Top 10 Scenic Drives - the best road trips around the Algarve
Discover inland villages, roman ruins, lakes and amazing views
Find the best road trips around the Algarve. It's not just beach life here - there are so many lovely country villages, historical spots and amazing viewing points you can visit on a day out and with a very simple road network it is easy to get about. Get out and explore the backroads, the inland hills and the coastal trails.
The Algarve isn't huge so you can easily access the whole region within only a couple of hours. The variety in landscape will surprise and delight people who thought it was just villas and beach umbrellas.
There are plenty of companies offering car hire in the Algarve. It is wise to book before you arrive here to get the best rates and choice of cars. Check out Auto Rent, a long established local car hire company with a global reputation.
If you prefer to be driven, then join an off-road adventure Jeep Safari - they're great fun and a fabulous way to see the countryside.
Suggestions for the best road trips and scenic drives in the Algarve
Head inland to the Serra de Monchique where there are winding roads through forests of Eucalyptus, Cork oak and pine trees and amazing views looking out to the coast. Admire the pretty, traditional houses along the way and breathe the fresh mountain air. Drive up to the peak viewpoint at Foia, which stands at 902m above sea-level and is the highest point in the Algarve. On a clear day, you can see the south and west coast as well as the Alentejo province to the North. When in need of sustenance, stop a a local restaurant and enjoy delicious and hearty country food. If you'd rather not drive, but still want to explore the hills, then join a Jeep Safari - one of the most fun things to do in the area.
It's the end of the world
The EN125 takes you all the way to Sagres - what was historically considered to be the "end of the world". It can be a busy road, particularly in summer, so patience can be required. The reward is at the end of the road - the lovely, windswept town of Sagres that perches atop the cliffs and is buffeted by the winds and the waves. You can visit the ancient Fort and further along view the lighthouse buildings that marks this westerly corner of Europe. Dramatic cliff views can be seen on either side where the coast meets the Atlantic ocean. Read our Guide to Sagres for all the inside tips on this great town.
Away from it all!
Make one of the Algarve’s inland damns and reservoirs your destination. There are four large lakes to choose from - all four guarantee an escape from the hustle and bustle of the coastal strip.
Barragem do Arade
The Barragem do Arade was built in the 1950s and is just off the EN 124, about half way between Silves and São Bartolomeu de Messines. The road down to the lake is clearly sign posted, but it’s advisable to take the left turn by the water tower, to avoid a long windy drive. The approach to this lake is probably the most spectacular of the four and the most tranquil too – it’s absolutely stunning at sunset!
You can drive or walk across the damn wall and there are plenty of good tracks if you want a longer hike in the shade of aromatic eucalyptus trees. It’s on a walk here, that you’re also likely to spot the berries of the Arbutus tree, used for making the local tipple, Medronho. There are areas where you can access the water on foot, although the banks are rocky, so take care. The fresh water lake is good for swimming and there are many large fish in the lake, such as carp, but you will need a licence if you want to fish. There are no facilities at the Barragem do Arade, so make sure you take snacks and drinks if you plan on staying.
Barragem de Bravura
At Odiáxere village, between Portimão and Lagos, you can follow clear signs for the Barragem de Bravura which leads along country roads and with vast views across the hills, taking you up to the Bravura Dam. The dam is fairly impressive to see with a large serene lake of water behind it.
The Barragem was built in the late 1950s to help relieve water shortages on the coast. Today it’s popular with hikers, cyclists and bird watchers. You can swim and fish there too, but to fish you do need a licence. It’s a great spot for a picnic, with plenty of natural shade, but if you don’t want to bother packing your own lunch, there a good restaurant/bar called Hello Goodbye, next to the parking area. There are walks sign posted from the restaurant, including a walk to the dam wall – you can actually walk across the dam.
Barragem do Funcho
The Barragem do Funcho is also between Silves and São Bartolomeu de Messines off the EN 124, but a little further east. Again it is well sign posted. You can follow the sign posts through the village of Amorosa, all the way to the damn, where you can leave your car and walk across this amazing piece of engineering. Alternatively, after passing through Amorosa, take a right turn on the bend towards Perdreiras. If you’re feeling energetic, park up near the sign post to Vale Bravo on the left and follow the sign post on foot, up the steep hill – when you get to the top, make sure you have your camera ready!
Continue driving through Perdreiras and you’ll eventually arrive at a bridge. Drive over the bridge and either park and walk, or turn left and enjoy a scenic drive around the lake, with the aroma of pine trees and the distinctive scent of cistus plants, which grow here in abundance.
The water is good from swimming and more accessible than the Arade. It’s also a popular spot for birdwatching, fishing, paddle boarding and canoeing. If you fish here, you will need a licence.
Barragem de Odelouca
Barragem de Odelouca is situated on the EN 124, between Silves and Portimão. The dam is the second largest embankment dam in Portugal, constructed primarily with local materials. The reservoir of the Odelouca Dam covers an area of 7.8 Km2 and was built to be the main supply of public water in the Algarve Region. As the water is destined for our taps, use of the water for boating, boarding, fishing, bathing etc is prohibited, but it’s an interesting and invigorating place for a walk.
While driving around the Algarve be sure to keep an eye out for these interesting things to spot - from wildlife to decorative chimneys.
Before you set off on your journey here is some important information on driving in Portugal.
Between Burgau and Salema there’s a very pleasant natural valley when you follow the coast road. The road winds around two large hills dipping into a valley where African Bee Eater birds can sometimes be seen if it is quiet enough. There are access roads to the beach and the valley is generally fairly quiet. This is also a good cycling route.
