There is much more to the Algarve than ‘just’ superb golf, pristine beaches and picturesque ports – the region’s rich heritage is spread out like an elaborate tapestry, with influences from the Phoenicians, Romans and Moors still in evidence. It’s time to uncover the cultural sights in the Algarve region of Portugal.
Silves: the original capital of the Algarve
Moorish influence spread throughout southern Spain and the Algarve, when the city of Lagos was conquered in 716. Their unique architectural style can be seen in the chimney stacks, pottery and buildings that dot this region. And the crowning glory in terms of Moorish sights in undoubtedly the prime example of Silves Castle. The red stone Arabic castle is a sight to behold in the Barlavento region, where Silves served as the old administrative capital. The stout castle has superb views over the town below and further into the countryside. Visitors can walk the length of the chunky walls taking in both the Islamic and Christian influences which tell the castle’s history from the 8th to the 13th century.
Cabo de San Vicente; we challenge you to find a more spectacular sunset!
Nicknamed ‘The End of the World’, the Cape of St. Vincent lies at Europe's most southwestern tip, near the town of Sagres. Atop a desolate headland, this stretch of land was sacred to the Phoenicians. Nowadays travellers come to watch the sun set at the entrance to the Mediterranean; it’s a magical time as the seabirds settle down and the moon thinks about making an appearance. It’s a must-visit site for birdwatchers too with colonies of rare Bonelli's eagle, kites, peregrine falcons, herons and storks in residence. Don’t miss the tiny Museu dos Faróis which reveals the part that Sagres played in Portugal’s maritime history.
Faro: soak up the Moorish and Portuguese heritage
Spectacular architecture is never too far away in the modern capital city of Faro – just head to the Old Town (Cidade Velha) area which is brimming with 18th century Portuguese and also Moorish era gems. Enter the district beneath the Arco da Vila in its full neoclassical glory and walk the length of the Largo da Sé which is lined with fragrant orange trees. Don’t miss the impressive Town Hall building, the commanding Bishops Palace (Paço Episcopal) and the handsome Faro Cathedral.
Almancil: admire the Baroque St Lawrence’s Church
Dating back to 1684, Almancil’s impressive Igreja de São Lourenço is well a visit. Built from Alicante stone and marble, this important example also boasts a vaulted nave which is smothered in highly decorative azulejo tiles. These tiles depict the life of Lawrence of Rome, aka São Lawrence.
Albufeira: discover the impressive Moorish Castle
Albufeira may be well known as a lively beach resort town, but it also holds its own in terms of cultural sights. The highlight is the commanding Castelo de Almoáda, otherwise known as Padene Castle. Built in the 12th century by the Berbers it typifies Roman, Moorish and Medieval styles. Visitors can walk the local area and admire the views over the Quarteira River.
Portimao: explore the Algarve’s rich heritage
The Museu de Portimão is a modern gem of a museum which is located within a 19th century converted fish cannery. The five year old museum features exhibits on land-based archaeology, underwater treasures and the heritage of the cannery itself. In fact the installations centered around the fish cannery section are intriguing as the museum faithfully re-creates the old production lines that sorted mackerel and herrings - in fact the only thing missing is the heady scent!
Lagos: experience the Baroque splendour of the Church of St. Anthony
The Church of Santo Antonio boasts high Baroque detailing coupled with asymmetrical bell towers and dates back to 1715. The outside however is low-key compared to the lavish interior which is decorated with gilded wood carvings and the ubiquitous blue azulejo tiles. The highlight is the six paintings from the baroque period painter by José Joaquim Rasquinho which depict the Saint Anthony’s miracles. Lagos lost many of its cultural sights during the Great Earthquake of 1755 which makes this gem all the more special.
Milreu: catch a rare glimpse of ancient Roman life
The fascinating Milreu Ruins teach us much about the daily life of the Romans during their time in Portugal. In the heart of the Algarve countryside all that remains are the ruins of the once great Roman villa which dates back to 1 AD. Archaeological excavations have revealed a columned courtyard and elaborate fish mosaics within the former bathing areas. Exquisite marble structures were also uncovered and are now displayed within the museums within Faro and Lagos.
Olhao: explore the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa
Don’t let the Algarve beaches and golf dominate your entire stay – spend a day at the gardens of the Ria Formosa Natural Park and soak up some of the natural sights in the Algarve. This lagoon system covers some 18,000 hectares and winds its way along the coastline, stretching for 60km. The landscape is dominated by creeks, marshes, dunes and salt pans. As well as offering a serene walking destination, it’s also a popular spot with birdwatchers. The marshes provide an important habitat for nesting and migratory birds. Wetland birds make their home here as does the rare purple gallinule. The vast freshwater lakes are prime viewing territory: take to the waters of Lake Ludo and Quinta do Lago.
Tavira: discover a fascinating Old Town
The charming city of Tavira was occupied as far back as the Bronze Age although it actually rose to prominence in the 8th century under Phoenician rule. Lying close to the Ria Formosa (see above) the city is today best known for its wealth of Moorish-era sights. Maintain the atmosphere by accessing the Old Town through the magnificent Porta de Dom Manuel which dates back to 1520. Climb the old water tower, Torre da Tavira, which offers panoramic views over the city and countryside below. From there don’t miss the Igreja de Santiago which dates back to the 17th century and whose whitewashed façade glistens under the sun. Finally the Old Town Square, Praça da Vila, retains its olde world charm and is a great place to rest awhile and engage in a spot of people watching.