It’s one of those places you see pictures of, yet it feels more like a faraway fantastical idea than an actual place. Chunky, golden cliffs jut out into the sparkling sea. Steep, wooden stairs lead down to cream-colored sand. And just offshore, a colony of cobblestone alleyways wind up and down hills, flanked by boutiques, bars, restaurants. Tiny streets dump you off in buzzing squares where musicians play fado, children kick soccer balls and al fresco happy hours make for clumps of crowded tables outside unassuming store fronts. It’s the Algarve, and it’s very, very real.
I came to the Algarve because of my affection for European beach cities and what they have to offer: the fresh seafood, the salty air that hugs your hair and kisses your cheek, the passive attitude that relishes in the idea of a permanent holiday. Even the cats (a European beach city would be remiss without the sauntering of an ashy feline past your rickety table at sunset, rubbing gently on your calf in hopes of stealing a bite of your sardine).
There’s so much to see and feel here, and yet you can’t go wrong if you only threw yourself on a beach towel at the Atlantic’s edge every day and waltzed into town come evening. I chose to visit the towns of Portimão and Lagos, both known as dreamy beach hangs by day and electric nightlife destinations by night. Thirty minutes from one another, I suggest spending three days in each for a fulfilling Algarve experience.
Where to Eat:
Lagos: There is no shortage of restaurants serving seafood caught mere hours before your arrival at their table, including Adage Tipica A Forja. Then there’s Nah Nah Bah, which has garnered quite the reputation of having the best burgers in town. Mullen’s cave style setting is ideal for an intimate, cozy dinner of Portuguese classics like piri piri chicken.
Portimão: I’m a bit of a Michelin star junkie, so I must recommend the exquisite tasting menu at Vista Restaurante. You’ll find yourself clapping at each creation of Chef João Oliveira that’s perfectly presented before your eyes. The tasting menu requires your time and taste buds, so make no other plans. Slurp back some grilled sardines and other Portuguese classics in the cozy, local Zizá Restaurante.
Where to Stay:
Lagos: Check into Boutique Hotel Vivenda Miranda where all your dreams of utter peace and quiet come true — save for the chirping birds and whooshing wind fluttering through the trees. An intimate getaway overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, there are a mere 24 rooms here, making the experience feel like an indulgent retreat. Breakfast on the terrace may cause you to order another espresso if only to ogle at the vast view of the ocean for just a little longer.
Portimão: To feel like coastal royalty, check into Bela Vista Hotel & Spa. Built in 1934, the architecture boasts much of its original features, like intricate wall tiles and painted wooden ceilings that tell stories of discovery. Dangling above the cliff, the ocean views are endless.
Where to Play:
Lagos: If you’re a sun goddess, post up at Camilo Beach. Accessed by way of descending 200 wooden steps to the sand, the beach is a sheltered, sandy cove split by gargantuan rocks. Take the hand-dug tunnel to go from one slice of paradise to the other. Offshore the town dazzles no matter what time of day. Get lost in the alleys, ducking in and out of shops. History buffs will love exploring the maritime fort, Forte da Ponta da Bandeira, the marina’s museum documenting the Age of Discovery, and the Museu Municipal Dr José Formosinho covering the Neolithic period, through the Luso-Iberians, Romans and Moors to the Age of Discovery.
Portimão: Saunter along the wooden boardwalk for a bite and drink at one of the beach bars, then take yourself straight to the beach for a refreshing dip in the ocean. The funky town above is worth strolling through, but surely the most fun can be found at NoSoloÁgua Club. Equal parts pool party, beach club and dining, this three-part place has something for everyone. More culture can be found by exploring Museu de Portimão for local history within a restored 19th-century cannery. For mesmerizing azulejo tiles, check out the Gothic-style Nossa Senhora da Conceição church.