Introduction

Here is an introduction to the major towns and cities of the Algarve, from East to West.

Albufeira

As a holiday destination, Albufeira appeals to people of all age groups. Retired couples feel just as at home here as teenagers and families with young children.

Albufeira is spread out rather than high-rise. The town itself consists of "old" and "new" sections which merge seamlessly into an extensive suburbia, spreading off back east along the coast to beaches at Balaia, Olhos d'Agua and Falesia, and west to São Rafael, Galé and the links golf course at Salgados. The whole area, greater Albufeira you could call it, is the largest tourist area in the Algarve, but people come here in droves and have the time of their lives.

Albufeira started out at least 2,000 years ago as a small, fortified town which the Romans called Baltrum. Eight centuries later the Moors renamed it Al-Buhera. The Moors turned it into a prosperous port trading with North Africa. The Knights of Santiago led the Christian re-conquest of the town in 1250, but without its trade links Albufeira fell upon hard times and they lasted for hundreds of years.

Some of the old charm is still there, and it is to be found in the labyrinth of narrow streets, lined with whitewashed houses, restaurants, cafes and shops, which lead down the hillside to a central square, Largo Eng. Duarte Pacheco. The square is a good place to sit and watch the world go by. Nearby, next to the tourist information office, a tunnel at the end of a pedestrian-only mall leads on to the town's main beach. In the evening hundreds of people enjoy live music every night during the summer.

Another section of this long beach is equally easily accessible from the streets leading off the other end of the square. There the beach is known as Fisherman's Beach and it's shared with sun-hardened men of the sea mending their nets.

"New" Albufeira, centred on Areias de São João, is on the east side. Its most famous thoroughfare is affectionately known as The Strip. It stretches from the Montechoro Hotel, past scores of cafes, restaurants and bars, all the way down to a big busy beach called Praia da Oura. The Strip and nearby streets are a hive of activity from mid-morning, well into the wee hours the night.

Almancil

Almancil is close to glamorous golf resorts and gorgeous beaches, but tucked away from the busier, coastal resorts. For this is a traditional village providing up market facilities. There are boutique style shops, quality fish restaurants and traditional Portuguese restaurants all wrapped around by fragrant pine forests. Standing proud in the heart of the village is Almancil's magnificent 18th century church. You will be particularly impressed with its easy access to the rest of the Algarve. To the south lie the top resorts of Quinta Do Lago and Vale Do Lobo, where summer holidays revolve around championship golf courses, alluring restaurants and challenging water sports on the perfect beaches.

Alvor

Alvor, situated on a river estuary, combines its reputation as a popular holiday resort with its tradition as a fishing village. The cobbled streets, filled with restaurants, bars and shops, meander through the village centre to the superb beaches. The fascinating towns of Portimão and Lagos are closeby and a short drive will take you into the lovely scenery and quaint villages of the Monchique hills.

Armação de Pêra

Armação de Pêra was originally a small fishing village where tuna used to be caught and brought up onto "Fisherman’s Beach"

The net that the fishermen used to catch the Tuna in was called "Armação" and as it is very close to "Pêra", the village was named Armaçao de Pêra.

The resort boasts one of the most beautiful beaches in the Algarve with pretty coves around the coastline and there are an excellent choice of Fish Restaurants, especially in the "Fisherman’s Beach" area of the town.

It is a great place for a relaxing holiday and has that certain something about it that you will really love.

The beach of Armação de Pêra is perfect for children as it is very calm and the slope is gradual, and in the daytime the Fishermen will take holidaymakers for a trip along the coastline where you can see the fascinating rock formations, caves and grottos.

Also in the area there is the tiny Romanesque Chapel of "Senhora da Rocha" (Our Lady of the Rocks) which is where fishermen used to pray before setting off for a nights fishing. This is apparently the area where there was a vision of the Virgin Mary.

The beaches that the Chapel overlooks are some of the prettiest in the Algarve and it is a wonderful place for taking photographs.

