How to Beach Hop in Portugal

The Algarve coast in Portugal boasts one of the most beautiful, and geologically varied, stretch of beaches in the world. Check out why it wins so many awards, and how to "beach" like a pro.

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There are two types of vacationers in the world: people who like going to the beach, and people who don’t.  If you like going to the beach, you have a high tolerance for sweat, sweat mixed with sand, and sand mixed with everything else.  But if you don’t love going to the beach – and, unfortunately, I often count myself among this group – you may still discover, as I have, that one of the best things to do in the Algarve is to beach hop.  You’ll be amazed at how different one beach can be from another in just 200 km of coastline – less than the distance from Miami to Orlando.  There’s a reason the Algarve has been awarded Europe’s leading beach destination by the World Travel Awards repeatedly.
Northern Portugal also boasts some incredible beaches – I talk about them here – but I’m going to limit my discussion in this post to beach hopping in the Algarve.  The reason is simple: it’s warmer.  Not the water, mind you.  The ocean temperature at Algarve beaches doesn’t typically get much hotter than 18° or 19° Celsius (64° to 66° Fahrenheit), compared to, say, 27° Celsius (80° Fahrenheit) in the Caribbean.  This is especially true the farther west you are: beaches closer to Sagres tend to have colder water than beaches closer to Spain.  Instead, I’m talking about ambient temperature.  In southern Portugal, what Americans think of as “summer” weather starts in the spring and goes well into the fall, giving you ample time to explore the diversity of rock formations, colors, and topography in this slice of western Europe.
Using a completely unscientific categorization of Algarve beaches that would offend any geologist, I’m going to talk about three broad types of beaches you’ll find in southern Portugal, where they are located, and why you should try to see an example from each the next time you’re in the Algarve. 
In no particular order, since I’m throwing science to the wind anyway:

But First: Algarve Beach-Hopping, A Primer

Before hitting the sand, let’s talk logistics. 
If you have young children, mobility issues, or you’re a translucent Brit who just wants to slather on sunscreen poolside so you can show off your vacation sunburn to your friends back home, beach hopping may not be right for you.  But for everybody else, you’ll need a beach hopping strategy.
If you’re staying at an Algarve resort, it’s probably at or near a beach.  That checks off one of the three beach types to explore.  Then, you need to decide on how you’ll get to one of the other two beach types, how long you think you’ll want to stay on the day you go, and what you might want to eat/drink while you’re there. Some things to keep in mind:
  • The farthest away any of the other two beach types will likely be from where you’re staying is not usually more than 30-45 minutes.  Should you rent a car and drive? Well, driving and parking in Portugal is its own adventure, as I’ve talked about before, so unless you’re planning on taking a road trip later, I would try to avoid renting a car.  Some of these beaches have very limited parking, and if you think the Portuguese flaunt parking regulations in cities, you should see the pileup of cars near a secluded beach.  It looks like a six-year-old arranged Hot Wheels in “rows.”  Plus, rental car companies price gouge during the high season.  My advice? Take a taxi or Uber, or see if your hotel offers some kind of shuttle.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you can Google Maps a bus route, but caution: standing in the Algarve heat at a dusty bus stop is not for the faint of heart.
  • Unless you’re the picnicking type, I highly recommend checking out the concession stand / restaurant situation at your beach of choice before you head out.  Are there a couple restaurants or cafés nearby that you can eat at? Or is it more of a secluded spot with fewer options? Knowing this ahead of time can help you calculate your lunch/snack plans, but regardless, *always* travel with a bottle of water.  You do not want to arrive at The Most Beautiful Beach in the Algarve only to find out that the lone snack bar is closed for some unknown reason and be forced into an involuntary fast.  Check out the website InfoPraia to see if dining options are available.  Google Maps is another way to scope out the local restaurant scene, if there is one.
  • Many of the larger, more heavily frequented beaches will have an area with loungers and sun umbrellas for rent to the general public.  (Sometimes hotels have their own area cordoned off for hotel guests only.)  Typically, you pay for the morning only, the afternoon only, or the full day, but it’s not exactly a steal: 15-20 euros for two sand-blasted plastic loungers with a thin, sticky cushion and an umbrella. Still, the umbrellas are big and may be worth the price of admission alone.  InfoPraia will also tell you if loungers/umbrellas are available.
  • Theft at beaches isn’t a major problem in Portugal, and people will leave their personal items at their towel unattended to go into the water, but obviously you want to be cautious about this.  Take turns watching each other’s things, if you can.    
  • The busier beaches will usually have lifeguards and first aid stations during the época balnear, beach season, running from late June through early September.  Check out InfoPraia to see which beaches are monitored. 
  • Lifeguards determine which colored flag to fly on a particular day indicating the safety of the water for swimming in terms of waves or potential contaminates.  Like traffic lights, green means go, yellow means approach with caution, and red means don’t go in the water.  A flag with a red stripe and a yellow stripe together indicates the best area the lifeguards recommend for swimming that day.  A blue flag means the beach is certified as sustainable by the Foundation for Environmental Education, though it doesn’t tell you anything about swimming conditions.   You can check out the Asociação Bandeira Azul (Blue Flag Association) to see which Portuguese beaches have been awarded blue flag status, and InfoPraia also includes this information.

