Best towns in the Algarve

Portugal's southernmost region, the Algarve, is home to Moorish architecture, charming fishing villages and idyllic Atlantic beaches along stretches of rugged coastline. Here is our guide to the Algarve's best towns and their top sights.
Praca Luis de Camoes square in Lagos, Portugal. Photo: Alvaro German Vilela/Shutterstock
Praca Luis de Camoes square in Lagos, Portugal. Photo: Alvaro German Vilela/Shutterstock

Faro

Faro, the provincial capital of the Algarve, has a greater concentration of culture and historic monuments than any other town or city in the region. Forming a grand entrance to the circular old town is the 19th-century Arco da Vila, formed by a grand arch and bell tower. Beyond the arch, you'll find a maze of cobbled streets, one of which leads up to the splendid expanse of the Largo da Sé (Cathedral Square), a quintessential Portuguese plaza best explored in the evening when floodlit and free of cars. 

Across from the harbour is the main town. At its centre is the Jardim Manuel Bivar, which was built in the 15th century as Queen’s Square. It is a popular meeting place, with plenty of wine bars and restaurants. Rua de Santo Antonio is the main thoroughfare of the main town; at its far end is the Museu Etnográfico Regional do Algarve (Ethnographic Museum), which displays artworks and artefacts, as well as selling delightful local handicrafts.

Sunset over the town of Faro, PortugalSunset over the town of Faro, Portugal. Photo: Shutterstock


Olhão 

The historic fishing town of Olhão was built in the Moorish style and retains a large working fishing port. Over the years it has made few concessions to tourism and remains full of character. On the seafront, you will find the town’s modern market halls. The Olhão fish market is one of the best in the Algarve. Arrive early to see it in full swing. Be prepared to use your elbows to reach the slithery hills of fish, whilst locals hawk fresh seafood at the tops of their voices. 

Ferries run from the dock to the beautiful Culatra Beach, and in the summer, to the uninhabited island of Armona, a popular spot for sunbathing. Architectural sights in the town include the Parish Church and Nossa Senhora do Rosário, which is set in the winding narrow backstreets on the way to Olhão's main square, Praça da Restauração, where locals gather to while away evenings. Climb up the bell tower to take in views over the town.


Tavira

Tavira is one of the true jewels of the Algarve. One of the region’s most historic cities, its Moorish, Reconquista and Renaissance roots are clearly visible today, especially in the town's numerous churches. 

The 11th-century Castelo de Taviralocated in the middle of the old quarter, was a defensive structure built by the Moors. Climb the castle walls for superb panoramic views of the city and down to Santa Maria do Castelo church, which dates from the 13th century, and in all likelihood occupies the site of the town’s old mosque. 

Just down the hill from the Castelo, near the river, the beautiful 16th-century church, Igreja da Misericórdia de Tavira, is a spectacular Renaissance edifice with an 18th-century interior featuring lovely azulejo tiling and fine gilded woodwork. A walk down Rua da Liberdade – Tavira's main street – takes in some impressive 16th-century mansions.

Tavira, one of the the Algarve's most attractive townsTavira, one of the the Algarve's most attractive towns. Photo: Shutterstock


Castro Marim

This little town is one of the Algarve's oldest and most historically significant. For five centuries its primitive castle-fortress was occupied by the Moors. After the Christian Reconquest, it became the home of the new Military Order of Christ in 1319. Opposite on the hill stands a fort dating back to 1641. 

The former fortress town rises from the flat wetlands where migratory birds such as storks, cranes and flamingos and hundreds of different species of plants thrive. A conservation area of 2,000 hectares is protected as the Reserva Natural do Sapal. From here, the peaceful road along the Guadiana River stretches through golden-coloured hills that are dotted with olive and fig trees.


Lagos

The principal resort in western Algarve, Lagos is a pleasant beach town. By night Lagos is lively, with outdoor restaurant terraces and bars lining narrow streets attracting a chic crowd. By day, it combines a rich historical past with a busy present day. Attractive beaches and a lovely coastline are within easy reach of the town. 