Boliqueime

Boliqueime makes the modern world seem far away, but all the holiday facilities you could ever want are still just down the road. Boliqueime reaches out from a central, cobbled square, its lanes sheltering tiny shops and lined with whitewashed houses. Here, you'll discover authentic bars where you can pull up a stool and order a glass of local wine, as well as those hearty, Portuguese restaurants that you'll only find where the locals live and work. Boliqueime makes it easy to enjoy those welcoming restaurants to the full, or shop for fresh vegetables and local produce at the local village markets. The Saturday morning market in Loulé is probably the best in the Algarve, with plenty of regional food and every type of local handicraft – lace, metalwork, pottery and more.

Boliqueime is situated within 10 minutes drive from Vilamoura, with its glamorous marina and boutique style shopping. Head southwest and you'll reach Albufeira, renowned for nightlife and restaurants aimed at every budget. And just a short drive to the south lies Praia de Falesia – with 5 kilometres of glorious sand.

Burgau

Burgau is a seaside village approximately 90km west of Faro Airport/ 10 minutes drive west of Lagos and close to Praia da Luz in the western Algarve. The village is popular with tourists from the British Isles and remains a fishing village where the locals fix their nets by the beach. The old village has narrow steep, cobbled lanes with traditional white-washed cottages leading down to the sheltered cove. The pace of life here is calm and relaxing and Burgau is on the edge of the natural Park that stretches west to "the end of the world". There are plenty of restaurants and bars where one can enjoy fresh fish and the relaxed, friendly atmosphere and if you would like to go shopping or out for the night Lagos is only a short bus trip away.

Carvoeiro

Praia do Carvoeiro is the place. Its name is nowadays usually simplified to Carvoeiro. Apart from its far-flung reputation, it has managed to keep a low profile, having spread sideways rather than upwards. Suburbs of good quality villas, many of them with private pools, have been built to the east and west of the village. There are a few good hotels in the vicinity, but essentially this is made up of holiday villas. It is very active in summer, but the villa shutters come down with the first signs of winter in early November and most of the neighbourhood goes into hibernation.

There is one notable area of continued activity throughout the winter and that is west of the village where the upmarket Carvoeiro Clube development maintains two excellent golf courses, the unique double nine-hole Quinta do Gramacho, and the pristine 18-hole Vale de Pinta.

Faro

Faro is not a resort town. It is an earnest Portuguese provincial capital. The airport, about 7km from the centre, is the closest most visitors get to it. This is a pity because it has a number of attractions.

Best of all is the old walled town with its quiet, cobbled streets and its 16th, 17th and 18th century buildings. To get there, follow the centro signs to the Praça D. Francisco Gomes next to the harbour. Here you will find the Manuel Bivar gardens, at the enclosed end of which, next to the Turismo, stands the imposing Vila do Arco. Go through the archway and you are immediately in the old quarter.

The small Cathedral in the centre of the Largo de Sé dates from the mid-13th century and was probably built on the site of a Moorish mosque. The fine old buildings on the perimeter of the square include an 18th century episcopal palace and the current town hall. The statue in the square is of Bishop Francisco Gomes, who co-ordinated the rebuilding of Faro after it was destroyed by the great earthquake of 1755.

A short walk away, but still within the walled town, is a smaller square with a grander statue. It is that of Dom Alfonso III, who conquered the last strongholds of the Moors in Portugal in the 13th century. He is standing in front of the former Convent of Nossa Senhora da Assunção, now Faro's Archaeological and Lapidary Museum full of fascinating artifacts from prehistoric to modern times.

Faro has two other museums. The Ethnological Museum gives an insight into the traditional lifestyles of the region. The Maritime Museum has lots of models, including Vasco da Gama's ship São Gabriel, and an elaborate tuna-catching trap.

The most lavishly adorned of Faro churches is that of Nossa Senhora do Carmo. It is also the spookiest. It has a bone chapel with the skeletal remains of 1,245 former monks. An inscription over the doorway translates to: "Stop here and think of the fate that will befall you."

Lagos

Lagos is the most historically interesting coastal town in the Algarve. Its fame derives from its association with Portugal's 14th-and 15th-century Age of Discovery. It was here that Henry the Navigator had his vessels built for the voyages of exploration down the coast of West Africa, which ultimately led to the sea route past the Cape of Good Hope to India.

