Set along the banks of the Arade River in the west of the Algarve region, Portimao was once a leader in the sardine fishing and processing industry, but today it’s a cosmopolitan city and an especially picturesque popular tourist destination. The former fishing docks now serve as the beautiful promenade which leads to a number of spectacular beaches, while the streets are lined with charming cafes, enticing restaurants and shops, and it also boasts a wonderful historic center.
There are so many things to do in Portimao, to make the most of your time here, consider these top picks for placing on your must-experience list.
Portimao is a popular beach destination, with many beautiful stretches of sand to discover. Its main beach, Praia da Rocha is one of the Algarve’s top tourist spots, especially in the summer, but as it offers enough room for all, stretching for one-and-a-quarter miles, it’s never difficult to find an empty spot. It’s also a popular place for spending time in the water and enjoying special events like beach parties and fireworks shows. The main street that runs along the coast here is filled with restaurants, bars and a wide range of other nightlife options to take advantage of too.
Just around the corner from Praia de Rocha is Praia da Vau, another outstanding Algarve beach with its golden sands backed by rugged orange-hued cliffs. Those cliffs help to keep it more sheltered from winds and also form a number of coves for enjoying more privacy and seclusion, especially during higher tides. Yet another option sits along the eastern shores of the mouth of the River Arade, just across the water from Portimao and Praia da Rocho. Praia Grande is a wide sandy stretch, with its name translating to “big beach.” At the north end is a 16th-century fort that sits atop a small cliff – while it was originally built to defend the area from pirate attacks, today it’s a private residence. The beach offers a wide range of facilities like shops and cafes, and because it’s sheltered, the water is usually calm, safe for swimming and other water sports. There’s also a lifeguard in season and a beachside playground that makes it popular with families.
Finally, the beach of Tres Iramos may be the best of all, situated at the eastern end of a vast stretch of sand along Avor beach. At this end you’ll not only see some incredible rock formations which give the beach its name – Tres Iramos means “three brothers” which refers to the three impressive sea stacks here, but this stretch is made up of a series of small coves enclosed among limestone cliffs that are especially wonderful for enjoying more secluded time on the beach surrounded by spectacular scenery. You’ll also find a number of facilities available, including seasonal lifeguards and restaurants.
Surfing has been an important part of daily life in many areas along Portugal’s coast, and the Algarve region is no exception. Take advantage of this surfing hotspot to catch some great waves – it’s even a good place for beginners to learn with options for every experience level and lessons available too. The waves are consistent, the water is warm, and crystal-clear blue. Some of the most popular surfing beaches are Praia do Martinhal, Praia do Zavial and Praia do Tonel. You might want to check out our 8-Night land and cruise tour to Spain to Portugal, you can spend a day exploring Portimao.
In addition to surfing many other water sports can be enjoyed along the coast. Join a kayak tour and you can paddle through the stunning translucent waters, exploring mysterious caves and hidden beaches that can only be accessed by the sea. Standup paddle boarding is popular too, a great way to spend a morning or late afternoon, exploring rock formations and caves while enjoying the scenery and a fun activity.
Diving is another possibility, in fact just off the coast at Portimao is the Ocean Revival Park. It’s home to the largest artificial reef in the world, which was formed by four former Portuguese Navy war ships. The wrecks are ideal for exploring and you’ll find plenty of marine life to gawk at too. While they’re best suited to more experienced divers, there are dive sites in the area for beginners as well as a dive school for those who’d like to try out the sport. Snorkeling is a possibility as well, with many guides available to take you out and show you some of the richest ecological underwater areas in the region, with all the gear you need provided.
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The medieval Santa Catarina Fortress was built on Praia da Rocha in the 17th century on the site of another 15th century defensive structure and chapel that was dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria. While it was partially destroyed during the major earthquake in 1755, it’s been restored and now serves as a popular tourist attraction. Its construction is one of the better examples of Alexandre Massai’s work, a military engineer who toured the Algarve to reinforce many military fortifications along the coast. Visitors can climb the steep steps, walk around the battlements and enjoy some great photo opportunities with an old cannon as well as fantastic views of the cliffs and marina.
As mentioned, most people made their living in the sardine industry before the arrival of tourism to Portimao. Learn more about that history by visiting this museum that sits inside the former Feu Cannery, showcasing exhibits on the city’s industry that was booming around the turn of the 20th-century. It still contains many of the items that were used back then, and visitors can also watch a film that contains footage revealing the city’s old canning days. Downstairs are archaeological finds from a nearby megalithic complex and underwater just off the coast along with an interactive exhibition that reveals conservation measures that currently being undertaken.
