Secret Guide: The Algarve

Covering almost 5,000 square kilometres along Portugal’s southern coastline, the Algarve is one of the country’s most enticing destinations for close-to-home summer escapism. Bordered by rugged mountains, the shimmering waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and the Guadiana river that separates it from Spain, this region offers a spectacular diversity of sights across its coastal, central and mountainous areas. Come here to enjoy a pleasant mini-break under the sun, or extend your stay to really uncover what makes the Algarve stand out from the rest – whichever you choose, we pick out six ways to make the most of its unique landscapes, away from the typical tourist trail.

The Algarve, Portugal. Getty/samael334

Taste fine flavours in the Algarve’s wine region

If you’re a passionate oenophile, you’re probably already clued-up on Portugal’s fantastic wines, with Port being its most famous export. While the northern Douro Valley shines as the most famous wine-making region in the country (and quite possibly the world), the Algarve has risen up the ranks over the last 30 years, with Lagos, Tavira, Lagoa and Portimão making up the four main areas of wine production. Each is dotted with sun-soaked vineyards and family-run wineries, offering opportunities for enthusiasts to sample delicious flavours and discover traditional wine-making techniques – you’ll find that around 80 different grape varieties are carefully harvested by hand here, to ensure the highest-quality reds and whites end up in your glass.

Visit a spa retreat in the picturesque hills

While many flock to the Algarve for its coastal cities and blissful beach scene, there is also much rest and relaxation to be found inland, where a clutch of spa towns are dotted across the idyllic mountainous landscape. Topping the list is Caldas de Monchique, nestled amidst the gorgeous hills of the Serra de Monchique, just 45 minutes north of Lagos. Your mind, body and spirit can enjoy the reboot they deserve here: surrounded by a dense forest of oak, eucalyptus and pine, the town itself beautifully fuses nature, history and tradition, and is home to thermal baths and splendid spas where you could treat yourself to some soul-soothing time out. Dating back to Roman times and seasonally visited by Portuguese royalty, it’s a safe bet for a spot of indulgence.

Monchique. Getty/Serhiy Stakhnyk

Snooze on Barreta Island’s secluded sands

Are your warm-weather getaways as synonymous with peace and quiet as they are with sun, sea and sand? It’s no secret that the Algarve is famous for its beaches, but rest assured: with more than 100 to pick from, you’re sure to find a stretch of sand away from the crowds. True to its nickname as the Ilha Deserta, Barreta Island makes a particularly tempting option: it is the only uninhabited island of Ria Formosa, and offers a beautifully calm and scenic landscape of pristine sands, with only a handful of tourists and the sounds of birds to distract you from your kip. This island also offers a rich biodiversity, from its wildlife to its plants and flowers, so it’s perfect if you want to combine your day at the beach with that back-to-nature feeling.

Enjoy quaint village life in Alte

Tucked away in the hills of the Serra do Caldeirão mountain range, the village of Alte is a great pick for unbridled authenticity and charm. Located a 45-minute drive from the heart of Faro, it’s close enough for an easy day trip yet remains unspoilt, tucked safely away from the beaten track. While you’re here, wander the small streets lined with typical Portuguese architecture, pack a picnic for a day by the Vigario Falls, and join the locals to sunbathe by (or bathe in) the river that runs through the village. Before you end your visit, make time to shop for traditional crafts to bring home to your loved ones: esparto grass weaving is a well-loved age-old tradition here, with baskets, rugs, placemats and more lining the shelves of souvenir shops.

Ria Formosa Natural Park. Getty/Jacek_Sopotnicki

Spot flamingos in the Ria Formosa lagoon

Whether you’re an avid birder or simply fancy a day out in nature, you’ll find few better spots in the Algarve than the Ria Formosa Natural Park. Nestled just east of Faro and considered one of the country’s seven natural wonders, it’s a unique coastal lagoon fringed by beautiful sand dunes and made up of a varied landscape, comprising tidal marshes, islets, saltpans, woodlands and agricultural areas. You’ll find a large wealth of birds here, including kingfishers, pink flamingos, white storks and purple swamphens, which you can admire as you hike along scenic trails or take a more laid-back boat ride. Elsewhere in the park, swap your binoculars for a fun day of activities, from oyster tasting sessions to kitesurfing around the lagoon.

Discover intriguing Moorish history in Silves

If history and culture are more your bag, make tracks for Silves: the former capital of the Kingdom of the Algarve from the mid-1200s up until the early 20th century, it is one of the region’s oldest cities and showcases a rich Moorish heritage. Most striking of all is the hilltop Castle of Silves, now one of the best preserved Moorish fortifications in the country, and an imposing landmark that any visitor should add to their sightseeing list. Elsewhere, fill your time with a trip to the Gothic-style Silves Cathedral, built on the site of the city’s former mosque, and spend an afternoon in the covered Municipal Market to stock up on fresh local produce. End your day with a relaxing stroll along the riverfront, or soothe weary legs with a boat ride, to take in the city from a unique and scenic vantage point.