The Algarve: History, Culture and Things to Do

Kieran Meeke / 22 November 2016 ( 29 June 2017 )

The Portuguese region of the Algarve attracts millions of visitors every year - and for good reason. Discover more about this beautiful area here.



Spectacular beaches, historic cities and some of the world’s finest wines, discover more about Portugal. Find out more here.

The history of The Algarve

Portugal’s Mediterranean coast was long visited by traders from around the region, including Phoenicians and Carthaginians, but those from North Africa left the strongest influence.

Centuries of Arab occupation are still visible in the local architecture and place names.

Indeed the name “Algarve” comes from the Arabic for Al-Gharb – “The West”.

This southern strip of Portugal was reclaimed for Christianity in 1249, after which its many ports played a key role in the 15th to 18th-century Age of Discovery under Henry the Navigator (you can see his massive statue in Lagos, gazing sternly out to sea and holding a sextant, although a much better one stands in London’s Belgrave Square).  

Using caravels based on local fishing boats, Prince Henry opened routes that led eventually to Africa and Asia. 

Bringing in great wealth from trading spices, slaves and gold, Portugal acquired possessions around the globe, from Cape Verde to Macao, and from Mozambique to Brazil.

A massive earthquake and in 1755 destroyed many of the wealthy towns financed by these voyages – 1,080 of 1,170 houses in Lagos were destroyed, for example, and the massive tsunami afterwards left fishing boats stranded two miles inland.

The number of local churches that date to the late 18th entry, many built in Italian style, is one major legacy of this historic event.

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Culture and traditions

Portugal is a strongly Catholic country but this southern part has always been a rebellious region, famed more for its pirates than its prelates. However, that does not stop people enjoying religious festivities at Easter and many other times of the year.

The big Brazilian-style carnival in Loulé or the torch-lit Easter processions of towns such as Silves and São Brãs are typical such events with their origins in Catholic tradition.

Less traditional ones range from the Traditional Sausage and Ham Fair in Monchique during March to the exciting Rally of Portugal in May, with the FIESA International Sand Sculpture Festival in Pêra from May to October being another must-see.

The Sagres Birdwatching Festival, held every autumn in the western Algarve, is also popular. It is a chance to see migrating birds cross the coast, with lots of extra activities such as paddle boarding and diving to keep non-birdwatchers entertained.

Fado, (very roughly) the Portuguese equivalent of Spain’s flamenco singing, is not an Algarve tradition. It has its roots in Lisbon and Coimbra in central Portugal.

Even so, it’s not to be missed if you have a chance to hear it in a local nightspot. It is often linked to the Portuguese word “saudade” which expresses a kind of sadness or loneliness, a sentiment that resonates in this region of seafarers and exiles from the country’s African colonies.

Modern fado has shaken up the genre, creating new superstars such as Carminho and Mariza. Look out for concerts, or at least a CD or two.

Local cuisine

With its long coastline, stretching to the Atlantic, fish play an important role in Algarve cuisine. Sardines are a popular snack or starter, grilled and eaten with bread, salad and boiled potato.

The main course might be a specialty such as Amêijoas na Cataplana – clams prepared Arab-style in a deep copper pot and flavoured with mountain herbs like so many other local dishes – or squid in its own ink.

Octopus is another popular seafood, served fried, grilled, baked or stewed in wine. Santa Luzia has earned a reputation of being the best place to try it.

You won’t go far without seeing a restaurant advertising frango piri-piri, the chicken marinated in chili sauce made famous by Nando’s.

The small town of Guia, and more specifically the Ramires Restaurant there, claims to have invented it way back when (well, 1964). 

Given its obvious African origins, that’s a dubious claim but few can dispute they have certainly perfected the spicy dish here and visitors help make Portugal the largest consumer of chicken in Europe.

Ramires Restaurant is still here, and always crowded, but there are plenty of others offering the dish with their own “secret ingredients”. Sir Cliff Richard has a vineyard near Guia and you might search out some wines from Adega da Cantor (“Winery of the Singer”) to wash it all down.