The walls came tumbling down along with all the other buildings in Lagos with the great earthquake of 1755. Among those which were rebuilt and have since undergone renovation are the Church of Santa Maria with 16th-century traces, the 17th-century regimental storehouse next to it, and the stunning "golden" Church of Santo António which forms part of Lagos' rather eccentric museum.

Because of its bayside location and its proximity to lovely bathing beaches, it is a natural attraction for tourists. The latest major addition is the big yacht marina at the most sheltered end of the harbour. Dona Ana is the most popular family beach, but there are smaller sandy coves to be explored both closer and farther away from the town centre. The headland of Ponta da Piedada with its lighthouse is best viewed from the sea on a short boat trip. The clifftop is a good place to take a stroll with your camera and marvel at cliff erosion.

Lagos, with its relaxed atmosphere and quiet charm, make it one of the most appealing locations in the Algarve to visitors from abroad. The best places to sit and watch people go by are at the open-air cafés in Praça da República, next to the tourist information office. The best selection of restaurants is concentrated in the pedestrians-only Rua 25 de Abril.

Dona Ana is the most popular family beach, but there are smaller sandy coves to be explored both closer and farther away from the town centre. The headland of Ponta da Piedada with its lighthouse is best viewed from the sea on a short boat trip. The cliff top is a good place to take a stroll with your camera and marvel at cliff erosion.

Loulé

Loulé, 16km northwest of Faro along a good road, is a vibrant and typically Algarvean market town set in almond-covered foothills. It is an ancient town, but only remnants of its once Roman, later Moorish castle walls remain. The castle walls are in the central area which is best known among visitors for its craftsmen, its old-world charm and its keenness to party.

>As you stroll around the narrow, cobbled streets, you will come across dimly-lit workshops. Peer in through the gloom and you will find artisans beating copper, stitching leather or selling wrought-iron, cane furniture, basketwork or embroidered goods.

Visit Loulé at Carnaval time, usually February, and you won't see much gloom. The merrymaking doesn't quite rival that in Rio de Janeiro, but people from all over the Algarve converge on the town for a couple of days of float and fancy-dress parades, general high-spirits, youthful high jinks and sometimes unfunny practical jokes involving fireworks or paint. If you intend to attend, wear old clothes.

Carnival comes before Lent. A much more sober pageant is held annually at Easter. A heavy and elaborate image of the Virgin Mary, a version known as "Mãe Soberana" (the Sovereign Mother), is carried in procession from the hilltop Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Piedade, about 1km outside the town, to the Parish Church on Easter Sunday The return procession, a much bigger and more festive occasion, takes place two weeks later.

A handicrafts fair is held each August, but just about every morning, certainly on Saturdays, Loulé exudes a fair-like atmosphere in the Moorish-looking municipal market, built at the beginning of the century.

Olhao

The town of Olhao is essentially and historically linked to the local fishing industry and only grew into existence as a significant location in the 17th Century. The town lies on the coast reasonably close to Faro and at the end of the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve. Architecturally the town is well known for an older quarter where the flat terraced roofs and straight box-shaped chimneys show a definite Moorish flavour in their style. Another important curiosity to the visitor is the fish market held every day in a long building on the waterfront. Each morning there is a lively atmosphere and the impressively large variety of fish offered by the local catch is displayed to tempt the local housewife.

Olhos De Agua

If you want to get away from the overcrowded hustle and bustle of Albufeira and something more of the real Algarve than Vilamoura, but don't want to be far from either, then a holiday in Olhos d'Agua may well fit the bill. It is a popular fishing village located in-between the two. Most of the activity in Olhos d'Agua is on the main street, with this road running down to the hill to the beach, and the promenade, which is fringed by palms and a very pleasant stroll. Here you'll find a fair selection of bars and restaurants. While it can get quite busy in the summer months, compared with Albufeira, it is quiet resort, and out of season, very quiet indeed. Apart from the beach, bars and restaurants there is not a huge amount to do, it is best suited to families who want a relaxing beach holiday or as a base for exploring other areas in the Algarve. It is also a popular destination for Portuguese families, which is always a good sign.

