Cycling in the Algarve
Sublime scenery with views across the sparkling sea, an abundance of sunshine and excellent facilities make the Algarve a favourite with cyclists.
If you want an active holiday, where you get the chance to see the real country behind the tourist destination, then you can’t do much better than the Algarve. Local guide and tour operator, Paul Beesley, explains why.
Portugal's southern Algarve region is becoming increasingly popular as a cycling destination, hosting a number of world-renowned on- and off-road events. But it’s also a fabulous place to enjoy a leisurely cycling holiday, and not just because we enjoy over 300 days of glorious sunshine a year.
Look beyond the well-known tourist spots and there’s an almost undiscovered world of weathered hilltop villages and agricultural landscapes linked by quiet roads and dirt tracks; ideal for cycling and mountain biking and allowing you the chance to explore the ‘real Algarve’ at a pace to suit you. In recent years local councils have joined together to develop a cycle route along the stunning coastline, for which this region is already famous.
GUIDE TO CYCLING IN THE ALGARVE
Where else in Europe can you experience such a contrast in environments within such a small area and confine it all to one week’s holiday? From crystal blue lagoons, endless white sandy beaches, bustling market towns, cottage industries, sweeping vineyards, imposing mountains, reservoirs, unspoilt forest and open countryside, working farms and fishing villages. The Algarve really does have it all.
ALGARVE CYCLING HIGHLIGHTS
The Algarve Coast
There is no doubt that the expansive sandy beaches and secluded bays of the Algarve's coastline are what draws the majority of visitors to this region. But if you take to your bikes and cycle from one end to the other, you get this and so much more.
It's possible to follow a coastal route of some 214km that links Vila Real de Santo António, on the Spanish border, with Cabo de São Vicente (Sagres) in the west. There is contrasting scenery and every day promises something different. You'll cycle through fishing villages, where you can taste local delicacies such as octopus, sardines and squid. You'll discover ancient hamlets, with Roman ruins, uninterrupted views over sparkling blue lagoons and naturally protected areas, where the wildlife is abundant, and you can spot flamingos, turtles and many other species of flora and fauna. As you explore dramatic, windswept cliffs, you'll be able to enjoy fantastic views over the Atlantic, as you head towards the westernmost tip of Europe, known as ‘the end of the world’.
And the beauty of a self-guided cycling holiday is that you can linger where you like and explore off the beaten track. Plus, with reputedly the freshest air in Europe, you will be sure to have a healthy appetite and a good night’s sleep!
The Eastern Algarve is known for its rural charm, and this is where you get a taste of the ‘real’ Portugal. An enjoyable itinerary starts in Vila Real de Santo António, an interesting old town on the banks of the Guadiana river, on the border between Spain and Portugal. Following the dedicated coastal path, you’ll pass through the coastal resorts of Monte Gordo and Altura, the ancient hilltop village of Cacela Velha, the elegant Roman town of Tavira, and, finally, the bustling fishing port of Olhão.
You then head inland, where you’ll see a completely different side to the Algarve. Cycling into the hills, through quiet villages and rural farmland, you’ll reach the old market town of Loulé. It’s a delightful place to explore, with narrow cobbled streets, tiny shops and hidden away bars and restaurants.
In the rolling hills to the north of Loulé, you’ll enjoy some tremendous scenery as you head towards the tiny hilltop village of Querença, a great place to take in the splendid views before you head to Alte. Famous for its white houses and fresh water springs, the year-round presence of water in the river adds a unique charm to this village. Finally, you’ll follow a lovely dirt track road beside the Funcho Reservoir, and then gently cruise down the valley to the attractive and historic town of Silves.
There are some fabulous local eateries in these old towns and villages, where you can sample some of their traditional fares such as wild boar and lamb. The gentle pace of life in the hinterland and the naturally friendly nature of the Portuguese presents plenty of opportunities to interact with the locals, too.
With its dramatic coastline and quaint fishing villages, the Western Algarve offers some pretty spectacular cycling days. The beautiful landscape inevitably brings with it some challenging hills, but they are well worth it for the rewards of the scenery, and you can take it at your own pace.
