The best Algarve towns and resorts often follow a similar pattern – usually by a beach and combining historical charm with modern conveniences. However, covering the entire southern end of Portugal, the region still has a lot of variety to contend with. So how do you choose the destination that’s right for your kind of holiday?

    We’ve picked out the standout destinations in this famously delightful part of the world, with a choice that ranges from sleepy towns to bustling towns and from beach paradises to mountain escapes. Have a look through our list and you’ll find rural charm and seafront chic, ancient forts and modern marinas, tree-covered highlands and watery lowlands, and a lot more besides.

    1

    Faro

    The sleepy regional capital

    Faro is one of the largest and most charming coastal cities in the Algarve. Many people staying in the nearby towns of Albufeira and Vilamoura take at least a day trip to this town, proving its status as a must-visit destination on Portugal's south coast. Despite being the region’s capital, it has a chilled vibe and quieter beaches, especially the long sandy beaches on barrier islands in its lagoon.

    The heart of Faro contains an impressive selection of historical landmarks, including beautiful cathedrals, Roman villas and creepy chapels. The seas of the coast are home to equally striking sights, including memorable dolphin encounters. Overall, the city offers a great mix of natural and manmade attractions, offering both lively fun and peaceful beauty.

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    2

    Lagos

    The Algarve’s liveliest big city

    As with many of the best towns and resorts in the Algarve, Lagos expertly combines a rich past with a lively present and even a bright future. The more modern features include a great array of restaurants, bars and shops, especially along the town’s main street – Rua 25 de Abril. While Lagos might not be the administrative capital of the Algarve, it is the region’s most prominent town and arguably the liveliest.

    The older parts of Lagos are no less attractive. In particular, the walled Old Town and Forte da Ponte da Bandeira. Just across the harbour from the 17th-century fort, golden sands stretch off into the distance. Head in the other direction if you prefer the wild scenery of sheer cliffs and secluded bays.

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    3

    Portimão

    Surrounded by some of the Algarve’s best beaches

    Portimão is home to some of the finest beaches on the west coast of the Algarve. It also has a fascinating selection of historical attractions, the most prominent of these is the Santa Catarina fort. Built in the Medieval Age, the structure still dominates the shoreline to this day. Contrasting the martial majesty of the fort, the nearby Quinta da Abicada ruins date from Roman times and are best known for their beautiful mosaics.

    The seas off Portimão are as much of a pull as the area’s beaches, attracting international sailing and powerboat competitions. On land, you’ll find superbike racing and a popular beach soccer tournament. It certainly the sort of place where it’s hard to get bored!

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    4

    Albufeira

    It has everything

    Once a peaceful fishing village, Albufeira's beautiful coastline and family-friendly beaches have seen it transformed into a bustling beach resort. This southernmost point of the Algarve is lined with Blue Flag beaches, some within a surprisingly short distance of Albufeira's charming Old Town. Wander a little further afield and you'll find stunning clifftop views and striking sea stacks.

    About 3 km from the cobbled streets of the Old Town, Albufeira’s New Town is the place to go for all of the modern conveniences you would expect of a tourist destination. You’ll find a bouncing nightlife scene and plenty of great restaurants, as well as a great choice of hotels and resorts.

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    5

    Tavira

    The prettiest town in the Algarve

    While Tavira is away from the shore and the beautiful beaches that are arguably the Algarve’s greatest attraction, it manages to be one of the region’s real gems. The Old Town huddles around the 11th-century Castelo de Tavira, and you get a fantastic view from the castle walls. Downhill from there, you have beautiful churches dating from the 13th century and mansions from the 16th before you finally reach the two charming old bridges across the River Gilão.

    Tavira is a small town where the beauty of the historical details really is the star of the show. Be sure to check out the outstanding blue azulejo ceramic tiling and intricate gilded woodwork of the Igreja da Misericórdia de Tavira, and a walk down Rua da Liberdade – the town’s main street – is certainly worth your time. If you’re still hankering for a beach, the nearest is only a few km away.

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    6

    Vilamoura

    The Algarve’s own modern Monaco

    In contrast to many of the best towns and resorts in the Algarve, Vilamoura does not have much of a history. In fact, most of the town was only built from the 1980s onwards. It has a wide range of modern facilities, including 5 first-class golf courses, a casino, a luxurious marina complex and plenty of outstanding hotels. And stunning beaches, of course – especially the beautiful Praia da Falésia.

    Expect an atmosphere of glamour and chic when visiting Vilamoura. You’ll find the best in fine dining around the marina, with a buzzing nightlife nearby.

