Travel Guide to Portugal

Algarve: A Gourmet’s Travel Guide

By Tretanz

Luxury Cruise in the Algarve


To appreciate the Algarve’s love affair with food let’s tiptoe through a bit of history. The Algarve’s vast Atlantic coastline, influential in establishing its strong fish culture and industry was once, 1000BC (yes that far back), instrumental to trading. Its growing trade importance to Europe eventually resulted in making it prime territory for occupation. Romans, and later Moors invaded and their long-held occupations naturally influenced the region’s cuisine. Outward adventures followed with the first great explores, then a period when Portugal and Spain dictated much of what would become Europe, Vasco da Gama, Magellan and Christopher Columbus amongst others, required circumnavigation approval and to set sail on expeditions from Sagres (Cape St. Vincent).

Sagres situated in the west and southernmost point of the Algarve is where ships would not only launch, but return with exotic bounties of herbs, spices, and treasures from around the globe. On expeditions, explorers also colonized and created political ties with dynamically different cultures: Africa, Asia, India, which would continue to affect the region and country’s palate and culinary habits for centuries to come. Sagres, now a near desolate, part of the ‘Barlevento Algarvio’ (windward region) has become endeared by the surfing community and those looking for the peaceful calm only its cliffs and ocean breezes can offer. Its charm remains preserved with vast unspoiled beaches, quiet hideaways, and traditional restaurants, but for modern food adventurers, this is just the beginning of Algarve’s cuisine.

Today Algarve’s food, east to west, would be best described as a rustic twist to the Mediterranean, and very much from sun, earth and ocean. Traditional Algarvio’s insist on using the regions infinite nutrient resources and demand fresh, honest and unpretentious ingredients. Influences from its nautical and colonial past are heavily present with many recipes of bacalhau (salt fish), fresh caught fish and seafood. Touches of exotic lands are often seen with curries from India, piri piri and rich spices from Africa.

The Algarve’s city of Guia, as per locals, is where frango piri piri (spicy grilled chicken) got its fame, although it originated in Africa during the colonization period. Romans left their mark with olives, and olive oil and cheese production, of which you will find a dizzying selection. A Celtic carry over of meat preservation could be attributed to much of the regions love of linguiça and chouriço (cured sausages first marinated with herbs, wine and red spices). A long-ago Jewish community is known creating the popular stew sausage known as alheira (pork free garlic sausage). Moorish influences have prolonged throughout the region, with the grilling of meats and fish, strong uses of herbs: garlic, mint, thyme, cilantro, and spices: cumin, paprika, saffron – the list is long, very long. A large variety of nuts: almonds, pine nuts, as well as many varieties of fruits: oranges, figs, pomegranates and exotic varieties of berries are also part of this culinary mashup, and enjoyed fresh, and where possible dried to keep during winter months. Staples such as rice, grains, and beans also make a mark in both savory and sweet dishes. And we’re not done, yet. The region, and country, also appears to have a strange obsession with yogurt, every variety and possible flavor combination imaginable seems available; belief exists this too may be a carryover of Moorish influences.

Tired yet? We’ve finally reached desserts. The Algarvio’s sweet tooth is impossible to ignore, visitors who enjoy exotic desserts will undoubtedly be well severed. To start, tiny but elaborate bolinhos de amêndoa (handcrafted almond pastries) adorned in whimsical fashion, are the foremost source of regional culinary and creative pride. Sweets are sweet with exotic combinations, the diverse selection could be described as a culmination of the regions trading, circumnavigation and colonization history. Sweetening the pallet at meal’s end is characteristic, of course, an accompanying café. After dinner, desserts are enjoyed in the same fashion, but with an additional cheirinho (a scent) of the locally produced aguardente (burning water) or, its softer cousin, medronho (strawberry tree brandy). Like modern locals say, A MUST! And let’s not forget the wine.

