For an alternative to Portugal’s busy beaches, head inland to villages rich in history, art and food traditions.
It’s no wonder that the coastal cities of the Algarve, in southern Portugal, have long been hotspots to escape from tepid summers into bountiful sunshine.
The streets of the Algarve pulsate with visitors, eager to try local restaurants, and around-the-clock entertainment. But fewer travelers seek out the Algarve’s interior, an hour—and worlds—away from the coast along quiet country roads winding through orange and olive groves.
A shared history and age-old traditions weave this peaceful region together. Each village, for example, has a handful of Catholic churches, and most are topped with a stone fortress or castle. Long lunches begin with bread, olives and cheese, and end with a shot of medronho, a traditional fruit brandy. An afternoon nap inevitably follows.
Despite similarities and geographic proximity, the Algarve’s landlocked towns have retained their own sense of self. They were far more isolated in centuries past, when traveling from one hilly destination to the next required more than just following satellite navigation directions. Today, however, the interior villages are easily reached via exits off the A22, the main highway (a toll road), while the roads are well paved and simple to navigate.
Each of these villages is worthy of attention, especially since the region is quickly changing. New highways and modern plazas are signs of investment in the future, and cultural evolution is inevitable. Travelers today have the rare opportunity to experience a simple, magical side of European life that may one day look entirely different. Here is our guide to three of the Algarve’s secret villages.
This central city may be the most appealing in the Algarve’s interior. Neighbors chat across slender streets from second-story windows, orange and lemon trees give off a citrus scent, and rows of houses are covered in azulejos, Portugal’s famed painted tiles.
More than half of the world’s cork products come from Portugal. You can shop for beautifully detailed purses, wallets and shoes made from supple sheets of cork bark, which feels almost like suede, at Loja Regional A. Silva. See artists Dimitrios Mantzavrakos and Florbela Moreira at work in their studio. They often use the town as a backdrop in their watercolor, acrylic and collage paintings. Lace-bordered tablecloths are sold at the sewing shop Casa das Lãs e Retrosaria Anita. Bottles of Portuguese wine await at Rui Marisqueira, a seafood restaurant with a loyal following. Garlicky prawns and succulent spider crab are standouts. Save room for cataplana de peixe, a stew of red snapper, grouper and clams prepared in a traditional steel pot. End the meal with a mel, or honey liqueur, and take in Silves’ backlit castle crowning the village in a golden glow.
Hidden among pine groves and fig trees, Alte has long attracted poets, artisans and expat artists. Get an overview of the current arts scene at Off the Wall Gallery, owned by enamellist Susan Searle. She aggregates works, ranging from brightly colored oil paintings to silk and merino wool scarves, by contemporary Algarve-based artists. At O Cantinho do Artista, Maria Martins hand stitches lace, one of Portugal’s oldest art forms, into tablecloths and handkerchiefs. A balcony overlooking the countryside awaits next door at Agua Mel, where you can sample almond cakes and warm custards.
While pottery is a staple at shops throughout the Algarve, Porches Pottery, 30 minutes from Alte, has some of the best examples of the craft. Its female staff paint majolica, the earthenware with floral designs. Across the street, Casa Grade stocks pottery from all over Portugal, from rustic plates to ornately painted pieces.
This village in the foothills of Fóia, the Algarve’s highest point, has streets so steep and winding that a successful job of parallel parking may earn polite applause from entertained town residents. Once on foot, a hike to the peak is highly recommended, though not before exploring the café-filled courtyards and climbing the stone staircases, which are often lined with blue hydrangeas and dotted with bronze figurines and other public art.
Hikers can find picnic provisions at the farmers market (Estra. da De Sabóia), where residents haggle over the purchase of garden-fresh fruits and vegetables. More artisanal food souvenirs are sold at Loja do Mel e do Medronho, a modest shop where portraits of proud farmers hang above shelves filled with olive oils, liqueurs, honeycomb and tomato jams.
A 3-and-a-half-mile path leads trekkers from Monchique to the Fóia mountaintop. For those who don’t associate exercise with holiday, a scenic road also winds to the peak. In either case, the reward is a view all the way to Sagres Point, the cliff-lined tip of Portugal.
Freshly caught seafood is popular throughout the Algarve, but Monchique’s higher elevation and cooler temperatures have historically led to meatier meals. Fortunately, traditional dishes still make the menu at A Charrette, a three-decade-old restaurant with old-fashioned wooden cupboards and antique dishes. Clay bowls are heaped with rice, beans and sweet chestnuts or cabbage and pork.
In the evenings, cocktail crowds head to Barlefante, a hip lounge framed by potted succulents. Inside, rose-colored walls and sequined throw pillows lend a Moroccan vibe.
These inland village treasures offer a taste of a traditional way of Portuguese life not to be missed.