There’s a reason that golf courses and stag parties might spring to mind when someone mentions the Algarve.
On the tarmac at Gatwick beforehand you can see a Kilimanjaro-like mound of golf bags being loaded into the hold, while a rowdy group of lads on a buck’s outing board the plane, boozed up and ready for a week of debauchery.
The good news is it’s possible to escape the golf courses (all 32 of them) and stags, and find the real Algarve – towns and villages steeped in history and culture.
From the vibrant fishing communities to ancient ruins and delicious local cuisine, there’s more to this region than you might have been led to believe.
Remains of the day
Tavira, a town near the coast, straddles the River Gilão with a seven-arched Roman bridge connecting both sides.
It’s filled with ancient churches, Roman ruins and plenty of restaurants to give you energy to explore them.
The town’s name means ‘hidden place’, thanks to its location 3km inland, chosen for the protection it offered from invaders coming from the sea.
It didn’t always work and much of the town’s history was a tug o’ war between the Moors and the Romans.
These days, despite being popular with tourists, Tavira is more peaceful.
Take a stroll though the narrow, cobbled streets up to the remains of the hilltop castle, and relax in the lush gardens with a view of the town below.
Fishing is not the thriving business it once was here (the tuna have moved on) but you can still enjoy tasty fresh fish at local restaurants.
Port of call
With an attractive waterfront speckled with boats bobbing peacefully in the water, Ohlão is the Algarve’s biggest fishing port.
Each day boats come in to unload their catch and auction it off to commercial buyers, while punters get a piece of the action at Ohlão’s indoor fish market.
Filled with locals looking for dinner, it’s packed with mountains of the catch of the day, while further along is a fruit and veg market.
Tear yourself away from the waterfront and, as in Tavira, you’ll find yourself immersed in a network of little alleyways.
Ohlão’s location also makes it the perfect place to base yourself if you want to visit the neighbouring sandy islands, which are just a half-hour boat ride away.
A river runs through it
Glide down the Guadiana River from Alcoutim, a typical Algarvian town with its white houses with terracotta roofs and colourful door frames, to Vila Real de San Antonio.
As you pass grass-covered mountains dotted with little villages, the view is made all the more special by the fact that on one side of the river is Spain, and on the other, Portugal.
“We have a joke about people from Tavira,” our guide Telma tells us, explaining that if you’ve stopped by a Taviran household while they’re having dinner, they’ll hide their full plates away and tell you: “Oh what a shame, you’ve just missed dinner.”
With so many tasty dishes in the Algarve, you can understand why.
The name actually refers to the copper pot the food is cooked in. You can get all sorts of dishes but seafood is usually the main ingredient. Try one bursting with juicy prawns, fish, clams and even chicken in a tasty tomato broth.
It’s not only the Spanish that serve tapas. Choose from flaming chorizo doused in alcohol, mackerel, maize with mussels and bacalhau (salt cod).
A hearty stew is a great option if you want a change from seafood. Start by putting pieces of bread in your bowl and then top with stew.