Algarve attracted visitors as early as the Phoenician times. Around 711 AD it was conquered by the Moors, becoming the western edge of the Islamic empire. Five centuries of Moorish rule left a legacy that is still visible in the region’s architecture, such as lattice chimneys and azulejo [tile] covered walls. When the Algarve was reclaimed by the Christians in 1249, the Portuguese rulers were titled “King of Portugal and of the Algarve” – this way emphasizing the region’s separateness from the rest of the country.
Extensive damage was caused to the region by the earthquake of 1755 with epicenter just south of Lagos. The earthquake was so strong that, in combination with subsequent fires and a tsunami, totally destroyed or badly damaged the towns and villages of the area. This explains why very few buildings predate this period.
For hikers and nature lovers Sete Vales Suspenso [Seven Hanging Valleys] trail is a place not to be missed. This scenic route features striking rock formations, caves, sinkholes, secluded coves and sandy beaches.
The Sete Vales Suspenso Hiking Trail runs along the Algarve coastline from Praia Vale do Centianes [Centianes Valley Beach] on the west to Praia da Marinha [Navy Beach] – it can be walked from either direction. At Praia de Benagil [Benagil Beach], visitors can opt for a boat tour and enjoy a different view of the area.
Faro has been reborn several times over the centuries. The region became an important commercial port as early as the period of Phoenician colonization. Between the 2nd and 13th centuries, the town was contested between the Roman, Byzantine, Visigoth and Moorish dominions. The town retained its importance during these centuries as well. Similarly, to other parts of Algarve, it was reclaimed from the Moors by Afonso III in 1249. The town prospered until 1596, when it was burned down by the Earl of Essex, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I of England. It was rebuilt from the ashes only to be badly damaged in the earthquake of 1755. Faro was rebuilt yet again and became the capital of Algarve in 1756.
The winding cobbled streets of the old town, surrounded by medieval walls, are home to historical buildings, museums, churches and tiled cafes. Many archaeological finds that testify to the city’s turbulent history can be found in the Museu Arqueológico e Lapidar Infante Dom Henrique [Archaeological and Lapidary Museum Prince Henry the Navigator]. The Sé de Faro [Cathedral of Faro] is also such evidence. The most striking features of the cathedral are the remaining architectural elements of the original 13th-century building, such as the bell tower and the chapels of the cross, and the 17th- and 18th-century chapels decorated with gilded woodcarvings and azulejos. The nearby Paço Episcopal [Bishops’ Palace] is also decorated with 18th-century tile panels.
Standing out against the city skyline, the 18th-century Igreja do Carmo [Church of Carmel] is notable for its Capela de Ossos [Bone Chapel]. The chapel is not only decorated with the bones and skulls of the Carmelite monks – the walls are constructed from femurs bound with mortar.
Lagos, one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Algarve, is the birthplace of decisive changes in human history. In the 15th century, it was in Lagos that Infante Dom Henrique [Henry the Navigator], son of the Portuguese king João I, fitted up the caravels that would set out for the coast of Africa, launching the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Henrique was led by his scientific curiosity, combined with economic interests and the desire to spread the Christian faith. He used his own wealth, as well as that of the Order of Christ (of which he was the administrator), to support Portugal’s maritime expeditions. By the time he died in 1460, they had reached the Gulf of Guinea.
At the same time, a most disgraceful period of human history began, with the first slaves brought back from northern Mauritania by the prince’s explorers. The first European Mercado de Escravos [Slave Market] was established in Lagos at 1444. The building now houses the Slave Market Museum that traces the history of slavery in the Algarve from the arrival of the first slaves.
The finest churches of the town include the Igreja de Santo António [Church of St Antony] and Igreja de Santa Maria [Church of Santa Maria]. Igreja de Santo António is known for the eight panel paintings depicting the miracles performed by St Antony. The church is richly decorated with gilded woodcarvings and, blue and white azulejos. In Igreja de Santa Maria, of local interest is a statue of São Gonçalo of Lagos, a fisherman’s son born in 1360, who became an Augustinian monk, preacher and composer of religious music.
Along the coastline of the town of Lagos is Ponta da Piedade [Tip of Piety], a series of wonderful rock formations, caves and secluded sandy coves. The Ponta da Piedade walk on wooden boards along the edge of the cliffs is something not to be missed.
Portimão is not renowned for its beauty, however, it has a lively sandy beach, Praia da Rocha, with secluded coves among the protruding rock formations.
It is believed that the first stronghold in Silves was built around 200 BC by the Romans or the Visigoths. Around 716 AD the stronghold was conquered by the Moors, who reinforced the fortification with additional series of walls. The town flourished under the Moorish occupiers and became the capital of the region. Probably the most notable event in the life of the fortification was when the forces of King Sancho I of Portugal, supported by a powerful Crusader army, conquered the citadel after a prolonged encirclement in 1189. However, a grand Moorish army retook the town in 1191.
Today, the striking red sandstone walls of the Castelo de Silves [Castle of Silves], standing above the town, are one of the best-preserved Moorish fortifications in Portugal. Whereas, the Sé de Silves [Cathedral of Silves] located nearby the castle, is the most important Gothic building in the Algarve.