Portugal’s most southern region, the Algarve Coast, is a captivating mix of blue Mediterranean sea, golden sand beaches and limestone cliffs blanketed by whitewashed fishing villages. Since the 1960s it’s been attracting tourists craving sun and cheap holidays and sold itself as an expat destination to those who couldn’t bear to go home again. One drive along the Algarve Coast and it’s easy to see why this is now a top Portugal road trip!
As we drove into Portugal from Spain the countryside seemed to slowly become more green, a tribute to the increase in rainfall and weather patterns from the Atlantic Ocean. The main road from Faro to Lagos is inland, and I wondered to myself if this was it… White houses dotted amongst trees on rolling hills are a pretty sight but not what I came for when I planned a Portugal coast road trip. I wanted the golden cliffs kissed by aqua water! Well luckily for me, they were coming and I wouldn’t be disappointed.
What to see on the Algarve Coast, Portugal
There aren’t any major attractions on the Algarve as such so the main thing to do is take a road trip along the Portugal coast, visit the coves and beaches, wander through the towns of whitewashed houses and cobblestone streets, and eat your fill of Portuguese food of course. A road trip along the Algarve is the best way to be able to see it all!
Here are some of the best places to stop along the Algarve, so add them to your Portugal south coast itinerary.
We stopped for breakfast in Faro, and I was starving. Portugal is famous for it’s “pastel de nata” which is like a small custard tart. I wasn’t sure about it since I’m not a fan of custard, so I ordered toast with fig jam. I didn’t know it at the time, but figs are everywhere in the Algarve, and they know what they’re doing with them. It was so good! We also had our first taste of carob, another Algarve specialty, with a carob cake. I looked like a chocolate cake and had a sweet chocolate taste. Yum.
Faro itself has a bit of a reputation as a party town, but in the winter it was a peaceful place offering sunshine and history in the form of Roman and Moorish influences. We also visited the Capela dos Ossos, the Chapel of Bones, at the back of the Carmo Church. The bones of monks were exhumed when the cemetery was full in the 19th century and arranged in patterns in the chapel. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this sort of thing, but it’s an original and interesting thing to see on your Algarve roadtrip nonetheless. No photos sorry, I get weirded out taking photos of things like that…
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This once quiet fishing town is now seen as a major destination for cheap holidays on the Algarve, and a must stop on your Portugal road trip along the coast. The definition of cheap is relative to everyone of course but food and accommodation definitely cost less in Portugal than many other European countries!
Albufeira has a number of beaches near the town centre or within easy access through public transport, a busy nightlife, and golf courses, if that’s your kind of thing! It’s a popular place to stay in the Algarve since it’s in the middle, and it makes a great base from which to explore the Algarve by car.
From here we started to see more of the cliffs I had anticipated on a south Portugal road trip, but the best was yet to come. If you want the secluded Algarve without a lot of tourists, it’s probably not the place for you but is worth adding as a stop on your southern Portugal itinerary. Unless you visit in winter then it’s like this…
Carvoeiro used to be so small it wasn’t even considered its own town, but it’s now regularly on the list as one of the Algarve’s best beaches. You can take boat trips to nearby caves and coves from almost all of the beaches on the Algarve. From Carvoeiro, you can get to the Benagil Caves, including the one with the hole in the roof that you’ll see all over Pinterest, or all the way down to Praia de Marinha at Lagos.
Unfortunately, because we went in winter when the sea is much rougher we weren’t able to take a tour, something to note if you visit the Algarve in winter. You might chance a calm day, but the best time to go to the caves is in the summer when the water is calm so the boats can go right inside. This will be peak season as well, however, and Carvoeiro is a small beach that can get very busy during the summer months.
In any case, Carvoeiro has to be one of the prettiest villages along the Algarve coast, with high cliffs sheltering a smaller golden sand beach and a definite highlight of an Algarve roadtrip.
Portimão is one of the bigger places on the Algarve coast, after Faro. It’s been a settlement since prehistoric times but is now one of the most touristic places on the Algarve. Praia de Rocha is one of the most well-known beaches, with its distinctive small rock foundations out in the bay, and it’s a cheap (like 70c cheap) bus ride from Portimão. It’s relatively easy to get here from either Lagos or Faro with transfers or on the slow train, so it’s another option if you’re wondering where to stay in the Algarve. From here you could rent a car to take road trips along the coast.
Having a car in Portugal made it easy to stop along the way between Faro and Lagos and plan a great Algarve road trip, but most people fly into Faro and make their way by transfer or public transport between the two. The western part of the Algarve is where you’ll be able to see the more dramatic scenery and cliffs, and Lagos most definitely did not disappoint. I loved the little town and it’s somewhere I would 100% return back to. Even though it’s a popular spot it still had the charm of a small fishing village.
