Golden beaches, historic lighthouses and edge-of-the-earth cliffs: the Algarve has some of Portugal’s most enchanting coastline.
It also has unmatched summertime highs – both when it comes to temperatures and to lodging prices. There are plenty of ways you can save, however, even when traveling during peak season. In fact, some of the best experiences in this captivating corner of Portugal won’t cost you a cent.
Here’s our guide to the best free things to see and do in the Algarve.
Join the celebration at a free festival
The Algarve has free events and festivals throughout the year, and it’s worth timing your visit to see the region at its most vibrant. Food plays a starring role at many gatherings, including the Portimão Street Food Festival held each August. At this annual event, you can try unique dishes created by celebrated chefs, including a few Michelin winners.
Peer back in time in the old quarter of Tavira
It’s easy to feel as though you’ve stepped back in time while wandering the cobblestone lanes of Tavira. Strolling through this peaceful river town, you’ll pass the Ponte Romana (Roman Bridge) – a vestige of the Roman presence here that was rebuilt in the 17th century. Tavira also has Renaissance-era churches and a grand plaza where Romans, Islamic peoples and medieval Portuguese in turn held large markets. For the best view over town, climb up to the garden-fringed Castelo, a defensive post used by Phoenicians back in the 8th century BCE. Afterward, rejoin the modern world at a well-placed cafe overlooking the Rio Gilão.
Walk along the sea cliffs of Cabo de São Vicente
Feel the wind on your cheeks while watching the waves pulse against the rocks far below. A walk along this dramatic headland past a red-topped lighthouse yields fabled views – and also gives bragging rights. You’re standing on Europe’s southwesternmost point: the perfect place to contemplate Portugal’s seafaring past when fame-seeking navigators sailed off in search of foreign lands to colonize. Come in the late afternoon for the most memorable views as the sun sinks into the Atlantic.
Go beach hopping along the coast from Lagos
Grab your beach towel, slap on the sunscreen and head to some of the prettiest beaches in Portugal. Oh, and don’t forget those walking shoes: these sunny stretches of sand are best reached on foot from Lagos. As you head south, you’ll walk by inviting Praia de Batata, then pass through a rock tunnel to the thinner crowds of Praia dos Estudantes. The views just keep getting better as you continue to Praia do Pinhão, which is backed by soaring cliffs, and Praia de Dona Ana, set in a scenic little cove.
If you’re not ready to stop, you can keep going, visiting more lovely beaches, including off-the-beaten-track Praia da Balança, reached via a hike down a narrow gully. A fine cap to the day’s walk (around 3km/1.8mi each way from Lagos) is the Ponta de Piedade, a dramatic overlook and one of the finest spots in the Algarve to watch the sunset.
Browse the stalls of the Olhão Market
Anchoring Olhão’s picturesque waterfront, two huge red-brick buildings with symmetrical turrets showcase some of the finest produce of the Algarve. The eastern building (on the left as you face the water) is home to the Algarve’s largest fish market, while the western building (right side) houses a sizable number of fruit and vegetable stalls. It’s pure sensory overload to browse the many vendors’ wares, and if you have access to a kitchen, you won’t find better, fresher or less expensive seafood anywhere in the Algarve.
The best time to visit is Saturday, when small producers, bakers and craft makers set up on the cobblestones outside of the market. Grab some picnic fare, then catch the ferry nearby to the peaceful island of Armona to enjoy a seaside lunch on the beach.
Gain deeper insight into the Algarve on a free walking tour in Faro
The Cidade Velha (Old Town) of Faro is one of the Algarve’s most fascinating historic districts, and it’s a great place to learn about the key events that have shaped the Algarve. On a guided two-hour walking tour through the narrow lanes, you’ll learn details about foreign conquests, a devastating 18th-century earthquake and macabre sanctuaries (like the bone chapel), while also covering ecology and the biologically rich wetlands just outside of town. The price for all this? Zero – though tips are greatly appreciated.
Dig your heels in the sand on a car-free island near Tavira
Wonderfully undeveloped Ilha de Tavira feels like a remote slice of the tropics plonked down on the edge of Europe. The wide sands inspire long walks, and with 11km (6.8mi) of beachfront, you won’t lack space. You can get there by an inexpensive ferry from Tavira, or you can ride from the dock of Pedras d’El Rei on a mini train (comboio turístico) repurposed from the fishing industry. You can also get there on foot from Pedras d’El Rei (a 1.5km/1mi walk to the beach), with views across wetlands along the way.
Look for flamingos and herons on the Ludo Trail
The lagoons, creeks and salt marshes of the Ria Formosa Natural Park draw an impressive variety of birdlife, especially during the spring and fall migrations. You can take an organized tour here, or you can see the reserve gratis by visiting on your own. On the long, straight 3km(1.8-mile)-long Ludo Trail, you might spy spoonbills, herons, black-winged stilts or even flocks of flamingos amid the marshy coastline near Faro, with access to the trail 8km (5mi) west of town. We recommend going green (and increasing your odds of wildlife encounters) by getting there by bicycle. Afterward, you can pedal to nearby Praia de Faro for a refreshing swim off the beach.
Admire the view from the highest point in the Algarve
When you need a break from the heat, or just want to see what the Algarve’s inland looks like, head to Monchique. Set high above the coastline, this pleasant village is the gateway to a number of scenic walks in the surrounding highlands of the Serra de Monchique. Start out early for the 11km (6.8mi) round-trip hike through fragrant eucalyptus and cork trees to the top of Fóia, the highest peak in the Algarve at 902m (2960ft). From the top, you’ll have magnificent views over the rolling hinterlands, the village-dotted coastline and the deep blue Atlantic beyond.
Enjoy beach activities or waterfall time with the family
If you’re traveling as a family, you don’t have to spend a lot to amuse the kids. Free activities like building sand castles on the beach and frolicking in the waves are hard to top – especially on calmer beaches like Praia Grande in Ferragudo. You can also find adventures just inland, like the short hike (good shoes recommended) to Cascata do Pego do Inferno, a waterfall and natural pool located 8km (5mi) northwest of Tavira. Bring a picnic and make a day of it.