Driving in the Algarve, Portugal
After a few wonderful weeks soaking up the vibrant energy that a big city like Lisbon offers, I headed south to the Algarve. The prospect of a little 5-star R&R, warmer weather and oh, a handful of world-renowned beaches sounded like a fabulous change of pace.
Yet, travel has a way of keeping you on your toes (both in good…and well, not so good ways). Long story short, my seamless plan picking up a rental car and driving from Lisbon to the Algarve wasn’t so seamless, thanks to having my wallet stolen in Lisbon. As it turns out, rental car companies (at least Europcar) won’t rent you a car without a physical credit card. Meaning, that card must be in hand! Yep, even if the car was entirely pre-paid in full.
So, I had to get creative and quickly devise a plan B, which included taking the train to the Algarve and having my credit card company expedite me a new credit card, to arrive a few days later at my next destination. Thankfully, my next destination was the luxury, off-the-hook resort of the Conrad Algarve and I’d already planned to spend my time there doing a whole lot of nothing (read: I alternated between the spa, eating and the pool). Point being, my car wouldn’t be missed.
But as luck (or not having luck, in my case) sometimes happens, my credit card was delayed and didn’t arrive until I moved to my next destination, Lagos. Therefore, Lagos became my jumping off point for all my Algarve explorations. And my delightful little car, an automatic Citroen, was delivered to my apartment thanks to Luzcar (a regional rental agency) who wasn’t as particular on me missing a physical credit card. Ahh, gotta love the flexibility of smaller companies!
Where to explore in the Algarve
The Algarve is divided into three main areas – west, central and east – with not only each region, but each beach and town within each region having a distinctly unique vibe. So with my trusty little Citroen, I ventured to explore as much as possible!
The west is more chill, rugged and so far remains unscathed from mega-resort tourism. The central region is where the vast majority of tourists end up…so think more crowds, hotels, amenities and well, touristy chaos. The eastern region is probably the least visited, but bursting with history and charm. Hopefully after reading below, you’ll consider a visit.
Here’s some highlights from my off-the-beaten-path adventures:
Lagos // A lovely, charming city that I highly recommend as your Algarve base. Historic, narrow streets of the old town are filled with restaurants and shops, while the marina provides a jumping-off point for excursions to the caves and grottos.
Praia Dona Ana // One of my favorite beaches…and not just because it was a 1-min walk from my apartment! It’s a smaller, wind-protected beach (due to the direction it faces) and awesomely picturesque with sandstone cliffs, unique rock formations and grottos.
Ponta da Piedade // Drive or walk to Ponta Da Piedade (at the end of the southern tip of Lagos) to see the weathered cliffs and grottos from an overhead view. Hiking trails along the tops of the cliffs provide an amazing vantage point of the Lagos coastline.
Meia Praia // A massive, wide beach with views back across the water to Lagos. The good news is that parking is easy, but it’s windward facing so be prepared for that. Not heaps of character, but good for long walks.
Praia de Salema // This modest, secluded beach is an oasis for those seeking to escape the bustling, over-crowded tourist beaches. The tranquil cove and small fishing village are perfect for a lazy day of lounging and soaking-up life.
Sagres // Sagres is the western-most tip of mainland Europe and it’s unprotected western coast translates into a barren headland with rugged, stunning cliffs and colossal waves. This makes it a fan-favorite town for experienced surfers. Oh, and for Henry the Navigator…back in the 15th century.
Aljezur // From Sagres I drove north to Aljezur, up through the lush greenery and protected national park of Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincentina. Aljezur offers up a 10th century Moorish castle, an 18th century church and sweeping views from the top of the hill.
Praia de Monte Clerigo // I stumbled on this beach, an impulsive and spontaneous left turn, after seeing beach signs on my way to Aljezur. I was rewarded with a fantastic and golden sandy beach, which seems to be home to surfing schools. From here, there’s several great viewpoints.
Portimao // Portimao is the second largest town in the Algarve, right behind Albufiera. To be honest, I drove right through Portimao (and passed all the towering, high-rise hotels and apartments), just to get to Praia Da Rocha beach.
Praia da Rocha // If you plan to stay in Portimao, you’ll be most likely situated along Praia Da Rocha. The beach itself is wide and vast, dotted with loungers, umbrellas and restaurants. Along the cliffside road, there’s oodles of touristy shopping, cafes and yet more restaurants, which gives you plenty of opportunities for strolling, either along the street or the beach.
