The Algarve Bucket List: 20 things to do in Portugal's paradise before you die!
From pastéis de nata to perfect Instagram pitches, Thomas Breathnach has the best of Portugal's holiday paradise…
Almost 365,000 Irish visits to the Algarve last year saw overnight stays jump 8pc, according to the Algarve Tourism Bureau. Here, we've picked 20 great things to do in one of Ireland's favourite holiday destinations.
1. Catch sunset at Cape St Vincent
With over 300 days of sunshine a year, the Algarve is kissed with Atlantic sunsets like nowhere else in Europe. For the region's most dramatic spectacle, head to Cape Saint Vincent (above), where the sun sets each evening over the continent's most southwesterly frontier. Expect an almost solar eclipse buzz here as cavalcades of coach tours and camper vans converge daily - but solitude is up for grabs, too. Wander towards the cape's southern cliffs and you'll not only escape the tourists, but also score the perfect backdrop of its lighthouse!
Do it: Cape St Vincent sits 120km west of Faro.
2. Coffee & Pasteis de Nata
Vamos tomar café! Going for coffee is the ultimate Algarvian break, where time seems to stand stiller with every freshly roasted sip. Your cup of Joao is best served, of course, with some Portuguese bake-off delights. Try a pastel de nata, a traditional custard tart dusted with cinnamon, or the local specialty of doce fino. Made from ground almonds, the treats are shaped into an array of traditional shapes in a pure masterclass of sugar craft. For the best, head to Pasteleria Algarve in Lagos.
Do it: Rua Francisco L.M. Veloso Lote 5; pastelariaalgarve.pt.
3. Take an island escape to Culatra
Like an Iberian Inis Meáin, the island of Culatra is the Algarve's old-school vacation outpost, where go-slow white-washed hamlets lilt with sunshine, rum and bougainvillea. You'll find no vehicles on the island - nor roads - just a criss-cross of rickety boardwalks leading to gilded beaches and lazy beach shacks (try Bar Maramais for a caipirinha). For a greater escape, maroon yourself at Ihla Deserta. This stunning, 10km long sand bar is a deserted island in every sense.
Do it: Get to the islands via ferry (€1.85) or water taxi (€25) from Faro; algarvebus.info.
4. Indulge in a caldeirada!
Perhaps the Algarve's quintessential food experience, caldeirada is to Portugal what Irish stew is to our own shores. Ingredients are typically a pot-luck based on the catch of the day, but monkfish and shrimp along with potatoes and tomatoes are typically staples of the fragrant seafood feast. To savour it best, visit Central Café in Alvor, where it's made to a traditional family recipe tweaked by whatever comes in off the trawlers. Delicioso!
Do it: Central Café, Rua D. Joao II, Alvor; @centralcafealvor
5. Hit the beach in Carvoiero
Nothing says bom dia better than a morning swim in the Algarve, and few spots offer a more epic backdrop than the coastal jewel of Carvoeiro. The pinch-yourself setting here features a horseshoe cove and a higgledy piggledy white-washed village clambering onto the surrounding clifftops. The beach gets busy during the day, but early morning is particularly blissful. Looking for a more secret escape? Plant your beach-towel on the local favourite of Praia da Coelha in Albufeira.
Do it: Praia do Carvoeiro - though do keep an eye out for changes of tides.
6. Instagram the rocks of Ponta da Piedade
With honeycomb cliffs, caves and sea stacks basking under the Iberian sky, the Algarve's famous rock formations are the region's most blockbuster sight. You'll find the most dramatic at Ponta da Piedade - located outside the historic town of Lagos. There's a Cliffs of Moher wow-factor to the wonder, but without the same safety barriers - just be surefooted as you navigate the eroded steps to the whirlpool. Looking for added adventure? Why not explore the rocks via a stand-up paddling boarding tour instead!
Do it: Kite School Portugal offer SUP tours of the area from €40pp; kiteschoolportugal.com.
7. Go Surfing in Sagres
Any surfer worth their sea-salt will know Portugal's western coast is a gnarly playground featuring epic breaks and awesome Atlantic swells. But that's not just Peniche. With Lisbon's growing tech-set flying south for weekends, the Algarve is emerging as a surfing hotspot too. To catch some waves, hit the Algarve Surf School based in the windmill-dotted town of Carrapateira - they provide lessons, gear rental and, if you fancy a sleepover, their own hostel in the laid-back town of Sagres.
Do it: Courses start from €50 for a three-hour day session; algarvesurfschool.com.
8. Fado, Fado
It may not be as in demand as the karaoke tunes of the Algarve's tourist strips, but the traditional art of Fado singing should be on everyone's holiday playlist. Telling melancholic musical tales of Portuguese amor won and lost, the genre could best be described as sultry sean nós. For a fix, head to Fado com História in the charming town of Tavira - it stages intimate fado sessions every evening with historical backstories of the songs, too.
