An insider’s guide to the best things to do and attractions in Algarve, including the top spots for dolphin watching, walking and the region’s best golf courses. By Mary Lussiana, Telegraph Travel’s Algarve expert.
Silves lies inland, surrounded by valleys of orange groves and dominated by a red sandstone castle that stands proudly against the skyline. The centre of culture during the Moorish occupation of the Algarve, Silves was home to poets and orators until the Knights of Santiago took the city in 1242. Visit the castle and its Cistern of the Enchanted Moorish Girl (Castelo de Silves: open daily; 282 445 624). The lovely cathedral, nearby, dates from the 13th century (Largo da Sé: open daily except public holidays). There is also an archaeological museum (Rua das Portas de Loule: open Tue-Sun; 282 444832).
Walk along the Via Algarviana
This 186-mile walking route runs from Alcoutim, near the Spanish border, right across the interior of the Algarve to Cape St Vincent in the far west. It is well marked, and along the way are signs indicating distances to the nearest settlement and points of interest. The route takes you well off the beaten track and is particularly scenic in springtime when the fields are covered by wild flowers.
More information: http://viaalgarviana.org
Contact: Project Via Algarviana: Head Office: Rua de S. Domingos Nº 65 . 8100-536 Loulé; 00 351 289 412 959
Visit a fish market
For me, nothing gives a sense of place better than a food market, and in the Algarve that means fish. Olhão, on the eastern side of the Algarve, famous for fishing since the Middle Ages, has the best both in terms of architectural exterior and an interior, with more than 80 stalls. The variety and abundance from the Atlantic is impressive: dorada (sea bream) and robalo (sea bass) are the crème-de-la-crème but octopus and squid are also popular, as well as clams, percebes (goose neck barnacles), and lagosta (rock lobster). Stop for a coffee at any of the little pavement cafés outside to dry out your feet afterwards.
- Olhão fish market has the best both in terms of architectural exterior and an interior, with more than 80 stalls
Open: from 7am until about 1pm; closed Sundays, and on Mondays it has limited produce.
Address: Avenida 5 de Outubro, 8700 Olhão
Contact: 289 707 298
Play a round of golf
Renowned for its golf courses, the Algarve has a huge range. Green fees vary between courses, so it is worth shopping around to get the best deal. The Sir Henry Cotton Championship course (18 holes, par 73) at Penina Hotel & Golf Resort, the first course built in the region, remains extremely popular and has two notorious holes – the dogleg fifth, with its canal and lake, and the 13th, shadowed by water from tee to green. Green fees for two players and a buggy are around €110 per person.
Open: 8.00am – 6.30pm, October to May; 7.30am – 8.00pm, June to September
Address: Penina Hotel & Golf Resort, P.O. Box 146, 8501-952 Portimao
Contact: 282 420200; http://penina.com/golf-courses-and-academy
Visit a church
The simple, whitewashed churches that dot the Algarve landscape give no indication of the riches that lie within. Often covered with ancient, hand-painted tiles (azulejos) from floor to ceiling, many also have opulent gilded altars. Doors and windows are frequently Manueline, a style of late-Gothic architecture named after King Manueline (who reigned from 1495 to 1521) that was funded by the vast wealth brought to Portugal from the spice trade. Just outside Almancil is the tiny, 18th-century São Lourenço Church, considered one of the gems of the Algarve. The blue and white azulejos, finished in 1730, cover the cupola, the walls, the nave and nave vault to such striking effect that the richly gilded altar is completely overpowered.
Open: 10.00am to 1.30pm and 2.30pm to 5.30pm, Monday to Saturday
Address: Rua da Igreja, São Lourenço, 8135-Almancil
Contact: 289 395451
Take to the water
Algarve Seafaris offer a variety of programmes, including deep-sea fishing, reef fishing and cruises along the coastline, exploring caves and secluded beaches. The choice of transport ranges from large catamarans to smaller yachts and cruises begin at Vilamoura Marina. Stops are made to swim and dive as well as venturing into some of the more impressive caves.
Cost: cruises from €34; fishing from €52, including equipment and bait but excluding a fishing licence (€5)
Contact: 289 302 318; algarve-seafaris.com
This is the Algarve’s biggest visitor attraction. There is a strong emphasis on conservation and education and many opportunities for children to interact with the animals and birds at close range. The dolphins, sea lions and seal shows are excellent and children aged six and over can swim with dolphins in small groups (book in advance; €169 per person). There are also water slides and merry-go-rounds.
Admission: adults €29; children under 3ft 3in are free; taller children €19
Open: 28 March to 26 November, 10am to 6pm, and until 7.30pm in July and August (in October and November, it closes at 5pm and on some weekends)
Address: EN 125 – Km 65, Guia, 8201-864 Albufeira
Contact: 289 560 300/1; zoomarine.pt
Dolphins in the wild
To see sea life in its natural habitat, head to Mar Ilimitado at Sagres, which specialises in marine wildlife-watching. Accompanied by a couple of marine biologists, guests go out in a RIB and are likely to see sea turtles and porpoises as well as storm petrels, shearwaters and gannets.
Admission: adults €35; children €25
Address: Rua do Poente, 8650-378, Sagres
Contact: 91 683 2625; marilimitado.com
It’s hard to miss the water parks in the Algarve, as several of them are landmarks. I have found that children absolutely love them and have spent entire days there. The three main ones are:
Aquashow Park Hotel, Quarteira
Popular for its 50ft-high snake slide.
Open: May to September, 10am to 5pm with later closing in high summer
Admission: €29 per adult; €18 aged five to 10; under fives free
Address: Estrada Nacional, 396 Quarteira
Contact: 289 315 129; aquashowparkhotel.com
The kamikaze, which takes just four seconds for you to slide 120ft, has the longest queues here.
Open: June to September 10am to 5pm, with later closing in high summer
Admission: €27 per adult; €19 for children aged 5-10; under fives free
Address: E.N. 125 Sitio das Areias Apartdao 11, 8365 -908 Alcantarilha
Contact: 282 320 230; http://aqualand.pt
Slide & Splash, Estombar
Spread over seven hectares, highlights include the Tornado and the Turbulent River, it also stages animal shows starring parrots and reptiles.
Open: April to October 10am to 5pm with later closing high summer.
Admission: €27; €19 aged five-10; under fours free
Address: E.N. 125 Vale de Deus, Estombar, 8401-901 Lagoa
Contact: 282 340800; slidesplash.com
The west coast provides perfect conditions for surfing. There are various schools for beginners, including Sagres Natura (lessons from €50/day; 282 824072; http://sagresnatura.com), which picks you up and takes you to whichever beach has the right conditions for the day. Waterskiing can be done in the calmer waters off Quinta do Lago
(289 394929 or 96 403 8472; lagowatersports.com), as can banana boat rides, jet skiing and other watersports.
There are various English-language publications available in newsagents that give details of current and future concerts, festivals and fairs. Another good source of information is algarveuncovered.com.
Local pottery makes an attractive souvenir to take home. The best choice and most beautiful workmanship can be found at Porches Pottery, on the main N125 near Lagoa. Plates in all shapes and sizes are hand painted with flowers, fish, dragonflies and more in blues, turquoises, greens and yellows. Coffee and tea sets, lamps, butter dishes, soap dishes, plant pots and candle sticks can all be shipped home if required. Browse at leisure and enjoy a delicious salad at the Bar Bacchus, perhaps in a corner of the shady garden.