Algarve cultural holidays

Art, architecture and history that spans thousands of years

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Julie Dawn Fox

Julie Dawn Fox
HomeAway travel expert

fishing boats in Portimao harbor in the Algarve PortugalA trip to the Algarve can be a journey through the centuries. You’ll find remains of Roman homes with remarkable mosaics, medieval architecture, Baroque and Rococo decorative arts and contemporary sculptures. The most enduring influence on the culture and architecture of the Algarve is that of the Moors, who occupied the region between the 8th and 13th centuries AD. Even its name comes from the Arabic Al-Gharb, meaning “the West”. The former capital, Silves, features one of the best castles in Portugal among its highlights. The Portuguese finally regained control of the Algarve in the 15th century, but plenty of evidence of previous and ongoing intercultural influences remain.

These days, luxury design hotels and private yachts are as common a sight as weather-beaten fishermen and their brightly painted wooden boats. Fishing and agriculture are still important industries for the Algarve but since the 1960s, tourism has developed at a staggering rate. With more and more international flights, intercity trains and motorways connecting the region with Spain and the rest of Portugal, it’s hardly surprising that over 10 million people come to the area each year. Many of them don’t stray far from the beach but if you’re looking for a dose of culture to go with your sunshine, try these places. 


Julie's guide to the Algarve's cultural highlights


Silves Castle Silves Castle

Although the history of Silves dates back to the Romans, it’s the remarkably well-restored red sandstone castle, built during Moorish times, that dominates this quaint little town. As you walk around the battlements, look out across curved terracotta roof tiles, pretty cobbled streets and church towers to glorious countryside. Within the walls, you can explore the ruins of royal homes and try to imagine the lions that apparently used to roam the gardens. Don’t miss the underground cistern which provided water for the castle in times gone by. Every August, Silves brings the past to life during a 10-day Medieval Fair with street performers, parades, actors and more.

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Historical Faro Historical Faro

A stroll around the historical centre of Faro will take you from 9th-century city walls, through the ages, to a delightful 16th-century convent, which houses the Archaeological Museum. Many of the Roman artefacts found in the region are displayed here and the building itself is worth visiting for its gargoyles, cloisters and watchtower and 18th-century Rococo decor. You should also visit the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), tucked inside a Carmelite church. When it was built in 1816, the monks decorated its walls with over 1,200 bones and skulls from their cemetery as a gruesome reminder of our own mortality.

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Refreshingly artistic Monchique Refreshingly artistic Monchique

Visit the mountains of Monchique to sample the fresh water springs in the forest surrounding Caldas de Monchique. If you have time, take advantage of the therapeutic thermal waters which were popular with Romans and European royalty. Monchique itself affords fabulous views from its many lookout points. It also sports a surprising number of bronze statues. Ceramic fans should check out the workshop and showroom of award-winning ceramicist Leonel Telo while art and craft lovers will find plenty of local handicrafts for sale like the X-shaped “scissor” chairs. If possible, visit during the annual fair at the end of October or the sausage fair at the beginning of March.  

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Portimão’s sardine culture Portimão’s sardine culture

Portimão’s former fish-canning factory, “Feu Hermanos”, is now a prize-winning museum which celebrates the deep local connection to the river and the sea. Exhibits cover prehistoric times through to the 20th century, charting the transition from rural life to industrial times. The best section uses the original work areas and a vintage video of the factory in full swing to take you through the sardine canning process from the delivery of fish to the handling, production and packaging. There are also two temporary exhibitions of photography and art. Afterwards, head to one of the outdoor grilled sardine ‘restaurants’ near the bridge for an authentic local meal.

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Roman ruins at Milreu Roman ruins at Milreu

Imagine the life of wealthy Roman families from the 1st century BC to around the 6th century AD by visiting the remains of a peristyle villa with columns surrounding a courtyard. The interpretation centre will help flesh out the mental picture gained from exploring the temple, bathhouses and agricultural buildings. The most photographed features are probably the well-preserved mosaics, especially the ones depicting fish and marine life. As an added bonus the site is surrounded by beautiful countryside. You can also visit the gardens and azulejos at the 19th-century Rococo Palace of Estoi while in the area.

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Refreshingly artistic Monchique by Curtis Foreman
Portimão’s sardine culture by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes

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