The Costa Vicentina Algarve is the wild west of Portugal, with some of its most dramatic beaches and coastal scenery, and some of the best places to surf in Portugal. It is one of the least developed stretches of coastline in Europe, with some of the best beaches in the Algarve and, indeed, the whole country. The Costa Vicentina is very different in feel to the popular Algarve beach resorts between Lagos and Albufeira.
- 1 Where is the Costa Vicentina, Algarve?
- 2 Things to do on the Costa Vicentina
- 3 Portugal’s Voyages of Discovery
- 4 Costa Vicentina Guide – Sagres to Cape St Vincent
- 5 Cape St Vincent to Carrapateira
- 6 Aljezur Beaches
- 7 Odeceixe Beach and Around
- 8 Costa Vicentina Hotels and Accommodation
- 9 Getting to the Algarve and Costa Vicentina
Where is the Costa Vicentina, Algarve?
The Costa Vicentina is the far western coast of the Algarve region, beginning at the village of Burgau, which is to the west of Lagos. It forms the southern part of the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, which covers the far south-west Algarve coast, as well as neighbouring Alentejo province to the north as far as Porto Covo. This feature covers the Algarve section, commonly referred to as the Costa Vicentina National Park, from Burgau to Odeceixe.
As you travel west of the resorts of Lagos and Praia da Luz, the Algarve coast gradually becomes more exposed to the full force of the northern Atlantic Ocean. You won’t find the sheltered coves and spectacular rock formations you see on the much more popular central Algarve. Instead, you’ll encounter a mixture of vast empty swathes of sand or tiny inaccessible beaches, continually pounded by massive breakers, mostly backed by steep sloping grey cliffs.
Things to do on the Costa Vicentina
This is an untamed landscape, wind-blasted and wave-lashed. It has exhilarating coastal walks, including the southern section of the long-distance Rota Vicentina. The wild Costa Vicentina is also by far the best area for surfing in the Algarve. Conditions are also often great for bodyboarding, windsurfing, and kite surfing – much more suitable than the calmer beaches and coves to the east of Lagos.
The sights were amazing enough, but the sounds stay with me as much. One morning Faye went for a coffee in the cafe tucked in on the corner of Praia do Tonel beach, on the edge of Sagres while I walked halfway along the beach and found a ready-made sandstone sun-lounger of perfect length. I stretched out, covered my eyes and shut out everything except the mighty roar of the Atlantic, listening intently to wall after wall of white water smashing into rocks. My ears were still ringing with the sound the following day, just as if I had been to a loud concert the evening before.
Costa Vicentina accommodation is sparse compared with further east. And whereas the likes of Albufeira and Lagos have multiple restaurants all with similar menus and touts vying for your custom, on the Costa Vicentina you’re more likely to find a single beach shack, or a choice of a handful of restaurants. You’ll also need your own vehicle, whether that’s a car or a camper van, as public transport options beyond Sagres are very limited.
Portugal’s Voyages of Discovery
The Costa Vicentina also has a fascinating history. Cape St Vincent is the south-westernmost point in Europe, and the horizon beyond which the sun set was considered sacred by the Romans. The headland and surrounding area were known as the Promontorum Sacrum, the Holy Promontory. The western Algarve is where Portugal’s first voyages of discovery were instigated by Prince Henry the Navigator. He was Governor of Algarve and lived in the region most of his life. He played a major role in planning early voyages in small ships called caravels.
One of the first voyages he sponsored was by Gil Eanes, a captain from nearby Lagos, who was the first European to sail beyond Cape Bojador – another place believed to mark the end of the world – in Western Sahara. Henry lived until 1460, by which time Portuguese explorers had discovered Madeira, Cape Verde Islands and explored the west African coast as far south as Guinea. It wasn’t until 1498 that they reached the Cape of Good Hope in modern day South Africa.
The Fortaleza, or fortress on the headland above Sagres, is believed by some to be the site of Henry’s famous ‘school of navigation’ – he certainly would have spent time there, planning his early voyages. It’s well worth the walk up to this windswept spot to see the medieval chapel and wind compass, and to see the coastline either side.
