I arrived in Loulé on a Saturday morning for the start of my Loulé 5 day tour, and day 4 of my Algarve tour. I was immediately
taken by the sight of Loulé’s Market and its bright red domes. Before stopping here, I continued driving to Loulé’s gipsy market. The gipsy market is held every Saturday opposite the Convento de Santo António. If you like hunting for bargains, this is the place for you. From second-hand clothes to handmade jewellery, there is a plethora of items on offer.
I left the fair and after a short drive I parked the car in front of the Jardim Manuel de Arriaga which faces the Loulé Jardim Hotel, where I’ll be spending the night. The name “garden hotel” seems fitting as you start noticing all the greenery crawling through the lobby. There is a plant vase on the floor near the piano while another pot rests on a table, contrasting against its white top. I’m greeted by the hotel’s staff, who promptly points me to my room after checking in. I leave my bag of clothes and take only the essentials to go and explore the rest of the town.
First off is the city’s most striking landmark - the local market. This market has been around for more than a century, and while its architecture is not exactly the same as it was when the market was first founded in 1908, its purpose remains unaltered - to promote local commerce. From Monday to Saturday, local sellers gather here to present their fresh produce, these include fish, fruit, vegetables, spices and the list goes on… You can even find people selling local crafts such as honeypots and cork bags. Out of its six working days, Saturday morning is by far the height of the week.
As I enter the market, I can't help but smell the fish, but there are other scents that I absorb as I walk past each stall, such as the piri piri peppers that I find pierced together by a thin wire that hangs from the top of the stands. Other sellers try to entice you by offering a free tasting before buying their products - and who can say no to free food?
But if Loulé’s Market was a film, fish would definitely be the main actor. Chopped salmon heads, dry codfish and still-pretty-much-alive crabs, the market offers a great selection of seafood and fishmongers have been Loulé’s idols for decades.
strolling around the market for almost an hour, I stopped at one of the coffee
shops and drank a small-but-strong espresso, before walking to the Convento Espírito Santo, a former convent that currently functions as a university and an art gallery. I took a quick look at the latest exhibition and then headed out again towards the Capela de Nossa Senhora da Conceição.
small chapel was established in the mid-17th century. It seems quite modest on
the outside with its plain white façade, but come inside and you’ll unveil its
treasury. The walls are entirely covered with blue and white tiles and right at
the bottom lies a gilded altar embedded with a series of religious figures. The
see-through glass on the floor allows you to contemplate an Islamic door from
the 2nd century that was found during excavations. It’s these unique features that
make this chapel worth the visit.
For lunch, I picked Restaurante Bocage, a local restaurant that has been serving traditional Algarvean fare since 1984. Grilled dishes are Bocage’s speciality, whether it’s meat or fish there is a grilled version of pretty much everything on the menu. They also have daily specials. Today, they had “Portuguese” pork meat and stewed rabbit. I decided to go for the pork and washed it down with a glass of red wine.
My journey through Loulé was off to a good start and I was
looking forward to seeing the rest of its landmarks.
After lunch, I visited Loulé’s Municipal Museum to learn more
about the council’s past. The museum is actually divided into different hubs
which are spread along the district. The main hub in Loulé’s city centre shows
a traditional kitchen in the Algarve during the mid-20th century. It features a
variety of old kitchen utensils like boards for bread-making, copper pans and a
millstone often used to make corn flour, among other items.
Right behind the museum, I found the Castle of Loulé. This
Moorish building was rebuilt during the 13th century as a fortress and it’s now
one of the city’s main highlights. The original settlement dates back to the
2nd-century A.C when it was occupied by the Romans. Today, part of the castle’s
walls are integrated into a few local buildings around the area. On top of one
of the towers, the Portuguese flag rises up from a white pole waving softly in
continued my tour around town and passed by Igreja de Clemente. Standing in
front of it, I couldn’t help but admire its geometry, the circle window in the
middle and its triangle-shaped doorway. Behind the church, there’s also a bell
tower whose architecture is said to be inspired by the Muslim minarets. The
church itself was established in the 13th century and later restored in the
16th century. Much like the Nossa Senhora da Conceição chapel, this church also
has a golden altarpiece at the rear of the room with a few statuettes.
I stopped by the Artcatto Gallery, one of Loulé’s contemporary art galleries.
Artcatto is usually only open during the week, but you can request to visit on
Saturday as well, which was what I did. The founder, Gillian Catto is a big
name in the London art scene where she ran her own gallery for more than three
decades. Now living in the Algarve, Catto hosts exhibitions with national and
international artists, drawing many art enthusiasts to the city.
