Rocky coves and long, sandy beaches characterize the southern tier of Portugal, the former stronghold of the Moors during their occupation of the country. Though uncontrolled tourist development has destroyed much of the old charm of this part of Portugal, much remains to enchant. Not all the towns of interest lie along the water, as many are inland, including such scattered attractions as the Roman ruins at Estói (north of Faro) or the old Moorish town of Silves, within easy reach of Portimão.
You can rent a car in Lisbon and make the 280km (174-mile) drive to Sagres, the so-called "end of the world" in the western Algarve to begin this tour. Those on a more rushed schedule can fly to Faro, capital of the Algarve, and rent a car there. If that is the case, use Faro as a base for 2 days, so that you'll have time to explore the environs, and then head west to Sagres -- basically you'll be doing this tour in reverse.
Day 1 Sagres: The Southwestern Corner of Europe
This is the port where Henry the Navigator launched Portugal upon its era of exploration, which led to colonies around the world. After checking into a hotel or local pousada, set out to explore the surrounding cape, which ancient people thought marked the end of the world. After spending 30 minutes or so at the Fortaleza de Sagres, drive 5km (3 miles) to the promontory of Cabo de São Vicente. It was from this cape that Vasco de Gama launched his caravels to discover the world. You can spend 2 hours or so exploring the cape and its dramatic ocean scenery with wind-tossed waves. (One good way to discover the cape is by biking.) If time remains in the day, you can take in some beach action. Our favorite is Mareta, but countless other beaches dot the peninsula around Sagres.
Days 2 & 3: Lagos & Portimão
On Day 2, leave Sagres in the morning and drive 34km (21 miles) east to reach the ancient port city of Lagos. Historically a port of call for the sailors of Admiral Nelson's fleet, Lagos can be visited in 2 hours. In the town itself, its single major attraction is Igreja de Santo António, dating from the 18th century and containing remarkable baroque gilt carvings. Allow 30 minutes for a visit. Spend another hour or so wandering the streets of the old town, poking into courtyards and ducking into shops looking for handicrafts. The Old Customs House, Antigo Mercado de Escravos, was the site of the arcaded slave market, the largest in Portugal. Before leaving the area, drive 2km (1 1/4 miles) to Ponta da Piedade, one of the most beautiful spots of the western Algarve.
Enjoy a lunch in Lagos at Os Arcos Marisqueira, then continue east toward the bustling fishing port of Portimão, lying 18km (11 miles) to the east of Lagos. Frugal travelers can seek affordable lodgings in Portimão itself, and others can stay at one of the surrounding beach resorts such as Praia da Rocha, which has the most options.
After checking into a hotel, you can explore Portimão itself or spend the afternoon at Praia da Rocha's beach, 3km (1 3/4 miles) from the center of Portimão. If you'd rather play golf, you'll find some good courses here.
On the morning of Day 3, while still based in the Portimão area, set out on a voyage of exploration of your own. Our favorite excursion is to the mountain range of Monchique. After a morning of driving through the mountains, have lunch at the Estalagem Abrigo de Montanha.
In the afternoon, you can head for Silves for 3 hours of wandering about. Lying inland, Silves is reached after an 18km (11-mile) drive to the northeast of Portimão. Its chief attractions are the red-sandstone Castelo dos Mouros and the 13th-century Cathedral of Silves. Because Silves was the capital of the Moorish kings and is an ancient site, we suggest spending ample time -- at least 1 1/2 hours -- poking about its streets. Return to Portimão or Praia da Rocha for the night.
Day 4 Albufeira: The St. Tropez of Portugal
On the morning of Day 4, leave the Portimão area and drive 28km (18 miles) east to the cliffside town and old fishing village of Albufeira. Resembling a village in North Africa, Albufeira is at the center of one of the great beachside tourist developments in all of Portugal. Your choice of hotel for the night can be in Albufeira itself or in Quarteira farther on, or perhaps around Almancil, with its dramatic resorts Vale do Lobo and Quinta do Lago.
Of course, you may decide never to leave Albufeira itself, as it offers some of the best beaches in the Algarve, notably Falésia. Golfers can get in a game at Pine Cliffs or drive over to one of the courses outside Quarteira. Especially good are Vila Sol and Vilamoura Old Course. The finest concentration of restaurants in all of the Algarve is also found in this area, especially if you want to dine deluxe.
Days 5 & 6 Faro: Capital of the Algarve
On the morning of Day 5, leave the Albufeira area, driving 38km (24 miles) east to Faro. Here you can check into a hotel for 2 nights as you set out to discover not only Faro itself but a number of colorful satellite towns. After leaving your hotel, you can go on a 2-hour walk through the ancient streets of Faro, taking in the Capela dos Ossos or Chapel of Bones and the old Sé (or cathedral). Faro's museums are of only minor interest but it's worth exploring the town's major shopping streets, Rua Santo António and Rua Francisco Gomes, and stopping at the Mercado de Faro, the town's best market. After lunch in Faro, head for Praia de Faro, Faro's major beach, in the afternoon.
While still based in Faro, head out on a driving tour in the morning of Day 6. The best road-trip possibilities include a stopover in the old market town of Loulé, lying 15km (9 1/3 miles) north of Faro and in the heart of the Algarve's chimney district. Fret-cut plaster towers rise from many of this town's cottages and houses. These are our favorite chimneys in all of Europe, and you can purchase miniatures of them as souvenirs. The town also features two worthy attractions, the Igreja de São Clemente, Matriz de Loulé and the ruins of its old Moorish castelo.
For lunch, we suggest that you drive to São Brás de Alportel, 20km (13 miles) north of Faro -- it's one of the most beautiful spots in the Algarve. There you can dine in the rustic dining room of the Pousada de São Brás.
En route back to Faro for the night, stop off in the little town of Estói where you can explore the grounds of the baroque Palácio do Visconde de Estói. The drive back to Faro is 8km (5 miles) to the south, heading toward the coast.
Day 7 Vila Real de Santo António
On the morning of Day 7, leave Faro and plan to drive 85km (53 miles) east to the border town of Vila Real, adjoining the Spanish frontier. En route here, you can make two stopovers -- first, at Olhão, a distance of 10km (6 miles) east of Faro. Beloved by painters, this is the famous cubist town of the Algarve, so called because its homes are stacked like white blocks one upon the other. You can easily spend 2 hours wandering its ancient streets, which are very evocative of North Africa.
After a visit, continue east toward Tavira, a distance of 31km (19 miles) east of Faro. On the banks of the Ségua and Gilão rivers, you can spend another 1 1/2 hours wandering the streets of this town. Because of its many canals, the town is likened to Venice, but that, of course, is a gross exaggeration. You can see a seven-arched Roman bridge and many arches, as well as flamboyant chimney decorations. Wander also to the fruit and vegetable market along the river esplanade.
After lunch here, drive on to Vila Real de Santo António for the night, a distance of 23km (14 miles). After checking into a hotel, set out to explore the streets of the town, good examples of 18th-century town planning. Then try to visit either the Museu de Manuel Cabanas or the castle-fortress of Castro Marim. If you have time remaining in the day, you can head southwest of Vila Real to check out the beaches of Monte Gordo, lying 4km (2 1/2 miles) to the southwest of Vila Real at the mouth of the Guadiana River.
Return to Vila Real for the night, and depart for Lisbon the following morning.