Culture & History of the Algarve

Uncover the Culture and History of the Algarve, Portugal - Heritage, crafts, beach and café life, festivals and history dating back to 700BC!

The heritage of the Algarve is easy to see as you travel around the region: the decorative glazed tiles (“azulejos”) on the buildings and the flat roofed, small windowed buildings, which are signs of the Moorish influence of the past. Algarve chimneys are often quite intricate, latticework designs and have been used as a symbol of wealth: the larger and more intricate the design the higher the position in society historically.

Many Algarve churches date back to the 15th & 16th centuries, when King Manuel I reigned. The characteristic Manueline architecture was lavish and less overtly religious, with high ceilings and wide arch ways, visible nautical themes prominent and fantastical creatures inspired from tales of the New World.

Traditional Algarve crafts such as basket making, weaving and lace making have survived largely due to the increase in tourism. Pottery is seen all over the Algarve and Porches is one of the centres of traditional glazed earthenware. There are a number of artesanato shops and handicraft stalls in the Algarve and they are well worth a visit to take home memories of the Algarve and to brighten up your home.


The Algarve likes to celebrate its past with various festivals and carnivals and it is worth checking the events calendars to see what is on and when so you can try and time your holiday to catch a local event. Algarve events are not to be missed, the Algarvios really know how to party and they invest lots of time and effort putting on events that attract residents and tourists alike.

Algarve Beach Life

Beach life is an inherent part of life in the Algarve. It is easy to understand why, with the wonderful, Mediterranean type climate. At weekends it’s a place for the whole family to go and, for those of us lucky enough to live here, it’s a great way to start the day taking a leisurely stroll on the beach, or to go and relax after a day at work.

The Algarve’s Western Atlantic coast is a favourite with surfers; the beaches here are more exposed and much less busy than the southern coastline. The western end of the Algarve is a series of sheltered coves and bays, nestling amongst the rocks, interspersed with long stretches of golden sands on beaches like Meia Praia (Lagos), Alvor, Praia da Rocha and Armação de Pêra. The beaches at the eastern end are backed by gentle sand dunes and stretch from Vila Real to Cabanas uninterrupted. Around Tavira,Olhão and Faro the beaches are sandspits (ilhas), accessed by water taxis across the lagoons of the Ria Formosa Reserves (if you fancy a day on a ‘tropical island’, do try one of these!). In the middle the lovely beaches of Albufeira and Olhõs d’Água, backed by multicoloured cliffs, meet the beaches of Vilamoura and Quarteira which stretch for ever. Wherever you are, there will be a glorious Algarve beach nearby.

Algarve Café Life

For Algarve locals, cafés and pastelarias are an inherent part of their day-to-day culture. The Algarve café is a warm and welcoming place to spend some time. The locals will just drift in and out during the day when they get a free moment for a coffee (usually “uma bica”, a small strong expresso) or they may stay longer for a snack for lunch to have a rissóis de carne (deep fried meat patty) pastéis de bacalhau (salted cod fishcakes) or pasties de carne (puff pastry stuffed with sausage meat). There’s never a rush to move on in an Algarve café, so relax and watch the world go by! You’ll notice that if the locals only have a few minutes to stop they will just stand at the bar to drink their “bica” and maybe eat a few tremoços (lupin seeds) which are left on the bar to nibble on or have one of the delicious Algarve cakes!

History of the Algarve

For a rather small region, less than 200 kilometres in length & 50 kilometres wide, the Algarve has a truly fascinating historic tale to tell.

Between 700BC & 1086 the Algarve had been invaded by Celtic settlers, Romans, barbarian tribes from central Europe, Visigoths, Muslim Berbers & Arabs, known collectively as Moors and Almoravides of North Africa. It was only after King Afonso III of Portugal re-conquered the Algarve, or “al-Gharb” as it was coined by the Moors, that the Moorish rule ended and sovereignty was claimed by King João I after defending Portugal against a Castilian army.

One of King João’s sons, Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’ is famous for becoming the governor of the Algarve in 1418 and for his School of Navigation in Sagres, which delivered improvements in offshore navigation and led to the redesigning of the caravel to enable long ocean journeys. This period of sea voyage became known as the Portuguese Discoveries and the explorations led to the ‘discovery’ of Madeira, the Azores, Cape Verde, and West Africa as far as Sierra Leone.

History was again re-written in 1580 when King Philip II of Spain claimed the Portuguese throne and united the two kingdoms. The association with the Spanish led to attacks on the Algarve from Sir Francis Drake in 1587, during which the Prince Henry’s School of Navigation in Sagres was destroyed.

Portuguese retaliation against the Spanish rule in the 1600s restored Portuguese independence in 1640. This, however, was not the end of the troubles for Portugal or the Algarve. In 1755 Portugal was hit by an earthquake – Lisbon was destroyed along with much of the Algarve and Alentejo.

France then invaded under Napoleon, but was forced to withdraw when British troops helped out in the Peninsula War between 1808 & 1811. Although then stable from external attacks, internal conflicts in Portugal led to the assassination of King Carlos I and King Manuel II was forced to abdicate in 1910 during the Republican Revolution, which ultimately bought an end to the monarchy.

April 1974 was another important historic milestone for Portugal, when a group of radical army officers carried out a bloodless coup, known as the ‘Carnation Revolution’ because the soldiers carried flowers in their rifle barrels. The revolution ended 50 years of dictatorship and initiated a democratic constitution which led to victory for the Socialists with the government being led by Prime Minister Mário Soares. April 25th is now one of the major holidays in Portugal to remember ‘Freedom Day’.

Although this is a rather brief glimpse of Portugal and Algarve history, we hope that it serves to intrigue you so you come and visit the Algarve to find out more about the history for yourself. The great thing about Algarve history is that there are still so many reminders present today: much of Lagos is still enclosed in the old town walls, there are impressive forts still guarding Sagres, Castro Marim and Lagos for example and the largest castle in the Algarve is to be found at Silves.

The importance of Henry the Navigator has been remembered over the years through the erection of statues, and his name is often incorporated into street names, and business names. For example in Praça Infante Dom Henrique, Lagos, there is a large bronze statue of him holding his sextant and gazing out to sea.

Popular activities here in the Algarve