The resort town of Lagos is one of the best places to stay in the Algarve, the south coast of Portugal. Lagos has a fine historic centre, and streets full of restaurants, bars aclubs which are packed in the summer season. Then there’s the coastline: Lagos has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world right on the doorstep. There are six beaches in Lagos and the immediate vicinity, with many more just a short distance away.
Our guide to the best things to do in Lagos, Portugal takes you to all of these beaches. We also suggest what to do in Lagos besides these, including some of the local tourist attractions. There are also plenty of day trips from Lagos to consider, with some charming ancient inland towns worth seeking out.
- 1 An Introduction to Lagos, Algarve
- 2 THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN LAGOS PORTUGAL: THE LAGOS BEACHES AND COAST
- 3 Praia Dona Ana Beach
- 4 Praia do Camilo Beach
- 5 Ponta da Piedade
- 6 Praia do Pinhao Beach
- 7 Meia Praia, Lagos
- 8 Porto de Mós Beach
- 9 Lagos Marina
- 10 Lagos Town Walls and Forte Ponta da Bandeira
- 11 Santo Antonio Church
- 12 Lagos Slave Market Museum
- 13 Lagos Science Centre
- 14 Lagos Zoo
- 15 Lagos Nightlife
- 16 Lagos, Portugal Restaurants
- 17 Day Trips From Lagos
- 18 Silves
- 19 Alte, Algarve
- 20 Praia da Luz
- 21 Sagres and the Costa Vicentina
An Introduction to Lagos, Algarve
For us, Lagos is one of the best resorts in the Algarve, even if it has partly succumbed to mass tourism. It has several outstanding beaches close by, and the centre is packed at night with busy restaurants and bars. However, it still has plenty of charm and a long history to discover.
Lagos was founded by the Carthaginians, and in turn colonies by the Romans, who named it Lacobriga. It was subsequently ruled by the Visigoths and Moors, before being captured and incorporated into the kingdom of Portugal in 1241.
During the early 15th century it played an important early role in the Portuguese Age of Discoveries. A fleet set sail from Lagos to capture the north African city of Ceuta in 1415, and Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’ later lived there, promoting further expeditions. Lagos sailor Gil Eanes was the first to sail beyond Cape Bojador, in modern Western Sahara.
As they made more and more incursions into Africa, the Portuguese also brought people back from the continent to be forced to work as slaves. The Mercado dos Escravos, the first slave market in Europe, was opened there in 1444.
The 1755 Lisbon earthquake levelled much of old Lagos. What you see today dates from the 17th and 18th centuries onwards, with the exception of some 16th century fortified town walls.
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN LAGOS PORTUGAL: THE LAGOS BEACHES AND COAST
I made my first Algarve trip in 2002 solely to see the beaches near Lagos. The headland to the south of the town the Ponta da Piedade, has some of the most extraordinary coastal scenery you could ever hope to see. The golden honey-coloured stone has been weathered away into all kinds of fantastical shapes. There are so many sea stacks and rock arches, fairy chimneys pointing skywards, with grottoes down below. Somewhere in all this are two of the best beaches on the Algarve, indeed Portugal and more.
For us, this small stretch of coastline makes Lagos one of the best places in the Algarve. The other beaches in the area are very attractive too, but we’ll start with those on the Ponta da Piedade.
Praia Dona Ana Beach
Praia Dona Ana was once voted the most beautiful beach in the world by Conde Nast Traveller readers. It is a sublime spot at the northern end of the peninsula, around 15-20 minutes’ walk from the centre of Lagos. It’s surrounded by striped rock stacks and golden and ochre cliffs, with clear turquoise water lapping the shoreline. There’s also a small café with a great view over the beach. Praia Dona Ana also gets an honourable mention in our Most Beautiful Beaches in Europe feature.
Praia do Camilo Beach
Praia do Camilo is another of the most beautiful beaches in Algarve, a short walk or drive south towards the lighthouse at the end of the headland. The landscape has changed quite significantly since my first visit because of cliff erosion. A long wooden staircase (225 steps) takes you down to the sand, where you’re surrounded by a fantasy world of sea arches, towers and rock pinnacles. These beaches are right up there with the best things to do in Portugal – it’s even worth travelling down from Lisbon to see them.
Ponta da Piedade
The Ponta da Piedade – the Point of Piety – has some of the best coastline in Europe. It’s another short walk from Praia do Camilo to the Farol, or lighthouse, from which paths radiate around the edge of the headland.
One staircase leads to the shoreline where you can go on some of the best Algarve boat trips anywhere on the coast. We chartered a RIB for an hour, and explored the coves and caves hidden around the Ponta. There’s so much that you don’t see from the top of the cliffs. You can venture even further by hiring a kayak and exploring it by yourself.