Golden Rocky Beaches

Starting from Sagres, at the southwestern tip of Portugal, and heading east until you get around the town of Olhos de Água, just east of Albufeira, the beaches on the Algarve coast form a rocky, deep golden labyrinthine maze of caves, grottos, and spectacular rock formations with gorgeous, tiny beaches tucked away in coves.  Many hotels offer boat tours of some of the more famous grottos, such as Benagil, but you can get the idea from the comfort of your beach towel. 
Any of the beaches in this area of the Algarve will be lovely, but my two favorites are:
Marinha (near Carvoeiro)
Marinha
Not far from the Benagil grotto, Marinha is one of the most famous beaches in the Algarve.  Accessible only by descending a staircase, it’s worth the climb back up.  There’s a café onsite but come early because this tiny beach gets more crowded as the day goes on.
Prainha (near Alvor)
Prainha
To get to Prainha, you can take the stairs or an elevator from the top of the cliff.  When you need a break from the sun, wander around the walk formations or have lunch at the seafood restaurant at the base of the elevator.  It’s only open in summer, so it gets crowded.
Alternatively, you can check out Evaristo beach, which is true to the “golden rocky beach” form although not one of the most extraordinary examples, but you can work in dinner at Restaurante Evaristo located right on the beach.  The catch is fresh, and I love their stuffed squid, lulas recheadas.  Killer sunset views.

Red-Gold Expansive Beaches

Heading east from Olhos de Água towards Vilamoura and until you get around Faro, you will begin to see beaches that still have the golden – sometimes red-gold –  cliffs, but they tend to have fewer rock formations and longer stretches of sand you can stroll along. 
The best example of this beach type, and one of the largest in the area, is Falésia beach, just west of Vilamoura. Falésia came in sixth place in Trip Advisor’s 2024 Traveler’s Choice Awards and many of the larger Algarve resorts can be found along it. There are various access points to Falésia, and loungers and restaurants are dotted along the whole strip.  My favorite stretch is at Praia dos Tomates, Tomatoes Beach, as its locally known, so named for the tomato hothouses near the entrance, but on the map it’s called Praia da Rocha Baixinha.
Falesia
As you move towards the beaches closer to Vilamoura, Quarteria, and on until Faro, there tends to be fewer cliffs and more sand.

Gauzy Salt Marsh Beaches

As you approach Faro, you begin to enter the Reserva Natural da Ria Formosa.  The Ria Formosa is a lagoon system, with several barrier islands forming a wetland where freshwater streams feed into the ocean. It’s home to a large variety of birds and marine life, as well as some lovely beaches that leave behind the rocky coast of western Algarve for marshy green grasses and sand dunes.
My favorite spots:
Cabanas (east of Tavira)
Cabanas
To get to Cabanas beach from the city of Cabanas, hop in one of the many fishing boats that will quickly ferry you across the Ria Formosa for a euro or two.  There’s something about the slightly whiter sand and the freshness of the marshy grass that seems to give the light a soft, gauzy effect.  Also, the water at Cabanas beach is often quite a bit warmer than the beaches farther west.  There’s a café on-site, and plenty of restaurants in Cabanas.  Later, head over to Tavira for dinner at À Mesa, a Michelin “Bib Gourmand” restaurant.  (I talk more about Bib Gourmand restaurants in Portugal here.)
I would also highly recommend a stop in the town of Cacela Velha, about 15 minutes east.  The nearby Cacela beach often crops up in “best of” lists for beaches, though it doesn’t have quite as much infrastructure as Cabanas, and Cacela Velha is a lovely old village on a cliff once home to various Portuguese literati. Have lunch as Casa Velha, where the muscles and búzios (conch or sea snail) are a delight and the arroz de lingueirão, rice with razor clams, is not to be missed.  I’ve been there several times, and for my birthday one year my husband Nuno asked them for a Casa Velha polo for me, which they gladly obliged.
Casa Velha
Praia Verde (west of Vila Real de Santo António) has a similar look and feel to Cabanas beach, and being farther east, the water is also on the warmer side. 
Happy beach hopping!
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