The Most Beautiful Coast in Europe?
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The Algarve is one of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe. And the beaches are world-famous and regularly win awards. With brightly coloured rocks and countless coves that shelter you from the elements. With a remarkably rich nature. The Algarve is the southernmost region of Portugal.
This region is well known for its sun, sea and beach. Where you can easily escape the crowds. And you can hike, cycle or simply enjoy the rugged nature for hours. With nice weather almost all year round. These are the most beautiful sights of the Algarve.
Praia da Marinha is considered the most beautiful beach in the Algarve. It has been voted several times as one of the most beautiful in the world. Praia da Marinha means Army Beach, why is not entirely clear. This beach has countless beautiful steep rocks and cliffs, but also just about the clearest water in all of Portugal. Partly for this reason, this beach is often used in advertisements from both the region and home sellers. The beach is located near the town of Lagoa.
Read my tips for Praia da Marinha
Due to the airport, Faro is the place for most visitors to get acquainted with the Algarve. The town still has quite a lot of its charm, especially outside the high season. Archaeologists have discovered Iron Age finds, suggesting a settlement on the site of present-day Faro.
The city was also a trading post of the Phoenicians and of the Greeks before it was called Ossónoba in the Roman Empire. About 2,000 years ago, the Romans already built a large harbour, the remains of which have almost all been lost. In 1540 Faro was officially granted city rights and in 1756 the city became the capital of Portugal's southernmost province.
You can eat and drink in the many small restaurants. And as the weather is often remarkably nice, you can sit outside. In the spring you can see many storks making their nests in the city.
This nature reserve is also called Natural Park Costa Vicentina. This coastal strip is located between Sines in the Alentejo and Burgau in the Algarve. The park forms a long but narrow strip along Portugal's southwest coast. Almost nowhere is it wider than 10 km. It was declared a Natural Park in 1995. The main reason was that the government wanted to prevent the southwest coast from falling prey to property developers.
In other words, to prevent the already infamous Algarve formation. The park roughly covers an area of more than 60,000 ha of land and almost 30,000 ha of the sea. It shows the Algarve in its most rugged form. The coast consists of steep cliffs with intimate beaches. Only in places where a stream or river flows into the ocean are the beaches wider. On top of the cliffs, there are sand dunes in many places.
At various locations across the Algarve coast, there are no rocks. Instead you will finde a real wadden region. That overflows at high tide. At high tide, the water is so deep that it is possible to sail. This is possible at Faro, for example, which has the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa off its coast. With countless islands and a striking number of bird species such as European flamingos, spoonbills and many wading birds. Salt is also extracted here, which regularly appears on our tables (at home and in restaurants).
From Faro, you can easily cycle through the swamps of the Ria Formosa Natural Park. And see the various salt pans, for example, but also come eye to eye with dozens of flamingos. At the famous Faro Island, you can lie on the beach, swim and eat fresh fish. All in all good for a relaxed day out. Ask the tourist office on-site for a map showing the roads and sandy paths through the area.
You can explore the Ria Formosa nature reserve on a traditional fishing boat. At high tide you can sail through the waterways. And look for spoonbills, flamingos and countless other water birds.
Along the way it is possible to stop at various islands, such as Ilha Deserta, an immense sandy beach. In addition to the traditional fishing boat, there are also other boats, including much more luxurious ones.
Its official name is almost unpronounceable, let alone easy to remember: Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real do San Antonio. It is located in the extreme east of the Algarve, on the border with Spain. It is much less visited than the other natural parks in the Algarve. This is where the River Guadiana (officially the Rio Guadiana) flows into the Mediterranean Sea. It is a swampy area, located a few kilometers inland near the town of Castro Marim.
As with Ria Formosa, the tides have a major impact on life here. This internationally recognized wetland is of great importance for breeding and migratory birds and various types of plants. This is one of the reasons why it was declared a nature reserve in 1975. It has an area of over 2,000 ha and is therefore relatively small.
The beautiful Ponta da Piedade is located near the town of Lagos. The erosion on the yellow rocks is extreme, some even have natural arches. And if you look closely, you will see fossils of all sea creatures such as shells, polyps and more in the rocks. Millions of years ago this was the bottom of the ocean, but it was pushed up. What created these rocks.
Small boats depart from Lagos for 45 minutes, sailing between the famous rocks. And sometimes even under the rocks. You can also rent a boat at the place itself, they are already waiting at the rocks. If you want to take beautiful pictures, rent a boat (with captain) around sunset. The soft sunlight makes the rocks extra red and yellow.
Read my tips for Ponta da Piedade
It is the Algarve's most popular excursion. And is often referred to as the 'Grotto Tour'. In a small boat you sail along (and sometimes through) the famous rocks of the Algarve. And the western part of the Algarve is the best, here the rocks are the most eroded.