Although the Algarve produces few wines, rare is a meal served without its company. The region’s wine consumption is affected by the warm climate; hot summer days call for super chilled beverages. Vinho Verde (light semi-sparkling wine) in white and white is a popular classic, though Algarve reds always have their place. Grilled fish and seafood; typically brushed with a garlic, cilantro, and olive oil mix, scents the region, as do steaming clay pots of seafood stew. Cerveja gelada (iced beer) is also common, as are ‘mini’s’ (small versions of regular beers). Mini’s let you pace yourself and ensure your full beer doesn’t overheat on those hot summer days…recall the earlier note of a food obsession. It may also, be a good time to mention when asking for water, the question of ‘natural’ (room temperature), fresca (chilled) or gelada (iced) may be posed. And on things iced, gelado (ice cream) is also very popular and can be found in a variety of unusual combinations. Coffee options have a complexity of their own but are chiefly the same as the rest of the country. Phew!

Now you have the basics of Algarve’s culinary delights. If we haven’t convinced you enough, here are 10 delicious reasons to savor Portugal, along with 20 must-try Portuguese dishes. If you”re craving tips to guide you expertly through the country, check out our Essential Guide to Traveling Portugal!

Algarve Bar & Cafe Scene

The Algarve is very social in both winter and summer. Summer months, however, see the regions population increase considerably from June to end of August. The region’s vibrancy and nightlife increased considerably. If fun in the sun is your mission, there will be no shortage of music and dancing until dawn. If looking for a quiet retreat there are equally countless refuges for peace and calm. Evenings start late, and bars and lounges can be open until the wee hours of the morning. Algarve summers have an indescribable romance with sea breezes cooling blistering days into refreshing evenings before the next day begins. Dinner, drinks, and dancing are common no matter the age. Venues often provide exotic ambiances and many have outdoor access and areas with sea views or open spaces for lounging and stargazing.

Dancing is available across the Algarve all summer long and the region can boast of many ‘up and coming’ local DJs. Known for its nightlife the region also regularly attracts internationally reorganized talent for concerts and festivals. Bar venues, with dancing, typically provide a membership card, entitling cardholder to one drink with entry fee. Cash is not accepted at door or throughout the evening; consumption is kept on a card and paid in full on exit. Drinks and cocktails can range from €5 to €15 depending on the venue. Lounge type bars work as per normal with cash on order, and prices depend on the venue. Coffee culture in the Algarve is heavily ingrained and enjoyed like the rest of the country.

Cafés are plenty and can be found within sniffing distance. Some may be tiny stand and sip, while others are large with outdoor esplanades to take advantage of the local climate. The first café of the morning is typically the only one consumed with milk and is accompanied with a ‘tosta’ (toasted bread and cheese) or a pastry, or two, or three. This is the sweet capital after all. A café is common again: mid-morning, following lunch, some have one mid-afternoon, and last one of the day commonly follows dinner. Café prices can range from €.50 to €2.50, depending on venue type and location. Like anywhere, tourist areas can be more expensive than were locals frequent.

Great areas for bars and cafes:

