hugs the coastline along clifftop paths between the lighthouse and Telheiro beach itself.
Load up on History
Recorded history in the Algarve goes back thousands of years, and traces of human habitation have been found dating back to Neolithic times. More recent Moorish art and architecture dominate several towns in the region, after an eighth-century invasion that saw them maintain a presence in Portugal for more than five hundred years.
The Romans had a big impact on the region, and the easiest way to get a taste of what they left behind is at the municipal museum in Faro. There, you’ll find some high-quality mosaics, busts of various emperors, plus plenty of other artifacts from daily life.
Other notable examples of Roman architecture include a bridge in Lagos and ruined villas in Vilamoura and Estoi. The latter is particularly interesting, as it was an opulent residence that included a temple, wine press, mausoleums, and more.
If you’re more interested in Moorish history, put a trip to Silves at the top of your activity list. The impressive Silves Castle, built in the 11th century, towers over the town from a strategic hilltop position. Entry is a bargain with a well-maintained garden and walls that can be walked around on all four sides.
Head for the Hills
Drive into the interior of the region, and you’ll find yourself quickly gaining elevation. Two ranges of hills give a very different feel to this part of the Algarve: all tiny villages and undulating forest paths, rather than sandy beaches and towering apartment blocks.
The largest town in the area, Monchique, makes a great base. High in the hills, along (as usual in this part of the world) a very winding road, it’s full of steep, narrow streets to explore, and is well-known for its chouriço sausages. As with much of the rest of Portugal, meat-eaters are in for a treat.
From there, it’s all about the mountain walks. The Via Algarviana mentioned earlier passes right through Monchique, and it’s five miles from there to Foia, which is the highest point in the Algarve. Those who enjoy a challenge, and the sound of their own labored breathing, can do the round trip, while those who prefer an easier stroll can take a taxi to the peak and enjoy the downhill walk back to town.
Either way, on a clear day, you can see all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, a view that even the abundant radio masts at the summit can’t diminish.