The Algarve in Winter: Why Visit Portugal in December

Portugal in December. The Lighthouse at Sagres
Have you considered spending time in Portugal in December? The Algarve in the winter months is an ideal destination in Southern Portugal: the weather is not too cold (definitely above freezing) plus quiet and relaxing. Avoid throngs of tourists by visiting Portugal in December. Read on for ideas about things to do in the Algarve and places to see on an Algarve Portugal road trip.

Getting to the Algarve

We had the luxury of time to take a vacation over the Christmas holiday and decided to spend it in Portugal, a place we've always wanted to visit but haven't before now. We spent about 10 days exploring with time split between the Algarve and Lisbon. We started by flying from Dublin to Faro (an economical direct flight on Ryanair).

Where to Stay in the Algarve

We checked in to Quinta do Caracol, a family run resort in Tavira. We think the place used to be a snail farm before it was turned into a hotel. The grounds were lovely and featured whitewashed buildings with blue and yellow trim, lush vegetation and citrus, and even a swimming pool. All the rooms have names. We were whisked into 'Amor Perfeito' (Perfect Love) for our stay. We even had a little table and bench outside our room to sit outside -- unfortunately, it was bit cold and rainy during the time we were there so we didn't avail much of the outdoor elements of the property. Breakfast was one of the highlights of our stay. The breakfast room featured a roaring wood fire. We were served freshly squeezed orange juice from fruit grown on the property. We also got our first taste of traditional Portuguese Pastel de Nata, Portugal's famous cream custard tarts. The Quinta do Caracol was an excellent home base for the first part of our trip.

The Algarve in Winter: Stay at Quinta do Caracol in Tavira

Things to Do in Tavira Portugal in Winter

I knew I would like Tavira when I walked down a street past a crumbling tile facade and saw an old woman in a colorful headscarf looking our her window. Our eyes met and she smiled and nodded as we walked by in the rain. Our first order of business was to find something to eat. It was after 3 pm so most lunch places were closed. We found a small snack bar filled with locals (rowdy but harmless) having a bite to eat and drinking beer. We don't speak Portuguese other than a few pleasantries that we learned for the trip so we pointed to a knish type item (filled with pork). We rounded out the meal with a bottle of Sagres beer (cost about a euro) and some hot sandwiches. Yum! Continuing on, we couldn't resist stopping at Pasteleria Tavirense for an espresso and slice of checkerboard cake. The cake was super light and airy -- totally unexpected. Just like Spain, I liked how restaurants in Portugal print their name and contact information on their napkins as a sort of calling card.

We arrived at the River Gilão and admired Tavira's well-preserved traditional Algarve architecture reflected in the water. We stopped into Mercado da Ribeira and admired the different crafts and baked goods on offer. There were also a number of creative Christmas trees on display from a local school. We walked back outside and were greeted by a colorful rowboat floating on the water. We crossed the river and admired the Ponte Romana (Roman Bridge) further upstream leading into the formerly walled section of town. Tavira enchanted us with its colorful tile work and ornate door knockers. We stopped into a local grocery store and picked up a bottle of Vinho Verde (young white wine) for later before heading back to Quinta do Caracol for a siesta before supper. We walked about 3.6 miles exploring Tavira.
Portugal in December: Market in Tavira

Tavira After Dark

We ventured back out into Tavira town after dark. I liked how the streets in Tavira were labeled with ornate tiles. We decided to eat at Restaurante Al-Far-Roba. We treated ourselves to some white wine while waiting for our entrees. We tried two locally recommended dishes: sea bass and arroz com polvo (rice with octopus). I don't typically enjoy food that resembles on the plate what it looked like when alive. However, the flavors in this case justified the discomfort with the presentation. The highlight of the meal was dessert. The chef offered us a homemade custard tart drenched in honey and cinnamon. After supper, we took a walk along the cobbled streets of old town Tavira. We were once again impressed with the architecture which looked particularly dramatic bathed in spotlights. I liked a statue of a man waving farewell at the train station. I also smiled when I saw a colorful sign wishing everyone 'Boas Festas' or Happy Holidays. Our winter trip to Portugal was off to a great start.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Portugal is an amazing country. In addition to the Algarve, make time to visit Lisbon, Portugal's picturesque capital or spend a weekend in Porto where you can drink wine as old as you are.

An Algarve Road Trip

On our second day in Portugal in December, we decided to take a drive to some of the historic towns and sights in the Algarve region.

Portimão

Our first stop was Portimão. We got a little lost on the way into town (the streets are not well marked) and never found the town center. We did, however, find a series of gorgeous beaches. One of the advantages of traveling in Portugal in winter during the low season is that you have a lot of touristy places to yourself. The beach in Portimão was deserted. Local resorts and high rise apartments sat on a dramatic cliff with stairs leading down to a boardwalk. A lone person sat on the beach listening to the rhythmic sounds of the waves. Limestone rock formations competed for beach frontage with local restaurants. We decided to climb down the stairs and have a look around. For those that didn't want to get sand in their shoes, the boardwalk extended far out onto the beach. We weren't entirely alone. Two adorable Western Highland White Terriers frolicked in the sand making our visit complete.

