Among the best places to visit in Portugal, we gave the southern region of Algarve some time and weren’t sorry we visited.
Ok, yeah, yeah, you’ve heard about how the cliffs of Portugal drop off into the blue Atlantic and the waves are legendary and the food is fantastic and the surfers are hotter-than-hell… You want the details, amiright?
Look. The secret is out. Algarve is fantastic and everyone knows it. In fact, it’s one of the most visited areas of Portugal outside of Porto, Lisbon, and Sintra so come prepared for crowds in the summer.
That said, when we went in April 2018 and rented a car we found some delightful little coves, fantastic areas all to ourselves, and plenty of space to take an awesome picture (we just had to dig around a little and get smart!).
We Avoided The Crowds (Mostly)
We Stayed Away from the Centers
When we looked at the cost of staying in the more trendy Faro or Lagos in Algarve we balked at the price tag. Some of the AirBnBs we saw were very pricey, not to mention the hotel costs! Plus, we had read that those towns were where the northern Europeans came to hang and party and That. Is. Not. For. Us.
We found a little town called São Brás de Alportel (our friend Sten lovingly referred to it as “That place that sounds like ‘Airport'”) and we were very happy with our choice.
Little towns are the place to be in Europe, in my opinion. All the better if you have a car or a bus that can take you there because goodness knows that skims the worst of the crowds off.
I would not recommend staying in the bigger towns in Algarve. If you truly want a more personal experience in Portugal, get away from the centers.
We Met Up With a Local
Sten and his family are expats living in Algarve. Jackson and Sten worked together remotely while building Musae and although they never met in person, it seemed a perfect opportunity to meet Sten near his beachy, surf-filled hometown in Algarve.
This was pure luck on our part. I can appreciate how difficult it can be to meet with a local in destinations around the world. That said, you’d be surprised by people in your network. If you want to seek out a local, I’d start by tapping your Facebook hive mind and just asking if anyone knows of someone you can meet with (I wrote more about this here, if you want some pointers). Sometime the best places to visit in Portugal can be in a restaurant with a local.
Which is precisely what we did.
Sten took us to Restaurante O Paulo near the town of Aljezur and it was delightful. We enjoyed fresh seafood and fantastic views.
We Went During the Shoulder Season
We went to Portugal in April. I know this is not ideal beach weather… believe me: we wanted it to be. That said, it was way more chilled out without the tons of people all over the place. And there was still a bunch of surfing going on.
Despite it being so early in the season, we still found the weather to be absolutely stunning.
Southern Portugal enjoys some of the most sunny weather in all of Europe and it feels that way when in Algarve.
We Rented a Car
I can’t say that renting a car to get around Portugal would be my recommendation. We had very mixed feelings about self-driving about Portugal. On the one hand: it was easy and convenient; on the other: it was confusing and expensive.
The good thing about renting a car in Portugal is that we were able to enjoy some of the smaller areas and little coves we would definitely not have been able to go to if we weren’t in our own car. This made escaping the crowds so much easier!
The bad thing is how pricey the gas is, the tolled roads are ridiculously expensive, and the streets are narrow and claustrophobic. Yuck.
At Touristy Places, We Found Other Areas to Explore
We had to go see the Lighthouse at Cabo de São Vicente, check out the Westernmost point of Europe? Yes, please.
Oh. But, wait… There are about a MILLION people there and they are all jostling and bouncing around each other to get a good picture. Ugh. Pass.
We walked in a bit, chuckled at the hot dog man, and then decided to see what was over there, beyond the rise.
The beauty of this terrain is that you can walk a few paces and find yourself visually cut off from what you were just looking at. This means that escaping the annoying group of French tourists becomes so much easier! Some of the best places to visit in Portugal can only be a few feet from where you are standing, but you might have to scramble down a cliff.
We Wandered Around Little Towns
Taking the opportunity to watch people in their natural habitat, we decided to go into the downtown area of Sao Bras de Alportel and wander. We came across little fountains, cafes, quiet corners, old ruins and beautiful little houses.
I like to wander in little towns in Algarve because they give us a chance to see the communities. I don’t care to look at all the glitzy touristy stuff all the time. Sometimes the best way to learn where the best places to visit in Portugal are, is to just go for a walk with no real destination and no plan.
We Ate and Drank
We ate a local fish soup when we had lunch with Sten. This was a tomato-based broth filled with the heady aromas of shellfish. It was salty and rich and went really well with a piece of fresh, crusty bread.
At every opportunity, we got our hands on Pastel do Nata, an egg yolk tart that is phenomenally good!
We drank Portuguese port. How can you not when the delicious, sweet wine is a national treasure and known the world over? (We drank a lot of it… it was super cheap and so easy to get our hands on!).
We’d get ourselves little cups of espresso every morning and enjoy the slower pace of the locals while sipping the hot, fresh shot as we read our Facebook feeds in the morning, and then again after lunch.
Ice cream. Because you gotta’.
We bought a lot of fresh ingredients from the grocery stores and made food at home. Jackson is a fabulous amateur chef so when on the road, he’ll often cook. I love the seriousness to ingredients in Algarve, and in Europe, for that matter. Vegetables, bread, pasta, olive oil… here are staples that we have seen just done right. Cooking with them is a pleasure (and eating them even more so!).
We Explored the Coast, Looking for the Best Places to Visit in Portugal
This area is chock full of surfers. This area is also chock full of little beaches. We tried to find as many as we could.
While we were in Algarve, the temperature was a still a bit low for swimming and sunbathing, although that didn’t stop people from doing it anyway (I am impressed, but not stupid…). I loved the little beaches Jackson would find on his phone by zooming in to Google Maps and then getting into the car to go check out whatever it was that could be there.
We got lost once and drove our very expensive Audi up a steep dirt road that ended at a cliff and I was convinced we’d have another nightmare– like what happened in Namibia— but we were fine.
I enjoyed walking barefoot along the sand, even if the wind was whipping it into my eyes. I felt like I could still pretend this was a majestic place and I was starring in my own movie.
Have I mentioned the surfers? There are a lot of them. They were fun to watch, we could have done a surfing course had we wanted, but we opted not to. I think if we had had more time I would have done it. Maybe next time.
How Long Were we in Algarve, Portugal?
We spent 4 days in Algarve. That gave us enough time to drive around, see some stuff, and relax without feeling like we needed to rush. I would have liked to have spent longer because there were so many little beaches we wanted to go see (and maybe drop in on a secluded one to work on our tans!).
I’d like to go back and see this area in the summer. I imagine it’s a real show-stopper when you get a chance to actually get into the water and enjoy the weather!
Overall, Algarve felt very accessible and private. I didn’t feel like Southern Portugal is too complicated, but maybe that’s because we avoided as many of the crowded areas as we could? I can’t imagine coming here to party, is really what I am saying. This feels more like a beachy, laid-back, visit-your-Portuguese-Grandma place.
Have you been to Algarve? What did you think?
Looking for more places to soak in sun? How about Malaga, Spain?