Portugal is a small country (about the size of the state of Indiana), but it packs an impressive amount of breathtaking scenery, world-changing history, and family fun into its limited geographic boundaries. And the Algarve region of southern Portugal offers all this, plus lots of beautiful beaches, to round out your holiday.
If, like many families that visit the region, you choose to stay in one the Algarve’s many luxurious resorts, you’ll be tempted to never leave. But be sure to carve out some time to see some of the beauty and attractions that this special place offers families.
There are few places in the world more thrilling than the sight of the majestic cliffs, ragged rock formations and even caves and tunnels at Ponta da Piedade, just south of Lagos. There are numerous hiking trails (note that some are far too treacherous for young children). You can climb the 182 steps down to the water, although if your group isn’t up for that kind of physical challenge, the spectacular views are accessible from even just 30 steps down the walled path. Or consider hiring a boat to take you on a 30-40 minute tour of the various grottos and caves around this area for an entirely different perspective.
Zoomarine is only open seasonally, and so my family missed out on getting to experience it when we visited this region in February. But it certainly appears to be a can’t-miss spot in the Algarve. Highlights include the many animal shows, like sea lions and dolphins. Zoomarine also offers one of the few dolphin encounter experiences available in Europe, suitable for children and adults ages 6 and up. (Must book that in advance at an extra cost.) There’s also a water park and other rides to round out the day of fun.
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Fortunately, Zoo de Lagos is open year-round, and it makes a great excursion when the coastal winds kick up (as they often do in the Algarve). It is further inland than most of the attractions in the region. While it is not as large as most metropolitan zoos, what it lacks in size it makes up for in charm. The grounds are kept immaculately clean, the staff is friendly, and the various habitats for the animals are impressive. The playful monkeys and the many exotic birds were a highlight for my family.
The Algarve’s most western town is a great place to incorporate a little history and culture into your trip. Many believe that Henry the Navigator built his navigation school in Sagres, where some of the world’s most famous explorers received their training. The Fortaleza de Sagres has a small museum with information on this era in history, plus a gorgeous ½ mile fenced walk along the cliffs.
Just a few miles up the road is Cabo de Sao Vicente, where Europe’s second most powerful lighthouse stands. Sagres’ marina is perfect for admiring the many fishing boats that head in and out each day, and the town itself is full of charming cafes and surf shops.
Beach lovers will drool over the variety of options this region provides. If you love to surf, or even just admire those who do, Praia Martinhal near Sagres is a great choice. (Many shops in town offer lessons and equipment.) Praia Meia near Lagos is a good option for young families, as it offers an expansive stretch of fine sand and is easily accessible from the parking area. (It was also our favorite spot to collect shells.) There are plenty of more secluded beaches all along the coast, too, if you’re willing to head down the steep stairs that line the cliffs. You’ll be rewarded with spectacular views as you catch some of the best sunshine in Europe.
After spending a few days playing on the beach and seeing the sites in the Algarve, one wonders how such a small country can lay claim to so much beauty. But its compact size means families can see so much of it, and yet still have plenty of vacation hours left to relax around their resort.
Editor’s Note: All photos by Nicole Wiltrout unless otherwise noted.
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