The temptation when visiting the Algarve, particularly in summer, is to flop on the beach and switch off, but for those who want to get under the skin of the region a little bit of exploration will bring its rewards. Dip into the cool of an ancient white-washed church where statues are richly clothed and hand-painted blue and white tiles traditionally decorate the interiors. Visit a fish market to jostle with the locals in the midst of the noisy vendors over cuttlefish and octopus, sea bass and sea bream, and take to the high ground where along flower-strewn cliff edges, battered by the sea breeze, you can fill your lungs and clear your head.
Explore a Medieval town with strong Moorish influences
Silves was the centre of culture during the Moorish occupation of the Algarve and lies inland, surrounded by orange groves and dominated by a red sandstone castle. Visit the castle and its Cistern of the Enchanted Moorish Girl before heading to the neighbouring cathedral; dating from the 13th century, it is one of the main Gothic monuments of the region.
Insider tip: Before you leave Silves, go down to the river to see the old Roman Bridge. This was actually reconstructed in the 14th century, but its five perfectly formed arches spanning the River Arade are a work of art.
Take the walking path less travelled
Via Algarviana, a 186-mile walking route, runs from Alcoutim, near the Spanish border, right across the interior of the Algarve to Cape St Vincent in the far west. It is well marked with signs indicating points of interest and nearby settlements. The route takes you well off the beaten track and supposedly was walked for the first time in the 4th century AD.
Insider tip: The best time to do this walk is in April, when the springs and streams are flowing, and the lavender and wild orchids, cistus and peonies, wild lilies and oleander, bougainvillea and buttercups are blossoming, creating a colourful patchwork to traverse through.
Stroll through a fabulous fish market
Nothing gives a sense of place better than a food market, and in the Algarve that means fish. Olhão, on the eastern Algarve, famous for fishing since the Middle Ages, has a wonderful market with an abundance of stalls inside selling robalo (sea bass), octopus and squid, as well as clams, percebes (gooseneck barnacles), and lagosta (rock lobster).
Insider tip: When you have finished admiring the raw fish, cross the road to try the cooked ones at the excellent little restaurant Terra i Mar, which serves crunchy weaver fish and cuttlefish eggs and the more ordinary sea bass and sea bream.
Address: Avenida 5 de Outubro, Olhão
Contact: 00 351 289 707 298
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 7am-1pm; limited produce on Mon
Play a round of golf on a world-famous course
Renowned for its golf courses, the Algarve has a huge range. The Sir Henry Cotton Championship course (18 holes, par 73) at Penina Hotel & Golf Resort, the first course built in the region, remains extremely popular and has two notorious holes – the dogleg fifth, with its canal and lake, and the 13th, shadowed by water from tee to green.
Insider tip: Green fees vary between courses so it is worth shopping around to find the best deal. Penina is the only resort in the Algarve to offer three golf courses with an academy course and resort course alongside their championship course.
Go blue-tile spotting at an ancient church
The simple, whitewashed churches that dot the Algarve landscape give no indication of the riches that lie within. Often clad in ancient azulejos (hand-painted tiles), many also have opulent gilded altars. Doors and windows are frequently Manueline, a style of late-Gothic architecture named after King Manueline (1495 to 1521) and funded by the vast wealth brought to Portugal from the spice trade.
Insider tip: Just outside Almancil is the tiny, 18th-century São Lourenço Church, considered a jewel of the Algarve. The blue and white azulejos, finished in 1730, cover the interiors to such striking effect that the richly gilded altar is completely overpowered.
Address: Rua da Igreja, São Lourenço
Contact: 00 351 289 395451
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 10am-1.30pm, 2.30pm-5.30pm
Take to the water on a 'seafari'
Algarve Seafaris offer a variety of programmes, including deep-sea fishing, reef fishing and cruises along the coastline, exploring the many limestone caves and secluded beaches. The choice of transport ranges from large catamarans to smaller yachts, and cruises begin at Vilamoura Marina. Stops are made to swim and dive as well as venturing into some of the more impressive caves.