You can make this trip from numerous places, mainly from Lagos and Albufeira. Especially if you go at the end of the day. There are all kinds of variants available, including a tour with a barbecue and other combinations with dinner, for example. You also have a chance to see dolphins along the way, a small chance though.
Olhos de Água is a seaside village on the Portuguese Algarve coast, about five kilometers east of the city of Albufeira. Olhos de Água means 'eyes of water'. This remarkable name comes from the freshwater springs that bubble up here on the coast in certain places. At low tide these springs are released and they form strange round spots in the beach. The water is welling up in the middle of the beach. These round spots look a bit like 'eyes of water'. The local residents are proud of their beach, which is why they are also included in the coat of arms of the village. In the past, the entire village was supplied with drinking water from these sources. Even now it is fine to drink it. You will find it refreshingly nice.
The Monchique hills are an alternative to the coast. Remarkably little of the original forest is still available. In addition to forests with cork oaks, walnuts and countless other native trees, you will mainly encounter eucalyptus trees here. They are planted for the wood. And the 902 meter high Foia, which offers a special view over the Algarve and the coast.
The hot springs are also special, which have made the town of Monchique famous, among other things. And that was already in the time of the Romans. They discovered the medicinal effect of the sulphurous water.
Monchique is best known as the 'garden of the Algarve'. It is both the name of a village and of the surrounding forests. The Foia is the highest mountain in the Algarve. Although the title mountain is an exaggeration; he is 902 meters high. In addition to forests with cork oaks, walnuts and countless other native trees, you will mainly encounter eucalyptus trees.
These imported trees from Australia grow faster and sprout again when you cut them down. The ultimate goal is the top. This can be done in countless ways: on foot, on a mountain bike, with a jeep and more. Those who would like to have a nice view should do this on a sunny day. In Monchique Termas you can relax in sulphur-rich spring water.
Sagres is located a few kilometers from the extreme southwest of Europe. At the end of the day, the fishermen enter the port of Sagres. These are traditional fishermen, there is no mass fishing here yet. Buyers, such as several chefs from restaurants, watch how the fish is packed.
A few minutes later, they offer the fresh produce at the adjacent fisherman's market. Prices are per kilo and differ per season. You can see how squid, mackerel, red gurnard and countless other species change hands.
The town looks a bit dusty, but because of its location it has an unprecedented rich history. Here Infante D. Henrique, who we know as Prince Henry the Navigator, started the now famous Navigation School of Sagres in the 15th century. In 1415 Prince Henry gathered the most renowned Arab astronomers, cartographers and sailors around him.
With the aim of testing theories of new destinations and thus preparing expeditions. Cartography was improved, giving the Portuguese absolute supremacy at sea at the time. Among other things, he also introduced navigating on the stars. The knowledge of this school was the basis for great discoveries. Although there is little of it left in the town.
When the moon is full, the Algarve coast takes on a special, rustic look. Walk along the beach at full moon, you are probably one of the few to experience this moment. So keep an eye on the moon if you're here for a while.
You can hike at numerous locations in the Algarve. But those looking for peace and quiet can do this best in the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, where you will encounter countless cliffs and a new view beckons around every corner. There are countless places, but the dirt road near the village of Carrapateira also offers many landscaped viewpoints and a parking space for the car. On most days you can also see fishermen trying their luck from the high rocks.
A chameleon in Europe? This is an extraordinary excursion for animal lovers. According to scientists, that chameleon (chamaeleo chamaeleon) is one of the proofs that Africa and this part of Europe were once connected. That is why, for example, the genet cat can also be found here, just like in large parts of Africa.
The chameleons live in the bushes behind various seaside resorts, almost always without the tourists knowing. With a bit of luck, you can find these special animals in various places. And watch them crawl through the bushes at their leisure.
You may even be able to watch them catch a fly or other insect with their extremely long, extendable tongues. The best places can be found in the east of the Algarve. Ask locally for the beaches where they are regularly seen. At Olhao you usually have a good chance.
If you want to view the rocks from the ocean, you can rent a boat. But in a kayak, you have all the freedom, although you have to pay attention to the current of course. But it is a unique way to explore the area. If you want to take pictures of the scenery you are sailing in, make sure you bring a waterproof bag or barrel.
The European flamingo is a regular visitor to the Algarve. These animals search for food here by filtering the water with their beaks with their heads upside down. You usually see them flying in groups or standing in a lake or salt pan.
The local residents leave the animals alone, they are proud of their neighbors. The best chance of seeing them is at Quinta do Lago (east of Faro) and the Tavira saltwater marsh.