Tired from all the walking, I settled down at Café Calcinha, a
historic establishment for the city of Loulé that has witnessed many
generations of residents and outsiders. The poet António Aleixo was one of the
café’s frequent customers and it was here that he wrote several of his poems. I
sat near his statue outside and enjoyed my second cup of coffee accompanied by
a local sweet pastry named “folhado de Loulé”.
I exited the café and made it to Loulé’s Municipal Park right before the sunset. The park is open 24 hours a day, making it the perfect spot for an evening stroll. It has an area for picnics, mini golf, a children’s playground and a walking circuit of around 800m. I found a free bench beneath a hall of trees and sat down reading a book until the streetlights were switched on as if announcing dinner time.
I got up and headed straight to Artigo Três, a modern Japanese restaurant set next to Loulé’s market. Hiroshi and Shogo are the faces behind this traditional sushi bar that opened in early 2017. When they decided to open a restaurant in Europe their main concern was having the best fresh fish and that’s why they settled down in Loulé. The local market is an incredible source of fresh fish and seafood, which are essential ingredients in Japanese cuisine.
The menu at Artigo Três is small but it makes up for it in the quality of ingredients that are on offer. Starting with a delicious miso soup and moving on to the sushi and the sashimi which are always accompanied with ginger and freshly-made wasabi. If you sit near the bar you can watch the chef prepare these delicious and utterly fresh treats before they’re carefully assembled on top of a black chalkboard. I ate slowly, savouring every mouthful of fish and rice until there was nothing else to grab. I finished my last drop of beer, paid the bill and walked back to the hotel.
It's our Loule 5 day tour - day 2, and day 5 of our Algarve tour. The next morning I drove down south, towards Almancil, a small town best known for its luxury resorts - Vale do Lobo and Quinta do Lago, both tremendously popular among the rich and famous. Here, one can enjoy high-end cuisine and premier golf courses all under one roof.
Before trying my hand at golf for the first time, I stopped by Igreja de São Lourenço de Almancil. This 18th-century church is one of the Algarve’s most unique religious sites and a great example of Baroque architecture. Visitors are drawn in by its blue and white tiles that fully cover the walls and the church’s ceiling. The tiles, or azulejos, as the Portuguese would call it, showcase the life of São Lourenço and were designed by Polícarpo de Oliveira Bernardes, one of the azulejo masters of the time.
After visiting the church, I went directly to Quinta do Lago for my golf lesson. This large estate boasts three remarkable golf courses, each with its own layout and difficulty level. Those who pick the South course will be greeted with a view of the Ria Formosa National Park and even the little ones can practise at the mini golf. In 2015 and 2016, Quinta do Lago was named “Europe’s Best Golf Destination” and to this day it remains a must-stop for golf fanatics. Beginners, like myself, can start with a private lesson before joining the more experienced golfers on the field. I worked on my swing for a while before hitting my first balls and soon afterwards, it was time for lunch.
Pizzeria Casavostra was my pick for the day, a Mediterranean restaurant that serves one of the, if not the, best pizzas in the Algarve. The pizza is thin, crispy and the fact that is cooked in an Italian wood oven, adds even more to its flavour. There are a dozen types of pizza on offer, that range from the most simple, the Margherita to the most complex combos like the pizza Nova Don Corleone that includes grapes and pine nuts.
A few minutes away from the pizzeria I found the Karting Almancil, a theme park dedicated to motorsport fans. For 15 euros you can take a quick spin on the main track or experience a high tech kart for 10 euros more. If you’re bringing your kids on your trip to the Algarve, this is a great place to spend a fun afternoon with them.
Since I still wanted to make it to the beach, I only stayed for a short period at Karting Almancil before getting back on the road towards Praia Vale do Lobo. This serene beach is enclosed by stunning reddish cliffs, forming a wall between the golf courses of Vale do Lobo resort and the shimmering waters of the Atlantic. I sat down under one of the straw umbrellas and enjoyed the last hours of sunlight.
Around 7 pm, I packed my things and headed to the Anantara Resort in Vilamoura, where I booked a room for two nights. This spacious hotel is decorated with paintings and artworks from Portuguese artists and combined with a local heritage of cork items and regional pottery, which add a unique touch to the property. Part of a worldwide hotel chain, Anantara Hotels found its European home in Vilamoura and much like the other resorts in Loulé, Anantara also has a golf course at its doorstep, along with five swimming pools, six restaurants, a gym, a spa and many more facilities.
