8 unsung towns and villages to visit in the Algarve, Portugal

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie

Most arrivals into Faro Airport head straight for one of the deservedly popular beach resorts such as Albufeira and Lagos. While I love spending time in these bustling holiday hubs, just stay in the resorts, and you miss out on some of the most charming and unspoilt towns and villages in Europe. We're talking old cobbled streets, little gems that dish up boat-fresh seafood, and mountain hideaways that offer a cooling breeze that comes in handy at the height of summer.

Unsung towns and villages to visit in the Algarve, Portugal © Tolbxela - Flickr Creative Commons
Unsung towns and villages to visit in the Algarve, Portugal © Tolbxela - Flickr Creative Commons

All are unremittingly picturesque and can be easily reached from resorts such as Carvoeiro, Alvor, and Vilamoura on a day trip. TUI has great deals to the Algarve all year round, with plenty of resorts to choose from. Find your base, and start exploring these quieter, more traditional towns to really spice up your next beach holiday.

1. Tavira

Starting in the east, Tavira is the odd one out on this list, as you could say it's already a fully fledged holiday resort. It's also too quaint, dramatic, and historic not to be included. A Roman-era bridge ripples through its historic core, setting the tone, and when I first came here in the nineties it felt like there were more churches than people. Although Tavira has got busier over the years, it's still a lovely place to stroll around. A huge bonus is that you can catch a boat out to the Ilha de Tavira where mile upon mile of unspoilt white beach awaits. There is so much space here that the beach never feels crowded.

The bridge at Tavira which dates from Roman times © Flu4022 - Fotolia.com
The bridge at Tavira which dates from Roman times © Flu4022 - Fotolia.com

2. Santa Luzia

This wee village lies an easy drive or cycle from Tavira. If you love octopus, you'll never want to leave. The local fishermen are industriously employed mainly on this single catch with a flurry of superb value octopus restaurants lining the waterfront. You'll be amazed at the myriad ways they serve it here. I recommend trying slices spiced with smoked paprika to start, followed by an octopus cataplana - the hearty, bursting with flavour Algarvian stew. Wash it down with a glass of vinho verde, which suits the local seafood and the Algarve's climate perfectly.

3. Olhao

Seafood is a big draw here too. If you think the architectural style of the striking local fish market looks familiar you're onto something. It was the work of a young Frenchman, Gustave Eiffel - yes that Gustave Eiffel! The old core is a chocolate box beauty and largely untrammelled by tourism. Olhao is a great base for taking a boat trip out into the moody mangroves of the Rio Formosa National Park too. The 21st century feels very far away indeed out here, a mere half an hour east of Faro airport.

Traditional Algarvian seafood cataplana dish © HLPhoto - Fotolia.com
Traditional Algarvian seafood cataplana dish © HLPhoto - Fotolia.com

4. Loulé

This inland town north of Faro is famous as a key market hub. The old world Municipal Market is a stunner. Come here just for the experience of flitting around this historic building, which is the heart of Loulé's appealing old core. On Saturday morning more stalls spill outside so it's the best day to go. Handily a massive gypsy market also sprawls across Loulé on Saturdays too. The locals say that if you cannot find something on sale in Loulé on a Saturday it probably doesn't exist!

5. Silves

The most fun way to get here is on a boat trip from Portimão, which lies at the heart of a string of resorts west of Faro. Before the river silted up, Silves was the capital of Moorish Algarve. A hulking great castle still presides over this inland town, harking back to the days when Christians battled the Moors for supremacy. The boat tours soon leave the bustle of Portimão behind and ease into a world of reeds and bountiful birdlife before the might of Silves Castle eventually heralds in the spectacular approach to Silves. A couple of places by the ferry dock specialise in chicken piri piri cooked over coals right in front of your eyes. It's impossible not to love Silves.

The mountain retreat at Monchique © Eunikas - Fotolia.com
The mountain retreat at Monchique © Eunikas - Fotolia.com

6. Monchique

When the mercury soars in summer this breezy mountain retreat becomes a temptation. The snaking drive up through narrow mountain roads really opens up views of the distant coastline and resorts that just get better and better as you go. The town has plenty of souvenir shops as it's popular with daytrippers. Try the local delicacies of medronho (a lethal brandy style drink) and pão com houriço, Portuguese chorizo served in what is basically a sweet croissant. Then push on a little further to Foia, the Algarve's highest point at 902m. The resorts look very far away indeed from this lofty vantage point.

7. Burgau

Nestled out west past most of the main resorts is this sleepy town. Unlike many of the resorts, which were fishing villages until mass tourism arrived in the 1960s, Burgau still has an active fishing fleet and you can see the brightly coloured fishing boats heaved up on the sands here. There is also a superb seafood café/restaurant right down on the sands, the only development on the massive, gorgeous beach to speak of. A great place for swimming if the waters are not too rough. Whether you go for a dip or not, a walk around the tight, old stone streets is a must.

The Cape St. Vincent lighthouse near Sagres, Algarve © Janina Dierks - Fotolia.com
The Cape St. Vincent lighthouse near Sagres, Algarve © Janina Dierks - Fotolia.com

8. Sagres

This is literally the end of the line in the Algarve, the dramatic, windswept most southwesterly town in Europe. It's a long way to the Americas across the Atlantic from Sagres as the intrepid Portuguese explorers, who once set off across the ocean from here, found out. A sense of that romance definitely still ripples around the town and the massive Sagres Fort that evokes the romance tinged adventurers of those halcyon days.

For an Algarve holiday with a difference, you can't beat exploring the many coastal towns and villages sprinkled along Portugal's southern edge. If you're feeling inspired to get out there and start discovering these gems for yourself, don't miss the latest offers on holidays to the Algarve from TUI, which departs from airports all over the UK. You can also find out more about the weather in Algarve, and see when we think is the best time to go.

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie
Posted on Wednesday 22nd November 2017 in: Europe Excursions Summer

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