Portimão

Portimão is the Algarve's second most important commercial town after Faro, and its second largest port after Olhão. It is a town of great antiquity but you wouldn't know it. The oldest building is its much modernised parish church. It contains 17th-and 18th-century tiles, but the only really old bit is the 14th century portal. Carthaginians, Romans and Moors lived and worked here.

Portimão today is really all about shopping and sardines. One of the best shopping streets is Rua do Comércio, a pedestrian mall which begins from the old market square near the parish church in the highest part of town. Beyond the far end of Rua do Comércio, acres of stalls are set up, as one of the Algarve's biggest and best roving markets hits town on the first Monday of each month. It is to be found down by the railway station.

The river, of course, is and always has been the town's life-blood. The fishing fleet ties up on the far bank, although much of its catch is brought over to Portimão's most popular open-air eating area. This is on the quayside by the old iron bridge. There are more restaurants, in converted boat houses, in the little square, just behind, serving a variety of seafood, from expensive tiger prawns to the cheapest of dishes, a plate of grilled sardines.

If you want to try catching your own fish on rod and line, the Portimão quayside is one of the main departure points in the Algarve for specially-equipped game boats. Various other types of craft tie up along the same waterfront with billboards offering sightseeing cruises along the coast, or up the river Arade to the historic town of Silves.

The Praça Teixeira Gomes, with its cafes next to the waterfront, is a local meeting place during the summer months. Nearby, a smaller square in front of the tourist information office, Lago 1 de Dezembro, is notable for its 19th-century tiled panels depicting 10 of the greatest events in Portuguese history.

Praia da Luz

Praia da Luz was originally a small Portuguese fishing village comprised of little white fisherman's cottages along the cobbled main road, leading to the village church and the side streets leading down to the beach. The recent pedestrianisation of the promenade along the beach and the introduction of a one way system have helped maintain the quiet traditional feel.

The "praia" (beach) is wide and sandy, curving around the bay and at its rear has a raised pedestrian promenade complete with benches and Palm trees. The beach is sheltered with gentle waves, ideal for a refreshing swim in the clean sandy bay. There are life guards and a coloured flag system indicating the swimming conditions. With little traffic Luz beach is in safe walking distance of much of the villa and apartments accommodation in Praia da Luz.

There are plenty of restaurants centrally located in Praia da Luz that offer up international dishes including Italian, Indian and a number of Portuguese restaurants. There are several small supermarkets including the Baptistas supermarket in town. However if you can make the Saturday morning market in Lagos you can stock up on a wide range of local fruit and vegetables including organic food and fresh eggs. Also be sure to visit the fresh fish market for the days catch.

Quinta do Lago

Synonymous with elegance and privacy, Quinta do Lago is an exclusive golf and residential estate of nearly 2,000 acres acres of lush, rolling countryside and pine forests bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Ria Formosa Natural Park. Part of an internationally recognized natural park, Quinta do Lago has centuries-old scented pine forests and fresh and seawater lakes as the setting for acres of lush fairways and manicured greens. It is a place of outstanding natural beauty. In this privilege location magnificent golf courses and majestic villas blend with the green umbrella pines and the tranquillity of its lakes. Quinta do Lago is just a short drive from Faro International Airport. Quinta do lago is adjoining Vale do Lobo.

Sagres

Sagres is the most south-westerly resort in the Algarve. It is still relatively untouched by tourism and is an attractive town of mainly low rise houses, lining the quiet streets. Because of its location people often expect a wind-swept barren landscape, but Sagres is a truly tranquil town with beautiful beaches, a picturesque harbour at Baleeira, a very pretty square, Praça da República, and stunning views. It is very popular in summer with visitors, but all year round with fishermen and surfers because of the western Atlantic waters creating such good waves for surfing.

São Brás de Alportel

Of the typically Algarvean villages in the broad radius around Loulé, the largest and one of the most beautifully situated on the almond-covered, south-facing slopes is São Brás de Alportel. The town is overlooked by one of the Algarve's two pousadas (the other being at Sagres). Below São Brás, Estói is famous for its Milreu Roman ruins and its curious 18th-century palácio. The centrepiece of the nearby village of Santa Bárbara de Nexe is its 15th-century Gothic church.