For dinner, I booked a table at Emo (Michelin recommended), one of the hotel’s restaurants and a popular choice in Vilamoura itself. The restaurant serves Portuguese cuisine with a contemporary spin. After going through the menu I placed my order and waited patiently for the meal to arrive. What came was a series of prestige creations assembled like a piece of artwork on a white canvas. Dishes here are meant to be shared and complemented with a bottle of wine. Feeling satisfied, I picked up my room key, bid goodnight to the staff and left the restaurant.
Loule 5 day tour - day 3, and today we visit Quarteira. This is day 6 of our Algarve tour. Quarteira’s fish market was the first place on my list for the day, but before rushing outside, I chose to relax at the hotel’s sauna and pamper myself with a spa treatment.
Feeling renewed, I got in the car and left for the market. The fish market in Quarteira is not as striking as the one in Loulé, but the fish is just as fresh. Some even say it’s where you’ll find the freshest fish in the country. The selection is quite diverse and many locals would rather come here than head to the supermarket to get their seafood fix. In the summer, the market becomes extra busy with Portuguese vacationers coming here to buy lunch after a morning on the beach. At the beginning, the fish was actually sold directly on the shore, but that ended when the market was founded around the 1980’s. Now, fishmongers present their fish in small stalls with narrow passages between them where buyers and sellers often struggle to get through without getting splashed by a bit of water.
Following the market, I went for a walk at Praia de Quarteira, an urban beach that stretches for nearly 2 kilometres. Alongside the beach, there is a large promenade with palm trees on one side and several bars and restaurants on the other. It was in one of these that I settled down at for lunch. Gaivota Beach Bar has been delighting its clientele with delicious fish and seafood since 1984. This, combined with its privileged seafront location makes it one of the best dining spots in Quarteira.
After lunch, I headed to the Family Golf Park in Vilamoura, one of the largest mini golf parks in Europe! It features two courses of 18 holes with a design inspired by ancient Rome. Additionally, there is a snack-bar offering homemade burgers and a games room for all ages.
Right next to the park stands the Roman Site of Cerro da Vila, an unlikely find in the bustling town of Vilamoura. The Algarve was one of the areas most populated by Romans in Portugal, partly due to its easy access to the sea which was a main trading route at the time. In this historic setting, you can see the ruins of an old Villa with public baths, a necropolis and several salt tanks. After the Romans came the Visigoths and the Moorish. Many of the relics of these civilisations can now be found at the Cerro da Vila Museum.
I strolled around the villa’s grounds on my own, admiring the black and white mosaic floors, some fully intact, others resembling an incomplete jigsaw with pieces missing. From here, I walked to the Vilamoura marina, the largest marina in Portugal with over 800 berths. The marina is surrounded by several shops, hotels, restaurants, a yacht club and incredible beaches that tend to get crowded during the height of summer.
A few steps away from the marina is the Casino Vilamoura, a place for nightlife entertainment, where people come to try their luck, attend a show or simply grab a drink at the bar. At night, the casino is lit up with red and green neon lights, a sight that is mirrored by the stunning colour reflections in the fountain ahead of the entrance.
After a few rounds on the slot machines, I drove to São Gabriel, an innovative restaurant set on the edge of Vale do Lobo. São Gabriel offers its visitors a taste of the sea, with most of its meals featuring fish from the region. The menu is inspired by traditional Portuguese dishes and served with a creative twist. Even choosing the wine is made easy thanks to the experienced in-house sommelier that is there to advise you. It’s the delicious flavours, the quiet setting and the amiable staff that have made this restaurant worthy of its Michelin star. From the appetizers to the scrumptious chocolate dessert, I savoured every bit of this fine meal and left wanting more. Having finished dinner, I went back to the hotel and started packing for the next day.
Loule 5 day tour - day 4. Today we continue our visit of Vilamoura and then move on to Boliqueime. This is day 7 of our Algarve tour. Vilamoura is home to two amazing beaches, Praia de Vilamoura and Praia da Falésia, aka Rocha Baixinha, it was in this last one that I chose to spend my last morning in town.
The name, Falésia, comes from the bare cliffs that frame this long stretch of sand that starts in Vilamoura and continues east until Olhos de Água, a small town in the district of Albufeira. If you’re feeling brave you can walk from one end to the other in about two hours or follow the hiking trail above the cliffs to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the beach.
Vilamoura also offers several water activities including dolphin-watching tours, parasailing, jet ski, fishing and more. You can even rent a yacht and sail away for the day, the perfect escape from the crowded beaches in the summer.
