British, German, and French tourists have long made the Algarve their destination of choice in Portugal. Spanning 2,000 miles along the country’s southern coast, the Algarve offers expansive beaches, dramatic natural scenery, and glimpses of the nation’s Arab and Moorish history in architecture and design.
Now, Americans are flocking to this picturesque pocket of Portugal, lured by a strong dollar and easy connections from the U.S. Albufeira is the area’s largest resort town, and its party-hearty reputation can overshadow the charms of cobblestoned streets and centuries-old churches. But June’s debut of the W Algarve hotel—the Marriott International brand’s first Portugal property—is both upping the Algarve’s luxury game and luring well-heeled visitors who might have skipped southern Portugal in favor of well-trodden destinations like Lisbon or Porto.
The region’s economy depends on tourism; with just 440,000 inhabitants, the Algarve attracted nearly 2.75 million visitors last year. As a result, it’s exceptionally welcoming. Nearly every service professional speaks English, with most signs and menus offering your language of choice. Postcard-perfect villages like Lagos, Silves, and Portimão all sit within 30-minute drives of each other. Golfing, vineyards, and beachside restaurants are close to main cities.
And while the Algarve used to swell with visitors in summer and calm down in fall and winter, tourists are now descending all year long, taking advantage of the region’s temperate climate and expanded offerings.
EAT AND DRINK
To put it politely, many dining establishments here capitalize on picturesque locations rather than imaginative menus. With that in mind, it’s still possible to dine very well.
A branch of the venerable Milan brand Paper Moon has opened atop the W Algarve, offering 360-degree views along with mostly Portuguese wines, solid pastas like tagliatelle alla Bolognese and expertly rendered pizzas, such as speck and zucchini .
A centuries-old olive tree anchors the bright dining courtyard at Esquina, the eatery at Estombar’s hip Quinta dos Santos vineyard and craft brewery. Pair your house Tesoura Amphora white wine with creamy strawberry gazpacho and bulbous grilled tiger prawns with black rice. For a beachfront lunch where food actually matches the view, Albufeira’s Castelo Beach Club slings breezy classics like tart whitefish ceviche and octopus cataplana stew with sweet potatoes, an Algarvean specialty.
Casual, cheap, and cheerful, Albufeira Gourmet Churrasqueira specializes in rump steak and spicy Portuguese piri-piri chicken. It gets jammed with locals and tourists, so pack your patience.
Hong Kong’s AB Architects designed the eye-popping new W Algarve with sly, sleek nods to Algarve’s Arab roots and nautical heritage. Beyond the grand, swooping entrance, the hotel’s public areas slyly reference underwater caves, Moorish rooflines, Portuguese pottery, and even sardines. It’s all done with a wink, but the property’s serious about service, and finally brings unstuffy luxury to an area whose hotels still equate opulence with chandeliers. Get a pool-facing guestroom for magical nighttime views of a dramatically lit courtyard.
More traditional and just as coddling, Almancil’s 154-room Conrad Algarve caters to golfers and families; there a lot of marble, muted blues-and-beige guestrooms, and what some consider the region’s most indulgent spa. A golf concierge gets guests access to the celeb-endorsed Quinta di Lago golf resort, a mile and a half south.
Overlooking the ocean from 54 clifftop acres, the 180-room Vila Vita Parc in Porches may offer the Algarve’s most scenic location, along with a Sisley Paris spa, Michelin-starred seafood eatery Ocean, and three beachfront restaurants. Founded by a German insurance magnate, the property carries a distinct Euro vibe, with a sleekly dressed clientele to match.
All beaches in the region are public, so it’s a matter of choosing whichever is closest or most scenic. Favorites include cliffside Praia de Falesia, which stretches four miles from Albufeira to Vilamoura; Praia dos Salgados, about seven miles west of Albufeira, where you might spot flamingos or migratory birds; and tiny Praia dos Arrifes beach in Albufeira, where giant rock formations jut from the water.
The port city of Portimão, 22 miles west of Albufeira, depended on fishing and trade for centuries; it’s now a visitor favorite for its dramatic cliffs, cobblestoned seaside paths, and winding streets. Skip the touristy bars and restaurants of the Praia de Rocha quarter and explore Portimão’s residential neighborhoods, with their own constellation of shops and restaurants, like seafood emporium Café Brasil.
Silves is a mostly residential town about 20 miles northwest of Albufeira. It draws tourists from around the world for its hulking, sandstone medieval castle. Built in the 12th century by Moorish rulers and restored in the 20th, it offers panoramic views of the city and pastoral landscapes beyond. In the shadow of the castle walls, Café Ingles gets crowded with visitors, but makes a terrific stop for post-sightseeing coffee and live music.
You’ll pass touristy ceramics stores all over the Algarve, but insiders know Porches Pottery, in the town of Porches, as the best. Founded in 1968 by an Irish émigré and his Portuguese partner, it’s still family-run; artisans paint hand-thrown vessels in the sprawling workshop as you watch. A small bowl for about US$20 with delicate flourishes in blue, yellow, and pink makes a great souvenir.
The writer was a guest of Marriott International.