  • Sagres – The far west coast, which includes Aljezur are typically quiet areas year round, with lots of laidback spots, serving and cool drinks. One of Europe’s largest Reggae festivals, running days long in mid-summer is also often hosted here. If a fan of the genre this may be something watch for. As part of the Barlavento region many small towns can be found nestling wonderful family owned restaurants, serving regional, and seasonal, dishes seldom seen in tourist areas. Take advantage.
  • Portimão – relatively quiet area most of the year, comes alive in summer with bars, nightclubs and elegant evening beach parties, live music and well-known DJs are often on the roster.
  • Albufeira – party central. The ‘strip’ has no shortage of bars, nightclubs, and cafes. As Algarve’s most vibrant nightlife location this is where the party is at and the sleeping is not. Quieter offshoot bars and lounges can also be found nearby if late night clubbing is not part of your repertoire.
  • Quarteira & Vilamoura – close to the action, but more serene, particularly popular with home owning foreigners, expats, and boating aficionados. Vilamoura marina is a trendy destination for long walks and has a wide range of restaurants, bars and cafes, and quality shopping. It’s also a spot for indulging in locally made gelados and café on Sunday afternoons with friends and family. If a gambler this is where the regions largest casinos can be found.
  • Faro – the capital. Often missed by tourists jetting east or west to start their holiday. Faro, however, has much to offer in new and old. The old city can still be found behind its historic walls. This irreplaceable area has a charisma all it’s own – starting with a family of strokes who’ve quietly guard the cities gates from atop for decades. On entering, visitors can trek narrow cobblestone streets to find a sprinkle of restaurants, cafes, and bars, hidden inside its archaic crevices. Modern-day Faro is a stone’s throw away, lures with colorful and distinctive cobblestone paths, a pedestrian-only area, and lets you know exactly where you are. Here traditional patisseries and cafes serving regional almond and fig pastries can be found, and should not be missed. Numerous shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes can also be found, and offshoot streets are also worth exploring.
  • Olhão – has a strong reputation for its fishing history and local market, here the industry was, and remains, most concentrated. It’s also home to the country’s award-winning ‘for de sal’ (hand harvested sea salt). Restaurants and cafés can be found in the city center, but those along the coastal strip are most popular. An early morning café, overlooking the marina, accompanied by a piping hot ‘fartura’ (long doughy version of a doughnut rolled in cinnamon and sugar) make a perfect start, to the monumental task of selecting the days fresh catch. On visiting the market you will understand. Saturday’s mornings tend to provide the largest selection of vendors; it’s of course the busiest day, so go early. Early birds catch the best fish selection.
  • Tavira – a romantic fishing village with many restaurants and cafes. Its traditional ‘folhados de Tavira’ (sugared puff pastry rolls) have made a mark on the region, and more recently its handmade gelado in local flavors, a must try. Nearby Cabanas de Tavira named for its adorable fishermen huts, turned summer homes – lets visitors be oceanside in a quiet and picturesque setting. Octopus is common fare here with many versions appearing on local menus, simply prepared and delicious.
  • Cancela Velha & Monte Gordo – situated close to the Spanish border these two areas often attract its neighbors, foreigners, and Portugal’s own tourists. Like its polar opposite, compete anonymity can be found here if one chooses. It’s also home to some of country’s best oysters. Often cultivated and caught by the restaurateurs, before the evenings serving – can’t get much fresher. When wanting to be social locals and visitors alike lounge ocean side, to warm breezes incoming from the Mediterranean, and take in sun or star-studded skies above.

Algarve Cuisine

Before starting a meal – olives, cheese, and bread are common basics on any table in Portugal. Freshly made soups, especially in winter, and starters such as ‘pasteis de bacalhau’ (salt fish croquettes) or ‘rissois de camarão’ (savory shrimp stuffed pastries) are also common precursors to the main course. The key point to know, when dining in the fishing capital, is when to buy and eat fish. Since Roman Catholic roots dictated fishermen rest on Sundays, there is generally no fresh catch on Mondays. Otherwise, fish and seafood is available year round. If a meat eater or simply yearning to satisfy the carnivorous urge Monday’s may be the best day. As you may have also gathered, if the day’s catch did not deliver as expected, a restaurant’s menu will be changed or simply not offer what is listed, this is a good thing, go with it.

Restaurateurs proud of their selection will often bring the day’s fresh catch, uncooked, to your table for inspection. Note: some of these little monsters are not very pretty but are delicious, quickly look them in the eye for clarity and you’re good to go. There’s also value in modesty. Fancy decor does not always mean best. Tascas are simple venues known for having some of the best regional food. Outdoor grilling and cooking is also common and why there is a constant waft of food in the region’s air. Heed that great meals can be found in very unassuming locations, so when in doubt use traveler’s wisdom – look for spots filled locals.

What not to miss: Since freshness is paramount some plates will be seasonal, while others are available year round.

