- In August, Portugal was recognised as the hottest travel destination of 2018, due in no small part to the country’s spectacular beaches, which many say are the most beautiful in the world.
- I recently took a six-day road trip to find the best beaches Portugal had to offer, taking the advice of local Portuguese that I met on my trip.
- The best beaches were far from the touristy hot spots in the Algarve region and were more wild, beautiful, and remote than I could have imagined.
Planning a trip to Portugal can be a little overwhelming, particularly if you are interested in visiting the Iberian nation’s beaches, which are often said to be some of the most beautiful in the world.
The Algarve, the southern region most often visited for R&R, alone has over 150 beaches. Once you add the many wild and hidden beaches dotted in the Alentejo region, the Azore islands, Madeira, and the North, you might feel dizzy.
At least that’s how I felt when I sat down this August to plan a six-day beach road trip.
I was far from the only one trying to do the same. Last year, the number of tourists visiting Portugal rose a whopping 12% for a record 12.7 million people. This year looks to be no different with preliminary figures suggesting that the number of American tourists visiting the country has jumped 27% in 2018, after an increase of 35% last year.
In August, Portugal was recognised as the hottest travel destination of 2018 by Virtuoso Travel, a luxury travel network that runs one of the biggest tradeshows in the travel industry.
That all left me a bit nervous, particularly when a taxi driver in Lisbon warned me that Algarve beaches in August are so packed beachgoers look like the tasty tins of sardines Portuguese snack on.
Instead of following the mind-numbing number of travel guides purporting to knowPortugal’s best beaches, I decided to ask regular Portuguese people that I met where they would go. Their recommendations – from shop-owners, taxi drivers, bed & breakfast managers, and bartenders – proved to be magical.
I ended up with a road trip I will never forget. Here’s what it was like:
I started the road trip up north in Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in Portugal and a stark contrast from the beachy south.
Portugal isn’t a big country, but the drive south to Alvor was slightly over five hours. If I had been driving from Lisbon, it would have been about two and a half hours.
But the longer drive gave me a view into regions of Portugal that most tourists skip, like the golden plains of Alentejo. The region covers about one-third of the country. While it also has beaches, the interior is marked by vast fields of wheat and cork trees that ripple in the afternoon breeze.
I decided to go to Alvor at the recommendation of a clothing shop-owner in Porto, Portugal’s second largest city. Nearby Faro and Portimao tend to be more popular destinations for the resort set, but I was hoping for something a bit quieter.
Alvor is much smaller than many of the other destinations in the Algarve, but equally picturesque. It has cobblestone streets packed with white-washed houses, restaurants, pubs, and shops. Parking on Alvor’s tiny streets is still giving me nightmares weeks later, but the town’s relaxed vibe was a welcome respite from the madness in resort towns nearby.
Though Alvor isn’t directly in a resort town, the beaches are still packed during the summer months. Praia dos Três Irmãos was a ten-minute walk from my hostel in the center of town. Like many beaches in the area, Três Irmãos is divided up into little coves by various rock formations.
But rather than stay at Três Irmãos, I took the recommendation of a taxi driver who told me that every first-timer has to go to Praia da Rocha in Portimao. While it was busy, Rocha is known as one of the first developed beaches in Portugal, as a popular destination for Portuguese, and, most importantly, for having a long, wide coastline that leaves room for everyone.
Personally, my favourite part was the tall, ochre cliffs that surrounded the beach. This big one on the left spread shade for 50 feet or more.
Having forgot an umbrella, I set up my towel beneath the shade. If I’m in the sun, I don’t tan; I burn. I wasn’t the only one taking advantage. It seemed like all the Portuguese teenagers were having mini-beach parties against the cliff.
One of the benefits of the limestone formations is that it creates lots of hidden beaches and coves that you can explore if you walk a bit further. When I walked through this arch, I found an inlet formed from the rocks that was far calmer than the larger coastline.
On top of the cliff, I got a great view of Rocha as the sun was setting from a miradouro, or viewpoint. Behind the beach is a long strip of restaurants, bars, and even a casino, but, as that’s not my vibe, I headed back to Alvor.
The next day I decided to head west along the coast to Lagos, one of the more touristy towns in the Algarve due to its abundance of nightlife, medieval walls, churches, and cobblestone streets. But I saw enough of that in Lisbon. I was there to see what I’d been told by the hostel manager were two of Portugal’s best beaches. The first was Praia do Camilo, which lies at the bottom of a 200-step wooden staircase.
Situated in a pocket of sand surrounded by rock formations, Camilo makes a stunning sight. But due to its proximity to bustling Lagos, it was packed when I stopped by in August. The emerald waters looked tranquil, but I wasn’t looking to hop in the sardine can.
I went to check out the other beach in Lagos recommended to me: Praia da Dona Ana. Dona Ana is considered by many Portuguese to be the most picturesque beach in the Algarve. I could see why, from the steep colourful cliffs and the crystal clear waters.
One beach near Lagos I didn’t get to due to time constraints, but that many say is a must-visit is the Algar de Benagil, a grotto reached only by boat (though one Portuguese person told me that some intrepid swimmers try to swim there).
But rather than stick around, I kept driving along the coastline. The western part of the Algarve is known for being less developed. It is lined with jagged cliffs that drop into impossibly blue waters.
Many of the beaches near Sagres in the western part of Algarve are known for surfing, wind-surfing, and paragliding. But I preferred to just gaze out at the rock formations.
If you follow the cape to the end, you reach the Cabo de São Vicente lighthouse. It sits at the southwestern-most tip of Europe. Seafarers once nicknamed the cape as “the end of the world” because of the rock cliffs that mark the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
There’s nothing like standing on a 200-foot cliff looking out at a vast ocean to put your life in perspective. The cape is so windy you have to watch where you stand. I didn’t want to fly off.