Praia do Pinhao Beach
Praia do Pinhao is a few minutes’ walk from Praia Dona Ana in the direction of Lagos town. Even though it’s closer, it gets far less visitors than its neighbours. There are no facilities on site, and it’s only accessible by steep steps. It’s got all the spectacular scenery that the other Ponta da Piedade beaches have, and more seclusion. One of the hidden gems of the Algarve, without a doubt.
Meia Praia, Lagos
Meia Praia beach’s name translates as ‘half beach’, but it’s far and away the biggest Lagos beach. It’s more like the wide open, flat sandy beaches of the eastern Algarve than the other rocky beaches near the town. It’s easily reached from Lagos town centre, across the bridge: the town end of the beach is also known as Praia de Sao Roque.
In the height of summer, when Dona Ana and Camilo become as packed as a tin of Portuguese sardines, Meia Praia has plenty of space. It’s 4 km (2.5 miles) long so it’s big enough to absorb even peak season crowds. There’s a beach bar and restaurant at Praia de Sao Roque, and you can hire a sun lounger and parasol there too. There’s a train station halfway along the beach, a few minutes’ journey from Lagos station. The crowds thin out east of this – there you’re likely to find kite surfers and windsurfers.
Porto de Mós Beach
Porto de Mós beach is 3 km (2 miles) from Lagos and gives a taste of what to expect at the beaches of the western Algarve. It’s among the best beaches in Lagos for surfers, as it’s exposed to the Atlantic south-westerlies. The beach is backed by stretches of spectacular golden stratified cliffs. There’s a touch of wilderness about it, with great rock pools to explore and relatively few people there. Regular buses link the beach with Lagos, otherwise it’s only a five-minute drive from the town.
Lagos Marina is a popular spot close to Lagos centre, as it’s on the route between the town and the railway station and Meia Praia. It is also the departure point for most Lagos boat trips. Some of these explore the local coastline down to Ponta da Piedade. It’s also one of the best places on the Algarve to find dolphin watching cruises. If you prefer an adrenaline rush, there are speed boat and jet boat tours too. The ticket kiosks are along the promenade close to the Marina.
There’s also plenty to do around the marina, including several restaurants and bars. At the far end of the Marina from the beaches, there’s also the Wax Museum of the Portuguese Discoveries. It’s fairly small, with around twenty figures in all, but it’s a good introduction to Portuguese history and the Voyages of the Discoveries, especially for kids.
A replica of a 15th century Portuguese caravel – the ship used by the early explorers – is moored closer to the town.
Lagos Town Walls and Forte Ponta da Bandeira
Lagos has more remnants of its past and atmosphere than most towns along the Algarve coast. It’s regarded as one of the best towns in the Algarve for day trips, and there are enough Lagos attractions away from the beaches to keep you busy for a day or more.
The impressive town walls of Lagos were first built under Roman rule, and what now remains dates from the 16th century. There are some beautiful sections with parkland around, and several gates through which you can enter.
The Forte Ponta da Bandeira stands guard over the Bensafrim estuary. This solid, squat fort – sometimes referred to as Lagos Fortress and Lagos Castle – houses a museum on the Portuguese Discoveries, and a tiny chapel of St Barbara decorated with azulejos (traditional Portuguese tiles). The fort backs onto Praia da Batata, whose name translates as Potato Beach. This beach can get very busy as it’s the closest to Lagos town.
Santo Antonio Church
The Igreja da Santo Antonio is a lavish 18th century church in the heart of the old town. It’s the most beautiful landmark in Lagos, its two towers standing out on the town’s skyline.
Inside, it’s incredibly extravagant,especially the gold-painted wooden carvings around the altar. There is also a series of six paintings of the life of St Anthony, the Portuguese-born patron saint of lost things.
Lagos Slave Market Museum
This small museum is one of the best Lagos tourist attractions, and I’d say the best museum on the Algarve.
Europe’s first slave market opened in Lagos in 1444, and it remained prominent in the Portuguese slave trade until the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who profited personally from the sale of each slave.
You learn some of the desperately sad stories of early slaves, their families traumatically torn apart. On the second floor you also see items such as manacles in which they would have been held.
After Henry’s death, the centre of the Portuguese slave trade moved to Lisbon. Yet this was where it started, and it’s a compelling reminder of one of humanity’s darkest times.
Lagos Science Centre
One of the best Lagos things to do with kids is the Science Centre. It’s an intriguing interactive attraction based around the theme of discovery. They can learn all about many aspects of seafaring, figuring out for themselves how they would navigate and communicate while at sea. Outside, there are three gardens to explore. Here they can practice being a lighthouse keeper, simulate a tsunami or pull up a chest full of treasure. A great way to spend a few hours with the kids.
The reason Lagos is the one of the best resorts in the Algarve for families is the range of attractions geared to kids. Lagos Zoo has over 140 species of animals. These range from mammals including lemurs and monkeys, and birds from pink flamingos to a favourite of ours, the Australian rainbow lorikeet. There are also snakes and iguanas to keep reptile lovers happy.