  • Conquilhas Abertas – small, tender local wedge clams forced open by pot seaming, again with lots of olive oil, garlic, and cilantro. These are a local delicacy and usually enjoyed on summer days with flowing glasses of very chilled Vinho Verde. Attempts are being made to manage reserves so occasionally they may are not available year round.
  • Xarém – a traditional corn flour dish served in different versions across the country. In the Algarve, xarem is served with a variety of shellfish options, the most popular is with conquilhas.
  • Cataplana – a regional favorite combining; fish, seafood, choriço, and vegetables in a special clamped (clam-like) copper saucepan. The pans to sides clamp together prior to heating to seal the ingredients inside while it cooks. Cataplana’s are normally prepared for sharing and restaurants tend to offer it as a meal for two or more.
  • Caracois com Cerveja – snails and beer are very popular. Like the French escargot, they undergo a drying process until they are ready for cooking. They are then boiled with a mix of local herbs, drained and served with lots of crusty bread. Available in spring and through summer and make for a light afternoon snack, or like the locals you can opt for an evening caracolada, picking and eating until you are full.
  • Polvo à Lagareiro – oven baked octopus. This local recipe calls for generous amounts of olive oil and garlic during the baking process and results in incredibly delicate and tender octopus, delicious and distinctive. Normally served with oven-baked potatoes.
  • Chocos or Lulas com Tinta – cuttlefish or squid served with own ink. These are either pan sautéed or grilled. Either option is treated with the usual mix: garlic, olive, and chopped cilantro. Ink does not have a very strong flavor of its own but may leave you with an inked grin, more white wine helps fix this.
  • Arroz de Marisco – Seafood rice, or more accurately, seafood stew, is comfort food for the seafood lover. Combines shrimps, clams, crab, etc. all in a tomato and white wine broth, cooked in large clay pots and served piping hot, summer and winter.
  • Frango Piri Piri – For the meat lover tired of hearing about seafood, yes meat is served in the Algarve. Frango Piri Piri has strong roots in Guia, close to Albufeira on the west side of the Algarve, but is available throughout the region as are other versions of ‘frango grelhado’ (grilled chicken). Pork and game are also quite common and can be found towards the interior of the region. Never fear to ask a local for what you are looking for as this can produce some very interesting finds.
  • Peixe Grelhado – mornings fresh catch on a grill a few hours later. Sardines are very typical, but there are many other options worth trying. Tasca’s may offer a day’s catch assortment, accompanied with potatoes (roasted white or sweet), ‘salada a montanheira’ (fresh tomato, green pepper, onion, garlic, olive oil a dash of vinegar, and lots of locally grown and dried oregano), and fresh crusty bread for dipping. Olive oil drizzled on grilled fish is the norm.
  • Conserva de cenouras – savory and spicy carrot appetizer made with black olives and herbs. Enjoyed similar to a pickle as an appetizer or as a side.
  • Doce de Abóbora – sweet pumpkin preserve enjoyed with local fresh cheeses, usually before or after dinner.
  • Dom Rodrigo – the Algarve’s second most traditional dessert. Egg yolks cooked through a process, which turns them into threads resembling angle hair, they are then rolled into a ball and topped with finely ground almonds, sugar and cinnamon, then wrapped in a colorful foil. A very exotic dessert, but well worth trying with café or medronho.
  • Figs – fresh, early spring and late summer, orsun-driedd. Fig cheese a (paste made of sun dried figs) served in a variety of ways. Also, dried whole and stuffed with local almonds and herbs, the roasted to soften and blend flavors. Chewy, nutty and delicious.
  • Folar – large round Easter bread (often available year round). Big, sweet, sticky, cinnomony, and delicious. Occasionally also baked with hardboild eggs (shell on) for Easter. Served in large slices enjoyed with café of course.
  • Bread – every meal in Portugal will have bread present. A plethora of types, soft, medium, crusty, from different flours, in different shapes and sizes is available. Normally enjoyed with butter or olive oil, dipping and dredging in sauces is completely acceptable.
  • Flôr de sal & Olive Oil – hand harvested sea salt, captures the first layer of salt before it sinks. Sprinkled on food when plated rather than adding to the recipe when cooking. Warning: once bitten by the flor de sal bug it’s difficult to use another salt. Not yet commonly found in restaurants, but easily available in larger supermarkets. The selection of olive oils is immense; there is even a delicate variety for babies. Two very affordable culinary luxuries, which are fun to try or take home as gifts for food loving friends.

Restaurants in Algarve

Although the Algarve has many towns and villages there are also many good restaurants off the beaten path.

