The Algarve has been attracting visitors since Phoenician times. In 711 AD, it was conquered by the Moors, marking the western edge of the Islamic empire. The region’s architecture still bears the influence of the five centuries of Moorish rule, evident in features like lattice chimneys and walls covered with azulejo [tile]. When Christians reclaimed the Algarve in 1249, the Portuguese rulers were bestowed with the title ‘King of Portugal and of the Algarve’, emphasizing the region’s separateness from the rest of the country.
Extensive damage was inflicted upon the region by the earthquake of 1755, which had its epicenter just south of Lagos. The earthquake’s intensity, coupled with subsequent fires and a tsunami, resulted in the complete destruction or sever damage of the towns and villages in the area. This accounts for the scarcity of buildings predating this period.
For hikers and nature enthusiasts, Sete Vales Suspenso [Seven Hanging Valleys] hiking 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 stretches along the Algarve coastline, starting from Praia Vale do Centianes [Centianes Valley Beach] in the west and ending at Praia da Marinha [Navy Beach]. It can be walked in either direction. At Praia de Benagil [Benagil Beach], visitors have the option to embark on a boat tour and experience a different perspective of the area.
Faro has undergone several rebirths throughout the centuries. The region emerged as a significant trading port during the period of Phoenician colonization. From the 2nd to the 13th centuries, the town witnessed power struggles between the Roman, Byzantine, Visigothic, and Moorish dominions. Despite these challenges, the town maintained its importance. Following the pattern of other parts of Algarve, Faro was reclaimed from the Moors by Afonso III in 1249. The town prospered until 1596 when it was devastated by a fire set by the Earl of Essex, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I of England. It rose from the ashes only to be severely damaged in the 1755 earthquake. Faro was reconstructed once again and became the capital of Algarve in 1756.
The winding cobbled streets of the old town, encompassed by medieval walls, host a collection of historic buildings, museums, churches, and charming tiled cafes. The Museu Arqueológico e Lapidar Infante Dom Henrique [Archaeological and Lapidary Museum Prince Henry the Navigator] holds numerous archaeological discoveries that bear witness to the city’s tumultuous history. The Sé de Faro [Cathedral of Faro] stands as another testament to this legacy. The most striking features of the cathedral include the original 13th-century architectural elements like the bell tower and the chapels of the cross, as well as the 17th- and 18th-century chapels adorned with ornate gilded woodcarvings and azulejos. Adjacent to it, the Paço Episcopal [Bishops’ Palace] is decorated with tile panels from the 18th-century.
Dominating the city skyline, the18th-century Igreja do Carmo [Church of Carmel] captivates attention with its remarkable Capela de Ossos [Bone Chapel]. This unique chapel is adorned not only with the bones and skulls of Carmelite monks but also constructed with walls made of femurs bound together with mortar.
Lagos, a highly sought-after tourist destination in the Algarve, holds immense historical significance as the birthplace of pivotal transformations in human history. In the 15th century, it was here in Lagos that Infante Dom Henrique [Henry the Navigator], son of Portuguese King João I, prepared the caravels that embarked on voyage along the coast of Africa, marking the advent of the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Motivated by scientific curiosity, economic interests, and the desire to spread the Christian faith, Henrique utilized his personal wealth and the resources of the Order of Christ, for which he served as administrator, to support Portugal’s maritime expeditions. By the time of his passing in 1460, these expeditions had reached the Gulf of Guinea.
At the same time, a deeply shameful era in human history commenced when the prince’s explorers brought back the first slaves from northern Mauritania. In 1444, the first European Mercado de Escravos [Slave Market] was established in Lagos. Today, the building serves as the Slave Market Museum, offering insight into the history of slavery in the Algarve, starting from the arrival of the first slaves.
The finest churches in 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 its collection of eight panel paintings depicting the miracles attributed to 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.
Stretching along the coastline of Lagos is Ponta da Piedade [Tip of Piety], a breathtaking ensemble of 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 may not be renowned for its beauty; nevertheless, it has a lively sandy beach, Praia da Rocha, featuring secluded coves among the protruding rock formations.
The first stronghold in Silves is believed to have been constructed around 200 BC, possibly by the Romans or the Visigoths. In approximately 716 AD, the Moors conquered the stronghold and reinforced its fortification with an additional series of walls. Under Moorish occupation, the town thrived and became the capital of the region. Probably the most significant event in the fortification’s history occurred when the forces of King Sancho I of Portugal, supported by a formidable Crusader army, captured the citadel in 1189 after a lengthy siege. However, the town was later retaken by a powerful Moorish army in 1191.
Today, the striking red sandstone walls of the Castelo de Silves [Castle of Silves], situated above the town, stand as one of the best-preserved Moorish fortifications in Portugal. Additionally, the nearby Sé de Silves [Cathedral of Silves], being the most significant Gothic structure in the Algarve, holds great importance.