Sunset at Salgados beach
We just wrapped up our third trip to Portugal! We spent two weeks in the Algarve and I’m soooo excited to share my Algarve Travel Guide with you! It actually has to be my fave place in the world, and we definitely live like locals there (which is my fave way to travel, for sure). Roberto’s parents own a home there on the land Roberto’s moms family owned. Her grandfather built the home, so the history feels very rich to our family. The land is home to other family as well including Roberto’s aunt (who you saw on Instagram stories a lot!) and various cousins – we love them all so much.
This trip was the first time we went on our own and it was to heal our hearts after our last miscarriage of twins. I had been on the fertility rollercoaster for many years, and finished IVF in February with a transfer of two embryos. While everything was successful, the twins both had an extra chromosome and I miscarried them at 8 weeks in April. After that, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and that was a hard one, too. We really, really needed to get away and were going to do a quick 4-day trip to Palm Springs for some sun, but figured we may as well make a real trip of it, and enjoy some time at “home” in the Algarve. This is a place that can heal your heart. It is such an amazing, laid back area full of the most amazing beaches, and if you go at the right time and stay in the right places, can feel relatively unaffected by tourists compared to some more well-known European destinations. The Algarve is the south coast of Portugal and is lined with gorgeous beach towns full of history.
I’ve been meaning to write an Algarve Travel Guide for quite some time… well, for years! I’ve not seen everything there is to see, but this is what we like to do, and some of our fave places. Our last trip there was two years ago and I have even more to share now. You all had some great questions and I’m keeping them in mind as I write so here we go! P.S: if you want to see even more, head to my Portugal story highlight on Instagram to feel like you’re REALLY there!
Our home in the Algarve
Best Time to Visit
This is always a tough call. We’ve gone in June/early July and in September. I’m always interested in great hot weather, and as few tourists as possible. It can be hard to strike that balance, but I would say June 15 – July 15th is an ideal time. You are just missing the busiest tourist season, but the weather is good. The ocean starts heating up late June. Come September, anyone in the service industry is pretty over it all, but I did like going in September as well.
Travel and Flights
Flights to Portugal are relatively easy and to get to the Algarve can be a little more tricky. Our flights to get there and back Vancouver to Lisbon were a great price of about $1100 each, so it’s pretty affordable if you look around. I of course researched the best options and prefer to do this through Expedia since they choose the best layovers and it’s easier to sort through. You have two options when flying from Vancouver: Vancouver to Lisbon with one layover on the east coast of Canada or Vancouver direct to London and London to Lisbon or Faro. Based on price or timing, we always fly Vancouver to Lisbon. Once in Lisbon, it’s a great time to take a few days there (watch Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix – the Lisbon episode is perfection) or to head right to the Algarve. This time we actually took an Uber from Lisbon Airport to Pasteis de Belem for the best Pasteis de Nata EVER and shovelled them in our mouths plus brought some for the family. WORTH IT!
We prefer to travel by bus from Lisbon to Algarve because it’s very comfortable and the station is called Sete Rios. It’s about $100 euros round trip for two people and takes about 3 hours from Lisbon – Algarve. This website is where you can grab tickets. You could also buy in person but during tourist season, it may be a few hours before you can get on a bus that isn’t full. We bought in person for this trip so we didn’t have to worry about timing and the buses run every few hours. There is also the option to take the train. You can buy tickets in advance here.
On the way home, we always bus to Lisbon and stay overnight at something like the Holiday Inn Airport (free breakfast!) to alleviate travel stress and make the timing of our flight work for us.
We stayed in Lisbon for a few days two years ago, and while I’m no pro on the city, I have a few suggestions. First day, take a Tuk Tuk around to get the lay of the land. They are everywhere and you can pop on for a quick tour. It will save you from walking the hills and there are lots of those! Alfama area is the oldest in the city and a great place to stroll around. Barrio Alto is home to the clubs and lots of restaurants – a great area to stay in if you’d like to be part of the action. We ate at A Cevicheria and loved it. Can’t miss Pasteis de Belem for the best tarts ever! We also loved taking a day trip in a convertible Beetle (Lisbon by Beetle) with a driver/guide to Cascais and Sintra. They have different tours including just around Lisbon and I highly recommend!
OK, now onto the Algarve!
