The Algarve region of Portugal is a wonderful area along the southern coast of Portugal, dotted with several pretty towns, large beaches and incredible rock cliffs that plunge deep into the sea below. Coming from Seville, the only way to get to Portugal (other than a quick flight) is to take an inexpensive bus ride, transferring in the commercial town of Faro. As with a couple other stops along our trip, if we are going to be there to transfer, why not stay a couple nights? And that is just what we did.
Faro is the regional capital of the area and rich with cultural history. The walled quaint old town sits above the harbor, the medieval Se Cathedral at its center. A tour of the cathedral is well worth the price, as you also gain access to the bell tower. The old stairs up to the tower, especially if they are slightly wet, can be quite treacherous but here one can find the best views of the harbor and traditional pyramid roofs of the city buildings below. Also within the walls of the old town (and for a very reasonable 2€ entrance fee) was the Museu Municipal. This museum is situated in a gorgeous old convent and features artifacts dating back to the 3rd century, all found within the Faro city limits. Another unique and very interesting site that must not be missed was the Capela de Ossos or Bone Chapel to the back of the Igreja do Carmo, in the north east part of town. This chapel was constructed in 1719 using the remains of 1,245 monks whose bones were displaced when the ossuary was built.
While the city of Faro is situated along water, it is Ria Formosa – the marshlands and lagoons where local fisherman anchor their boats, heading out at high tide early in the morning. To get to the beaches of Faro which form the outer edge and are technically their own island, you must either take a boat ride through the preserve (spotting wildlife along the way) or by city bus No 14 or 16 to Praia de Faro – the only one reached by a roadway connection. Not exactly ideal for the 300 days of sunshine a year that grace the Algarve region, however their somewhat remote location offers flat long stretches of golden sand.
The center city of Faro lacks a bit of character, as commercial shopping streets dotted with restaurants were just waiting for the tourists to arrive. It didn’t matter what time of the day we wandered by, it was all the same scene. Menus at the restaurants were displayed in 6 languages and what we had of the food was just so so. A little outside of the main center, near the train station, we discovered Adega Nova. Other than our new friends Lizzie and Lenny, we were the only ones speaking English in the place! Proof we were in a local spot. As thunder and rain swept across the town, we helped ourselves to traditional fish stew with rice and whole fried little Mackerel (stomach and all still intact!). Four 9€ bottles of wine between us two couples later, we wandered down the street to Innocent, continuing our new-found friendship over the acoustic music of one incredibly talented gentleman named Denzel.
A day trip to Lagos (via the extremely slow local train) brought us to the picture-perfect cliffs and beaches that Algarve is known for. Upon our immediate arrival, we were greeted with lively people and that relaxed beach town feel. While the city has been slightly commercialized (and a lively late night party destination for abroad students on holiday) there are many pockets to be discovered, still holding on to the traditions of the region. Try Cataplana de Marisco, the fish stew made in a copper “clam shell” pot, listed on practically every menu.
Due to the weather overnight, the seas were so rough we were unable to take the guided boat tour through the famous grottos, cliffs, and caves. Since this was one of our must do activities while in the area, we were determined to find another way. Just outside the city walls to the southeast of the city, Praia do Pinhao lies – the first of a long line of beaches carved out of the beautiful multicolored cliffs. From here a network of small hiking paths lead us for over an hour across the stunning shore line, all the way to Ponta da Piedade. This southernmost tip of Lagos has the most amazing views in the Algarve which span over the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Lagos, the hills of Monchique in the background, and other coastal towns to the west and east. A walk down the long stairs offers an up-close view of some of the most famous points visited on the boat tours. While we chose to take the “long way” enjoying the gorgeous day, this spot can also be reached via car/taxi, boat, or direct walking route from town. Despite another long two-hour train ride back to Faro, this day trip was one to not be missed!
While the town of Faro was fine for the couple days that we were there (not to mention extremely convenient from our travels between Seville and Lisbon) to us, it lacked the authentic character we were hoping for. Yes, the old town was quaint but it was very small and sleepy. The main shopping streets were so commercial with their empty international storefronts. And the beach, being a journey just to get there, did not allow for that relaxing Algarve beach atmosphere one travels to experience. We are certain we will be back to the region, but will choose to stay in one of the small towns between Faro and Lagos, relaxing on the beach and exploring more of the area.
Our Stark Persepctive (Tips)
- The train along the Algarve coast starts in Faro and ends in Lagos. The total distance takes about 2 hours and is quite expensive for a round trip (15€ per person).
- If you plan on visiting more than one city along the coast, opt for the Tourist pass which will allows unlimited rides on the local train over a period of time.
- If you want to see the caves without traveling all the way to Lagos, Seafaris tour company departs from Vilamoura (within close proximity to Faro).
- Alternatively – the Bengail Cave can be reached by car from the town of Portimão.
- Missed Restaurant Recommendations
- Restaurante Republica Gourmet, Faro
- Cashina de Pescito, Lagos