Costa Vicentina Guide – Sagres to Cape St Vincent
The Costa Vicentina officially begins at Burgau and also includes the nearby Salema, a picturesque beach with a small harbour. These are comparatively developed in comparison with the coast to the west and north. Beyond here the beaches become more isolated – from gorgeous coves like Praia da Figueira and Praia da Ingrina to the beautiful open stretch of golden sand at Praia do Zavial, all with stunning clear, relatively calm blue water.
Sagres is the first place you reach with the wild, last frontier feel. It’s the most developed village on the Costa Vicentina, with a resort at Praia do Martinhal, several hotels and a sheltered harbour at Baleeira – that said, it’s pretty quiet and much less ‘touristed’ than the main Algarve resorts to the east. The town has also given its name to Portugal’s famous Sagres beer.We feel Sagres would be one of the best resorts in Algarve for families, with the combination of amazing scenery and the Algarve theme parks around an hour away. However it all changes after the Fortaleza de Sagres. This headland shelters the beaches to the immediate east, but here there is no escape from the Atlantic wind.
Praia do Tonel beach sits to the north of the headland, and shares the brunt of the wild winds that blow in from the ocean. It’s a magnificent place, with a wide expanse of sand and striking ochre cliffs with some sections eroded by channels of rainwater. The small beach cafe in the corner is a great place to contemplate the scene for an hour or two. The beach is also the venue for the surf school Sagres hosts. Further along the road towards the Cape, Praia do Beliche is another fine beach that you can have almost to yourself, even in summer.
From here, the exposed N268 road continues the last mile or two to Cape St Vincent (Cabo de Sao Vicente in Portuguese) and its lighthouse. It sits at the top of rugged sheer cliffs on both sides, with sea stacks and rocky islets along the coast. It’s an unforgettable location with a strong mystique, like many ‘land’s end’ places around the world, and it should be on your bucket list of best places to visit in the Algarve.
After all, in ancient times this was the limit of the known world, and it’s not difficult to imagine the awe and fear our ancestors would have felt watching the sun disappear from this remote place. What was out there, beyond where the sun set each day? Nowadays, not only do we know the answer to that, but it’s also the last place you can buy a bratwurst before America, as the sign on the little Bavarian sausage van says!
Cape St Vincent to Carrapateira
North of Cape St Vincent, you’re into west coast Algarve, and the start (or end) of the Rota Vicentina long-distance trail. The coast is so untouched along this stretch, with more popular beaches like Praia do Castelejo and neighbouring Praia do Cordoama having the only signs of any development – one cafe each. We’ve only done a few short sections of the coastal path in this area, and the scenery is simply mind-blowing – at some point we’ll be back to explore it more on a longer Algarve hiking trip.
The Carrapateira surf is renowned throughout Portugal. Carrapateira is the first settlement of any size up the coast from Sagres and a minor road from the village leads to the two main beaches.
Praia do Amado is one of the most spectacular Costa Vicentina beaches, and in our view one of the best beaches in Portugal. Praia do Amado beach has everything – magnificent cliff scenery, rocky headlands, a vast expanse of sand that never feels crowded, a seafood restaurant and a surf school.
And in spring, the carpets of wildflowers are stunning. We followed the track around from nearby Praia da Bordeira beach and stopped at one particularly beautiful viewpoint, looking over the top of some purple cliffs to the beach with the cliffs and mountains behind. There is also an evocative 12th century ruined settlement on one of the clifftops to the north of the beach, which was occupied for part of the year by seasonal Muslim fishermen.
The aforementioned Praia da Bordeira is a beautiful long beach backed by an immense expanse of sand dunes. When we visited it was almost deserted, save for a small colony of camper vans that had congregated on the edge of the sands. It’s a magnificent place to stop for a day or two and just wander the breathtaking coastline – or even to base yourself for a holiday camping in the Algarve for a week or two.
Aljezur is a pretty whitewashed town built on a hill and along a river, overlooked by a small hilltop Moorish castle. It’s the biggest town in the north of the Costa Vicentina, and is only a few minutes’ drive from the coast and yet more amazing unexplored beaches. You can reach it a few times a day by the Rede Expressos buses which run between Lagos and Lisbon, but beyond this there are no local services to get you to the beaches.
Praia da Arrifana beach is just to the south of Aljezur. It’s another lovely beach backed by dramatic cliffs, but it’s much more sheltered than other beaches along this stretch of coast, so much so that it’s home to a small fleet of fishing boats.
