Portugal’s Algarve

It’s little wonder that Portugal’s Algarve is so popular. At the southwest tip of Europe, the Algarve lays claim to being one of Europe’s sunniest spots, with a kaleidoscope of things to do and places to see. And it’s a great family destination at any time of year. (Even in winter, temperatures often reach the high teens and rarely drop below 12 degrees C.) Here are just a few reasons to visit, in no particular order.

Golf: Some of the best courses in Europe are found here, including those at the magnificent Quinta do Lago in Almancil.

Sightseeing: The Algarve was the last hold-out of the Moors in Portugal, and traces of their architecture can still be found. Museums in Faro (a thriving and lively university town, and the provincial capital) document the region’s colourful history, and the town boasts many medieval and Renaissance monuments. Five hundred years ago, Prince Henry established his school of navigation at Sagres, on the rugged, western point of the Algarve (and of Europe). The school played a crucial role in the discovery of the New World.

At Silves, times and cultures overlap: see the Roman bridge, the castle’s Moorish origins, and a 16th-century Cross of Portugal.

Colourful Tavira, east of Lagos towards the border with Spain, is a good base to visit Algarve’s lagoons and coastal islands. And don’t forget to explore inland, where towns are more relaxed, and the vegetation (wild or cultivated) is luxuriant.

Beaches: The Algarve coastline is renowned for its beauty. Where you stay will depend on whether you want rugged cliffs or gentle sandy bays. The latter predominate between Faro (where you’ll see flamingos taking to the air) and Lagos to the west, where beaches are tucked away in sheltered coves, separated by extraordinary ochre cliffs and fantastic grottoes carved by pounding waves. Water sports abound (the marinas of Vilamoura and Lagos deserve special mention). Most resorts feature fabulous pools, but those beaches are irresistible.

Cuisine: Fish and seafood are tops in Portugal, and the hearty fish soups and stews are delicious. Or try simple grilled sardines (these are large and fresh, not the little minnows found in cans) with fresh green salad and boiled potatoes. Desserts made with figs, almonds, and eggs are ambrosia. Portugal’s wines are world-renowned. Try white port as an aperitif.

Nightlife: Lagos, and the ancient fishing town of Portimão, offer the best clubbing choices if you want to party into the wee hours. Portimão is near the mouth of the River Arade, and close to Praia da Rocha, the oldest resort in the Algarve. (And now, possibly the most developed, dominated by 15-storey apartment buildings.) Another lively spot is Albufeira, famous for its beaches and multihued cliffs, and more recently for its lively restaurants and discos.

Best buys: clothing of Portuguese cotton; souvenirs of copper, tin, wicker, and carved wood; straw hats and baskets; ceramics.

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Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Jean-Francois WETS