The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Spain and Portugal: Virginia Irurita of Made for Spain and Portugal.
Born and raised in Spain, Virginia left a decade-long career in banking in London and Madrid to found her boutique trip-planning firm in 1999. By popular demand, she recently expanded her scope to include Portugal too—a natural fit, given that she speaks Portuñol (a mix of Spanish and Portuguese). She has a little black book thick with the names of local experts—museum curators, architects, chefs, flamenco dancers—eager to show you their little corners of the Iberian peninsula. Her bespoke itineraries extend to the islands of Mallorca and Ibiza too. Virginia has a particularly keen interest in wine and winemaking—so keen, in fact, that she bought herself a vineyard on the banks of the Duero River—and she is especially well-connected in the foodie world. So, if you’re planning a corporate retreat in the wine country or a cultural tour for museum benefactors, look no further. Virginia’s savvy local drivers and clever guides will save you considerable time and hassle. If you prefer to rent a car and drive yourself, or you’re seeking more limited arrangements, click to Ask Wendy for a different recommendation.
What to Do and See
Most underrated place
Faro, the capital of the Algarve. Most people avoid it, but it’s a beautiful city. Walk around the historical port and old quarter; let yourself get a little lost, do some shopping, and people-watch.
Most overrated place
Albufeira’s tourist train. It may sound like lots of fun, but it’s too busy, too touristy, and too expensive for sure.
The hidden gem
In general, the hidden gem of the Algarve is the inland area—so many visitors think only of the beaches. Along the coast, the small village of Cacela Velha—near the Spanish border—is a spot that not many people visit. Because of that, it stills contains all the character of the old days, with whitewashed houses and amazing natural life on its beaches.
The cheap thrill
Take in the vista from one of the Algarve’s many beautiful viewpoints. I love the one just underneath the Castle of Santa Catarina, where you can look out on Rocha Beach while sipping an orange and maracuyá juice (the latter native to South America, and symbolic of the region’s melting pot of cultures) purchased from a roadside stand.
Prime picnic spot
Right outside of the village of Alte—and in many other picturesque inland villages in the area—are some natural springs (fontes) that were once used to wash dishes and clothes. Nowadays, many locals bring a picnic of smoked sausages or barbecue some sardines or baby pork on the spring’s stone grill.
How to spend a lazy Sunday
Walking along a beach and stopping at one of the little restaurants by the water to enjoy a local specialty: rice cooked in a cataplana (a hammered copper dish) with prawns or fish.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best-value splurge hotel
Vila Lara has one of the prime locations within the Algarve: All beaches in Portugal are officially public, but because the one facing the hotel is bordered by cliffs, it is nearly private. Here you’ll also find the best thalassic spa treatments on the entire Iberian peninsula and luxurious suites surrounded by pine trees and gardens.
Best locally loved neighborhood restaurant
Gigi’s restaurant, inside the Quinta do Lago golf resort, is the favorite of both locals and foreigners for lunch. Once a very casual place, it has gained fame for its superb seafood (prepared simply, without sauces), and for the big personality of its owner. Be prepared for a walk: Gigi’s is located right on the beach, at the end of a very long footbridge over a lagoon and some sand dunes.
If visiting in wintertime: The two outposts of Restaurante Carlos, one in the village of Sagres and another in the capital city of Faro, serve great feijoada: a bean stew cooked with many different meats—or in some cases squid—and served with rice. Another great cold-weather choice here is the pork and clam stew served with potatoes.
Meal worth the splurge
Enjoy dinner at Vila Joya’s two-Michelin-star restaurant, the soul of this private villa-turned–boutique hotel. It’s not just the food that impresses, but also the service and environment, with seating right on the water both indoors and out. They have a tasting menu, but you can also order á la carte. The experience is even better if you tell the chef and sommelier that you want to do a wine pairing—each dish with a different Portuguese wine. The fish is out of this world, as is the squab.
May, June, September, and October. The weather is beautiful and it’s not too busy, so you can get a table in the restaurants and enjoy uncrowded beaches. I also love February and March, when the almond trees are in blossom—quite an amazing spectacle.
Avoid July and August, when it’s very hot and there are too may tourists, and January and February, when many shops, restaurants, and hotels close for winter.
Not realizing that each area of the Algarve is different, and that not all of it has been overrun by German and British tourists—much of the land is actually protected by nature reserves. Each city has its own character, as well: Albufeira, Quarteira and Vilamoura are great if you’re looking for an unpretentious place to enjoy sun and beach time; if you are younger and looking for nightlife, Lagos is the place.
The Algarve is famous for its oysters and clams. We can arrange for you to spend a morning exploring Ría Formosa Natural Park by boat with a naturalist who can tell you about the flora and fauna of the area. Stop in a village on a small island to learn the ropes of gathering mollusks with a fisherman, and afterward tasting them—when they’re this fresh, all the local oysters need is just a little pepper or lemon. (No translator necessary either: Many of the villagers speak English, because American television programs are subtitled rather than dubbed!). If you prefer something a bit fancier, you can go clam picking early one morning with chef Andrew McGie of the five-star Conrad Algarve hotel, then return to his kitchen and learn how to cook them in the traditional style, with some olive oil, garlic, and cilantro. The final product will be the centerpiece of your meal that day.
Don’t tip too much, or the locals will consider you “not in the know.” Instead, if you get good service, be generous with your smile and your words of appreciation, and just round up the bill.
Pottery is a very old and much-vaunted craft around here. There are a wide variety of patterns and colors, all of great quality, available for purchase in the local villages. Fig liqueur is a great delicacy that is unique to this area, too.
Stop outside the inland village of Alte at sunset or sunrise to snap a photo of its white houses and the stone castle sitting atop the village, like a little crown.