Praia da Carvoeiro // Several people recommended Carvoeiro so I had to check it out. It’s a comparatively small, protected bay, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in charisma! Bars and restaurants line the two main roads leading to the beach, offering plenty of spots for delicious food and people watching.
Praia de Marinha // This dazzling beach tops the list of my Algarve favorites. It’s an uncommercialized, cove beach nestled between impressive sandstone cliffs. Awesome rock formations and tide pools will give you plenty to explore, while crystal clear, turquoise water are perfect for snorkeling. All in all, it’s an unbelievably scenic spot.
Albufiera // The largest resort town in Algarve is also the craziest. It’s jam-packed with holiday tourists, many of whom seem to be focused on the bars and lively nightlife (ahem, lots of bachelor parties). Case in point, I was cat-called by a group of young men, slightly inebriated, at 4pm in the afternoon! So unless your focus is alcohol, mixing and mingling, you’ll probably be wise to skirt around Albufiera.
Villamoura // Villamoura is the ritzy, Newport Beach of the Algarve. It’s a planned, purpose-built luxury destination with high-end restaurants, resorts, golfing and champagne-flowing cruises departing from the yacht-filled marina. It’s gorgeous and worth a peek, but not exactly an authentic Portugal experience.
Tavira // Tavira is further east than you may have planned to venture, but it’s absolutely worth the drive. Tavira is bursting with the 4-C’s: charm, culture, castles and churches (more than 20 of them!). Meandering, cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes will have you easily losing track of time, but hey, you’re on vacation. If you are looking for the authentic Portuguese experience in the Algarve, this is where it’s at.
Ilha da Tavira // Tavira’s popular beach is one that you can’t drive to – it’s actually an island – and therefore only accessible by ferry boat or water taxi. This keeps Ilha Da Tavira a bit more private than other beaches in the Algarve. The beach is wide, flat and long, at 11km, which makes it a great beach for strolling.
Tips for Driving
If you’re contemplating driving in the Algarve, know this – it’s ridiculous easy! The roads are well paved, the signage is superb and your resulting exploration of the region will make it well worth the effort.
Cars // Main rental agencies include Europcar and Luzcar (Algarve-specific). I had an automatic because, well, I’m American and can’t drive a manual! If you drive a manual, you’ll have more vehicle options and save quite a bit of money. But I loved my small, little automatic and it made navigating narrow roads and parking in tight spots that much easier. This is one location where a bigger car is not better. I’d recommend going for the smallest car you need.
Speed Limits // Speed limits are all posted so just follow the signs. Frequent speed limits are 50 kmh (towns), 70 kmh (open road) and 120 kmh (highway).
Highway // The A22 is the main artery west to east and you’ll easily cruise at 120 kmh on this wonderful highway. From the A22 you’ll have smaller highways and off-shoots to take you south to each beach or destination. Some of the beach you can hop to along coast roads, but many times you’ll have to dart back up to the A22, then across and back down to your next destination.
Parking // Most parking is metered, so throw some coins in until you reach the length of time you plan on spending. The parking spaces can be very small (at least, for US standards), which again, makes a small car worthwhile.
Tailgating // This seems to be a common occurrence in Portugal, so if you’ve got someone clinging to your bumper, don’t be alarmed or threatened. It’s just how the Portuguese tend to drive. Stay calm and drive safely.
Signage // Signage in the Algarve is spot-on and I found it to be more accurate than even my iPhone Maps navigation. For instance, the voice directions from my iPhone might tell me to take the first exit on the roundabout, when I really needed to take the second. If I’d just followed the signs on the roundabout, I would’ve taken the second exit correctly. The signage also has clearly marked symbols for beaches and viewpoints.
Day Trips // I found that I spent much more time in each location than I had planned. And if you’re popping up and down off the A22, this adds additional time. So try not to jam-pack your days with too many destinations. Also, keep in mind that I visited the Algarve in May, but if you’re there June-August, it’ll be far more crowded and parking will fill up. So get an early start to your days!
[Click the icon on the top left of the map to view all locations]
Have you visited the Algarve in Portugal? If so, what are your favorite beaches, towns or sights? Share in the comments below!