Insider tip: Choose the Benagil Cave tour to see the most dramatic cave along the Algarve coastline. It has a natural oculus that illuminates, at the right time of day, the beach it towers over and changes the water from blue to emerald.
See dolphins in the wild with a marine biologist
To see sea life in its natural habitat, head to Mar Ilimitado at Sagres, which specialises in marine wildlife-watching. Accompanied by a couple of marine biologists, guests go out in a RIB and are likely to see sea turtles and porpoises as well as storm petrels, shearwaters and gannets. Dolphins frequently come to play in the wake of your boat.
Insider tip: These passionate marine biologists are also well equipped to teach you to dive so you could combine a trip out to sea with a lesson to begin a PADI certified scuba diving course or Open Water Diver Course.
Contact: 00 351 91 683 2625; Facebook page
Opening times: Daily, 9am-6pm
Make a splash at a landmark water park
It’s hard to miss the water parks in the Algarve, as several of them are landmarks. Children absolutely love them and are quite happy to spend an entire day there, which makes sense given the expensive entry prices. Each one has different rides or attractions but all have food for sale and lockers to leave your clothes in. Aquashow Park Hotel in Quarteira is popular for its 50ft-high snake slide. Aqualand in Alcantarillha is famous for the kamikaze, which takes just four seconds for you to slide 120ft. Highlights at Slide & Splash, spread over seven hectares in Estombar, include the Tornado and the Turbulent River.
Insider tip: Many people bring rugs and a picnic and set up a base with parasols to be able to stay for a decent length of time. The frequent reapplication of sun cream is a must as it washes off on the slides.
Make some waves along the coast
Portugal is big on surfing all along its coast line. In the Algarve, the west coast provides perfect conditions for competent surfers. Future Surf in Portimão is the best of the various surf schools with excellent instructors and they alternate their lessons between the west coast if you are sufficiently skilled to navigate the big wave or Portimão beach for beginners.
Insider tip: Waterskiing can be done in the calmer waters off Quinta do Lago, as can banana boat rides and jet skiing; Alvor beach is great for kitesurfing. Paddle boarding is available on many beaches, but one of the best is Martinhal.
Shop local, hand-painted pottery
Local pottery is an attractive souvenir to take home. The most beautiful workmanship can be found at Porches Pottery, on the main N125 near Lagoa. Plates and bowls, lamp bases and flower vases, candlesticks and soap dishes are hand painted in blues, turquoises, greens and yellows with flowers and fish, birds and dragonflies. All can be shipped home if required.
Insider tip: Go near lunchtime and take the opportunity to enjoy a delicious salad or quiche and a glass of local wine at Bar Bacchus which is part of the pottery. You can sit in the shade of the rambling pink bougainvillea.
Explore the local wines
Morgado do Quintão winery was founded in the early 1800’s by the Count of Silves and remains today in family hands, the fourth generation to cultivate the vines. Much focus has been on this vineyard in the last few years as the owner, Filipe Vasconcellos and winemaker, Joana Maçanita revive old traditional vines such as Negramole and use low intervention, chemical-free, organic methods to produce some really excellent wines. There are cottages to rent around the estate, should you want to linger but come for a wine tasting anyway, from Monday to Saturday at 4pm, accompanied by local hams and cheeses.
Insider Tip: Lunches, held in the shade of the 2,000-year-old olive tree can be booked in advance and offer a lovely way to see the winery. Excellent local dishes are accompanied by a flight of four wines from the estate.
Loulé Islamic Baths
Loulé’s painstaking restoration of the Islamic Baths, comprising five separate areas, cold room, tepid room, hot room (an ancient form of sauna), the furnace compartments and hallway, were formally opened to the public in 2022. The baths date back to the 12th century, when Loulé was the medieval Islamic settlement of al-‘Ulyà – and they are the first Islamic baths to have been archaeologically documented in Portugal. They are set to become a national monument this year.
Insider tip: Do combine a visit to the Islamic Baths with a dip into the wonderfully authentic Loulé food market, an excellent place to buy regional specialities from piri-piri to local honeys.