The temptation when visiting the Algarve, especially in summer, is to lie on the beach and unwind, but for those who want to get under the skin of the region, a little exploration will pay off. Soak up the freshness of an old whitewashed church where statues are lavishly dressed and hand-painted blue and white tiles traditionally decorate the interiors. Visit a fish market to rub elbows with the locals amid noisy vendors selling cuttlefish and octopus, sea bass and sea bream, and head to the heights where along flower-strewn cliffs whipped by sea breezes you can fill your lungs and clear your head.
For more Algarve inspiration, check out our guides to the best hotels, restaurants, driving tours, nightlife and beaches in the city.
Explore a medieval city with strong Moorish influences
Silves was the center of culture during the Muslim occupation of the Algarve and lies inland, surrounded by orange trees and dominated by a red sandstone castle. Visit the castle and its Cisterna de la Mora Encantada before heading to the neighboring cathedral; Dating from the 13th century, it is one of the main Gothic monuments in the region.
Insider tip: Before leaving Silves, go down to the river to see the old Roman Bridge. It was actually rebuilt in the 14th century, but its five perfectly shaped arches spanning the Arade River are a work of art.
Take the pedestrian path less traveled
Via Algarviana, a 186-mile walking route, stretches from Alcoutim, near the Spanish border, through the interior of the Algarve to Cape St. Vincent in the far west. It is well signposted with signs indicating points of interest and nearby settlements. The route takes you off the beaten track and was supposedly first walked in the 4th century AD
Insider tip: The best time to do this hike is in April, when the springs and streams are flowing, and lavender and wild orchids, rockroses and peonies, wild lilies and oleanders, bougainvillea and buttercups are in bloom, creating a colorful mosaic to traverse.
Stroll through a fabulous fish market.
Nothing gives a better sense of place than a food market, and in the Algarve that means fish. Olhão, in the eastern Algarve, famous for fishing since the Middle Ages, has a wonderful market with lots of stalls inside bass (sea bass), octopus and squid, as well as clams, barnacles (gooseneck barnacles), and lobster (Rock lobster).
Insider tip: When you’re done admiring the raw fish, head across the street to try the cocidos at the excellent Terra i Mar restaurant, which serves crispy weavers and cuttlefish roe and the more common sea bass and sea bream.
Address: 5th of October Avenue, Olhao
Contact: 00 351 289 707 298
Opening hours: Mon-Sat, 7am-1pm; limited products on mondays
Play a round of golf on a world-famous course
Renowned for its golf courses, the Algarve has a wide variety. The Sir Henry Cotton Championship Course (18 holes, par 73) at Penina Hotel & Golf Resort, the first course built in the region, remains extremely popular and has two notable holes: the fifth dogleg, with its canal and lake, and the 13th, in the shade of the water from the tee to the green.
Insider tip: Green fees vary between courses, so it’s worth comparing prices to find the best deal. Penina is the only resort in the Algarve to offer three golf courses with an academy course and a resort course along with its championship course.
Opening hours: from October to May, every day, from 8:00 to 18:30; From June to September, every day, from 7:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Go find blue tiles in an old church
The simple whitewashed churches that dot the Algarve landscape give no indication of the riches that lie within. Often dressed in ancient clothing tiles (hand-painted tiles), many also have opulent gilt altars. Doors and windows are frequently Manueline, a style of late Gothic architecture named after King Manuelino (1495 to 1521) and financed by the great wealth brought to Portugal by the spice trade.
Insider tip: Just outside Almancil is the small 18th-century church of São Lourenço, considered a jewel of the Algarve. Blue and white tiles, completed in 1730, cover the interiors to such striking effect that the richly gilded altar is completely dominated.
Address: Rua da Igreja, Sao Lourenco
Contact: 00 351 289 395451
Opening hours: Mon-Sat, 10am-1:30pm, 2:30pm-5:30pm
Dive into the water on a ‘seafari’
Algarve Seafaris offers a variety of programs, including deep sea fishing, reef fishing and cruises along the coast, exploring the many limestone caves and secluded beaches. The choice of transport ranges from large catamarans to smaller yachts, and cruises start at Vilamoura Marina. Stops are made to swim and snorkel, as well as to venture into some of the most impressive caves.
Insider tip: Choose the Benagil cave tour to see the most spectacular cave on the Algarve coast. It has a natural oculus that illuminates, at the right time of day, the beach over which it rises and changes the water from blue to emerald.
See dolphins in the wild with a marine biologist
To see marine life in its natural habitat, head to Mar Boundless in Sagres, which specializes in spotting marine life. Accompanied by a pair of marine biologists, guests head out on a RIB and are likely to see sea turtles and porpoises, as well as storm-petrels, shearwaters and gannets. Dolphins frequently come to play in the wake of your boat.
Insider tip: These passionate marine biologists are also well equipped to teach you how to dive, so you can combine a trip out to sea with a lesson to start a PADI certified scuba diving course or Open Water Diver course.
Contact: 00 351 91 683 2625; Facebook page
Opening hours: Every day, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Take a dip in an iconic water park
It’s hard to miss the water parks in the Algarve, as several of them are landmarks. Kids love them and are happy to spend a whole day there, which makes sense given the high admission prices. Each one has different rides or attractions, but they all have food for sale and lockers to leave your clothes. The Aquashow Park Hotel in Quarteira is popular for its 50-foot-tall snake slide. Aqualand in Alcantarillha is famous for the kamikaze, which takes just four seconds to slide 120 feet. Highlights at Slide & Splash, spread over seven hectares in Estombar, include the Tornado and Turbulent River.
Insider tip: Many people bring mats and a picnic and set up a base with umbrellas so they can stay for a decent amount of time. Frequent reapplication of sunscreen is a must as it washes off slides.
Contact: aquashowparkhotel.com; aqualand.pt; slidesplash.com
Make some waves along the shoreline
Portugal is big on surfing along its coastline. In the Algarve, the west coast offers perfect conditions for competent surfers. Future Surf in Portimão is the best of several surf schools with excellent instructors and they alternate their lessons between the west coast if you are skilled enough to surf the big wave or Portimão beach for beginners.
Insider tip: Water skiing can be done in the calmer waters of Quinta do Lago, as can banana boat rides and jet skiing; Alvor beach is ideal for kitesurfing. Paddle surfing is available on many beaches, but one of the best is Martinhal.
Buy local hand-painted pottery
Local pottery is an attractive souvenir to take home. The most beautiful workmanship can be found at Porches Pottery, on the main N125 near Lagoa. Plates and bowls, lamp bases and vases, candle holders and soap dishes are all hand painted in blues, turquoises, greens and yellows with flowers and fish, birds and dragonflies. Everything can be sent home if necessary.
Insider tip: Drop by for lunch and enjoy a delicious salad or quiche and a glass of local wine at Bar Bacchus which is part of the pottery. You can sit in the shade of the labyrinthine pink bougainvillea.