January 26, 2020
(Updated February 5, 2020)
With its idyllic beaches, dramatic coastline and endless leisure opportunities, it’s no surprise that the Algarve has become one of the most popular holiday hot spots in Europe.
Since it first came to prominence in the 1960s, Portugal’s most southern region has gone from strength to strength by offering something different for all kinds of holidaymaker; and while it may be famous for stunning golf courses, there’s much more to this place than 18 holes in the sun.
Behind the veneer of popular holiday resorts and perfect fairways, there’s an abundance of hidden coves, a smattering of history and a diverse gastronomic scene that you’ll be dying to tell your friends back home about.
Here’s how to enjoy yourself in the Algarve without going over budget this summer.
For a cheery Portuguese stay, choose the Hotel Sol Algarve in Faro. This quaint little place has its own bar, free breakfast and the staff speak English. The rooms are functional, but have everything you need, including air conditioning and free wi-fi. While the hotel doesn’t have a pool, it makes up for this with its bargain prices and convenient location.
Falesia Hotel is right in the heart of the Albufeira district, offering a quiet, adult-only four-star stay at really reasonable prices. With friendly staff on hand to help you at every turn, you’ll have no problem finding ways to fill your days with activities or lounging by the pool. And wi-fi, parking and shuttle bus to the beach are all free.
Fresh fish is a way of life in the Algarve. Some of the region’s most popular resorts started out as humble fishing villages and many still are today. Unfortunately, shellfish and seafood dishes are usually among the priciest meals on the menu, but that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank to enjoy it.
The Algarve’s signature dish cataplana – which is actually the name of the eighth-century, dome-shaped pan it’s cooked in – is a must try for any seafood lover visiting Portugal this year. A rich fish and shellfish stew, the cataplana is prepared for around 40 minutes as the ingredients simmer and infuse. The portions are often hearty and very filling, and will easily feed two. Have a big lunch and forgo the starters to save on your bill.
For a truly authentic Portuguese experience, try seafood specialists Aqui Del Rei. You’ll find it nestled away in Faro’s charming Cidade Velha (Old Town) just behind the Arco do Repouso. Although prices can fluctuate, a cataplana for two and a couple of small cervejas (beers) shouldn’t set you back more than €40.
It’s no secret that the Algarve’s major towns have long since sold out in favour of mass tourism – that’s half the appeal. As a result of this though, it can be pricey to eat out close to the major resorts’ centres, beaches and old towns. To keep it cheap, explore further away from the main tourist hubs and keep your eyes peeled for small, family-run restaurants and set menus.
Beaches are the Algarve’s bread and butter. From small, secluded bays to long, lively expanses of sand, there are plenty of different options up and down the coastline to cater to your beach lounging needs. And the best bit about a day on the beach? It can be absolutely free!
Widely regarded as the best beach in Faro, Praia de Faro Beach is a short bus journey away from the city centre. If you are staying in a more central part of the Algarve, such as Albufeira, you may want to try out Praia da Galé, for its azure waters and gold sand beaches.
If you’d like to sun yourself a little closer to where you’re staying, try Fisherman’s beach (Praia dos Pescadores), which is right in front of Albufeira’s old town. It doesn’t really matter where you are staying though, you are never too far away from a stunning stretch of sand in this part of the world.
Aside from the sand, one of the Algarve’s most impressive features is its architecture. Over the centuries, Moorish, Gothic, baroque and Renaissance styles have come together marvellously to create some truly fantastic buildings. The best places to enjoy such structures are the many old towns you will find up and down the Algarve. Faro’s is one of the best preserved, with a beautiful old cathedral and neo-Gothic gate arches, while Albufeira’s winding, mosaic-tiled streets offer a nice contrast from the more modern high-rises you’ll find in the new part of the resort.
Olhão, meanwhile, offers a glimpse of Portugal’s Moorish past, with many of the houses built according to traditional Islamic designs – expect fantastic terraces, intricate tile patterns and ornate fixtures and mouldings.
Buses and trains regularly connect the major resorts and are also very cheap to use; for example, a bus from Faro to Albufeira takes approximately 35 minutes. Meanwhile, the one-hour bus journey from Faro to Lagos (Western Algarve) costs just €6.20. It’s best to buy tickets at the station before hand, but if you are planning to buy on the bus make sure you have change at the ready.
It’s possible to drive across the Algarve (east to west) in under two hours, so car hire might be the best option for those looking to explore off the beaten track. If you do, trade the coast for lush forests and mountains and head inland to Monchique. A world away from the hustle and bustle of the major resorts, this little town in the hills is known for its potent Medronho liqueur – just make sure you decide on the designated driver before you go!
In terms of getting from the airport, Faro is the main gateway to the Algarve and from here you can arrange a shuttle service to most of the region’s key resorts. While these shuttles are far from pricey, you can also opt for the DIY bus approach, according to your preference.
Towards the end of September and early October things tend to quieten down a bit across the Algarve, but the temperature still hovers around the low 20s with highs up to 25C. If you don’t fancy battling for a space on the beach, this might be the ideal time for you to visit. It’s also possible to pick up cheaper deals on hotels and flights at this time of year.
For a cheap day out to a lovely, quiet beach head to the Ilha Deserta: a privately owned island that buffers the Ria Formosa natural park from the power of the Atlantic. The island is completely uninhabited and all you will find here is in terms of civilisation is the Estaminé eco-restaurant and a few fishermen’s huts. The real draw though is not the restaurant – which can be quite pricey, so perhaps stick to a picnic – it’s the isolated beach. Lapped by rolling waves, this gem at Portugal’s southern tip is the ideal place to escape and get away from life’s worries. Two sun-loungers and a shade will set you back around €20 for the day here, so if your budget is tight, take a beach towel.
The Animaris tour company runs a number of ferry shuttles to the island every day, which you can take for €10 return. Nature lovers may want to pay an extra €20 to learn about the flora and fauna of the park, but if you’re just after a day on the beach, stick to the cheaper fare.
You can arrange the boat tour from Faro, just around the corner from Faro fire station – just head right around the Old Town’s perimeter from the Jardim Manuel Bívar.