Locations to Stay
The million dollar question… where should we stay?! Our family home is on the outskirts of Albufeira which is known as quite the party town, but I actually love the area. If you stay out of the main area, it feels very chill. There is a beautiful old town, along with all the comforts of home like grocery stores, restaurants, and of course, the most amazing beaches (more on all of this later). If I was coming for the first time, I would suggest somewhere in the central Algarve, like Albufeira. That way, you can easily day trip one way or the other on the coast. Gale beach area is amazing. Other popular spots include Vilamoura, Lagos or Lagoa. I definitely would live like a local and do Airbnb if you can – having your own kitchen is so important if you’re staying for a while. A quick search will yield a ton of options (how cute is this one?!). Air conditioning isn’t essential, especially for the older homes because they are built to keep the place cool. I’ve had lots of questions about us renting out our home, and unfortunately, we don’t! There are also plenty of resorts, so it’s all about personal preference. They also have a great hostel, if you prefer to travel in that way, in the town of Albufeira.
We live for beach days and spend most of our days on the local beaches. A few of our faves include:
Gale (tip: walk to the left of the main beach to find a few private beaches with less people!)
Praia Dos Arrifes
Praia da Fábrica (coolest spot where the tide reveals little islands and you can take small boats to access for like 1 euro)
Senoha da Rochas (beach and viewpoint)
Praia dos Beijinhos (haven’t been, but hear great things)
Praia do Pintadinho (haven’t been, but hear great things)
Praia de Benagil (famous caves)
The great thing about the beaches is that the parking is usually pretty easy, we always got prime parking, and most have beach chair rentals if you want to do things the easy way. Average cost for two chairs and an umbrella is 15 euros. We decided to buy our own umbrella and set up on towels to be more cost effective. There are always “beach shacks” (honestly, these places are quite nice but you’re fine to go in your cover up and flip flops) that serve lunch or easy eats like snacks on almost every beach. We bring our cooler full of water, chips, sandwiches and fruit and I’ll usually get a frozen something or other while I’m there. Oh, and yes, you can drink on the beach and they sell that there as well but we bring our own.
I’ll be honest with you… if you don’t love seafood, you’re not going to find a lot of choice, but it’s possible. Portugal isn’t the biggest melting pot when it comes to food, and most often it’s traditional Portuguese food in different variations. Things like clams, prawns, local fish, sardines, octopus is what you’ll find everywhere and it’s so fresh. Chicken, fries, bread, pork, rice dishes are also a mainstay. They will always have a few basic salads on the menu but not a lot of options. I like seafood, but I get tired of it so that’s when I end up cooking at home more or going for chicken and fries (Portuguese chicken is next level and something they are famous for!). Like with any place you travel, part of the fun is being open minded and trying new things! I hear people say “I don’t like fish” all the time, but maybe you’ve never had good fish! Why not try something new? Things like Sardines are a cultural fave in Portugal and they are so healthy for you… try them grilled.
Cow Milk is the norm and you can find lots of milk alternatives in the grocery stores (along with many other alternatives for regular foods like soy yogurt, gluten free etc.) but in restaurants, it’s a little trickier.
Some of our fave Algarve restaurants include:
Sal Rosa (for drinks and small snacks with the best view of the beach)
Salgados (most gorgeous sunsets and delish food)
Villa Joya (Michelin star restaurant inside the hotel but do the beach shack – it’s gorgeous! Make reservations)
Mato Vista (family fave and prob my number one – so authentic)
Evaristo (sunsets are beautiful and lovely patio – make reservations)
Marisqueira Rui (in Silves – the king prawns are to die for and Silves is a place you need to spend the day)
Café da Rosa (also in Silves, and a lovely café right on the square)
O Charneco (in a city called Estombar and is the most typical Portuguese restaurant that you HAVE to go to. It’s like a Portuguese mama made your dinner – there is no menu!)
Teodosio O Rei dos Frangos (in Guia which is the home of the best chicken restaurants, this one is so not fancy but it’s SO delish and full of locals)
Riviera (we go here almost daily for breakfast – great pastries and the best Pasteis de Nata in the area)
Car Rentals and Getting Around
Car rentals are the way to travel around in my opinion. You can definitely get around by bus and cab/Uber as well but it’s not as easy, of course. There are lots of small car rental shops as opposed to the big ones we’re used to seeing in North America. You can rent locally, or rent in Lisbon and make the drive. Make sure you choose automatic transmission! I also suggest getting the smallest car you can fit in because there may be tight squeezes within the cities and gas isn’t cheap.
