I love birthdays, and I’ve taught Christian to love them as well. I don’t just love my birthday – I love doing Christian’s birthday up big, planning for it up to six months in advance sometimes. Going with our theme of giving the gift of experience rather than material things, we have always opted for giving each other trips instead of actual presents (sometimes a book or two) for birthdays and Christmases. That way we both get to enjoy our respective gifts and the memories we make mean much more than a diamond necklace!
Since we were spending our summer in Germany in 2015, I whisked Christian away to the Algarve which is the southernmost region of Portugal for 5 days for his birthday in June (ladies, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t take your man on a trip, it doesn’t have to be a one way street!) This was following up on a cruise of Santorini I got for him in 2014 😉 Easyjet and Ryanair have some fantastic deals to Faro and Porto in the Algarve. This was our first trip to Portugal together (despite my last name being Portugese!) and we were excited for the white-washed fishermen’s villages, and low cliffs looking over Mediterranean beaches of the famed Algarve.
We decided to fly into Faro as it offered the lowest fares and stayed in Portimao. We decided to stick to visiting the Faro, Portimao, Albufeira, and Lagos region, and opted to visit Porto another time, as it promised enough to do in and of itself.
Do: Rent a car
Needless to say, you need a car to experience the best of what the Algarve has to offer. We loved driving from Faro to Portimao, from Portimao to Albufeira, and from Albufeira to Lagos and so forth. Take care when driving though – while the streets aren’t that busy, the turns and layout of the towns can be pretty confusing. We ended up driving in circles more than once when navigating our way through Albufeira and Lagos.
Don’t: Just rent from anywhere on the internet
Full disclosure: we rented a car in advance from rentalcars.com and the reservation went horribly when we picked up our car at Faro airport. We’d never had an issue with renting a car before, but we were told that renting through rentalcars.com was not recommended by the car rental agencies in Faro. To be fair, we had to lodge a complaint about the agent who served us as well, but the fact that our reservation hadn’t been fully confirmed by rentalcars.com irked us the most. However, after a long discussion, we ended up with our car. So be aware that the customer service at the car rental agencies at Faro airport (the usual: Budget, Avis, Sixt etc.) needs to be improved, the process isn’t streamlined so you may end up spending an hour or so there, and you’re better off booking directly with a specific agency than going through a third party (which is what we have done, with no problems, ever since!)
Do: Rent a GPS
Some of the best advice we got was to get a GPS for the car. While certain places, like the Amalfi Coast, don’t require a GPS to navigate, the Algarve with it’s sparse signage and complicated roundabouts require a GPS when navigating from city to city.
Do: Stay at an apartment
Apartments in the area go for extremely reasonable prices and are in excellent condition. We loved our apartment in Clube Praia Mar in Portimao, which was a five minute drive to Lidl so that we could stock up on breakfast foods in advance.
We highly recommend staying in apartments when planning an extended stay, given that you prefer not to go for hostels or motels. Apartments can be an extremely welcome alternative to hotels, tending to be much more spacious and homey than hotel rooms.
Do: Stay close to the beach
Our apartment was a five minute walk to the beach which was excellent when we wanted to have a few drinks at the beach and couldn’t drive back. This is something to consider for any beach vacation!
The beaches in Portimao were quiet and uncrowded. We loved taking a walk on the promenade by the beach lined with local stores, having a beer with lunch, and heading down to a quiet afternoon by the beautiful ocean. Fair warning: the water isn’t the warmest in June, which is a problem for a warm island girl like me but German Christian had no problem with it!
Do: Take a boat tour
There are several boat tours available on the coast, some doing day trips in the water, some doing sunset champagne cruises, and others going to certain romantic destinations such as Silves, the old Moorish capital of the Algarve. We opted for a boat tour to Silves with Alvor Boat trips and loved it. The folks over at Alvor Boat trips were extremely prompt via email, and picked us from Portimao and brought us to the port for our day cruise.
Our skipper was flush with knowledge about the area (and the 2009 crash that hit Portugal pretty hard) and we enjoyed a comfortable trip to Silves. Filomena at Alvor Boat Trips even organized a birthday surprise for Christian which was a wonderfully thoughtful addition to our trip.
Silves itself was a beautiful little place to spend around three hours exploring. The town is made up of little white streets winding up from the river to the castle atop the undulating hills.
