My first memory of the Algarve is a beaming face and wrinkled-hand passing me a freshly-picked orange. I quickly peeled and devoured what at the time tasted like sweet, juicy heaven sat against an almond tree and, twenty-five years later, I still smile at that moment every-time I step off a flight at Faro airport.
In many ways, a lot has changed in the two-and-a-half decades since; more resorts, more tourists, fishing villages that have developed so much you wouldn’t recognise them in an old postcard. On the other hand, it’s still just the same. Beaming, wrinkled-faced ladies sell oranges from roadside stalls, Arabic castles share the history of the region, and small cobbled back-streets restaurants serve up traditional chicken Piri-Piri, clueless that a famous chain is hawking the same thing for three-times the price elsewhere. The biggest change? I’m now lucky enough to call this home, and those sweet, tasty oranges are an every-day occurrence.
You might picture the Algarve as boozy brits and big resorts but believe me; you don’t have to stray far to discover quaint beaches, lakes with dancing flamingos or mountainous spa-towns. Here are a few of my favourite Algarve hidden gems from nearly a lifetime of exploring this sun-kissed part of Portugal.
And if you are looking for somewhere to stay in the south of Portugal with a twist, check out my list of unique and unusual accommodation in the Algarv
Silves provides the perfect mix of history, culture and cuisine. Once the capital of the Arab kingdom here in the Algarve, its well preserved red castle, perched above the colourful streets and squares below, is still the largest in the region. Surrounded by green hills and orange trees, Silves town has an impressive local market, an ancient Mosque (converted to a church) which boasts both Gothic and Baroque features and plenty of traditional coffee shops lining its small cobbled streets. It feels a world away from the bar filled roads at the beach resorts and its best explored during August when The Silves Medival Festival takes place.
2. Ponta de Piedade, Lagos
Along the coastline of Lagos, you can get lost in a maze of caves and Ponta da Piedade are my favourite in this white-washed, bustling town. Drive slightly away from the centre, and these honey-coloured cliffs against the clear waters make for a water-sport lovers playground. For those who want to sit back and enjoy the ride take the stairs strewn into the cliffs and jump on a local fishing boat for a slow-paced tour.
Moorish history comes alive in Tavira where the Maria do Castelo church is home to knights tombs, and the medieval castle has panoramic views of this small city. The river running through is an extension of the nearby nature park and flamingos can be found dancing through the salt flats in season. The cobbled streets and long stretches of sandy beaches nearby make this an excellent base for exploring the Algarve, and thanks to the more traditional vibe here, it provides a more authentic Portuguese experience.
A short drive from Loulé is the small village of Alte which offers a great insight into a slower paced and local way of life. If you head away from the coastal resorts then traditional Portuguese dishes, with traditional Portuguese prices, are a welcome rest-bite from the samey and expensive menus that ply the main drags of the region. The nearby waterfall, although small and now sometimes lacking in water, is a pleasant hike outside the harsh heat of the summer months.
Just outside of Faro is Estoi, a small parish which houses Roman ruins in Milreu but also one of my favourite restored buildings in the region. The Pousada de Faro, once in disrepair, has now been renovated inside with the grounds following suit as part of a luxury hotel renovation project which is bringing many historic buildings back to life in Portugal. You don’t have to be a guest to explore the main rooms and grounds of this 18th-century palace although a chilled glass of wine on the veranda comes with a slice of grandeur you’ll struggle to find elsewhere in the Algarve. If you want to experience the Turkish baths and boutique luxury, you’ll need to book a room.
The colourful streets of Loulé, with a central location, is another excellent base in the Algarve for those not wanting to stay at a beach resort. As with much of Portugal, the biggest joy comes from aimlessly wandering the stone alleys while grabbing coffees and pastries at suitable intervals. The reason I love Loulé so much is, as of yet, tourism hasn’t completely pushed out the traditional way of life, and many of the residents are locals. The town-centre has some great shops, a castle and a vast local market, and in general, it’s a chance to see the Algarve not washed out by visitors. If you are around at the end of June or early July be sure to check-out the Festival Med when a whole host of musical, cultural and art based events take over the town.
7. Castle of Paderne Walking Trail
This ruined church and fortressed walls from the 16th century isn’t much to look at anymore, but the stroll passed the nearby mill with little turtles in the river is a pleasant break from the beach if you have a car. Take the two-hour trail past the medieval bridge to get a little insight into the long history along the south of Portugal.