Another road from Aljezur leads to the village of Monte Clerigo, which is huddled on a hillside and behind the vast beach. It’s backed at its northern and southern ends by cliffs, and by dunes close to the village. The view back down the road to the village and beach from the northern end is well worth the stop.
It’s a short drive from Monte Clerigo up the cliffs to the north, and a minor road to the left leads off to a cafe / restaurant with one of the best views in the Algarve – across the estuary of the Ribeira de Aljezur to the stunning Praia da Amoreira beach.
There are some fine wooden walkways down to jetties on the riverbank, giving tantalising views over the beach, backed by dunes and a single sloping cliff, but the only way to actually get to the beach is by returning to Aljezur town and taking another road along the river, which takes you to the small car park and the solitary Paraiso do Mar restaurant. This end of the beach is also great for exploring rockpools. The neighbouring beach to the north, Praia do Carriagem, is another great one for exploring, with lots of rock outcrops and pools along its broad sandy length.
Odeceixe Beach and Around
It’s only ten miles – 16 km – from Aljezur to the Algarve’s border with the province of Alentejo province. Odeceixe is 3km inland, a lovely whitewashed village with a small windmill on the hill above. It makes a great base for exploring the Costa Vicentina as well as the Alentejo coast to the north, and you can find some great Odeceixe accommodation deals.
Praia de Odeceixe is the last outpost of the Costa Vicentina and Algarve coast, another spectacular beach skirted by an estuary on one side and cliffs on the other. It’s another fantastic location, pristine and unspoilt, with a couple of cafes to while away an hour so. You can walk the 3km from the main village to the beach, drive or catch the road train that runs in summer.
Costa Vicentina Hotels and Accommodation
There is a good range of Sagres accommodation options, from the nearby 5 star Martinhal Sagres Beach Family Resort Hotel to a cluster of smaller hotels, guest houses and campsites around the town.
The Martinhal is one of the best family resorts in Algarve, with a huge range of kids activities and play areas, and luxury hotel rooms and houses close to the sublime Martinhal beach.
The 4 star Memmo Baleeira is the best of the other Sagres hotels, with many of the luxury rooms and suites overlooking the Baleeira harbour and Atlantic Ocean beyond. Sagres also has some beautiful apartments and a boutique B&B in town.
Another option is to stay at an Algarve surf camp. A few places on the Algarve offer packages with a week’s surfing tuition plus hostel accommodation, with prices varying through the seasons. There are two Algarve surf hostels in Sagres – Wave Sensations and Algarve Surf School. The latter has a sister Algarve hostel in a quiet area of Lagos, and there’s also a surf school and camp at Praia do Amado, with tent and bungalow accommodation available.
There are also a good selection of Algarve camping sites, particularly around Sagres, with more to the north around Aljezur. You can set up tents, park your campervan or stay in bungalows or some of the best bargain apartments in the Algarve at these.
Aljezur also has a good range of options, with some in the old town and more in the modern Vale de Telha village a short distance away,a good place to look if you’re searching for cheap hotels in the Algarve. Many of the places in the area – and to the north around Odeceixe – are 2- and 3-star hotels and guesthouses, and there are also a few quintas – small country houses – with rooms.
You can also glamp it up in the Costa Vicentina. Aljezur has some great glamping options, from treehouses to tipis to yurts.
Getting to the Algarve and Costa Vicentina
The airport for the Algarve is at Faro, 116 km to the east of Sagres. It is very well served by European airlines – the full list of carriers as of May 2018 is available here – and you should have no difficulty finding reasonably priced Algarve flights from all around Europe if you book ahead.
If you’re travelling from the US or Canada, you could fly into Lisbon and get a connecting flight to Faro or a train to Lagos. Another transfer option is to fly into one of the London airports and get a connecting flight from there to Faro.
If you intend to explore the Costa Vicentina, you really need to look at car hire in the Algarve. The trains only go as far west as Lagos, and from there you can get buses to Sagres, but after that, services are very sparse. Some services run between Lagos and Aljezur and Odeceixe, but nowhere else on the coast. We wouldn’t even contemplate visiting this area without one.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times. His images are frequently used throughout the world by tourism bodies such as Visit Britain and Visit Wales.