Once you head out of the busy tourist areas, you'll find long, quiet roads which seem to go on forever and, though there is inevitably some local traffic, it does become sparse the further west you go. The sweeping hills and farmland provide a soothing backdrop to the rugged cliffs and valleys that lead down to some fabulously secluded bays, where you are likely to spot surfers riding some large waves – the swell rolls in all the way from the Azores. As you approach Cape St. Vincent, you do get a sense that you are at the end of Europe. The long, exposed ride to the end will leave you feeling windswept but exuberant.
From here you head up the unspoilt west coast of the Algarve towards Aljezur, an ancient Moorish town built on either side of a river that runs through a lush green valley. If a challenge is what you seek, then you absolutely must finish your tour in Monchique. This is a bustling market town up in the Serra de Monchique, which is a thickly wooded mountain range separating the Algarve from the Winelands of the Alentejo. The journey up to Monchique offers excellent views and is totally different from coastal Algarve. It is a tranquil and relaxed place, which is ideal for pottering around and appreciating the panoramic vistas.
TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
1. Tavira and surrounding areas
Tavira is one of the most attractive towns in the Algarve, with a river running through the centre. It is home to more than its fair share of ancient churches, a castle, a Roman bridge and a market. It has a wealth of original little shops and cobbled streets, punctuated with pretty squares where you can watch the world go by. It also has its very own beach, which is a short boat ride away. There are plenty of places of interest to explore in the immediate vicinity, too.
2. Ria Formosa Natural Park
This is a UNESCO Heritage Site situated on low-lying coastline amidst a maze of lagoons, channels, salt marshes and islands. It is home to an abundant array of wildlife, and over 30,000 birds stop off here on their journey from Europe to tropical Africa. You can often spot kingfishers, hoopoes, bee-eaters, egrets, blue magpies, flamingos and many other species.
Once the Moorish capital, Silves is steeped in history. It's an enchanting town on the banks of the Rio Arade, littered with tiny cobbled streets, pretty tree-lined squares and is home to the best-preserved castle in the Algarve. In the summer Silves hosts one of the biggest medieval festivals in the region and people travel from miles around to soak up the atmosphere and sample the local fare.
Monchique is a beautiful market town high up in the mountains, surrounded by forest and with the best views across the Algarve to the coast. It boasts lots of lovely cafés and restaurants, where you can sample local delicacies such as Medronho (a locally made liqueur) and honey. There is also a spa just beneath the town, where people still come to soothe their aching limbs and to benefit from the curative natural spring water.
5. Sagres and Cape St. Vincent
Sagres is popular all year round with fishermen and surfers because of the western Atlantic waters. It's known as the place where Henry the Navigator planned his voyages in the Age of Discoveries. The town is also home to Henry’s 15th-century fortress. Nearby Cape St. Vincent has a lovely lighthouse and the views from the point are simply breathtaking. It is the end of continental Europe and still often referred to as the ‘end of the world’!
WHEN TO VISIT
Best times to go:
The climate in the Algarve is pretty good all year round, so there aren’t many months when you wouldn’t want to come. Spring and autumn are probably the best times, as you will mostly only get the odd shower and the temperatures are mild. Perfect cycling conditions. Plus, even if you start out one day and it is cloudy, the great thing about this region is that it is not hard to follow the sun and, the chances are, by lunchtime, the weather will have cleared up. Even in winter, the climate is very mild, and many cyclists prefer the cooler months as we still get plenty of sunshine. For the more challenging rides, July and August may be avoided as temperatures do soar and dehydration can be a problem. But even in the height of the season, coastal routes can be pleasant as you get a cool breeze off the Atlantic most days.
The Algarvians do like their festivals, too! From Carnival and Easter in the spring, Labour Day in May, Portugal Day in June, to various sardine, seafood and medieval festivals throughout the summer - and chocolate, sausage and chestnut festivals in the Winter. Whatever time of year you come, there is likely to be something interesting happening en route.
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