The Zoo is just outside Lagos – either a few minutes’ drive or there is a bus departing four times daily from the Alma café on Avenida dos Descobrimentos.
The old town of Lagos is buzzing at night, through shoulder and summer seasons. Along with Albufeira, it’s the party capital of the Algarve, with many Lagos bars open until the early hours of the morning. One bar in Lagos would sometimes clear out lingering customers at 2.00 am by setting fire to the bar. Many stay in Lagos for the Algarve nightlife, and there’s plenty of it.
Lagos, Portugal Restaurants
As the weather gets warmer, so Lagos gets busier. Many of the restaurants in Lagos employ touts who try to engage you in conversation, with the sole aim of getting you inside. Some of them are pretty mediocre. If you’re suspicious, move on. If you’ve been lured inside and have lingering doubts, try some bread before you commit to an order. When you realise it’s stale, make your excuses and move on.
Some of the best Lagos restaurants are in a cluster along Rua 25 de Abril. A Petisqueira has a more contemporary menu than most places in the town, with some great seafood and a fine saffron risotto.
Many places in Lagos offer similar fare, including cataplana, a stew with clams that’s normally for two people. There are several variants of this, with pork or seafood. Bacalhau – salt cod – is also ubiquitous, with many different versions to try.
The best cataplana I’ve ever had is at O Cantinho Algarvio, just up from the main square, Praça Gil Eanes on Rua Afonso da Almeida. The service was also outstanding. It’ s right up there with the best restaurants in Algarve at which I’ve dined.
Day Trips From Lagos
Lagos is a great base from which you can explore the Algarve. It’s the western terminus of the Algarve railway, and some of the resorts to the east are within reach. Portimão is a short ride across the Odiaxere estuary, and from here beaches such as Praia da Rocha and Praia dos Tres Irmãos are within reach by bus.
Having done it by public transport and car, we found we could get a lot further by the latter. This is especially true of the far west Algarve, so it’s well worth considering car hire in the Algarve if you want to cover a lot of ground. We also found it easier to get around by car when visiting beaches on the central Algarve coast such as Praia da Marinha.
This small, beautiful old city was the Moorish capital of the Algarve for over 400 years. The Moors’ main legacy is the fine red brick Castelo (castle) which dominates the town. The Ponte Velha (Old Bridge) dates back to around the 15th century, but some call it the Roman Bridge. Historical quibbles aside, it’s a gorgeous bridge, and it makes for a great foreground to an overall shot of the town.
The other must-see sight in Silves is the Sé, or Cathedral, which dates back to the 13th century. It was built on the site of an earlier mosque in the Gothic style of the era. It was badly damaged by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and the nave and belltower had to be rebuilt afterwards. It’s the most important Gothic bulding in the Algarve.
A visit to Silves old town is one of the best things to do in the Algarve. It’s a charming, enchanting place to wander for a few hours. There are some lovely old streets and houses, some whitewashed, some with wonderful tiled façades. It’s a big change of pace from Lagos old town, and a great place to take a break from the crowds on the coast.
Alte is probably the most beautiful village in the Algarve. It’s a lovely unspoilt traditional whitewashed village 20 km (13 miles) beyond Silves – the two make for a great day out from Lagos.
It’s in the baroccal area, the countryside between the coast and the hills of the Serra de Caldeirão. Alte is very different in feel to the Algarve resorts on the coast. It’s a quiet, picturesque backwater with a much more relaxed feel. There’s a 13th century church and a waterfall, with a few cafes and restaurants to while away some very pleasant time in the country.
Praia da Luz
Praia da Luz – the Beach of Light – is another easy short trip from Lagos. A small Roman complex has been found close to the beach – this are believed to include a bath house and fish salting tanks. The parish church of Nossa Senhora da Luz, just above the beach, is also worth a visit. However the main reason for visiting Praia da Luz is, of course, the beach, with its sloping cliff backdrop.
Sagres and the Costa Vicentina
Sagres is the westernmost resort in the region, and the gateway to the Costa Vicentina, the Wild West of the Algarve. It’s part of a protected area which means development is greatly restricted. This coast is exposed to the full force of the Atlantic, so is very different in character to the sheltered beaches around Lagos.
Sagres is about a half hour drive from Lagos, otherwise it’s just over an hour by bus. Sagres has two sheltered beaches behind a headland on which a fortress guards the coastline. Some believe it to be the ‘school of navigation’ set up by Prince Henry the Navigator. Look west from the fort to the lighthouse across the bay – this is Cape St Vincent, the south-westernmost point in mainland Europe. It’s a wind-blasted, evocative spot that was long believed to be the end of the world.
The coast to the north is spectacular, a mixture of hidden coves and vast, wide beaches. The area is very popular with surfers and hikers who come to walk the Rota Vicentina long distance trail. Some of the best beaches are around Aljezur, including the stunning Praia do Amado.
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.