I decided to stay at the beach, enjoying the cool breeze from the ocean whilst softly burying my feet in the sand. When lunchtime came around I simply walked over to NoSoloÁgua, a restaurant-cum-bar-cum-club set on the edge of Praia da Falésia and famous for its sunset parties. I had a quick snack before getting back on the road to Pestana Vila Sol for another golf lesson.
This time, I arranged the lesson with the Algarve Golf Guru. Whether you’re just starting out or are already a professional, their team will cater to all your needs, from booking your green fees to scheduling a golf lesson or simply providing you with clubs. Two lessons in and I was already feeling like this could be the start of a new hobby…
After the lesson, I continued on to Boliqueime, a quiet village nestled on a hillside that overlooks the ocean. Despite its small size, the village has many places of interest, including a church, a museum and old windmills that once supplied water to its residents but are now part of the tourist trail. Before leaving the village, I stopped at O Retiro for dinner. This cosy restaurant serves a great selection of meat and fish meals and has a fantastic wine menu featuring Portuguese and international wines that you can drink here or take it home with you by ordering a bottle from their shop.
From Boliqueime I drove towards the mountain villages of Algarve - Salir and Alte. I stayed at Quinta do Freixo, a farmhouse with over 1000 hectares that markets itself as an agritourism property. Besides offering sleeping accommodations, Quinta do Freixo has an area of plantations and a small production factory that helps sustain the farm. In the factory, they produce their own jam using fresh fruit that is picked here, including oranges, tomatoes, pumpkins and figs that is later sold on the farm and in many shops across the country. As a guest, you have the privilege of watching them make these delicious treats if you want or wait until the morning and have them for breakfast, which is what I planned to do.
Loule 5 day tour - Day 5 and the last day. There’s more to the Algarve than just beaches, the mountain villages of Salir and Alte show a different side of this amazing region, one that is made up of hills, castles and waterfalls. I planned a full day just to explore these two towns, starting in Salir and moving on to Alte.
On the way to the Castle of Salir, I stopped at Fonte Benémola, a stunning nature reserve and one of Loulé’s most hidden gems. A stream called Menalva runs through this protected area. Menalva is supplied by several water springs, allowing it to keep water all year round. During the summer, a craftsman sits near the stream making baskets with cane, a material that is quite common around here.
Following the walking trail, you’re likely to come across several plant species and animals, such as the colourful kingfishers, tortoises and frogs. Sometimes, it’s even possible to observe otters in Fonte Benémola, but it’s a rare phenomenon.
Further north I visited the Castle of Salir, an Almohad fortress set amid the mountains. The castle was built during the 12th century and belonged to the Moorish until it was captured by the Christians at the end of the century. Later, it was destroyed in a fire and subsequently left to ruins. Today, only a tower and two wall sections remain from this Moorish castle. While you’re here, make sure to visit the small museum near the castle where you can find several items that were discovered during excavations.
I stayed in Salir for lunch and ate at O Regresso. Then, I headed to the national park Rocha da Pena. Set between the towns of Salir and Benafim, this rocky structure has a maximum height of 479 meters and extends for over 600 hectares. Climbing and hiking are the most popular activities at Rocha da Pena. The walk is tiring at first but it’s worth the effort once you get to the top of the cliff and enjoy the magnificent views with the ocean in the distance.
In Spring, you’ll find many plants flourishing at Rocha da Pena, specially wild orchids, but also narcissus and the wild peony, all adding layers of colour to this mountainous region. Visitors arriving in Autumn or Winter will also be greeted by several bird species that migrate here, including alpine accentors and ring ouzels. The village of Penina and the windmills are a few other sites that you should check while visiting Rocha da Pena.
After completing the trail I continued driving until Igreja Matriz de Alte. Dating back to the 13th century, this local church is also decorated with tiles featuring figures of angels playing musical instruments in between the clouds. Outside, two crosses rise above the building’s roof, one on top of the church and the other on the bell tower, where a weathervane also stands pointing in the direction of the wind.
From here, I walked to a waterfall known as Queda do Vigário. In the old days, Queda do Vigário was a popular spot for locals that came here to bathe on Sundays or special holidays. Today it’s frequented by anyone looking to cool down on a hot summer day.
To finish the day, I stopped at the restaurant A Ponte for dinner, a casual restaurant that serves typical food from the Algarve at an affordable cost. Satisfied with my meal I drove back to Quinta do Freixo for the night.