The Best Things to Do in Portimão, Portugal
The coastline around Portimão is dramatic and rugged in its beauty | © mauritius images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
As you near the western end of the Algarve, you’ll come to Portimão, a city steeped in a rich history of sardines and ship-building. With a fascinating old quarter, it’s catnip for camera-wielding visitors, but arguably the main pull here is the sea. Turquoise and almost transparent, it comes lined with beaches of soft sand made for lazy days. Elsewhere, laid-back eateries combine fresh seafood and excellent wine to keep you lingering for hours.
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Despite the name, this cove opposite Portimão marina stretches for little more than 300m (984ft). Yet the setting is beautiful, framed by crumbling cliffs and capped at the northern end by the castle of São João do Arade. Lapped by some of the gentlest seas, in the area, there’s a scattering of beach bars here – Kalu has great caipirinhas – whilst kayaks are available to rent for paddling in the Arade river.
Praia da Rocha
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Portimão’s busiest beach is right in town, bookended by a rugged cape and the medieval Santa Catarina fort, with battlements over the entrance to Portimão harbour. It’s a picture-perfect spot, especially at the beginning of the day when the sun is golden on the sea and the sands are empty but for a few gulls. There are wonderful views from the clifftop walk at the western end of the beach as well as plenty of restaurants and bars ideal for a sundowner.
Autódromo Internacional do Algarve
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Portugal’s premier Grand Prix track, the Algarve International Circuit, lies just north of Portimão, in the foothills of the Serra de Monchique. It hosted the Portuguese Grand Prix in October 2020 and is a venue for the MotoGP and FIA World Endurance Championship. The track extends for 4.653km (2.891mi) and the current lap record is held by Lewis Hamilton. It’s open to visitors daily from 9am to 7pm. Come and lap it up.
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Portimão’s parish church is one of the grandest in the Algarve, its huge whitewashed façade topped with baroque finials. It was largely destroyed in the 1755 earthquake – which left little but the Gothic door – and rebuilt in Portugal’s second golden age when money flowed in from mines in Brazil. The interior has some fine 18th-century blue-and-white azulejo tiling and painted altarpieces: see the effigy of John Paul II, set in gilt swirls against rich blue marble.
Fortaleza de Santa Catarina
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The mouth of the Arade river, an important harbour since Phoenician times, was used by the Carthaginian and Roman Empires, and archaeological remains survive. The current fort is Renaissance-era, built by Neapolitan Alexandre Massai– who also fortified Lisbon – to defend against incursions from the recently conquered Moors. Enjoy views from the battlements – complete with cafe – over Praia da Rocha beach and across the river to Ferragudo village.
Praia do Vau
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The condominiums on the clifftop behind this calm turquoise cove would love to keep their local beach a secret. But that’s not easy, since it’s open to all and easy to reach by car in under 10 minutes from Portimão, along Avenida das Comunidades Lusíadas. Handily enough, there’s even a little car park. Arrive early to grab a spot and aim to stay all day: the simple Casinha Portuguesa restaurant serves decent fish and crisp Alentejo white wines.
Museu de Portimão
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Portimão has a rich and ancient history, with megalithic monuments older than Stonehenge as well as Phoenician, Roman and Moorish sites to boot. This excellent museum – set in a former sardine factory – sheds some light on the town’s past, focusing on the 1930s sardine industry and, by extension, life under the Salazar dictatorship. All of this is achieved through arty effigies and video displays, whilst the cafe serves great coffee and Portuguese custard tarts.
Praia dos Três Irmãos
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With crumbling rock arches, talc-soft sand and transparent sea, Tres Irmãos is one of the Algarve’s prettiest beaches. The best way to reach it is by walking through the rocks at the east end of the sweeping Praia de Alvor strand. Come early, when the light is golden across the sand. Order a fruity, chilled Alentejo white wine in the Caniço restaurant, built into a precipice, and take in the views from the west side of the terrace. Honey-toned cliffs, demerara-sugar sand and the tranquil, aquamarine Mediterranean stretching for as far as the eye can see.