[Lagos, Portugal] — The winding two lane highway runs all up and down the western coast, tucked just under a constant high berm of low hills that act like a windbreak from the coast.
The car weaves in and out of clumps of wooly cypress trees, their wide trunks like the fuzzy legs of a herd of mammoths, crossing small bridges and dodging farm trucks heaving from the local fields. It’s kind of weird, actually. The sun is bright as can be, yet you’re in shadows most of the time in the early afternoon. You can feel the salty ocean breeze but that long forehead of low hills casts long shadows across the road, it’s hard to even get a view of the beaches you’ve read so much about.
And then between the farms and small houses, a brown road sign appears from the shadows at the fork in the road:
” ↖️ Praia”. Is this it? Hardly anyone else around…
The road slices between two folds of hills, making curves around the lush green mounds, the trees thinning to nothing. Finally around one wide curve, you see it.
The Western coast of Portugal’s Algarve has some of the best beaches in all of Europe, rimmed by high cliffs that drop dramatically down to the protected beaches. Feels eerily like Malibu, or the coast just north of Los Angeles, without any houses or city marring the vista. There’s a surf culture here too, the constant wind throwing a predictable train of waves rolling in from the windy Atlantic. Lifeguards, VWs, longboards and long hair the same, just the accents are difference.
The southern flank of the Algarve is much mellower, with more protected south-facing coastlines as the continent skinnies down to Gibraltar. Mind-blowing beaches dotting the coastline, every half a mile.
A lot of people wrongly think Portugal is on the Mediterranean, as I did, but it’s not. It’s more like the chin of Europe, with the slight overbite of Lisbon and Cascais. The flank of the Western coast faces the roaring Atlantic, high cliffs overlooking pocket beaches, with a near constant breeze and unbroken waves.
The eastern Algarve to me is like Fort Lauderdale or Punta del Este, beautiful beaches ruined by hi-rises and massive retirement developments, centered around the “capital of Algarve”, Faro, all up to the border with Spain.
I really liked the quieter western end of the Algarve, from Portimao, west and on up the western coast. (Although as you’ll see below, the eastern town of Tavira was a cool exception). I loved the cool hotel I stayed in outside of Lagos, Casa Arte hotel, which I detail in a previous post and think you should stay there as your centrally-located base to hit all these beaches.
“There’s one of just about every type of beach along the western Algarve in Portugal. Long ones. Short ones. Rocky ones. Flat ones. Colorful ones. All perfect. It’s like the Costco of beach selection. (Or Tesco, if that’s your pref)”
So here’s my recap of the best beaches I’ve found in the Algarve. I didn’t get to hit them all as I was only there for four days of exploring. You can match up the towns on a map for greater details, but I’ll essentially show pictures from the west to east.
Up near the border where the Algarve bumps into Alentejo, Arrifana is one of the most dramatic beaches on the West Coast. Steep cliffs overlooking a broad beach, perfect waves breaking. A small village creeping up the sheer cliffs. If you surf, this is your place, as it seems like the whole town is.
Just north of Arrifana is Praia Amoreira, a dramatic little beach and river combo that’s at the end of a national park.
Further down the coast is Praia do Amado — this was my favorite one. Totally undeveloped. Just unbelievable colors of every shade of red, at the end of a national park. As perfect as it gets.
All the reds — Praia do Amado
Cabo de São Vicente is the western most cape of the Algarve. A picture-perfect lighthouse and steep cliffs. Signs indicate this is the “End of the World” — or so they thought in Olden Times because they knew of nothing on the other side. Quite lovely and easy to come out here, then stop for lunch or a beer in Sagres.
Faro Cabo de Sao Vicente
Porto de Mós was my second favorite beach. I’d read it gets really crowded, but the day I was there, hardly anyone. And just the most dramatic backdrop of chalk cliffs, blue sky and shimmering sand. There’s plenty of parking here and you kinda cut through a suburban neighborhood to get here:
This is getting into to stuff you see on language books about Portugal — and why I was here. I’d always seen these dramatic beaches in the Algarve have always wanted to come here.
Praia da Dona Ana
Praia da Dona Ana is kinda strange. You’ve probably seen pictures of its dramatic beach and rock formations. But what they don’t show you is that there are a gazillion ugly hi-rise apartments from the 50s/6os built right up to the edge, right behind where I was taking there pictures. Still, if you look the right direction, it works…
Lagos isn’t the prettiest towns, although it has its charming pockets. Walking streets lined with modest restaurants, nothing too fancy. But its a great base to explore all of the western Algarve.
I’d seen pictures of Tavira’s distinctive angled roofs and heard it was a beautiful little town. I think compared to the rest of the eastern Algarve cities, yes, it is. Great for an early morning walk and coffee, but then head on down to the port and find the ferry to take you out to Ihla de Tavira a vast flat island covered with sand. Perfect to escape the crowds of the mainland beaches. The ferry only takes about 15 mins.
To get your bearings, here’s a YSGH Picto-Map (TM) of all my favorite places in Portugal so you can match up the picture to the map.
As you’ll see, these are only the best beaches I could find in a few short days. There are lots more. Can’t wait to come back and discover the rest.
Portugal’s best beaches in The Guardian. The best beaches in Portugal and Spain in Conde Nast Traveler. The Top 5 Beach Holidays in The Telegraph. TripAdvisor’s best beaches in Portugal. Portugal’s best beaches in Travel in Portugal. The UK Conde Nast Traveller’s Guide to the Algarve. The Algarve Guide in Travel & Leisure. The Other Algarve in the NYTimes.
Here’s a great new article from the UK Conde Nast Traveller on the Costa Vicentina of Portugal. Great tips and reinforcement of my recommendations above.
Last visited April 2015.
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