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 2017, the Algarve region saw an estimated 7.1 million tourists and recent studies have named it one of the best places in the world to retire.
Nicknamed the “sunshine region,” this relaxed, Mediterranean retreat is known for year-round sunshine, sandy coves, azure waters and stunning golden cliffs. 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. So, after beginning our Portuguese holiday in Porto and then hopping over to the Azores for a few days, it was time to fly back to the mainland and hit the beach!
How to Get to the Algarve
The Algarve’s administrative center is Faro and that’s also where you’ll find the international airport. While we could have flown from the Azores to Faro, it would have required a connection in Lisbon, so we chose to just fly in and out of Lisbon and drive. Alternately, you can take a train to Faro or Lagos that takes about 3 hours.
The drive from Lisbon to the Algarve region is 2 ½ to 3 hours, depending on your final destination. The trip is straight down the A2 toll motorway through a fairly deserted part of the country with not much visual entertainment on the drive other than the occasional white stork nests perched on the power line towers (keep an eye out for the nesting white storks all over the Algarve region, they are pretty cool to watch!).
It was a super easy drive, albeit a bit boring, with no traffic. The A2 does have toll booths, as does the A22 motorway which runs east-west through Algarve. The highway tolls amounted to 21 euro each way (I’d recommend getting 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).
Where to Stay in the Algarve
The coastal Algarve region stretches nearly 100 miles from Vila do Bispo in the west to Castro Marim on the Spanish border, which makes deciding where to stay a real challenge.
Luckily, most driving distances within the region are pretty reasonable. It’s unlikely to take you more than 90 minutes to get from one end to the other so if you choose to stay somewhere in the middle you can cover a lot of ground, even during a short stay like ours.
I looked at hotels in Faro, Albufeira, Lagos, Carvoeiro and Portimao and ultimately settled on an Airbnb just outside Carvoeiro, overlooking the beach of Vale Centeanes. My number one requirement was a view and this Airbnb apartment definitely fit the bill.
The apartment itself was nothing fancy, though it was roomy with two bedrooms and two baths. More than we needed, but the price was right at $125/night, so why not? Most importantly, it had a huge terrace with a jaw-dropping view of the beach, exactly what I was looking for! (If you haven’t rented with Airbnb before, use my discount code to save $40 on your first booking!)
Even better, the apartment’s central location turned out to be perfect for us – away from the bigger, touristy towns but within a 30-minute drive of every awesome beach we wanted to see.
For those who just prefer the comfort of a resort hotel, you can get a similarly awesome view but with a few more luxury services (like a fabulous pool, chic spa, room service, etc) at the Tivoli Carvoeiro Algarve Resort, which was right next door to our apartment building.
With the flight from the Azores and the drive from Lisbon, it was nearly 4pm by the time we arrived at the apartment. After settling in, we hit the tiny supermarket nearby for provisions (because what’s a terrific terrace without a little wine and cheese?). Then we headed down the steps to the beach to check out the little beach bar we could see from the room.
We also found a booth for booking a cave tour that left right from our home beach. That was especially exciting for two reasons. One, a cave tour was the #1 item on my Algarve to-do list and, two, I thought we’d have to go to Portimao or Lagos to book it.
Unfortunately, the booth had a sign posted saying there were no trips scheduled for the next day due to sea conditions. Boo. I made a mental note to call them the next day and see if there were any trips going the day after that.
We walked the beach for a bit, had a drink in the beachside restaurant and retired to our terrace to watch the sunset and finalize our sightseeing plan of attack for the next day.
We had two full days left and a LOT of ground to cover.
Algarve Weather Delays
The next morning, we awoke to a brilliant view of sea and sand directly out our window and I had to pinch myself to believe this was the kind of view that $125/night could buy. Hooray for Airbnb!
To fully appreciate the Algarve, you simply must get out on the water and that’s exactly what we hoped to do with our first day. So, we hopped in the car and drove 30 minutes to Lagos in search of a boat trip to book for the 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 had similar signs posted to the one we’d seen the night before – all trips were canceled due to sea conditions. Drat.
Some of the larger boats did set sail that day but all of the cave trips (which require favorable sea conditions for entering the caves in small boats) were a no-go. We spoke to a couple of different booths and they were all optimistic for better sea conditions the next day, so we booked an afternoon catamaran trip from Lagos to see the western coastline from the sea.
And then we crossed our fingers that the cave tour from our own beach would be available for the following morning.
Algarve’s Best Beaches
With our sea plans settled (mostly) for the next day, we decided to devote the rest of day two to exploring the Algarve’s best beaches by land. We were just a few minutes’ drive from two of the region’s most spectacular beaches so that’s where we started.
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 but we started with a few of the most famous.
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 wound our way down the 200 wooden steps down to the sea, it was 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 safe for swimming and snorkeling. It’s the kind of beach where you’d surely never tire of the view.
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 stopped in the sleepy seaside fishing village of Luz for lunch and then drove back towards our apartment to visit Carvoeiro.
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 was 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.
We walked some of the trail around Vale Centeanes but since we were losing daylight as we headed back to Carvoeiro we decided to drive to our next stops instead.
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 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.
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 walked around that portion of the trail before locating the steps to the beach. Once again, a steep bank of steps awaited (the Algarve definitely makes you earn its beauty).
Algarve Boat Trips – Benagil Caves
Day three was all about hitting the water to enjoy a different view of the coastline we’d so enjoyed the first day.
I had emailed the boat trip company on Vale Centeanes the day before to check the availability of a morning cave tour for our second day. Luckily, we caught a break and the sea conditions were favorable for cave tours.
They had seats available for the 9am tour so after breakfast on the terrace we headed down the steps to the beach to meet our boat. The weather was absolutely perfect, not a cloud in the sky, as we climbed into the small boat and pushed 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 paddle board from nearby Benagil Beach.
Thankfully, our boat captain spent lots of time cruising us around every angle of the cave so that we were still able to get terrific photos of this magnificent natural wonder.
Discovery Tours Catamaran Sail
With our cave tour completed, we hopped in the car and headed back to Lagos for our catamaran trip with Discover Tours. The company offers two afternoon catamaran trips on alternate days – a 3 hour sightseeing trip and a 4-hour trip that includes lunch and swimming.
Only the 4-hour trip was offered for the day we wanted to go so we decided to go for it figuring it would be a relaxing way to appreciate the western Algarve coastline from the sea.
It turned out to be a fabulous trip and we were so glad we decided to devote the entire afternoon to it.
We passed Camilo, Piedade and Luz from our land tour the previous day and loved having the chance to appreciate them all from a different angle. Then sailed 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 were just mesmerizing and I couldn’t have planned a better way to wrap up our third and final day exploring the Algarve.
After the catamaran returned us to Lagos, we made the 30-minute drive back to the apartment to enjoy one last magical sunset from the terrace.
Back to Lisbon
The next morning, we said goodbye to that million-dollar view and hit the road for Lisbon. Whether by land or sea, we truly felt we had maximized our time and seen many of the best sights the Algarve had to offer over our short 3-day stay.
Honestly, you could spend months in the Algarve exploring miles of sandy coves and secret caves and probably 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 certainly one destination that (no matter how long you stay) will always leave you wanting more.
Coming Up: How I used my travel rewards to do our entire Portugal trip for less than $1,000.