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Inside: How to make the most of 3 days in Algarve Portugal including the best Algarve beaches, a perfect room with a view, and two Algarve tours you can’t miss.
It’s the southernmost region of continental Portugal and one of the most sought-after holiday destinations in all of Europe…with good reason.
In the pre-Covid days, the Algarve region saw an estimated 7.1 million tourists annually, and recent studies have named it one of the best places in the world to retire.
What’s so special about Algarve Portugal?
Nicknamed the “sunshine region,” this relaxed, Mediterranean retreat is known for year-round sunshine, sandy coves, azure waters and stunning golden cliffs. Among those scenic cliffs, epic cave formations and arches combine for a dazzling landscape from the sea.
It was from these shores in the 15th century that Portuguese explorers set off on an epic journey to discover other lands.
And today, it is on this same coastline that Portugal welcomes the majority of its annual visitors.
Not surprisingly, no trip to Portugal would be complete without a visit to the Algarve.
My husband Dave and I kicked off our 10-day Portuguese holiday in the charming town of Porto.
Then, we hopped a flight to the geological wonders of the Azores archipelago. Today, it’s time to fly back to the mainland and hit the beach!
How to Get to the Algarve from Lisbon
The Algarve’s administrative center is Faro and that’s also where you’ll find the international airport. Most flights into the region arrive here.
You can fly from the Azores to Faro, but it requires a connection in Lisbon.
Instead, we chose to fly in and out of Lisbon. From Lisbon, you can drive or take a train to Faro or Lagos (either takes about 3 hours.)
The drive from Lisbon to Algarve
We chose to drive and booked a rental car at the Lisbon airport through DiscoverCars.com (my favorite choice for car rentals in Europe).
Depending on your final destination, the drive from Lisbon to the Algarve region takes 2 ½ to 3 hours.
It turns out to be an easy drive, straight down the A2 motorway through a fairly deserted part of the country. It’s also a boring drive aside from the occasional white stork nests perched on the power line towers but traffic is light and we make good time.
Tip: Keep an eye out for the nesting white storks all over the Algarve region, they are pretty cool to watch!
Are there tolls on the drive from Lisbon to Algarve?
Yes, the A2 does have toll booths, as does the A22 motorway which runs east-west through Algarve.
The highway tolls amount to 21 euro each way on our drive. Tip: Spring for the toll transponder in your rental vehicle. Some of the tolls on the A22 are electronic and don’t give you the option to pay on-site.
Which part of Algarve is the best?
The coastal Algarve region stretches nearly 100 miles from Vila do Bispo in the west to Castro Marim on the Spanish border. This can make deciding where to stay a real challenge.
Luckily, most driving distances within the region are pretty short.
It’s unlikely to take you more than 90 minutes to get from one end to the other. If you choose to stay somewhere in the middle you can cover a lot of ground, even during a short stay like ours.
If you’re looking for luxury, Vilamoura is the top choice for dazzling 5-star resorts, golf courses, and marina walks. But I’m looking for fabulous views on a budget.
The perfect Algarve apartment with a view
My decision is made when I come across the beautiful Os Reais apartment just outside Carvoeiro, overlooking the beach of Vale Centeanes.
My number one requirement is a view and this spacious 2-bedroom apartment certainly delivers.
It’s more space than we need but the rate is super affordable so why not? Most importantly, it has a huge terrace with a jaw-dropping view of the beach!
Even better, the apartment’s central location turns out to be perfect for us – away from the bigger, touristy towns but within a 30-minute drive of every awesome beach in the area.
A hotel option with the same view…
Of course, if you prefer the comfort of a resort hotel, the Tivoli Carvoeiro Algarve Resort (right next door) offers the same awesome views plus luxury amenities like a fabulous pool, chic spa, and room service.
With the flight from the Azores and the drive from Lisbon, it’s nearly 4pm by the time we arrive at the apartment.
We settle in and then hit the tiny supermarket nearby for provisions (because what’s a terrific terrace without a little wine and cheese?). Then we take the steps down to the beach to check out the beach bar we spotted from our terrace.
Conveniently, we also find a booth to book cave tours leaving right from our home beach. That’s especially exciting for two reasons:
- A cave tour is the #1 item on my Algarve to-do list and,
- I thought we’d have to go to Portimao or Lagos to book it.
Unfortunately, the booth has a sign posted saying there are no trips scheduled for tomorrow due to sea conditions. Boo. We’ll have to table that one for later.
Undeterred, we walk the beach for a bit and then grab a drink in the beachside restaurant. Later, we retire to our lovely terrace to watch the sunset and establish our plan of attack for tomorrow.
We have two full days left and a LOT of ground to cover.
Algarve Weather Delays
The next morning, we awake to a brilliant view of sand and sea directly out our window.
To fully appreciate the Algarve, you simply must get out on the water and that’s exactly what we hope to do today.
With no trips going from our own beach, we hop in the car and drive 30 minutes to Lagos in search of a boat trip to book for this afternoon.
Unfortunately, sometimes mother nature has other plans.
Despite a blue sky and the optical illusion of a perfect day, all of the boat trip booths along the Lagos waterfront have similar signs posted to the one we saw last night.
All trips are canceled due to sea conditions. Drat.
Note: We are visiting in May, which is within the peak summer season, but the small boat tours can be canceled at any time due to sea conditions regardless of which month you visit.
Some of the larger boats do set sail today but all of the cave trips (which require favorable sea conditions for entering the caves in small boats) are a no-go.