Starting in Burgau, drive westwards along the main road - Rua Agricola – and out of the village. This is where you’ll begin a beautifully scenic drive which cuts through the countryside. Just where the road bends to the left, you’ll catch a glimpse of the ocean - it’s at this point that you’ll see a brown sign directing you left to Forte de Almadena. The fort was ordered to be built by King João III during the 16th century. Now in ruins, it occupies a fabulous spot with amazing ocean views – absolutely stunning on a clear sunny day.
Make your way back up to the main road and continue to head west. The road will take you inland a little before winding down to Praia do Boca do Rio. Boca do Rio, meaning ‘mouth of the river’ is where an underground river flows into a small estuary (pictured below) and once provided enough fresh water for rice paddies. On the beach, there once stood a Roman villa with a bathhouse and salt tanks - you can still see the remains but, sadly, much of the building has been eroded by the sea.
Head back up the road, away from the beach and, when you reach a T junction, turn left. The road is a little rough in places, but the spectacular scenery makes up for it. The road winds around and down to Salema, an old fishing village now popular with tourists. There are plenty of bars and restaurants here if you want to stop off for a drink or a bite to eat.
Drive a short distance east of São Bartolomeu de Messines and you’ll discover more than a handful of hidden gems.
Alte – natural springs
You can take the EN124 from Messines to Alte, which is a pleasant run. But, if you feel like being a little more adventurous, the mountain route offers a glimpse of days gone by, with its many traditional hamlets and water wells (noras) dotted along the roadside. For the latter route, just east of Messines take the left turn for Messines de Cima, head up into the mountains and wind your way down through Cerda da Renda and Fonte Santa. The Estrada de Santa Margarida will bring you down into Alte.
Probably best known for its natural springs (Fontes) Alte has to be one of the prettiest villages in the Algarve. The picturesque “Fontes” offer many shady areas and cool clear water, the perfect place to escape the heat during the summer months and a wonderful spot for a walk or cycle year round. Alte is also the birth place of famous Portuguese poet Cândido Guerreiro –you’ll see many tributes to his work by the Fontes. And just outside Alte is a pretty waterfall - the cascata do Vigário, with a lawned picnic area.
Salir – Buddhist Stupa and community
Continue your journey eastwards on the EN124, through Benafim to Salir. Just passed Salir look out for the brown sign to the left for Malhão. Take the winding road up to Moinho do Malhão. At the centre of the intersection there’s a café/bar. Drive or walk up the bumpy track opposite and you’ll be wowed by the five metre high Stupa which greets you at the entrance to Humkara Dzong, a Tibetan Buddhist community.
Built in 2008, the Stupa was the first of its kind to be constructed in Portugal and marks the highest point in the hills. This Stupa contains precious relics from the last Buddha, and also the previous one, Kashyapa, Guru Rinpoche and many great Masters. The 360° views from here are breath-taking and, speaking of breath, the air here is said to be among the cleanest air in the world.
Querença and Fonte Benémola
Find your way back to the EN124 and continue eastwards. After a few kilometres take the sign to the right for Querença. As you cut through magnificent countryside on this sound stretch of winding road, you’ll understand why it’s a popular route for bikers.
As you head down to Querença, look out for a brown sign to Fonte Benémola on your right – it’s on a bend, so don’t miss it. This turning will lead you to a car parking area. Fonte Benémola is a reservoir designated for the protection of its wildlife in 1991. The Menalva stream crosses the protected area and, at one point forms a natural waterfall. If you have time (about one and a half hours), it’s well worth taking the circular trail around the 400 hectare site - it’s very beautiful and tranquil.
Querença itself is a charming rural town which hosts a traditional chorizo sausage festival each January, in honour of its local patron saint. It's a great spot to stop off for a drink and a bite to eat before your return journey.
The pretty Guadiana river forms a natural border between Portugal and Spain and in times not so far past to get to Spain from the Algarve you had to take a ferry. The banks of the river are lovely to explore and you will be pleasantly surprised by the unspoilt nature of eastern Algarve. From Vila Real de Santo António on the coast up to Alcoutim is a lovely drive taking in different towns along the way. Alcoutim formed of the edge of the mining areas in Roman times. Microscopic amounts of gold have still been found in the river (really microscopic!).
A shorter and more urban coastal route between Albufeira and Ferragudo will take you through winding roads and neighbourhoods of lovely villa's, beaches and cliff top views. A nice meandering evening drive or perhaps head to one of the beach bars along the way. End up in the quaint fishing village of Ferragudo which has a pleasant square and plenty of restaurants to choose from.
Sagres to Odeceixe
The wild western coast is beautifully unspoilt and with larger cliffs and bays you get a feeling of space here. Make a trip all the way up the west coast along quiet roads. There are few towns along this coast but you can take in stunning scenery along the coast and make a stop in Aljezur valley for a coffee and one of Portugal's pastry treats. Here you will also find spectacular beaches.
A Market Run
Make a journey from Olhão to Loulé to see two of the main local produce markets resplendant in their red and white colours. Both buildings show more than a touch of the Algarve's Moorish past and are a great photography subject. In Olhão, the market sits right on the dockside where fishermen bring in their catch of the day. There are plenty of cafe's along the quayside facing the calm waters of the Ria de Formosa. Then, journey inland to Loulé, where the saturday morning market bursts into life from the turretted market building that you will not be able to miss. In Loule you can visit various historical landmarks and see some great modern art at the Art Catto Gallery.
Vineyards can be found across the Algarve including Quinta dos Vales near Lagoa and Adega de Cantor near Guia but if you fancy a longer drive you can take the trip past the border into the Alentejo, where vineyards form a major part of this much flatter scenery. Head for the Herdade dos Grous, a luxury sprawling estate which includes a country manor where you can have dinner or stay overnight if the journey back proves too much! It will take you about an hour and a half to get there. Any of these vineyards offer tasting year round.
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