The Algarve, Portugal

Tavira beach, the Algarve, Portugal

Algarve beaches: a typically huge, sand-island beach on the eastern coast, Ilha de Tavira, out of season.

Why visit  the Algarve?

The Algarve is Portugal’s primary beach zone. It’s on the country’s south coast where the weather is more consistently sunny, the water is calmer and general facilities are tourist oriented. However, the sea waters are still chilly compared to the Mediterranean – due to the adjacent Atlantic Ocean  – and sometimes choppy too.

Surfers mostly head for Portugal’s west coast, serious windsurfers too, as the Atlantic on Portugal’s west coast  offers consistent wind and good waves – sometimes great waves – even if the sea is really cold.

Algarve downsides

The Algarve region is Portugal’s number one tourist destination but sadly lacking in natural beauty inland – or perhaps we should say unspoilt natural beauty. Once away from the shore the region’s landscapes and architecture range from disappointingly bland to appallingly shoddy and unnattractive.

Apart from the appealingly bleak coast, uncrowded beaches and cute fishing villages in the southwest – such as Olhao, Fuzeta and Sagres, and the far east section along the Guadiana River – most of the Algarve is a messy, residential wasteland with scattered, unattractive over-development, with blocky new houses and apartments replacing the pretty, tiled, dear departed old villas.

Even the reputedly scenic Monchique area is a dull series of low pine-clad hills bisected by heavy traffic. Lake District or Alps this is not. Not even close.

That being said most sun-starved north Europeans are primarily interested in the Algarve’s beaches, which are generally big, soft, clean and well serviced, while the weather is the best in Portugal. And if you need vernacular style and a little culture with your sand and sun, head for Lagos or Tavira.

There is something else tourists need to be aware of, at least those who are swimming ‘off piste’ – Dangerous Rip currents.

Tavira Beach Holidays

Tavira beach parasols out of season, Algarve, Portugal

The 14km long island beach of Ilha de Tavira, an island near to the town offers all you might need in the way of shelter, food and drink.

the ferry to Ilha de Tavira, Algarve, Portugal

The island behind the ferry is Ilha de Tavira. The massive stretch of beach lurks on the other side of the vegetation.

Tavira is a calm, pleasant little river city in the far eastern Algarve region, a place of ancient bridges, terracotta tiles, 16th century mansions, many churches (naturally, this is Portugal), fishing boats and bars. Even though Tavira was ruled by Arabs from the 8th to the 13th centuries there are no major architectural sights here – the castle remains, for example, hardly merit more than 15 minutes and a (probably) Roman bridge.


Tavira’s ‘maybe’ Roman Bridge.

The town has an affluent history so there is a good collection of grand and attractive private buildings along cobbled streets, while the 16th century Igreja da Misericórdia is one of the finest churches in Tavira, with blue and white azulejos tiling and magnificent stone carvings.

The vast beach and camp site on Tavira Island (Ilha de Tavira) involves 2km of road transport, then 100m of water on regular, low-cost ferries. There are plenty of cafés and water sports facilities on the island during the summer months.

Tourism here is restrained and mostly not of the package kind so Tavira is an excellent choice for those who fancy roasting on a beach during the day but having a mildly ethnic environment in the evening.

Faro Beach Holidays

OK stretches of sand on the mainland too, not far from Tavira, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Faro’s lengthy strand of home beach.

Portugal’s best beaches all the way from Faro to Tavira in the eastern Algarve are basically huge sandbanks that you need a short ferry ride to access, with the exception of this one, Praia de Faro, which has a small bridge to aid access for sand snugglers and the wealthy few who actually live on the sandbank.

The trouble with Praia de Faro (the main beach) is it’s out by the airport which is quite an inconvenient dstance from Faro’s tourist centre around the Cidade Velha, unless you have a hire car. But once you get there the sand is soft and it’s very spacious. In season (summertime) the Desert island is a good alternative.

Desert Island, Ilha Deserta, Faro, Algarve, Portugal

Alternatively take a ferry trip out to the Desert Island, Ilha Deserta, just a few minutes offshore. Photo by Animaris.

Faro old town, Algarve, Portugal

The outskirts of Faro are a mass of new apartment blocks but the old town has managed to preserve a lot of charm. Photo by Husond.

Faro town

Faro bone chapel, Algarve, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos – constructed out of the bones of 1, 000 monks – in Nossa Senhora do Carmo.

Although many direct foreign flights head for Faro this is not a great tourist destination. The little old town is pleasant enough with the usual Moorish walls, churches and charming mansions, while the bone room (Capela dos Ossos) – constructed out of the bones of 1, 000 monks – in Nossa Senhora do Carmo is fascinating and inspires much mortal contemplation.

Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo, Faro, Algarve, Portugal

Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo. Photo by Massimo Catarinella.

By the way, if you feel we are being a little negative about some beach holidays it’s because we believe Portugal offers awesome sights inland, and that means Lisbon and north. By all means spend time getting wrecked on Algrave beaches but please check out easy-to-reach Lisbon and Sintra at least, they’re magnificent and well worth a few days off the beach!

Algarve beaches Rips, Undercurrents

Portuguese beaches are big and beautiful but the waters are not as safe as those of the Mediterranean due to the power of the Atlantic, particularly on Portugal’s surf-popular west coast.
People, including adults and good swimmers regularly drown off Portugal’s Atlantic coast where the waves are a good size and the rip currents are consequently common.
Whirlpools are an extreme example of dangerous currents but fundamentally need to be handled in the same way as any undertow – also known as a rip; they rarely drag people down, only around and around.

Monster waves are clearly visible but the powerful undertow – also known as a rip – that cycles waters back to the ocean can easily take a swimmer out with it and is invisible to the inexperienced eye. Resistance is futile.
Parents should exercise caution on unfamiliar beaches. Beaches that are monitored by life guards generally flag safe areas to swim – which may be narrow and crowded – as opposed to surf zones which can seem attractively uncrowded but conceal dangerous rips. Most surfers are strong swimmers, know how to handle rips, and of course have a board to hang on to.

In Portugal the swimming season is considered closed after September so lifeguards will not be present and safety flags will not fly, even if conditions are dangerous. If you wish to swim, perhaps in a wetsuit, then use great caution. Check safety with locals, especially surfers and monitor kids carefully.

What to do if caught in a rip

Desperate and exhausting thrashing is the killer as rips don’t usually drag swimmers under, even the whirlpool version, just away from the beach. If you fight the current you will tire rapidly and may lose the ability to keep your head up.
Rips do not flow indefinitely, they lose power within 5-40 metres though this may seem a long way when you’re trapped there, but just go with the flow. When the drag loosens, swim a few metres parallel to the beach i. e. away from the rip and then a safe return is possible.
Alternatively, calmly wave a hand and call for help, perhaps from a surfer.