Rumor has it sea conditions will improve tomorrow, so we settle for an afternoon catamaran trip from Lagos to explore the western coastline from the sea. And hope for better luck on a cave tour tomorrow.
The Top 5 Best Algarve Beaches & Sights
With our sea plans settled (mostly) for tomorrow, we devote the rest of the day to exploring the Algarve’s best beaches by land.
With an Instagram-worthy beach seemingly around every corner, it’s hard to know where to start in this sun-soaked region. There are more than a hundred coves of golden sand for visitors to enjoy.
We start with five of the most famous.
1. Praia do Camilo & Praia Dona Ana
First up, perhaps the Algarve’s most iconic beach, Praia do Camilo.
Like most beaches in the region, when you park your car in the beach’s parking lot, you can’t see any of the beach down below.
But as we wind our way down the 200 wooden steps down to the sea, it’s easy to see why Camilo is considered THE Algarve stunner.
Along with neighboring Praia Dona Ana, Camilo boasts golden sands, crystal clear waters, and soaring orange rock formations. With calm waters, it’s also safe for swimming and snorkeling.
2. Ponta da Piedade
Just a few steps away from Camilo, the remarkable rock formations of Ponta da Piedade are symbolic of the Algarve’s natural beauty.
With a series of sea stacks and sandstone rock arches, this spot is popular for boat tours through and around the arches.
From there, we stop in the sleepy seaside fishing village of Luz for lunch and then drive back towards our apartment to visit the town of Carvoeiro.
3. Seven Hanging Valleys Trail
One of the best ways to enjoy the world-renowned beaches east of Carvoeiro is to take advantage of the clifftop walking trail called the Seven Hanging Valleys Trail.
Conveniently, the trail head is located right at our beach, Vale Centeanes.
From there, the trail stretches approximately 4 miles taking you to the Algarve’s most photographed beaches of Praia de Marinha and Benagil, with lots of little coves along the way that are inaccessible by car.
4. Praia de Marinha
If you’re seeking that quintessential crescent of Algarvian sand, look no further than Praia de Marinha. Near the end of the Seven Hanging Valleys Trail, this picture-perfect beach is one of the Algarve’s most popular.
With calm, clear waters and soft sand, Marinha is popular with families.
It’s perhaps most famous for the two stone arches in the sea that form an “M” shape. Despite the small size of the actual beach, it’s one of the Algarve’s most popular spots.
5. Benagil Beach
Benagil is far more famous for its postcard-worthy cave, which can only be accessed by sea, than the actual beach.
However, there’s one definite advantage to visiting by land – the opportunity to see into the cave from above through the stone oculus roped off along the Seven Hanging Valleys Trail.
We walk that portion of the trail before locating the steps to the beach. Once again, a steep bank of steps await (the Algarve definitely makes you earn its beauty).
And that’s a wrap on Day #2! After a very full day, we head back to our own lovely terrace to enjoy a glass of wine and another perfect sunset.
Must-Do Algarve Tour #1 – Benagil Caves Boat Trip
Today is Day 3 and it’s all about hitting the water to enjoy a different view of the coastline!
Luckily, we catch a break with favorable sea conditions and are even able to book a boat trip departing right from our beach, Vale Centeanes.
After breakfast on the terrace, we head down the steps to the beach to meet our boat. The weather is absolutely perfect, not a cloud in the sky, as we climb into the small boat and push off from the beach.
The highlight of any cave tour is the Algarve’s most-photographed spot and one nearly every travel enthusiast has once drooled over in a glossy travel magazine – the Benagil Caves.
Unfortunately, the local boat tours no longer allow visitors to get out of the boat and walk on the beach so the only way to set foot on the beach is to kayak, swim or paddleboard from nearby Benagil Beach.
Thankfully, our boat captain takes his time inside the cave. He cruises us around every angle for photo opportunities so we have plenty of time to appreciate this magnificent natural wonder.
It’s an excellent trip and I’m so excited we were able to check this one off our Bucket List while we’re here!
Must-Do Algarve Tour #2 – Discovery Tours Catamaran Sail
With our cave tour completed, we hop in the car and head back to Lagos for the catamaran trip we booked yesterday with Discover Tours.
The company offers two afternoon catamaran tours on alternate days – a 3-hour sightseeing trip and a 4-hour trip that includes lunch and swimming.
Only the 4-hour trip is offered for today and it turns out to be a fabulous trip. I’m so glad we decided to devote the entire afternoon to it!
We pass Camilo, Piedade, and Luz from our land tour yesterday and it’s nice to see each from a different angle.
Then we sail by Burgau, Boca do Rio, and Salema before dropping anchor in a sheltered cove for lunch and a swim off the back deck.
The endless golden vistas along the entire cruise are simply mesmerizing. I couldn’t have planned a better way to wrap up our third and final day exploring the Algarve.
After the catamaran returns us to Lagos, we make the 30-minute drive back to the apartment to enjoy one last magical sunset from our terrace.
Back to Lisbon
The next morning, we say goodbye to our million-dollar view and hit the road for Lisbon.
Whether by land or by sea, we truly feel we maximized our time in Algarve. We were fortunate to see so many of the best sights the Algarve has to offer over our short 3-day stay.
Honestly, you could probably spend months in the Algarve exploring miles of sandy coves and secret caves and never see it all.
But no matter how much time you have, don’t miss a chance to get out on the water and get a look at those incredible cliffs from the sea.
The Algarve is a destination that will always leave you wanting more.
Coming Up: How I used my travel rewards to do our entire 10-day Portugal trip for less than $1,000.