A night at Villa Joya
What to Bring
I pack very light since the weather is so warm when I’m there. Tons of dresses for day and evening, sandals. I usually buy my shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen etc. there to lighten my load.
EU outlets are different than North American. Pack adaptors for your plugs. Many older homes won’t have a lot of plugs so make sure to bring an external battery to charge your phone and keep that battery topped up always. I lived on this external battery for my phone because there wasn’t a plug beside the bed for me to charge my phone. Can’t stress this enough!
Bring Euros since taking them out at bank machines there will cost you more. That said, it’s great in a pinch and there are bank machines everywhere.
Villa Joya beach shack
You have options when it comes to getting service for your phone. Because I’m a TELUS partner, they provided all of my network service. If you’re with TELUS, you can access a network abroad for $12 a day, and it’s something you kind of just add to your travel expenses because it’s essential to have data for things like maps etc. I work on the go a lot, and having that service was so easy for me to keep working no matter where I was… like on the beach or in rural towns, too.
The other option is to buy a hot spot from a local cell phone store. Let me explain how this works: the hotspot is a piece of wireless hardware that runs on a battery (you have to recharge this like a cell phone). This hotspot is like your home wireless network so you connect to this with your phone, and that hotspot connects to the local network. When you buy the hotspot, you buy GB’s (which are very cheap!) and you top up as you go. The downside to this is that the hotspot can be a bit finicky and won’t always work the way you want it to. You also have to make sure it’s always charged because if it dies when you’re out and about, you have no source of internet. I used this method last time, and much prefer using my TELUS network.
I received a lot of questions about the language barrier. I’m so lucky to carry around a translator everywhere via Roberto. I would say about 80% – 90% in the service industry are easy to communicate with using English so I wouldn’t worry too much and would feel comfortable going it alone. That said, it’s always important to learn a few key words and phrases!
Obrigado – thank you
A conta faz favor – the bill, please
Você fala inglês – do you speak English?
Onde Estão os lavoratórios – where are the washrooms?
Activities and Day Trips
We spend SO much time at the beach but there are other things to do in the Algarve. With kids, you have things like Zoo Marine and lots of waterslides and other parks to visit.
We love doing the drive to Monchique and up Monchique mountain – it’s so scenic and so many beautiful spots and restaurants to explore along the way.
Loule market happens each Saturday (there are two markets – the regular and the Gypsy). We prefer the regular one for tons of fruit, veg, seafood – love getting prawns and cooking them at home, baskets, bread, cheese, and sooo much more. It’s such a must.
Sagres – tip of Portugal and the most beautiful viewpoints and cliffs.
We go to Silves to explore because it’s beautiful.
Tavira is another pretty place to explore and there are beaches like Praia da Fábrica and Praia Verde nearby so bring your swimsuit!
Of course, there are malls if you get a rainy day.
My fave activities are to just drive and enjoy the sights, stopping along the way wherever you choose. I love walking the streets of a town with my camera and shooting things I find interesting.
Morgado do Quintao is a winery that is beautiful and they have long table dinners.
Albufeira old town
Bottled water is the norm there, and they sell large bottles for home use and it’s rare to recycle these bottles, so don’t freak out if you can’t!
I have an EU flat iron and blow dryer – no matter what kind of plug in adaptor you have, you’ll blow a fuse in your north American ones because of wattage!
Tipping! It’s really not customary there as anyone working in a restaurant is compensated fairly. You really do only tip, and very conservatively, if you really feel you’ve received great service. It is never expected. We went to a really beautiful dinner, and the bill was 120 euros. I wanted to tip and Roberto would only let me leave 5 euros… I even asked his cousins, and they said that was appropriate.
Is the area family friendly? YES! So many people have kids everywhere you go. The beaches, restaurants, the Portuguese are very family focused. They are also very welcoming to tourists.
Don’t expect the service in restaurants to be like North America! They won’t check on you mid meal, and it’s ok to get their attention.
Well, I think that’s it for my guide to the Algarve! I’ll update this post with anything missed as questions roll in. Happy travelling!