I decided to double-back towards Sagres, a small village near the cape that has lately become a surf town. There I found Praia do Tonel, a small beach surrounded by high cliffs. It’s a bit of a walk down to the beach, but it is worth it.
The beach was considerably quieter than those I found in Lagos and Portimao. I felt as though I was getting closer to my Portuguese beach ideal. Tonel is often used as a surfing beach, but as the waves were small that day, so surfers weren’t crowding the waters.
Unfortunately, the angle of the sun ensured that the rock cliffs didn’t cast much shade for me to hide under. I ended up squeezing beneath this ledge despite the warning of falling rocks.
But still I wasn’t satisfied. At the edge of Tonel, I saw the ocean washing up into pools formed by limestone boulders and decided to follow them. It was a rocky hike and I made the mistake of not wearing shoes.
After rock scrambling over a dividing ridge, I saw what I had been hoping for: a completely abandoned beach. I couldn’t believe that no one else had hiked over and set up shop. It was the most stunning beach I’d seen yet.
I, of course, dove right into the water. One thing I noticed going from beach to beach was that the farther west I went from Portimao, the colder the water got. It was refreshing on a hot day, but take away the sun, and I’d have been shivering.
After spending the afternoon at Tonel, I drove a half hour north to Almograve-Longueira, two tiny villages along the coast in the Alentejo region. The villages feel lost in time a century ago.
After getting settled in a hostel that was really just a local’s house rented by the room, I walked to Praia de Almograve. The beach forms part of 60 miles of protected coastline. At the hostel, I met three young professionals from Porto who were hiking the Fisherman’s Trail, a week-long hike that takes you the entire length of the coastline.
After seeing Almograve, I understood why they would make the trek. The coastline in Alentejo is far more wild than in Sagres or further east in the Algarve. The small submerged rocks teem with sea life.
The vegetation on the rocks was a colour green I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. But you have to be careful, I slipped and bruised my butt on the rocks.
There are all kinds of little bits of tidal sea life to find along the rocks that extend like long fingers into the water. I saw crabs, shrimp, and these tiny shellfish. No turtles though. I was promised turtles.
The most incredible part of visiting Alentejo is the way that the farmland abuts the coastline. At the suggestion of the hostel owner, I headed down a sand road that was supposed to lead me to a wild beach called Praia do Brejo Largo. It passed between two fields. When my car got stuck in the sand, a farmer in a tractor helpfully pulled me out.
He explained that I had made a wrong turn. The road I was heading down was not for cars. I was supposed to go the other direction along the field and eventually turn left.
I ended up getting lost driving for twenty minutes trying to follow his directions before I found the road he was talking about. But that road too was sand and far more secluded. I was terrified of getting the dinky SmartCar stuck in the sand again so I parked.
The road narrowed to a small sand path, set on both sides by wild grasses and a bit of fencing to mark the right direction. I hiked for a little over a mile and then ….
I was hit by this spectacular view of Brejo Largo. The only way onto this coastline was by hiking (or driving a quadbike), but it was so worth it. The hikers I met at the hostel later told me this beach formed part of their hike.
A few Portuguese families had set up a quiet beach day with umbrellas and towels. But there were maybe ten or fifteen people total on this massive beach. It felt like the “end of the world.”
The right side of the beach was marked by jagged black rocks. You couldn’t swim in it, but there was plenty of sealife to peek into if you were careful not to slip.
The water was bracingly cold. It reminded me of swimming in the Pacific Ocean in Oregon or an Atlantic ocean beach in Cape Cod. But the rocks that dotted the coast made it so you couldn’t really dive in lest you accidentally hit your head on a rock.
As the sky started to turn an imposing grey, it felt like time to head back to the car. It had rained earlier that day and I was worried a storm might make the road out hard to drive on.
To get off the beach, you have to climb back up the cliff. Thankfully, there is a wood railing, but, even so, it’s a bit of a treacherous climb.
As I started the hike back to the car, the sky looked even more stormy. I’ll be honest, I was getting very worried about getting stuck in the rain so I pretty much ran the mile or so back to the car.
When I saw this sight, I knew I was home free. You can see the car lurking behind those trees. I high-tailed it out of there back to the town.
For the last day of my road-trip, I wanted to stop by two beaches. The first was Praia Furnas.
Furnas is famous because it is where the estuary of the River Mira meets the ocean. It makes for a calm place to swim with small children. While it’s a cool sight, I didn’t need to stick around.
My last stop had me driving north to Parque Natural da Arrábida at the recommendation of a shop-owner I met in Porto. The park is a protected zone of 42 miles along the coast.
What makes Arrábida different from where I visited in Alentejo is that instead of cliffs, tree-covered mountains sit on top of the coast. The area is a microclimate that mimics certain parts of the Mediterranean.
Many locals from Lisbon come to the area to hike and see the abundant wildlife. There are tons of exotic birds, lizards, and even mongoose. But I was just admiring the way the sky melded into the ocean.
Lots of Portuguese head down to the tiny fishing village of Portinho da Arrábida. I took a look and then headed back into my car. I was trying to find a very particular beach.
I was given instructions by the shop owner to keep the name of the beach secret. He said that I could take photos and tell readers that it was in Arrábida but not reveal the name. It required a short hike down to the water.
Which revealed an idyllic inlet that looked like something out of a Caribbean island. This beach, the shop-owner told me, is many Portuguese little “slice of paradise.” Arrábida is only about an hour or so from Lisbon, which makes it a convenient weekend excursion.
The next day I left Portugal’s stunning beaches and headed past Lisbon to finish my road trip at a sight that might have been more otherworldly than anywhere else I visited in the country. But that’s a story for another time.
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