To the northwest, Paderne and Salir are ancient settlements with vestiges of their Moorish past. Each has castle ruins. Querença and the neighbouring Cerro dos Negros (402metres) have fine views. Barranco do Velho is the gateway to the remote, wholly undeveloped northeast section of the Algarve. Once you are up on the plateau in the vicinity of Cachopo and Martilongo, a wonderful wilderness of rounded hills rolls on and on eastwards to the quiet banks of the Guadiana River. Alcoutim, with its medieval fortress ruins, and other forgotten backwater villages are waiting to be rediscovered. Come here for a taste of the pre-tourist Algarve life, and incidentally some of the best country food and of course medronho.

Silves

Silves is at the heart of one of Portugal's best citrus growing areas. It also has factories processing cork. Although now an agricultural centre, its fascination for visitors is historical. The town's two most visible buildings, its red sandstone castle and the red and white cathedral next to it, are reminders that in medieval times this was the most strongly fortified and most strenuously fought over place in the Algarve.

The Romans had a secure settlement at Silves, but it was the Moors who built it into a fine, prosperous town with gleaming minarets and bazaars brimming over with merchandise. They called it Xelb and made it their regional capital. It was a place of peace and plenty in the 12th century. Then in 1189 Portuguese Christian forces, aided by thousands of English, German and Flemish Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land, attacked the town. They razed everything outside the town walls and lay siege to the castle.

The castle is open to the public, but its ghastly past is lost amid well-tended jacaranda trees, oleander shrubs and flowerbeds. Apart from bits of the walls, the only Moorish feature left in the castle is a well, originally Roman, 65-metres deep. Another Moorish well is the central feature of a small, modern museum in a side street not far from the castle.

The reconquest of Silves was celebrated by the building of a cathedral on the site of a mosque. Much restored and rebuilt over the years, it contains the tombs of some of the Crusaders who died there.

Vale do Lobo

Vale Do Lobo is a self-contained luxury leisure resort situated east down the coast from Quarteira. Vale Do Lobo means "Valley of the Wolves" - no wolves here though, just a luxuriously delightful landscaped Algarve resort set on the sand dunes. Nearby Golf Courses and ample tasteful resort facilities such as water sports, restaurants, bars and shops are here, combined with stunning sandy beaches. Vale Do Lobo is Quarteiras’ luxury sister suburb if you like - quiet, self contained low rise luxury.

Vale Do Lobo is perfect for luxury family golf holidays. It is luxury low rise accommodation here, specifically villas, with gorgeous sandy beaches with promenades lined with bars, restaurants. Not only are you based in a stunning Algarve beach base here, the sand dunes mingle with beautifully landscaped pines, green lawns and lakes. Someone has put a lot of thought into this resort's design! Its biggest draw however is its location near some of the best Algarve Golf Courses.

Royal Golf Course is situated directly on the cliff coast with stunning sea views. Designed by Golf Architect Rocky Roquemore this 18 hole/par 72 golf course is one of the most popular on the Algarve.

That's not all, golf fans. Ocean Golf Course is also in the Vale do Lobo area, again right on the coast adjacent to pine and eucalyptus trees. The fairways run right down to the beach at this stunning Algarve golf course. Both the Royal Golf Course and Ocean Golf Course are superbly equipped with clubhouse, golf academy, putting green, and golf shops all on-site. Both these golf courses are popular with professional golfers.

It is not just luxury golf courses on the menu in the Vale do Lobo area; you are in luxury spa and fitness territory, too. Plus championship tennis, lawn bowling and ample events and conference facilities are all available.

Vilamoura

The Vilamoura complex farther west is reputedly the biggest private holiday development in Portugal and perhaps the whole of Europe. Amid quality hotels and apartments, this is a holiday playground offering a large marina, a choice of three golf courses and a wide range of other sports facilities. The Roman gentry liked it here too. You can visit the site of a first-century nobleman's villa.

Outside of the individual complexes within the overall complex, the heart of the matter is really the beaches and marina. There are many restaurants and bars on or near the marina quayside.

Nearby, you can try your luck at the Vilamoura Casino. The cavernous casino restaurant features a nightly floor show. For film buffs there's a comfortable cinema with English-language films.