Portugal may be a small country in terms of area, but it has so much to offer visitors that you may end up like me with plans to return time-and-time again. The southwestern European country was on my radar for many years, and I finally visited for the first time in the fall of 2018.
My wife and I were instantly enamored with the people, the sights, the vibe, and the fact that the country is consistently listed in the top five safest countries in the world by the United Nations. We returned in September of 2019, with another Portuguese vacation now in the works for 2020.
Our first visit took us to Lisbon, Porto, and along the beautiful coast between the two largest cities in the country. This year we added a few days in Spain, specifically in Madrid and Seville which included exploring the ancient Jewish quarter of each city, before heading back to Portugal.
Faro, a small city on the south coast is the location of the international airport. We arrived by way of a short two-hour bus ride from Seville, but most visitors fly into Faro which is served by numerous European airlines. Our itinerary had us flying from the U.S. to Madrid and home from Lisbon this time around.
The Algarve has long been a favorite European vacation spot with its moderate year-round temperatures, affordable prices, plus stunning beaches, cliffs and caves that run for more than 50 miles along the coast.
The Algarve is on the Atlantic Ocean and forms the southern coastal boundary of Portugal. The Atlantic is also the western boundary of the country, with Spain to the north and east. American and Canadian tourists are slowly discovering this area, which offers hundreds of B&B’s, small hotels, and many upscale resort-type properties, some of which also feature spas or a golf course.
While we are not much into upscale resorts, we were drawn to the area by the spectacular photos we’d seen of the coastline. We chose to stay at a small property a few minutes outside of Lagos, which served our purposes perfectly.
Everything on our Spain/Portugal getaway was arranged independently, with the exception made for a speedboat tour of the Algarve coastline and caves. There is no other way to see these absolutely, mind-blowing sights. With only a dozen or so passengers, it was a wonderful excursion. Not only did we thoroughly enjoy being out on the water, but the exhilarating ride was lots of fun.
The Algarve is just one of scores of neighborhoods, towns and regions that have retained their names from five centuries of Arab rule that began in AD 711. Algarve was Algarb in Arabic, meaning “the west”, and the Algarve is Portugal’s westernmost region (and southern).
In the 15th century, Henry the Navigator set up a navigation school in Sagres, the Algarve town at the extreme southwestern tip of Portugal. From here, international explorers set out into the Mediterranean, through the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa, and across the Atlantic to discover and conquer new worlds. This is known as the Age of Discovery, as departing from the Algarve was the perfect location to set out to sea.
The Fortaleza Sagres Fort is a must-see for history buffs, as well as to take in amazing cliff views of the Atlantic coastline. It is here that Englishman Sir Francis Drake attacked in 1587 when the Spanish controlled the area.
While today’s Algarve is best known for its sparkling beaches and wondrous cliffs, the surrounding countryside is well worth visiting, too. The multiple ranges of hills just to the north make this area’s climate much different than other parts of Portugal. The warm sea and nearby African air currents make for a fabulous holiday locale.
As with the other areas of Portugal, local cuisine is largely dependent on seafood from the adjacent waters. However, with international visitors from throughout Europe and other parts of the world filling the hotel rooms, there are Spanish, British, Japanese, Irish, French and of course, Brazilian restaurants here too.
As we were flying home to the U.S. from Lisbon, we rented a car at the Faro International Airport and returned it at the Lisbon Airport. Along the approximately three-hour drive north, we stopped to check out southern Portugal’s world-famous cork trees. More than 90% of the cork harvested in the world comes from here, and we easily found hundreds of trees in various stages of growth. The trees are not only alongside the road, but there are tree farms visible on the rolling hillsides. It is truly amazing to see these trees and the flatbed trucks transporting huge rolls of cork to be processed.
By now perhaps, you are also interested in checking out this fascinating country. Its area may only be equivalent to that of Indiana or New Jersey, but the historical significance, unpretentious population and easy-going atmosphere will surely make for a memorable experience. Plus, the weather is suitable for a visit at any time of year. Dar uma olhada, which translates from the Portuguese to mean, “you might want to check it out yourself”.