  • East: Sagres, Vila do Bispo, Aljezur, Alvor, Salema, Luz, Lagos, Portimão and Albufeira are all popular areas for lounging and local fare. Some are well sized, while others are small villages, but each will have its respective ‘baixa’ (centre) dotted with restaurants and some may have great restaurants in completely remote locations, some exploring, always best to ask a friendly local for the most recent recommendations.
  • Central: Guia, Almancil, Porches, Vilamoura, Quinta do lago, Val do Lobo, Faro, Olhão are all areas with considerable tourism and restaurant zones to choose from.
  • Interior: Paderne and São Brás de Alportel make up part of the Algarve’s interior and provide good options for enjoying ‘caça’ (game): wild rabbit, partridge, wild boar and the like, game restaurants are also known for having good wine selections.
  • East: Tavira, Cabanas, Cacela Velha, Santa Luzia, Monte Gordo, Casto Marim are closest to the Ria Formosa lagoon, where much of the Algarve’s seafood comes from. This region is spotted with many great restaurants and beach lounging options.

Festivals in Algarve

The Algarve is abuzz with festivals throughout the year; most of course have gastronomy as part of the celebrations.

    • January: Festival das Chouriças (Smoked Sausages) in Querença village.
    • February: Loulé Carnaval, one of the most celebrated carnivals in Portugal with street party, float procession, colourful costumes, music and dancing. Attracting thousands of visitors and is held yearly, and coincides with Brazil’s carnival, on Shrove Tuesday, and lasts for three days.
    • March: Feira dos Enchidos (Traditional Sausage Festival) in Monchique.
    • April: Dia 25 de Abril (Liberation Day) celebrated with red carnations. A public holiday with food, fireworks, music and entertainment.
    • May: Festival Internacional do Caracol (International Snail Festival) brings Portugal, France, Spain, Morroco and Italy together on the slippery subject of snails, in Castro Marim.
    • June: Feira da Terra (Country Fair) featuring natural and organic agricultural products, in Aljezur. First Saturday of the month from June through to October.
    • June: Festival da Cataplana (Cataplana Festival) celebrates one of Algarve’s most famous dishes, in Almancil.
    • August: Noites de Moura Encantada (Enchanted Nights) a recreation of Arab nights with Souks, music, belly dancing and traditional food, in Cacela Velha.
    • August: Festival do Marisco, (Seafood Festival), the largest seafood festival in the region, in Olhão
    • September: Festival Nacional de Gastronomia (National Gastonomy Festival), featuring cheeses, herbs, traditional convent sweets, in Almancil.

Sightseeing in Algarve

Between food and festivals there still plenty to see and do.

  • Ria Formosa Natural Park – a rich ecological reserve spanning the length of the coastline between Manta Rota and Vale do Lobo. Marshes, sand banks, and freshwater lakes make an exotic sanctuary for birds and marine life of the region.
  • Cape St. Vincent – the end of the world, as some once thought, and where much of the region’s history took place. Here a 19th-century lighthouse and fortress remains. Extreme fishing can be done and views off the cliffs over the Atlantic are truly spectacular.
  • Silves – a charming town situated off the banks of the Arade River close to the coast and home to the Moorish fortification; Castelo de Silves (Silves Castle) built between 8th and 13th century.
  • Parque da Mina – an 18th century renovated farmhouse where visitors can explore a disused ore mine and distilleries.
  • Tavira – historic and tiny but Tavira has elegant 18th-century facades, a seafood market, a waterfront with marina, 21 churches, and its own island – boasting as one of Algarve’s best beaches.
  • Museu Maritimo – a museum dedicated to Algarve’s fishing industry providing models of vessels and equipment for display, housed in the harbor masters office on the seafront in Faro.
  • Sé Cathedral – a local landmark providing a beautiful display of 17th and 18th century azulejos (tiles) and architectural history. The region has many churches and cathedrals worth exploring, their dark cool interiors are a great refuge on sweltering summer days.
  • Foia – at 902m/2,960ft, it’s the highest peak in the Algarve overlooking the town of Monchique.
  • Golf – The Algarve is known throughout Europe as one of the best golfing destinations year around due to its mild weather and beautifully maintained golf courses.
  • Beaches – there is no shortage of beaches to chose from; social, quiet, secluded, nuturist or islands. So you can pick your fancy. Salema, Sagres, Gale, Maria Louisa, Olhos D’Agua, Falesia, Rocha, Luz, Amado, Burgau, Grand, Martinhal, Ingera, Amoreira, Barril, Meia, Belinche, Armona, Cancela Velha, Verde. There are also islands for lovely beach day trips: Ilha de Faro, Tavira, Armona, Culatra.
  • Nuturist beaches: Adegas at Odeceixe, Ilha Deserta off the coast of Olhão, and Barril on the Ilha de Tavira. Note: Island beaches will require ferry or train access. Public nudity is prohibited, but most beaches have nuturist areas, these tend to be in secluded stretches, best gauge is to take a long walk to discover where others tend to enjoy in same fashion. Topless sunbathing is quite common amongst foreigners and locals on beaches across the Algarve.
  • Surfing & Kiting – Algave’s west coast is rumoured to have some of the best surf in Europe luring both the novice and experienced. Surf camps, trips and equipment can be found in Lagos, Portimao, Sagres through to Aljezur.
  • Sailing & Yachting – sailing and yachting schools as well as charters can be found across the region, with marinas in: Lagos, Portimão, Albufeira, Vilamoura and Faro, Olhão and Tavira.