The megalithic tombs of Alcalar are a national monument, something that’s amazed archaeologists and historians since being discovered in the late 19th century. The tombs reveal the signs of a prehistoric, 5,000-year-old city, and even show some of the roles that individuals had back then, including how they lived and worked during these ancient times. The various methods of construction show how inhabitants dealt with death as well, with some tombs specifically designed for the chiefs of the tribes and their relatives. The Museu de Portimao reveals more about the monument in its Alcalar Interpretation Centre. Visit the impressive tombs on our 8-Night Portugal to Spain Cruise-Tour.
Take a stroll on the nearly two-mile-long wooden Alvor Boardwalk which sits by the harbor near the fishermen’s huts. Popular for birdwatching, it meanders through large sand dunes, azure lagoons, salt lakes and marshes which serve as a rich estuary ecosystem and essential staging area for many wintering and migrant seabirds from oystercatchers and the elusive stone-curlew to back-winged stilts, Caspian terns and ospreys among countless others. During July and August, the best times to be on the boardwalk to view the birds and for photography are either very early in the morning or a couple of hours before sunset.
The city is still associated with sardines, famous for having the best fish in the Algarve region, and sardines are the specialty. Roasted sardines, cooked to perfection over charcoal, are best enjoyed with traditional Portuguese bread and the area’s signature salad, ‘salada a montanheira,’ or with a side dish of roasted potatoes with olive oil and garlic called ‘batatas a murro.’ If you really want to dive into sardines, plan to attend the annual sardine festival in early August, the very best time to try them fresh-caught, while also enjoying live music and market. It takes place on the waterfront and after dark there’s an impressive firework display too. Try traditional cuisine and sardines in Portimao on our Portugal to Spain Cruise.
The most well-preserved church dating back to the 1600s, Igreja de Colegio was damaged during the earthquake of 1755, but compared to others managed to survive relatively unscathed. It was restored not long after, and changed hands a number of times, given to the University of Coimbra and then later to the Order of Camillus de Lellis. It has an interesting origin in that Diogo Goncalves, a merchant who made a fortune in the Far East, used his wealth to have it constructed. He’s buried right here in the church where his tomb can still be seen here today.
Located along the eastern shore of the lagoon inside the municipality of Portimao, the traditional fishing village of Algor is a whitewashed settlement with Moorish roots and a maze of narrow cobbled streets spread through the hillside, rising up to the ruins of a Moorish fortress. It’s especially picturesque to wander through, with a number of lovely historic churches to see, including the 17th century Igreja Matri and Igreja Da Misericordia, along with some great shops and restaurants.
The Mercado de Portimao, or Portimao Market on Avenida Sao Joao de Deus, is the city’s traditional morning market. It’s one of the best places to visit for enjoying an authentic slice of daily life, mingling with the locals and buying all sorts of fresh foods from farm produce to fish and seafood.
Sidecar tours are offered throughout the city, an ideal way to explore the area without putting in a ton of effort. There are a wide range of options to choose from, with most three hours in length, bringing you to highlights like seagull island, the fishing community of Benagil, the village of Ferragudo, Praia da Rocha beach, lighthouses, Santa Carina Fortress and more.
Ribeirinha is the riverside esplanade, a must to walk while visiting Portimao. Begin at Museu de Portimao at the south end where the old docks are and it’s easy to imagine what it might have been like to be here a century ago. As you stroll, you can enjoy the shade of the long row of palm trees, and occasionally stop to rest on the beaches along the way to gaze out at the Arade and take in the entire scene. It’s especially magical in the evening when you can see the glittering lights on the opposite bank.
One of the most thrilling ways to discover some of the Algarve region’s magnificent landscapes is by embarking on a Jeep Safari. A half-day trip, you’ll discover lots of hidden areas with the ability to travel over off-road tracks and cross streams. Visit historic villages where it seems time has stopped and enjoy gastronomic experiences as well, like the Portuguese liquor Medronho and locally produced honey. You’ll be taken to one of the highest points in the area for soaking up breathtaking panoramic vistas too. Check out our Portugal to Spain Cruise-Tour here and explore Portimao in this fun and exciting way.
Side & Splash is a water park just minutes from Portimao in the Lagoa area that makes for an ideal place to cool off and having fun on a hot summer’s day. It features all sorts of water slides, including some rather heart-pounding vertiginous slides like the fast as lightning Kamikaze and the thrill of the unknown offered by the Black Hole slide, along with many other attractions. There are falconry, parrot and reptile shows as well as green spaces that are ideal for resting in the shade and enjoying a picnic.
You’ll have lots of different options for exploring this area, yet another is a Segway tour. Whizz along the pedestrian path that follows the coast at Praia da Rocha, admiring the gorgeous beaches, the sea and rock formations, learning about the local culture before ending at Portimao Marina, which not only offers the opportunity to check out some beautiful, luxurious boats, but features a good selection of shops, trendy bars, cafes and restaurants. The vehicles are easy to maneuver and can be used not only by adults, but most children too.
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