There are some great wine sellers as you make your way up the castle steps, and the top of the castle offers wonderful views of the town and its ramparts.
We spent an hour or so in the castle itself and opted to walk around its walls rather than take a tour of the museum inside (which is offered at an additional cost).
Coming down from the castle, the streets offer some respite from the warm sun in June. The weather in June is comfortable but unpredictable – while our trip to Silves was marked with beautiful weather, the evenings got significantly cooler and windier. I ended up hunting for scarves through the little towns, preferring to support the more local businesses as much as possible with my purchases.
Note that the crash hit Portugal pretty hard, and you can see it. We love to explore smaller towns outside of the main hotspots and found many formerly beautiful and quaint businesses now boarded up or taking extremely long siestas, given the lack of tourists and business.
This is exactly why you should visit this beautiful place. Not to mention that we were blown away by the food and drink prices. Coming from Germany, we were pretty used to food and drinks being extremely affordable but the Algarve was something else. Portimao had restaurants and bars galore offering large beers for 1 euro along with your meal – which would cost you around 6 euro for a pasta, 4 euro for incredible fish/seafood soup, and around 10 euro for meat dishes. A beer with lunch, for 10 euro at a fancy restaurant? Yes please.
Do: Enjoy the food
This was food heaven for me – ridiculously cheap, delicious seafood. The local cataplana was my favorite, though their portions were so large I could never finish my dish in one sitting. Their fish soup was exquisite. We had a fantastic time hopping from one restaurant to the next tasting their fish soup and cataplana, steak and salads, for a fraction of what it would cost elsewhere.
Do: Visit Lagos and Albufeira
Albufeira is arguably the most famous town in the Algarve. This is a wonderful place to base yourself in depending on when you visit and the level of tourists you prefer to be around. If you don’t end up staying in the city itself, it’s a great place to spend a day and night – while Portimao is a quiet coastal town, Albufeira does come alive at night with street performers, music, restaurants, and tourists and locals alike.
Lagos is another beautiful city to spend a day in. If you’re looking for nightlife, this is the place to go; we danced the night away in the several bars and clubs that the town has to offer. The drinks are still extremely reasonable considering that they are served at bars and clubs. This is arguably the most touristy of all the towns we visited. Note that finding parking can be very difficult in Lagos, and you may have to do a few turns around the town until you feed a curb-side spot.
In comparison to each other, Portimao is a quieter town with a reasonable amount of city-like buildings and a beautiful beach promenade with plenty of nighttime restaurants and shops, Albufeira has more nightlife, tourists, and a busier beach, while Lagos is filled with the most tourists and has Italian-style piazzas and cobble-stoned streets lined with shops, restaurants, ice-cream stops, and plenty of bars and clubs at night.
Do: Visit Fiesa
Fiesa is the largest sand sculpture ever built and it has been held in Pera, Portugal, since 2003.
It is definitely worth the often confusing drive to Pera. Be warned that the signs to Pera are sparse and you may have to stop more than once to inquire from the local in which direction Pera is. The streets of the little towns you pass tend to look almost exactly the same and unless you have a GPS, this is a tricky drive. However, it is extremely worth it once you arrive.
The Algarve is a fantastic places to spend a birthday – or simply a vacation – in. The restaurant patrons are lovely and arranged cakes for Christian on three separate occasions!
From quiet beaches to active nightlife, ridiculously cheap drinks to delicious seafood, the Algarve has it all.
Do: Look for cheap deals on Ryanair or easyjet to Faro if you’re based in Europe.
Don’t: Rent cars from third party car rental agents. Rent directly from the company of your choice. Internet searches can give you the best values (you can even use a third party agent to compare values and then book directly from the respective company).
Do: Visit Albuferia, Lagos, Portimao, Faro, and Silves.
Do: Consider staying in an apartment close to the beach.
Do: Take a boat tour! Consider visiting Silves with Alvor Boat Trips.
Do: Visit Fiesa in Pera.
Do: Enjoy the cheap drinks and delicious food!
Been to the Algarve? Planning a trip there? We’d love to hear about your experiences! Share your stories with us below!
As always, be a conscious traveler: Take nothing, and leave nothing behind. Be conscious, be welcome! Read more about conscious travel here.