The walled city is divided from the port by Avenida dos Descobrimentos. The restored fortress at the end of the avenue, Forte da Ponte da Bandeira, guarded the entrance to the harbour in the 17th century. Climb the city walls for fine views of the port and out to sea. The main street on Lagos, Rua 25 de Abril, is packed with bars, restaurants and antiques and ceramic shops. 

Stunning coastline near Lagos, Portugal.Stunning coastline near Lagos, Portugal. Photo: Shutterstock


Alte

One of the most picturesque settlements in the region is the lovely, flower-laden village of Alte, a graceful settlement lying at the foot of hills and clustered around a parish church. You must enter the village across a small, white bridge over a babbling stream that runs through town. 

The architectural highlight of the village is the 16th-century Igreja Matriz churchwhich contains elaborate chapels and rare 16th-century azulejos from Seville. The rest of Alte is the Algarve of postcards: whitewashed houses with colourful windows and red-tiled roofs lining narrow streets.


Sagres

With only a relative smattering of hotels, restaurants and tourist facilities, the coastal town of Sagres has a remote, undiscovered feel. The main attraction here is the Fortaleza de Sagres (Sagres Fortress), which was used by Henry the Navigator in the 15th century, and offers panoramic coastal views from its rocky promontory location. 

The town has a picturesque working harbour where small fishing boats bob and larger vessels haul in daily catches of lobster and mackerel. A cluster of restaurants around the harbour boast impressive views, while inland, the pleasant Praça da República square is ringed by relaxed nightspots. The best beaches near Sagres include sheltered Mareta and unspoilt Tonel.

A lighthouse near the town of Sagres, PortugalA lighthouse near the town of Sagres, Portugal. Photo: Shutterstock


Silves

Silves is the former Moorish capital of the Algarve. Eight centuries ago, the town was filled with palaces, gardens and bazaars, all of which presided over by a sprawling red sandstone, hilltop castle. Silvres Castle sits on ancient foundations but was constructed following the Christian Reconquest, though it preserves distinctly Moorish details. From its towers and battlements there are fine views over the town and surrounding countryside encompassing expansive orchards of fruit trees. 

Next to the castle, the imposing Gothic Silves Cathedral, was built on the site of a mosque in the 13th century by the liberating crusaders. Nearby, the Museu Municipal de Arqueologia (Archaelogical Museum) houses an impressive collection of archaeological artefacts and exhibits, including an 18-metre-deep medieval well that visitors can climb down. 


Portimão 

Portimão is an important fishing port and is renowned for its restaurants specialising in grilled sardines – many of these restaurants can be found at the dockside. It is also one of the best shopping towns on the coast; the pedestrianised town centre is filled with shops, and a food market is often set up in the town square. Shopping malls and outlets around the town offer traditional crafts and locally made items. 

The town was badly damaged by a 1755 earthquake and consequently there are few buildings of historical consequence. Largo 1º de Dezembro is a 19th-century park with 10 splendid blue and white azulejo benches, each illustrating a pivotal event in Portuguese history. The town's museum, Museu de Portimão, set in a former cannery on the banks of the Arade River, showcases the region's sardine fishing and canning tradition, as well as displaying some fascinating underwater archaeological finds.

The marina at Portimão.The marina at Portimão. Photo: Shutterstock


Loulé

Loulé is a regional produce centre with a large Saturday market, which is known for its leather, lace and copper goods, and charming outdoor cafés. There are actually two markets in Loulé: fresh produce, including fish, is sold in a mock-Moorish hall, while the 'gypsy market’ is held towards the opposite end of the boulevard. Just below the permanent market halls, on the main Praça da República square, you'll find a well preserved section of medieval castle walls. Set within the castle remains is an interesting local museum. 

Also worth visiting here are the Igreja Matriz, a 13th-century Gothic church with 18th-century azulejo tiling, the Convento da Graça, with its terrific Manueline portal, and the Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Conceição, a small church prized for its Baroque altar and ceramic tiles.


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Updated 27 June, 2019