While winter temperatures aren’t warm enough for swimming on southern Portugal’s famed beaches, the Algarve’s sunny days and mild weather still lure winter family travelers. The theme parks beach amusements are closed for the season, but families will find castles, Roman sites, charming villages and fantastically carved rock formations to explore.
Already a winter haven for northern Europeans, the Algarve doesn’t close up when the beach umbrellas are folded. Restaurants, shops and attractions are open; local markets are busy; and hotels are at a fraction of summer rates. Getting around is easy, and without the beach-going crowds, local people have time to be sociable and share their secret places with visitors.
You can walk for miles on golden-sand beaches and underneath sandstone cliffs eroded into fantastic shapes. Walking trails follow along the clifftops, looking down onto tiny coves cut with sea caves. Between these find tiny fishing ports and holiday towns with promenades and outdoor cafés catching the sun.
Among the highlights not to miss is the hilltop Silves Castle, the finest Moorish fortification in Portugal, where you can walk the ramparts and climb down into the massive cistern that held enough water to withstand sieges.
In Lagos and Faro, you’ll find churches with interiors covered in gold, brought by the caravels from the mines of Brazil. Dig a bit deeper into this golden era of Portuguese history by visiting Sagres, at the Algarve’s far western tip. From here, Prince Henry the Navigator sent his caravels to explore the world; standing on top of the cliffs, it’s hard to imagine sailors taking their wooden ships into the pounding sea below.
Buy a bag of juicy sweet Algarve oranges from a roadside seller, try the local wines, savor fresh-caught seafood and sample some of the local dishes inspired by the north African influences of the Algarve’s Moorish past.
Flights to Portugal’s capital of Lisbon connect easily to Faro, or you can drive from Lisbon to the Algarve in half a day. Lagos, in the western Algarve, and Tavira in the east make good bases for exploration, with lots of hotels and more of a local flavor than the beach resorts.
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