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    7

    Aljezur

    Old and new separated by a stream

    Aljezur is a charming little market town that just happens to be a short drive from some really outstanding beaches. Located in a verdant valley near Portugal’s Atlantic coast, the skyline is dominated by the ruins of a 10th-century Moorish castle. The steep and rough track leading down from the hilltop fortification becomes narrow cobbled streets between whitewashed houses, with the occasional museum or historical church among them.

    To the east, on the other side of a narrow stream, is the New Town where straight paved roads are lined with modern buildings. Head west if you want to find attractive beaches backed by sheer cliffs. The best among them is Arrifana Beach, though Monte Clérigo and Carrapateira are also worth checking out.

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    8

    Sagres

    A romantically remote surfer’s paradise

    What Sagres lacks in the typical tourist facilities like hotels, restaurants and nightlife, it more than makes up for with its remote and romantic atmosphere. The little town is right on the southwestern corner of Portugal, with the clifftop lighthouse and nearby fortress feeling like they’re right at the edge of the world. The Fortaleza de Sagres is almost certainly the town’s star attraction, offering outstanding views of the rocky shoreline it defends.

    The remoteness of Sagres creates a charming local feel, with little fishing boats bobbing around in the harbour and relaxed local bars around the town’s main square – Praça da República. If you’re looking for beaches, you’ll find Mareta and Tonel to be among the area’s best and most peaceful. Some of the wilder parts of the shore are very popular with surfers.

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    9

    Loulé

    A cultural hub in the mountains

    Loulé is a great destination for holidaymakers who consider culture to be more important than great beaches. Located up in the mountains well away from the shore, the town is a hub for local farmers, who bring their produce to sell at the big Saturday market. Alongside the fresh produce, you’ll also find a great array of leather, lace and even copper goods, as well as some charming street cafés.

    Loulé certainly doesn’t lack for history, either. While the medieval castle is in a pretty poor state (though still worth visiting for its interesting museum), the city’s old churches are in excellent condition. The 13th-century Igreja Matriz may be the star of the show with its fantastic azulejo tiling, but you should also check out the Convento da Graça and the Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Conceição.

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    photo by Emelha (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    10

    Vila Real de Santo António

    Lisbon-like grandeur in the Algarve

    Vila Real de Santo António is a charming town in a fantastic part of Portugal, right on the border with Spain. Lining one side of the Rio Guadiana, the town has a peaceful atmosphere that seems to contrast its grand look. With a dramatic central plaza and Pombaline architecture throughout, Vila Real de Santo António is more akin to Lisbon than Lagos or any of the other towns and resorts in the Algarve.

    To the south of Vila Real de Santo António, you’ll find pine forests and, on the other side of them, outstanding Mediterranean beaches. The small town of Monte Gordo is a short drive west and is also worth considering, especially if you want to stay right on the shore. Just to the north of Vila Real de Santo António is a large area of wild wetlands around the historically significant town of Castro Marim.

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    11

    Monchique

    A natural retreat in the mountains

    Monchique is one of the best towns and resorts in the Algarve for those who love to be in nature. The little mountain town is surrounded by dense forests of pine, oak and eucalyptus trees that are fantastic for hiking and cycling around. It’s worth noting that the dry summers often bring bush fires that leave large areas of the surrounding countryside bald and brown, but the greenery regrows very quickly.

    The town itself is irrepressibly charming, with narrow cobbled streets of whitewashed houses leading towards landmarks like the 16th-century Igreja Matriz church and the ruins of a 17th-century Franciscan monastery. Being a market town, Monchique is best visited on the second Monday of the month, when the central square of Largo 5 de Outubro is abuzz with traditional local food and wares. Come in July to enjoy a festival dedicated to the local smoked ham.

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    12

    Armação de Pêra

    A comfortable and convenient beach resort

    Armação de Pêra has just enough history to have that iconic Algarve charm while mostly being a modern beach resort destination. The historical links to the town’s past as a sleepy fishing village include a 16th-century fort, a cute chapel and boats pulled up onto the beach – it's one of the few places left in the area where this happens as the town has no harbour.

    Modern attractions in Armação de Pêra include a good choice of hotels, restaurants and cafés. There's also plenty of excellent food shops if you’re self-catering during your holiday. The beaches are particularly pleasant, though they are backed mostly by high-rise hotels and apartments, so don't expect too much of the Algarve's classic natural scenery. If you're looking for a place to have an easy and relaxing beach holiday, though, Armação de Pêra is for you.

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    Ben Reeves | Compulsive Traveller

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