Local Markets in Algarve

As the first self-declared GMO-free zone in Portugal the Algarve attempts to hold firm to its commitment to food quality, and for the cook and food lover little compares to whole fresh produce in hand to experiment. Markets of varying sizes can be found across the region: Lagoa, Loulé, Olhão, are but a few.

Market days remain very popular and early starts (7-9 am) are recommended and few will be open past noon. Prices and quality of produce can differ between vendors. The highest price does not always mean the best, watch for vendors who attract locals with consistency.

A local carrying a wicker basket is usually a tell-tale sign of a food-obsessed Algarvio, following their lead is recommended, stalking locals is not.

Accommodation in the Algarve

As a popular tourist destination, there is plenty of bedding to choose from. Suggestions included here focus on quality of service, cultural and historical relevance, and great cuisine.

  • Vila Joya – Boutique hotel nestled in the hills of Albufeira with ocean views, spa, and Michelin star restaurant – recently awarded one of the world’s top 5o. It lends to its name ‘box of jewels’.
  • Monte do Casal – off the beaten path in a protected region of the Algarve’s interior, minutes from Faro, and overlooking the Ria Famosa estuary. This boutique hotel provides peace and seclusion, yet remains central to all the local attractions.
  • Pousada Tavira – Convento da Graça – a 16th-convent conversion located in a village with architectural references dating back to 2000BC, and close Gilao riverbank once an important port for wine, salt, and dry fish, yet offering all the modern day conveniences.
  • Hotel Longevity Wellness Resort Monchique – Located high up in what is considered ‘Algarve’s garden’ and boasting of healing dating back centuries this modernized resort focuses well-being and longevity. Recently also nominated for worlds leading medical/wellness spa and Tatler’s most life-changing spa award, a spot to consider for those needing to refuel and rejuvenate.
  • Vila Vita Parc – With a commanding sea view with direct access to the beach, Vila Vita Parc also boasts of an outstanding spa, wine cellar, and a two Michelin-starred restaurant, as well as golf, tennis, paddle-boarding, and waterskiing. Rooms are well scattered throughout the property to give couples seclusion from families. 
  • Vila Valverde – Previously a 19th Century Manor House and only minutes from the beautiful beach of Praia da Luz, Vila Valverde has been wonderfully converted into a superb, very stylish hotel. The hotel sits on a 5-hectare estate and has a vast panoramic lawned area, orange trees, a spring and a small lake. 

As you may have gathered Algarvio’s, and Portuguese in general, have an absolute respect for mealtime, they also love to share their culture through food. If you show a similar appreciation you will undoubtedly be well guided and may also make some friends along the way.

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Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula
looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula looking for the very best food and wine experiences.