At lunch, workers all around the Algarve will pop into one of the many all-day cafés for salted cod fishcakes – “bacalhau” (salted cod) entered the local diet during the Age of Discovery, when it was the perfect food to keep onboard for long voyages – or a meat pasty.

Standing at the bar for a quick, strong “bica” espresso is popular throughout the day.

Pastéis de nata (egg tarts) originated in Lisbon but are a common feature in these cafes. They are best enjoyed with a galão, the local cappuccino made with espresso and foamed milk.

However, a more typical local treat is made with almonds from the many trees that decorate the landscape. Dom Rodrigos, almond sweets made with egg yolks and sugar, need a straight espresso to balance their sweetness.

Figs are another delicacy grown in the region, that make their way into treats such as fig cheeses made with ground almonds, chocolate and, again, lots of sugar.

You might round a meal off with Medronho brandy, distilled from the arbutus (strawberry tree) berry, or discover one of the many tasty local liqueurs.

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Shopping

The Arabic heritage of this northern Mediterranean coast is perhaps seen at its strongest in the "azulejos" tiles that grace so many walls and floors.

These make great souvenirs, as do other ceramic items such as pots, cookware and crockery. The picturesque town of Porches, with its lovely church and a Michelin two-star restaurant, is the most noted centre for pottery.

Few first-time visitors can resist a pottery ”Galo de Barcelos”, the brightly coloured rooster representing honesty and honour that is now a symbol of the country (and Nando’s).

Traditional Algarve crafts such as lace making, weaving and basket making have also seen a strong revival during the past decades of the tourism trade. 

The inland town of Loulé is one place to buy or try many of them hands-on at the locally run Projecto Tasa (projectotasa.com).

Loulé is more famous for its market, which is the place to buy bottles of peri-peri sauce to take home or fresh fish, bread, cheeses and other local produce.

The larger towns all have a mercado municipal offering similar choices. Look out also for the sea salt from the pans of Rio Formosa and Sapal do Castro Maria, or explore the choice of relatively unknown Portuguese wines.

International brands are found in all the larger towns, with Forum Algarve outside Faro boasting it is the largest shopping centre under one roof in Europe.

Places you should visit

The beaches of the Algarve are its main attraction for many visitors, stretching from the family-friendly sands of the east to the much quieter coves of the wilder Atlantic west, popular with surfers.

This western shore still has long sandy beaches in places such as Albufeira, Meia Praia, Alvor, Praia da Rocha and Armação de Pêra.

The eastern beaches such as those around Tavira, Olhão and Faro the beaches are sandspits (ilhas), reached by water taxis across the lagoons of the Ria Formosa Reserves – where you can spend the day watching flamingos.

The towns of the Algarve also each have their unique appeal. Silves is dominated by a large castle and Gothic cathedral, while Lagos is still ringed by its picturesque town walls.

Odeceixe has a winery museum and Faro offers cobbled streets and plenty of shopping. At night, Faro is also famed for its clubs, bars and restaurants, while Casino Vilamoura provides its own temptations.

Golfers will already know that there are some 35 courses to play, and many have spectacular views with their ocean setting. 

Among the best are Tavira’s Monte Rei (North), designed by Jack Nicklaus, and the three world-class courses of the Oceânico complex at Villamoura.

The draw of the coast means the interior of the Algarve is often neglected by visitors. It’s well worth exploring, either in day trips from a coastal resort or by staying in a "turismo rural" (country guesthouse).

Besides some fabulous golf courses, you can also try horse riding or hillwalking in reserves such as Rocha da Pena, which will delight birdwatchers.

A less active plan might be to just hang out in authentic village bars to improve your Portuguese language skills and making new friends while enjoying the very best of local food.

There is a fast intercity train to Lisbon from Faro, home to the international airport. A slow local line runs from Vila Real in the east to Lagos in the west.

In the west, the railway stations are not always near the towns they are named for, with a connecting taxi ride sometimes being required.

Hiring a car is usually a better option, but the train is worth at least one scenic excursion and the four-hour express to Lisbon from Faro makes it a practical proposition to enjoy a night in the Portuguese capital.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.