Nearby is Praia Dona Ana, regarded as one of the best beaches in the Algarve, surrounded by high cliffs. There are secluded beaches like Praia do Camilo nearby, which are only small and accessible by steep stairs. I could have spent days in Lagos finding the hidden beaches of the Algarve!
However, since it was winter when we visited we mostly enjoyed the Algarve coastline from above, like at Farol da Ponta Piedade, or the lighthouse. Although the sea as a beautiful turquoise colour, at this time of year it crashed against the sand coloured cliffs and through holes in the rock, instead of resting calmly. It was amazing to be able to scramble all over the top of the cliffs and even right down to the ocean to see it. In the summer it’s so calm that kayakers come through here!
Sagres is at the most southern point of Portugal, and it really does feel a bit like the end of the world when you stand on the edge of those windy cliffs. Not as close to the edge as the Portuguese men that fish here, however! If you want to visit Sagres then having a car to road trip the Algarve is your best option, as it’s much further away than the other coastal towns and villages.
Visit the old fortress that has a rich nautical and naval history and head towards the lighthouse where you’ll see fishermen on tiny bits of rock right on the edge of the cliffs, hoping to catch fish from the sea hundreds of metres below. Spot the fisherman in this photo!
How to get around the Algarve
Whichever time you go, if you have the time, hire a car and take a road trip along the south Portuguese coast to see all of the best views!
The Algarve isn’t short of attractions in terms of beautiful views, charming towns, coastal walks, and delicious places to eat and drink, and even a winter visit gave us plenty to see and do. Many people fly into Faro airport and transfer to their accommodation from there, but if you have the means I’d highly recommend hiring a car and taking advantage of as much of the coast as possible. The most secluded beaches on the Algarve aren’t easily accessible by public transport and the freedom of a car definitely helps.
Renting a car in Portugal
If you’re flying into an airport in the Algarve it’s usually easiest to rent a car straight from there. I like to book in advance because it’s usually always cheaper and you have more options, especially in peak season!
I use a comparison website like Rentalcars to see what all my options are. It compares companies like Hertz, Avis, EuropeCar, Budget etc. Once you’ve found something book it since most of the companies offer free cancellation anyway.
Some tips for hiring a rental car in the Algarve:
- It’s more expensive for one way hire, so plan to return to the same location to save money. It’s not a big area so you could easily drive back to where you arrived, unless you’re planning on extending your Portugal road trip to head north and drive from the Algarve to Lisbon and Porto of course!
- Car rental is usually based on 24 hour periods, so take this into account when booking. Sometimes a weekly fee can also be cheaper, so you could book that and return the car earlier.
- It will be significantly cheaper to hire a manual than an automatic, so practice before you go and save some money!
- Cheapest and smallest isn’t always best. If there’s more than two of you then consider a larger car, if only just to fit in all your luggage!
- If you want to reduce your excess in the event of an accident, you’ll need to take out the extra insurance which can be more than the cost of the rental car. However, it’s possible to buy a standalone policy from another provider (like Rentalcars) but you’ll need to be prepared for a hold for the amount of the excess to be placed on a credit card and then to have to claim from that insurance should something go wrong.
Tips for driving in Portugal
- Solid (unbroken) white lines mean do not cross
- Using a mobile phone while driving is illegal
- You must park in the street facing the direction of travel
- Some drivers will not use their indicators a lot or will drive in the wrong lanes, so be aware
- When there is no footpath keep an eye out for pedestrians on the road
- Many of the bigger motorways (inland in the Algarve) are toll roads
- If you have a rental car you can hire a device from the rental car company to electronically charge you for tolls, allowing you to pass through the “Via Verde” channel
- If you’re in a foreign-registered vehicle (i.e. you’ve driven from elsewhere in Europe) then you can register your credit card details on an Easytoll machine when you’ve crossed the border
The best time to visit the Algarve
The best time to visit the Algarve depends on what you want to do there, of course. The benefit of visiting in the winter was having less other tourists around, although it did mean we didn’t spend a lot of time on the beaches like you might in summer. I did see people swimming at Carvoeiro though, and the weather was relatively sunny and warm for most of the trip!
In the summer the Algarve can be crowded, especially on the beaches. There are so many to choose from though, and some are well hidden down paths between rocks so I wouldn’t let that put you off visiting in the high season, especially if you rent a car and can find some of the more hidden places!
Where to stay in the Algarve
Portugal has always been a popular destination, but it seems to be booming even more recently and prices of apartments are rising to match, especially in Lisbon. In the Algarve, we found holiday apartments a great and inexpensive accommodation option. We stayed in a two bedroom apartment in Lagos that ended up being the entire top floor with a balcony each side for €40 a night. It was December, however!
The Algarve was just the start of my love affair with Portugal, a place I know I’ll definitely return to and somewhere you should definitely consider, if you haven’t already! Taking a road trip along the Algarve coast is a magical experience with epic views that you won’t soon forget.
Have you been to Portugal? Is the Algarve on your list?
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