So you’re in the Algarve region of Portugal for just one day, and you want to take in as much as you can.
No problem. Local touring companies offer amazing options for folks who want to pack in as much as they can in one quick trip. The best way to source the perfect tour is to simply ask at the reception desk at your hotel. Prior to my trip to the Algarve, I was so overwhelmed by the variety of tours offered in the area that I didn’t book anything.
Immediately upon arrival at the Sol e Mar Hotel in Albufeira, my home base for the next three days, I asked the woman who checked me in what she would do if she only had one day. She didn’t even need a minute to think about her response—she quickly pulled out a brochure and told me her favorite tour. She then proceeded to call the tour company directly and had me booked in no time flat.
Pro tip: You will need to pay your hotel for the tour, and the payment will need to be in cash. Make sure you have a few extra Euros handy to cover the costs. Also, you can purchase tours from street vendors—they may even be a few dollars cheaper. But if you purchase through your hotel, you can rest assured your tickets will be valid. When possible, I like to prebook my tours in advance. There are a lot of online companies that offer a wide selection of tours with local companies.
Over the course of about 10 hours, the Historical Algarve Tour takes you on a whirlwind adventure through several small town and scenic sites. It’s the perfect way to get a glimpse of some of the most popular attractions. Here’s what to expect.
Your hotel will have a designated meeting time and spot for the tour. You’ll be picked up promptly at this location and taken to another spot to meet with a larger motorcoach. But your journey hasn’t started just yet…first, you need to journey to one more location, where you may need to transfer to another bus, depending on the tour you are taking. This may sound like a lot of work, but it all goes very quickly and smoothly. My pickup time was 8:30 a.m., and by 9 a.m. I was happily en route to my adventure.
The first stop is a traditional Portuguese town called Silves. After parking along a main road, your guide will take you on a brief walk through the narrow, winding streets. A steep climb up the cobbled roads brings you to Silves Cathedral. It will cost you 1 Euro to take a look inside this Gothic gem—a steal by today’s standards. Afterward, a short walk brings you to Silves Castle, where, for just 3 Euros, you can get breathtaking views of the city from the sides of its towering walls. Though the castle is the best-preserved in the country, aside from the exterior walls, there is little else to see, unless you fancy a refreshment or two from the adorable cafe in the center of the castle ruins.
You’ll have about an hour to spend in Silves. It’s not a ton of time, but it will give you a taste of this charming community. If you’re fast, you can take in both the castle and cathedral and still have time to roam one or two of the bustling side streets off the main road before returning to your bus. The shops don’t have a ton to offer tourists, but it’s a great way to peek inside the lives of the locals, even if only for a few minutes.
Once you’re safely strapped back into your comfortable seat, your bus will make its way through the winding mountains toward the tiny hilltop town of Monchique. You’ll pass through ancient towns, fields of fruit and nut trees, and rolling hills. The sights and stories are truly like something out of a fairy tale. Though you won’t have a chance to exit the vehicle in Monchique, you will get to see the quaint cityscape before riding on to Foia, the highest point in the Algarve.
Unfortunately, when I visited Foia, it was very foggy and overcast, so I can’t tell you much about what you should see from the top, but I’m told that the view is spectacular. There is a little shop selling souvenirs, including hand-painted tiles, cork purses and shoes, pottery, wool sweaters, and trinkets. But the main event is the tasting of a local liqueur. The line will be long, and you’ll feel a little like cattle as you’re shepherded through the narrow aisles of the shop to sample the special treat.
You’ll have about a half hour to spend at this stop. There are public toilets available to use free of charge, and there is a small cafe where you can grab a quick bite to eat. If you have a few extra minutes to spare, consider spending them outdoors. One of the other travelers on my tour told me it was good luck to pile three rocks on top of each other at the top of Foia. So I did just that. They were the tiniest rocks in the world, but I don’t think that has any impact on the outcome.
By this time, you’ll likely be feeling tiny hunger pains in the pit of your stomach. Fear not—your coach will make a stop at a family-run restaurant for a hearty meal. But beware…there is a preset menu and the cost of the meal is not included in the price of your tour. For 13 Euros, you’ll get your choice of beef, pork, chicken, or fish prepared in a traditional way.
Your tour operator will come around the bus and ask your preference as you make your way to the restaurant so that the meal will be ready when you arrive. In addition to the main course, your table will be set with lettuce and tomatoes, wine, juice, and bread. I had the fish, which was breaded and served with lemon and tartar. I’m not sure what kind of fish it was—I hadn’t heard of it before, and the texture was…odd. So I chocked it up as an experience. For dessert, you’ll be served traditional sweets made from almond paste, as well as a cup of espresso. The sweet treat was delightful.
I was traveling alone, and I enjoyed my meal with three other women who were also traveling solo. We laughed and shared stories of our travels—it was a highlight of the day for me. The time passed quickly, though I am sure we were there for at least an hour. Before we knew it, the restaurateur had come around to collect our payment, and we were on our way again.
Pro tip: It’s a good idea to carry a bit of cash on this tour to cover all of the unexpected extras. About 20 or 30 Euros should do the trick.
Originally, I thought about opting out of the meal but then realized there may not be another opportunity to eat on the trip, and I was right. If you don’t plan to eat at the restaurant, be sure to pack a few snacks in your bag or pick something up that you can take with you at one of the other stops. And keep in mind, there is nothing else to do at the restaurant site. It’s a little shop in the middle of nowhere, so there isn’t much else you can do while the rest of your group eats.
Following your traditional Portuguese dining experience, you’ll make your way to Sagres, Cape St. Vincent, which is the southernmost point in Europe. Here, you’ll have about 30 minutes to walk out among the rocks overlooking the sea. If you’re daring enough, you can even sit with your legs dangling over the edge of the rocky cliffs. I kept a good distance from the ledge, but many of my fellow travelers climbed across the rocks to get a closeup glimpse of the rough seas below. Here, at the end of the world, you’ll also have a chance to visit the strongest lighthouse in Europe, Baleeira. It makes a beautiful backdrop for your already amazing photos of the area.
Just when you think the tour must be coming to a close, you make your way to one last stop: Lagos. And you’ll have about an hour and a half to spend walking through its winding streets. By now, the sun will be low in the sky, but the streets will be alive with the hustle and bustle of busy people. From the picturesque marina to the bountiful boutiques, there’s plenty to see and do in Lagos. In fact, the next time I visit Algarve, I’ll make it my home base.
The main sites to visit here include the fort, St. Anthony’s Golden Church, and the former slave market, which is now a museum. In the time I had, I managed to walk several streets, visit the church, and spend some of my hard-earned cash in the local shops. It was one of the most eventful stops of the day. By the time our visit in Lagos was over, night had fallen, and it was time to return to Albufeira.
The coach dropped me off at the same place it had picked me up that morning, which was just a short walk from my hotel. It was after 7 p.m., and most of the shops had shut their doors for the night, including the 7/11 where I had hoped to pick up a midnight snack. I roamed the quiet streets of the Old Town for a while before settling in at Urban Pizza, a popular restaurant that is always buzzing with activity. As the rain drizzled down outside, I sat next to a warm propane heater while enjoying a fungi pizza. It was a wonderful way to wrap up an amazing day.
Finally, about 12 hours after I left my hotel, I returned for a good night’s rest. It was a packed day, and I felt like I had experienced so much of the best parts of the Algarve.
Have you been to the Algarve? What was your favorite part? Share your experience in the comments below.