Holidays don’t get more blissful than the Algarve – Portugal’s southern region feels like it was willed into existence by the chill, surf-loving gods of beach holidays. Seriously, who could resist its scalloped bays and pot-of-gold-pretty shores? Not the flocks of travellers who visit its many resort towns that line its coast each year – and, with such a thriving tourism scene, the choices of where to bed down are endless. So how do you get your Albufeiras straight from your Vilamouras? You read our guide to the best bits of the Algarve, and proceed accordingly.

The crowd-pleasing one: Albufeira

The crowd-pleasing one: Albufeira
You can still spot Albufeira's Moorish influence in its architecture / Image: Adobe Stock

What: The king of the Algarve’s big-name resort towns.

Why: It was once a slightly somnambulant fishing village, but tourism has exploded in Albufeira in recent years, transforming it into one of the best beachy destinations in Europe. The whitewashed village is shooting distance from all those dreamy, sandstone-shaded coves that you’ve likely seen photos of – but pagefuls of pixels can’t do the jade-coloured waters of Praia de Coelha or the honey sweeps of Praia de São Rafael justice. 

Must do: After you’ve lowered your blood pressure with an afternoon of beach-lolling, bring things up 20 notches with a visit to the ‘Strip’ – a legendary stretch of bars and clubs at the centre of town that make Ibiza look tame. But if you want to avoid the party-hardy scene entirely, that’s no problem – the more subdued but still lively drinking holes of the Old Town are guaranteed fun.

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The beachy one: Lagos

The beachy one: Lagos
Lagos' golden coves are iconic / Image: Adobe Stock

What: The best base in the Algarve for a strictly beach break.

Why: If your hope for your holiday is to flop down in a deckchair and only become vertical five-to-seven days later, Lagos is the one. This pretty, typically Algarvian town can lay claim to having one of the longest stretches of sand in Portugal, plus excellent access to many dream-making beaches in the area – like hidden-away Praia do Pinhão or golden-cove stunner Praia do Camilo.

Must do: Even hardcore beachers need a tanning TO sometimes – when you need to stretch your legs, drift over to the town’s pleasantly chaotic central fish market, where you can haggle for that day’s best catch or pick up a few handmade souvenirs.

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The historic one: Alvor

The historic one: Alvor
Don't miss the 16th-century Matriz de Alvor / Image: Adobe Stock

What: An erstwhile fishing village with a storied history.

Why: It may look like a slow, slinky seaside village on the surface, but Alvor’s past is supercharged with dramatic periods of occupation and turbulence. If you want to get to grips with its tumultuous history, pay a visit to the ruins of the medieval castle and the 16th-century church in the middle of town, which both tell tales of regional superpowers (the Romans, the Moors, et al) wrestling for control of this strategically placed port town.

Must do: Ornithophiles will love a stroll along the famous boardwalk, where you can spot all kinds of bushy-tailed birds taking a breather on long-haul migrations. Start at the little harbour, and then follow the promenade through the lagoon-dotted wetlands, where our flighty friends like to hang out.

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The sophisticated one: Faro

The sophisticated one: Faro
Faro's old town is the prettiest in the region / Image: Adobe Stock

What: The criminally overlooked Algarvian capital.

Why: Though most travellers will simply pass through Faro on their way to flashier resort towns, we recommend giving it a proper go for its flower-studded old town, cobbled plazas and cracking food scene. It’s the closest you’ll get to big-city splash in the Algarve, only a hop-skip from some of the best beaches in the world and blessed with endless sun. 

Must do: You’ll find a few specks of land just off Faro’s coast that exude major desert-island vibes, and which also happen to have some of the dreamiest beaches in the region. The nearly-unspoiled Ilha Deserta is free of any permanent residents, and has over four miles of feather-soft, milky shore – excellent return on investment for a €5 ferry. 

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The glamorous one: Vilamoura

The glamorous one: Vilamoura
Live the yacht life in Vilamoura / Image: Adobe Stock

What: A magnet for Portugal’s jetset.

Why: The Algarve may be chocka with glitzy seaside towns, but Vilamoura leads them all in A-list draws. This is where Portugal’s rich and famous go to take swings at one of the town’s many golf clubs, sink bottles of the Algarve’s finest at harbourside wine bars, and scour the upscale boutiques for designer wares. Follow their lead – this is the the region's chicest slice. 

Must do: In the eves, the marina is where it’s at for excellent people watching and spirited bar hopping. Grab a coveted seat on the sunny terrace attached to the Tivoli Marina hotel, where you can watch the sun set behind the bobbing boats as you sip something tall and boozy.

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The wild one: Tavira

The wild one: Tavira
Tavira's long, sandy shore protects its salt pans / Image: © Algarve Tourism Bureau

What: A back-to-nature escape.

Why: Straddling the Gilão River and fringed by a nature reserve, this historic port town is made extra special thanks to nature’s handiwork. To the east, you’ll find a hypnotising expanse of pans that have traditionally been the Algarve’s salt-production centre, while the long, sandy beach that traces the town’s southern edge attracts all sorts of wading birds to its alabaster shore. But the town also bears proof of some pretty spectacular human exploits – most notably, the remnants of a medieval fortress that guarded Algarve against North African raiders and pirates. 

Must do: In the wetlands that ring Tavira, you’ll find the Ria Formosa Natural Reserve – home to an impressive array of migrating birds, plus some who like to stay put, like the electric-pink flamingos who live here year round. 

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The family-friendly one: Carvoeira

The family-friendly one: Carvoeira
Kayak to your heart's content at Praia de Benagil / Image: Adobe Stock

What: A holiday the whole clan will love.

Why: Though it may be compact in size, Carovoeira really delivers on family fun: there’s watersports galore at the Praia do Carvoeiro and Praia de Benagil, scuba diving centres dotted around town, and enough water and theme parks to keep kids entertained for weeks on end (try Slide & Splash just outside town). Plus, Carvoeira’s dead-centre position on the Algarve’s coastline means you have your pick of beautiful, quiet beaches for a bit of downtime. 

Must do: Summer in the Algarve attracts hundreds of dolphins to the warm waters, and boats that depart from Ferragudo and Portimao (both not far from Carvoeira) are manned by aquatic-mammal-whispering tour guides who are adept at spotting everyone’s favourite finned friends. 

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