The Algarve is the southernmost region of Portugal. It boasts 200 km of coast, 50 of which on the less developed western side, stretching south from Sagres to north of Aljezur. That coast is underdeveloped, extremely windy and not as popular as the 150 km of the true heart of the Algarve, the southern coast.
This attractive region offers very different landscapes and it is usually divided in western and eastern Algarve by an imaginary line, usually established in Faro. However, for the purpose of giving a better description of the area and to include its widely different features, we shall consider the imaginary border at Vilamoura/Quarteira.
From Lagos to Quarteira the western coast stretches in endless sandy beaches and the famous, picturesque “falesias” (cliffs). Small bars, restaurants, vacation houses, apartment and hotels of all sizes and price range are quite popular. In this part of the coast you find steep cliffs and direct access to the beaches, often thanks to staircases carved in the cliffs and leading down from the parkings.
The eastern coast is a different story, because of the flat landscape and indirect access to the beaches. Travelers flying to Faro airport have a great view on the Ria Formosa natural park. This huge lagoon is a system of barrier islands and salt marshes, offering a natural habitat to hundreds of bird species.
While lack of direct access to the sea may be considered an hindrance by some, eastern Alrgave also attracts its share of visitors. If you are more interested in birdwatching, quiet walks along the dunes, incredible landscapes and the extreme tidal cycle rather than in the nightlife, discotheques and a more ordinary beach-life, you might find this part of the coast strangely fascinating.
The three main cities of eastern Algarve are Tavira, Olhão and Faro, each quite different from the other.
Driving from the Spanish border you cross the small city of Vila Real de Santo Antonio on the Guardiana River, than the village of Monte Gordo and Praia Verde, the first beach on the easterncoast, just outside the lagoon area.
Moving towards Faro you should not miss Cacela Velha, whatremains of an ancient Moorish village, which offers a beautiful view on the easternmost part of the natural park.
Photos by Daniela Giusti
Tavira is one of the most attractive little cities along this coast, with a small, recently renovated centre bursting with bars and restaurants, clustered around the medieval bridge. Even if most golf courses are located on the western coast, there are talks of opening a new one close to Tavira. Tavira beach can be reached by ferry or from the footbridge in Santa Luzia.
On the outskirts of Tavira one can visit what used to be the fishermen’s village, restructured into a small tourist resort. In the past, the local economy was based on tuna fishing and coastal villages flourished during the fishing season. Due to the changing of tuna’s migration path and the development of tourism, the fishermen’s villages are completely abandoned, butsome traces can still be found also at Barril beach, where the anchor graveyard commemorate the region’s history.
Moving on, you will pass the tiny village of Fuseta - popular with motor-homes owners thanks to its camping facilities - and reach Olhão, which used to be a traditional village until very recently. Unlike the seasonal communities inhabited only during tuna fish migration, Olhão was a permanent settlement. The fishermen’s houses along the lagoon have already started to be converted into modern homes and B&B and the waterside walk is slowly being turned into a stylish pedestrian area.
There you can also find many local restaurants clustering around the attractive building of the Fish Market. Olhão is also the home base of ferries carrying tourists and locals to the islands of Culatra e Armona. Tickets are around 8€ (return) for a 30 to 45 minutes journey.
Storks’ nests are scattered in high places throughout the city, adding a quaint touch. Olhão is very popular with the French community, slightly less with the Italian and British ones.
Olhão is basically the outskirt of Faro, the region’s capital. With a population of around 80,000 inhabitants, Faro is a city that offers everything one may need in terms of comfort and facilities. For the more urban-oriented, the Forum Algarve is the main, open-air shopping centre, housing all the major high-street brands, a huge supermarket and several cinemas. The large underground parking is much welcome, due to the tropical summer temperatures.
A theatre is close-by, in between the Forum and the marina area, the most attractive stretch of the city. Two large hotels offer a view on the marina and are within walking distance to the historical centre of the city, called Vila Velha. If you like sophisticate drinks, you might enjoy the Columbus bar, winner of several competitions as the best cocktail bar of the region. Asan added bonus, the railway runs close-by and there you can catch a direct train to Lisbon. The walls of the Old City are also home to several storks’s nests and beautiful jacaranda trees grace some streets and the main square, making it for a pleasant urban landscape.
From Faro, too, you can catch the ferries to the islands and many private companies offer all sorts of tours of the lagoon. Faro beach is reachable by bus or car and stretches for 5 km. It is connected to the mainland by a single road bridge and in its central area is well developed with bars, restaurants, small hotel and private homes. It also offers a view on the lagoon and on the nearby airport. Beware that in summer it is basically impossible to find parking in the area.
Photo by Daniela Giusti
If you like naturism, you will be delight to know about several “nude beaches”, among which a stretch on the already mentioned Barril, Cacela Velha, Armona and mostly the Ilha Deserta of Faro, accessible only by ferry. However, walking to the furthest part of Faro beach itself, you can already find some naturists enjoying naked sunbathing.
Moving from Faro and from the natural park, you reach the most upmarket area of the Algarve, which is usually considered to belong to the western coast, even if it’s less than 30 km from Faro, while the distance from Portimão to Vilamoura is over 55 km.
Photo by Daniela Giusti
The Vale do Lobo/Quarteira/Vilamoura area has direct access to the beaches, but most of all, it has a very high concentration of five-stars hotels and residential areas. Golf facilities abound sand are obviously one of the main attractions, but everything else is available to cater for the most sophisticated tastes, inclusive of the upmarket food store Apolonia, a string of Michelin-starred restaurants, a 5-star Conrad Hotel facing the upscale shopping mall Quinta do Lago and the luxury marina of Vilamoura, the largest in Portugal and harbouring everything from the smallest boat to impressive 40+ metres yachts.
The Vilamoura - and eastern Algarve - lifestyle has been enriched further by the opening of the "MAR Shopping". With 85shops, 25 restaurants, several cinema, a supermarket, a large outside leisure area and most of all, the local IKEA store, the "MAR Shopping" became quickly the star of eastern Algarve shopping. Close-by you can find also a designer outlet, with an unimpressive, small selection of brands (mostly Spanish and Portuguese) and - for the DIY minded - a Leroy Merlin. The latter is especially welcome, because before its opening the largest of any such shops was located near Albufeira, quite a longer drive for those based in the east.
The MAR Shopping belongs to the municipality of Loulè, another attractive city, less blessed with tourism because located inland. However, its traditional market on Saturday is popular for the gathering of bikers. But that is going to be another story.
Written by Daniela Giusti
Photos by Daniela Giusti
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