From quintessential countryside to deep-blue mirror-like dams, verdant mountains and of course the Algarve’s famed coastline, one of the best ways to really get to see the region is by hiring a car and hitting the road. Explore villages untouched by the hands of time, historic relics, dams and secret beauty spots, all from the comfort of your air-conditioned vehicle.
The Algarve’s roads are by and large safe and usually well sign-posted – although the driving can at times be slightly hectic, especially in summer, when the local population multiplies, and the roads are very busy.
We’ve included approximate drive times for each route but remember one of the best things about any road trip is stopping, relaxing and taking in the views whenever you want. So, 40 minutes drive could easily be a full day if you want!
(Lagos-Cape St. Vincent, approx. 45kms / 40mins drive)
Start your journey in the vibrant, hip city of Lagos. Lagos is known for being a backpackers’ paradise and oozes cool. As well as a number of unique monuments, such as the Lagos Slave Market and the Governor’s Castle, it is also home to several astounding beauty spots, like the Ponta da Piedade rock formations.
From here head along the EN125 road west towards Sagres. You’ll pass by charming whitewashed villages on either side of the road, such as Praia da Luz, Burgau and Vila do Bispo, all of which are worth a stop at.
The closer you get to Sagres the more barren and untamed the landscape becomes. Ochre cliffs give way to dark, boulder-like landscape covered in Mediterranean shrubbery. From Vila do Bispo take the N268 towards Sagres. Park up at the Fortress and spend an hour or so walking around the wind-beaten cliff-tops of Sagres. Enjoy a snack from the novel ‘Letzte Bratwurst vor Amerika’ (last hotdog before America) stand.
From Sagres, keep heading west along the coastal N268 towards the Cape Saint Vincent Lighthouse, the most south-westerly point of mainland Europe, passing the lovely little Beliche beach en-route.
If you would like to spend a night in this area, the Martinhal Sagres Beach Family Resort Hotel, on Martinhal beach, or the Memmo Baleeira Hotel Sagres, overlooking the Baleeira Harbour, are wonderful places to overnight.
A Country Affair
(Silves – São Bartolomeu de Messines, approx. 20kms / 24 mins)
Spend a couple of hours exploring dramatic Silves, crowned with one of the finest examples of preserved castles in the Algarve. Walk along its peaceful riverside and enjoy a simple meal of mouth-watering grilled chicken at one of the little restaurants in the municipal market.
From Silves, take the EN12 road towards S.B. Messines. This will take you on a scenic route through fragrant orange fields, past pretty roadside restaurants and orange vendors. A short distance after the hamlet of Pinheiro e Garrado a junction with a palm tree and signs to the Arade Dam will be on your left. Take this exit, snaking through stunning, quintessential rural countryside to the dam. Weather permitting you can have a refreshing dip in the clean, calm waters of the Arade Dam.
Head back towards the EN124, but at Restaurante Rainha take a sharp left, towards Canhestros and Gregórios. This stretch is also part of an archaeological route, with historic relics peppered along the way, popular with hikers. The picture-perfect back road runs past gorgeous, flower framed cottages and peaceful whitewashed hamlets, to the not-so-picturesque city of São Bartolomeu de Messines. But while it might not be as pleasing on the eye as other rural towns, Messines does have great traditional restaurants, markets and interesting attractions like the Church of São Bartolomeu de Messines and the Funcho Dam.
(Portimão – Monchique, approx. 35kms / 50 mins)
One of the most scenic routes to drive in the Algarve is from the city of Portimão to the Algarve’s highest peak, Fóia, in the Monchique mountain range; a winding climb through eucalyptus-tree-covered hillsides past scenic viewpoints and traditional pottery shops.
Start your journey from the city of Portimão, heading towards the A22 motorway exit. Here, take the N124 towards a roundabout where the road splits to Silves to the right and continues on to Monchique to the left. Follow the N266 towards Monchique.
After about 15 minutes, in the hamlet of Pocilgais, stop at Casa Cinzas (on the right), a rural eatery that is a bit of an institution in this neck of the woods, open since 1958, famed for its local, cured presunto ham, cheeses and red wine and grilled chicken. Stop and enjoy a meal with famous rustic Monchique bread.
Continue on to Fóia. This route will also take you past the Caldas springs, which are an obligatory stop for a walk, a coffee and a freshly-baked pão com chouriço, a roll stuffed with local sausage baked in a traditional wood oven.
After spending an hour or so here, keep climbing towards Fóia. You will also drive through the main mountain town of Monchique, with its pretty water mill monument set in the centre of a café-flanked square. Below this square are green gardens and an open-air municipal pool, which is a refreshing retreat for a dip in summer.
Climb all the way to Fóia Peak, the highest point in the Algarve, at 902 metres, where on a clear day you can see for miles along the coast, over the Algarve International Race Track, from Lagos to Albufeira and out to sea. If planning to overnight in this region, the Villa Termal das Caldas de Monchique Spa Resort is a must.
(Tavira – Vila Real de Santo António, approx. 29kms / 30mins)
The EN125 secondary road, which runs parallel to the main A22 motorway, also runs along the coast. One of the nicest parts of the EN125 to drive is the straight stretch between the lovely eastern Algarve town of Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António.
This route takes you through the unspoiled eastern Algarve, past some of the finest beaches in the region and also along part of the Ria Formosa protected lagoon. It ends in the architecturally intriguing town of Vila Real de Santo António, which lies on the banks of the Guadiana River and overlooks Spain.
After exploring Tavira, with its distinctive ‘scissor-style’ roofs, series of pretty bridges and Tower of Tavira Camera Obscura, an astronomical observatory, jump in the car and follow the EN125 east, to Vila Real de Santo António.
Make sure to stop in the hamlet of Cacela Velha, on the Ria Formosa, which is famed for its oysters, to be enjoyed at the simple and unassuming Casa da Igreja restaurant. Next en-route is two of the Algarve’s most famous beaches; long stretches of golden sand with shallow waters: Praia da Manta Rota and Praia Verde.
Time allowing, on the way there or back, stop in the holiday resort town of Monte Gordo for a walk along its beachfront wooden walkway. From here, it’s a straight 5-minute drive to Vila Real de Santo António, which is remarkable for its unique grid-like layout and handsome, uniform buildings.
Enjoy a stroll along the riverside, take the ferry over to Ayamonte for an afternoon of tapas, or head to see the salt pans of Castro Marim, just north of Vila Real de Santo António. There’s plenty of accommodation available in this end of the Algarve, but a particularly interesting hotel is the Vila Galé Albacora, housed in a historic former tuna factory.