I was born in sunny Algarve. Therefore, I have a special bond to this place. However, when we used to visit my family in summer, we spent most of the time visiting family members and driving back and forth from Algarve to Alentejo (my father is from Alentejo). Little time did we spend by the beach. So besides knowing my family, I only knew the beach. We visited the beaches on the west and east side. Both very different from each other. I remember driving through Vale do Lobo and seeing all the big villas an golf resorts. Basically, I had the same image of Algarve as most of the tourists have or had.
Later on, when traveling by myself in Portugal, I discovered a different side of Algarve, far far away from all big resorts. So it makes me sad to hear people say: oh I love Portugal but Algarve not so much. It's too touristy and there're only beaches. That's not true. Sure, in July/August you'll have crowded beaches. So just avoid that time. But the year has 10 more months and Algarve has so much more to offer than dreamy beaches (yes, they are pretty beautiful).
This year, I wanted to proof my point and decided to spend some winter time in Algarve. My husband couldn't picture Portugal in winter and he got very surprised. It looks like spring. Green carpets with little white flowers everywhere, perfect 19 to 21 degrees and lots of sunshine. You can sit outside for lunch and even enjoy an ice cream. There are many possibilities to enjoy nature, cute little towns to discover and empty beaches for afternoon naps. Algarve in winter is the perfect place to relax and slow down life. In this post, I'd like to share with you some of my favorite things to do when in East Algarve in winter. Stay tuned for the next post about West Algarve soon!
10 Things to do
East Algarve has always been more laid back. Specially Portuguese families love to spend their holidays there. The beaches are wide and calmer. Everything is more down to earth. Today, tourists mostly know Tavira, Cacela Velha and Olhão. All these beautiful towns are by the sea in the nature reserve of Ria Formosa. But there are also other places on the countryside worth a visit.
This diversity of ecosystems attracts a varied fauna that includes numerous species of birds. If you want to experience nature at a slow paste and with almost no one around, visit in winter and fall. Ria Formosa stretches 60 km along the Algarve coast, between the beaches of Manta Rota and Garrão. You can do a walk, bicycle ride or go on a canoe trip on the water. No matter which way you choose, it will be worth it. If you're staying at Casa Modesta, you can take a bike there for free and enjoy the area.
Ria Formosa Natural Park in Olhão
This is a really little but cute village by Ria Formosa. I always like to visit and walk on the beach. Depending on high and low tide, you can walk quite far. On a sunny winter day you can take off your shoes and enjoy the sand and refreshing water between your toes.
Nobody goes to Castro Marim, what a pitty. It's cute and authentic town with a castle from where you can overlook the region and see the border to Spain. It's worth a visit. Last time we sat in a café after the visit in the castle and simply enjoyed the sun in our faces. You can also combine the visit with Vila Real de Santo António. There's a monthly flea market.
Cabanas de Tavira (and beach)
Also a place many people skip. But it's one of my favorite places to enjoy the sunset in the evening and I love the beach too. Make sure you pass by this town when on your way to Tavira.
Ok, we mostly go there, because Mike loves to ride the train (ha!). I would walk to the beach but well, there's things you just do for your man. If you have kids, they might also enjoy the ride. During the warmer season you can eat in the restaurant by the beach à la carte. In winter they have a winter menu. If you love fish, it's worth having lunch there and take a walk by the beach afterwords (or simply read a book). Are you a big fan of octopus, well then you should go to the fishermen's town Santa Luzia just nearby (for example at Polvo & Companhia Restaurante).
Restaurant at Praia do Barril
Santa Luzia: How the fishermen catch the octopus.
Tavira is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Is bigger than all the towns around. Last time we were there, we just walked around and specially enjoyed dinner at Aquasul. The Camera Obscura is also worth a visit.
São Brás de Alportel
This very authentic town is nearby where my parents live. Its small but charming old town is the perfect relaxing sight seeing for a late afternoon. By the church, you'll have a wonderful view while the sun is going down. We had an afternoon sweet snack in a café with only Portuguese people. In São Brás do Alportel you'll be among locals and it's so much fun to watch and listen to the old ladies talking about their lives (ok, only if you understand Portuguese). There's also a secret spot worth a visit: Museu do Traje (Costume Museum).
Olive Oil tasting at Monterosa
I already wrote about my experience at Monterosa. But it's worth mentioning again. You sometimes forget that you can also taste olive oil and at Monterosa you'll get a very interesting tasting on a beautiful site.
Olhão and Islands
Olhão is a very well known fishermen's town. It's also where you can take a boat to all the small islands around (also possible from Faro).
Take a day to do some island hoping (my favorite is Ilha Deserta - nothing there just a restaurant) and enjoy a late afternoon stroll through Olhão. If you are staying in a place where you can cook yourself, make sure to buy your fish at the Olhão market in the morning. There's also a very typical Portuguese restaurant that we recommend: O Horta.
Actually, Faro is more in the middle of Algarve, not really eastern. However, we always enjoy to walk through the old town. At Rua de Santo António (main street) in the "new" part of the city, memories of my childhood come up. You have that seductive smell of freshly baked croissants from the Gardy bakery. Normally, we take a seat outside, drink a café (espresso) for 80 cents and enjoy a croissant.
Ria Formosa in Faro