Do it: Rua Damião Augusto de Brito Vasconcelos 4, Tavira, €8; fadocomhistoria.com.
9. Visit the market in Loulé
Anybody who lives, summers or Airbnbs in the Algarve can all agree on one of its greatest plusses: market shopping. Stocking up local staples is a glorious Portuguese ritual, and the historic mercado at Loulé remains the most vibrant in the area. Its Arabesque indoor market is lined with stalls, bursting in fragrance from persimmons and pomegranates to sea bream and sardines. Get here early for the best stock and don't forget most items are priced per 100g on the Continent!
Do it: Rua José Fernandes Guerreiro 34, every weekend from 7am to 3pm; lcglobal.pt.
10. Buy pottery in Porches
Of all the region's souvenirs, Portuguese pottery has earned quirky cult status in recent years. Driving around the region, you'll discover a smattering of vibrant roadside pottery barns - particularly along the mountain roads of Monchique. Motifs remain unabashedly kitsch, but tradition is being embraced too. Porches Pottery is lauded with reviving the art, and was actually founded by Irish artist Patrick Swift in the 1960s. Visit its studios, shop and cute Bacchus café in the village of the same name.
Do it: EN125, Porches; porchespottery.com.
11. Visit an Algarve winery
With its Californian climate, the Algarve boasts the perfect sun-kissed terroir to create the most divine of vintages. For a connoisseur crash-course, visit Quinta dos Vales wine estate. It offers tastings, tours and with its stunning setting is (nudge nudge) a popular wedding venue, too. The cork doesn't stop there. For budding aficionados, the estate also allows the public to rent their own plot of vineyard to create their own personalised vintage under the tutelage of the vineyard's winemakers...
Do it: Quinta dos Vales, Estombar, Lagoa; quintadosvales.eu.
12. Taste piri piri chicken
With origins in Portugal's former colony of Mozambique (and not Nandos), piri piri chicken is one of the nation's great epicurean feasts. The secret's in the sauce: a punchy marinade made from chillis, pimento peppers, garlic and fresh herbs. For the most authentic gusto, the dish is best found at traditional churrasqueiras - or barbecue joints. Try hole-in-the-wall Jolibela, a traditionally fashioned family restaurante on the cobbled backstreets of Loulé. Here, a deliciously marinated bird is typically served with fries and rice for around €7. Too zingy? Cool your throat with a carafe of local vinho.
Do it: Churrasqueira Jolibela, Rua Camilo Castelo Branco 17, Loulé (@churrasqueirajolibela).
13. Discover Benagil Cave
Nothing will take your Instagram to the next level like a shot of the Algarve's most stunning, yet elusive sight - the Benagil cave. Straight from a Macbook screensaver, the magical sea cave has been sculpted by the seas over the millennia - largely beyond the ken of tourists. But that's changing! While its location (not to mention tides) has traditionally made access tricky, today local operators Seabookings run small grotto boat tours from Carvoiero, right into the eye of the wonder.
Do it: Pick up at Carvoiero beach; a one-hour tour costs €25; seabookings.com.
14. Drink medronho in Monchique
Made in the Algarve's mountainous Monchique region, a sip of the Portuguese firewater that is medronho is likely to take your visit to an extra high. The local fruit brandy is made from the curious medronho tree (similar to a Portuguese strawberry) which flourishes on the poor soils of the Algarve's parched hills. Pop into Casa do Medrono (casadomedronho.com) which recreates its old-school distillation process and sample it in the generation-old family taverna of A Rampa.
Do it: A Rampa, Caminho da Fóia 375, Monchique.
15. Golf in Vale do Lobo
You'll be more likely to spot an Algarvian with a fishing rod than a 9-iron during your visit, but over recent decades the region has become a mega clubhouse for European golfers migrating south. In all, 50 golf courses now carpet the region - from Jack Niklaus-designed courses to pitch-and-putt practice haunts. For the ultimate golfing shangri-la, play a round at Vale do Lobo's Ocean championship course where cliff-top rolling fairways would convert the staunchest PGA enthusiast by hole 1.
Do it: Vale do Lobo; green fees from €65; valedolobo.com.
16. Slide and Splash
The Algarve's kid-friendly credentials have established it as one of Europe's best destinations for family holidays. Waterparks tend to shore up the most excitement, not least Slide & Splash water slide park which covers seven hectares of water world fun. For great outdoor family alternatives, the Family Golf Park (€14/€9; familygolfpark.pt) in Vilamoura makes a fun spot for budding golfers, while nature lovers can take a dolphin watching tour with Seafaris in Lagos (€40/€25; seafaris.net).