The lighthouse at the former fortress Fortaleza de Sagres stands on the most southwestern tip of Europe. Also look to the right at the steep cliffs that turn striking red in the last daylight. If there are clouds, it is smart to stay a little longer after sunset. The clouds get a beautiful glow at the end of the performance. Bring a drink, sit down and enjoy the last rays of the day.
The steep rocks and clear water are ideal for divers. There are numerous locations available where also underwater numerous impressive rock formations can be found, which are the habitat of countless species of fish and lobsters. You will find a lot of anemones. You can dive from a boat, but you can also walk into the sea, for example, it is sometimes that steep here. You can find a lot of information online.
The area around Monchique is famous for the drink Medronho. This liqueur is called "firewater"; it consists of almost 50 percent alcohol. It is made from the berries of the strawberry tree. It is widely grown in the Monchique area and the farmers love to make their favourite drink.
Those who explore this part of Portugal can taste the drink at various local farmers. Like homemade honey. You will see some signs along the way, but if you ask with the word 'medronho', you will certainly end up right.
The Algarve is not really known for its dolphins, but from June you have a reasonable chance. Think about 50 percent. The species that you may encounter are common dolphin (the most), striped dolphin (occasionally), bottlenose dolphin (regularly) and porpoise (occasionally).
Very occasionally orcas pass by, just like the minke whale. Even if you don't see any of these animals, the trip itself is worth it, because you get to see the rocks and cliffs of the Algarve from the other side.
More information: Dolphin & whale watching tours
We often don't think about it, but use cork regularly. With a good bottle of wine or champagne, for example. The Algarve is famous for its corks and cork oaks, the trees from which the corks are made.
You can visit several old factories and see how they make the corks. Which seems to be a dying process, because a cork oak only produces good cork after more than forty years. It is certain that you will never look at a cork the same again after your holiday.
During the annual migration of birds to Africa, many pass by the Algarve. Where they rest for a while or just fly by. With countless special species such as black stork, European stork, European flamingo, spoonbill. As well as species like; black-headed gull, little tern, laughing tern, white-cheeked tern, lesser bustard, black-winged stilt, curlew, black-tailed plover, sand plover, lesser sandpiper, crested lark, woodlark, calendar lark, black-eared grebe, purple heron, ibis, crown duck, purple coot, crested cuckoo, provence's night songjar moustache, Cetti's warbler, great reed warbler, orpheus mockingbird, mountain warbler, Iberian chiffchaff, marsupial tit, red-headed shrike, steppe shrike, blue magpie, black starling, oriole, Spanish sparrow, rock sparrow and European canary.
And birds of prey such as: osprey, short-toed eagle, booted eagle, hawk eagle, black kite, gray kite, peregrine falcon and merlin. Bird watchers mainly come for the lesser short-toed lark, Audouin's Gull and dun-billed gull.
For example, it is also a good place to explore on foot, on a bicycle, on a boat, on a surfboard or otherwise be active. To discover the remarkable nature, or to discover the rich culture of the people who lived here long before the tourists.
Fishermen still live here in harmony with the rugged coast and the sea. And farmers till the hills for countless fresh vegetables. And where whimsical cork oaks deliver corks. Which adorn many of our bottles of wine. However, cork harvesting is a dying profession. Just like that of a farmer. As a result, nature slowly regains the upper hand. Which benefits animals and plants as well as tourists.
The Algarve used to be a province of Portugal, but it now belongs to the Faro district. Which is also the capital. And Faro is for most tourists the introduction to this region. A region that actually suffers from a wrong image. When many people think of the Algarve, they think of rows of hotels and apartments, or even mega complexes, crowded beaches and nuisance from far too many Germans, English and Dutch.
To be fair, that is also the Algarve. At Albufeira, Portimao and Lagos the landscape has almost completely fallen prey to mass tourism. This leads to madness and chaos, especially in high season.
Those who avoid this region or go in the other seasons, such as January, February and March or October and November, will be less affected by this. In fact, you can hike for hours without meeting anyone. The Algarve has various nature reserves, where people and nature live together.
Not everyone knows that the Algarve landscape is very varied. The coast west of Faro has numerous impressive rock formations with small beaches. Also east of Faro, there are several shallow lagoons and miles of sandy beaches. Which slowly merge into the famous crags.
The hinterland is remarkably hilly. And it is still relatively untouched by tourism. It is striking that part consists of (coniferous) forests that were destroyed by forest fires in the recent past. And the many planted eucalyptus trees ensure that the Mediterranean feeling has disappeared. Fortunately, it can still be found in countless other places. In excess.
You can visit the Algarve all year round. The best time for nature lovers is from March to October. There will be countless flowers in bloom.
Spring starts early here: as early as February. The first orchids already start to bloom in March, when the average temperature is already 15-18 degrees.
If you like hiking or cycling, it is best to go in the spring. In winter there will be regular rain, but the sun can also come out.