Do it: 125 Vale de Deus, Estombar, Lagos; €27/€20; slidesplash.com.
17. Hire a boat in Olhão
The Algarve might not court the bling lifestyles of Spain's neighbouring costas, but that doesn't mean you can't splash out a little. Rent-a-boat, a company based in the small port of Olhão, provides slick, compact touring boats specially marketed for the rookie skipper. From the harbour, your can tour the scenic estuary at your own pace before dropping anchor on the island of Armona. Bring a picnic and eat on board or stroll to the Atlantic side. There's an empty sandy beach to spend a blissful afternoon.
Do it: Avenue 5 de Outubro, from €165 per day (for 5 pax); rent-a-boat.pt.
18. Hike the Rocha da Pena
While the Algarve is traditionally more Speedo than North Face terrain, the mountainous ridges that buttress its coastline make for a hidden hikers' paradise. Amid its labyrinthine trails, the regional park of Rocha da Pena makes for one of the most scenic highlights. Its two-hour intermediate trailhead loops trekkers around a giant limestone massif with panoramic views of the region. A tip? Avoid the midday sun and aim to descend by sunset - that's when the wild boars tend to shuffle around!
Do it: Rocha da Pena sits 20km north from Loulé.
19. Go Birding!
Forget adult colouring books and the indoor houseplant movement... birding has become the latest trending hobby for millennials. Fortunately, the Algarve is one of Europe's best places to don your binoculars. The region is home to an explosion of resident avian life and, as first landfall from Africa, lots of passing visitors too. Head to the heavenly lagoon of Ria Formosa where you'll find pink flamingoes puckering up for photographs in protected waters. Looking for something a little less David Attenborough? Take a sundowner at the Hotel Faro, where a pair of resident storks nest outside their panoramic roof terrace.
Do it: Hotel Faro offers five-hour boat tours of the region from €40; hotelfaro.pt.
20. Be spontaneous!
Amid its infinite listings of cafés, bars and restaurants, the Algarve is a destination that demands a little homework. Fish out some TripAdvisor recommendations before you travel, but always leave scope for spontaneity... Some of the most authentic places in the Algarve aren't always the prettiest - try to visit at least one spot with plastic chairs, Lipton Iced Tea parasols and moustachioed natives. The moral? By all means hit the beach, but also venture inland - and go local!
NB: All prices subject to availability/change.
6 Algarve Insider Tips
● "If you're looking for a real hidden attraction, take a trip to the Pego di Inferno, a hidden waterfall near Tavira. I often go there with friends at weekends. It's like something from a YouTube travel vlog!"
- Joana Inácio, Restaurant hostess, Faro
● "If you think it's impossible to find quiet beaches in the Algarve during high season, take the ferry to Ilha da Armona. Every year, the same gang of friends and I head there for a few days - it's paradise."
- Ju Madeira, Nosolo Beach Club
● "Be sure to visit the beautiful town of Tavira; you'll find 21 churches, an old Arab neighbourhood and the ruins of a medieval castle, where you can enjoy panoramic views over the city..."
- Dáirne Black from Irish tour operator Sunway
● "Algarvian red wines are set to be huge in the next few years. Be sure to try regional wines like the Algarve Syrah, which best highlights the evolution."
- David Conceição, Belmira Cruz Vintage Wine & Tapas Bar, Alvor
● "I'd highly recommend a little road-trip to Sagres to watch one of its glorious sunsets from the cliffs... or go sailing and anchor off some of its beautiful beaches for lunch and a swim."
- José Paralta, algarvesurfschool.com
● "In recent years, the Algarve has become one of the most popular destinations for Irish holidaymakers. Our customers are exploring more local towns in the Algarve like the local fishing village of Olhao, which is one of our top-selling destinations."
- Paul Hackett, CEO, clickandgo.com
Where to stay
Thomas stayed at Hotel Faro (above, hotelfaro.pt; B&B €40pps), an excellent value design hotel overlooking the marina with a fine dining restaurant on its roof terrace.
For self-catering, Placid Village (placidvillage.com) in Carvoeira is a development of contemporary villas with "A Place in the Sun" dream-home factor. One bedroom apartments start from an extraordinary €21pps.
With the colossal inventory of holiday properties available, consult Airbnb (airbnb.ie) to see what's available in your preferred area.
Thomas flew as a guest of Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), visitportugal.com and visitalgarve.pt. Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Faro year-round and from Cork and Shannon to Faro between March and October.
The Algarve is one of Europe's cheapest destinations for car rental, and Thomas tips holidayautos.com or carslash.com as sites to search for the best local deals - with rates from €20 per day. With fuel at circa €1.70 per litre as we publish, consider booking an economy or fuel-efficient motor if you're on a budget.
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