The Algarve in Winter: Portimão beaches

Lagos

Our next stop on our driving tour of the Algarve was Lagos. I was immediately drawn to a dilapidated tile-fronted building in the center of town. Birds circled above a statue of Dom Sebastiao. I liked a shiny, triangular deep green building anchoring one of the town squares. We walked past Santo Antonio to Praça Infante Dom Henrique. Prince Henry the Navigator ran a sea navigation school in the area in the 15th century and was a key catalyst in Portugal's prominence during the Age of Discovery. Vestiges of the local slave market still remain and can be toured for a fee. We looked in through the gate but didn't have enough time to visit the museum proper -- we had a lot of ground in the Algarve to cover in a single day. We stopped to refuel at Taquelim Gonçalves (they have free WiFi, by the way) and enjoyed a fig and marzipan treat with our espresso. The most striking impression that Lagos left me with was the stark whiteness of the boats in the harbour against the ominous storm clouds.

The Algarve in Winter: Portimão beaches

Sagres

We made it to the end of the world...at least that's what it was called in Vasco de Gama's day. When the explorers set off from the southwest coast of Portugal during the Age of Discovery, they didn't know what lay on the other side of the ocean (if anything at all!). We drove all the way to Sagres to pay homage to the bravery of those that explored and charted the world beyond their own borders. The views from Cabo de São Vicente were stunning. We had a picnic lunch along the rocky cliffs. We made sure to stay well away from the edge. Apparently there were others that visited (from Scandinavia) that weren't so lucky. The problem with the plaque marking this spot is that it looks like a historical marker and wills you to walk out farther to take a look and see what it is. As soon as we realized that it was a memorial to those that had likely fallen to their death here, we took two giant steps back.

We stopped at Praia do Beliche as the sun was beginning to set for more stunning views. Our final stop of the day was Fortaleza de Sagres. It is believed that Prince Henry the Navigator ran his school of Navigation near here during the Age of Discovery. We paid our admission fee and took a stroll around the grounds. A giant divided circle is thought to be a compass rose used for navigational purposes. A small church stands on a bluff overlooking the ocean. I liked the rusty old cannon guarding against attack on the fortress. A cobbled walkway leads around the site along the ocean. We were rewarded with amazing views once again. The sun began to set and after admiring its beauty over the water, we made our way back to the fort entrance and drove back to the Quinta do Caracol in Tavira. We couldn't have asked for a better day for an Algarve road trip to explore this part of the world so rich in history.

Dinner at Brisa Do Rio in Tavira Portugal

We walked from the Quinta do Caracol across the river to Brisa do Rio for dinner after our long drive to explore the Algarve region. The restaurant featured whimsical metal cutouts of sea creatures. We tried steak served Portuguese style (apparently that means with bacon on top) and sea bream. A pear tart with vanilla ice cream capped the meal. We definitely slept well that night!

Parque Natural Da Rio Formosa

We decided to embark on a little birdwatching at the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa near Olhão, Portugal. The entrance is a little hard to find -- blink and you'll miss it (we did). Fortunately, we realized where we made our wrong turn and were quickly back on track. We wandered on foot through paths covered in clover. The park has a kennel full of Portuguese water dogs and we were really excited to see them. Unfortunately, the kennel was closed for an indeterminate amount of time. We could hear the dogs. It was quite a cacophony but we couldn't quite see in the window or over the fence. Bummer. Walking on, we saw ruined Roman baths. We stopped at a dilapidated wooden shelter to watch birds on the fresh water lake. I liked the hints of color peeking out of the forest. The park also features a historic pump house that worked off the motion of the tide. We were able to climb to the roof for nice views of the landscape. We spied a wooden boat dock in the distance but when we got closer we saw a signed warning “Perigo!” (dangerous) Overall, Parque Natural da Ria Formosa made for a relaxing hike and visit but I don't suggest going out of your way to visit unless you're in the neighborhood.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other European winter travel ideas? These destinations promise fewer crowds and aren't too cold.

A Day Out in Faro in Winter

After our morning exploring the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, we drove into Faro to have a look around town. The area inside the old town wall was lovely and dotted with orange trees. The most charming part about the place was the storks nesting on the rooftops of many buildings. There were a few birds living on top of the Arco da Vila, a gate leading from the old town to new. We went for lunch at Restaurante Taska and had our first taste of salt cod (bacalhau). We had ordered a dish of pork and onions but the owner insisted that we try the cod and brought us out a small portion on the house. She told us that there are as many ways to prepare bacalhau as there are days in the year. This particular variation was drizzled with oil and was covered in eggs, onions, and garlic. It was actually pretty tasty and not overly 'fishy'. The restaurant was warm and inviting -- I definitely recommend stopping in. We covered about 2.3 miles during our visit.

Faro's Chapel of the Bones

We visited the Chapel of the Bones (Capelo dos Ossos) in Faro's Igreja do Carmo, the big church on the square. We wandered past a grand altar into an unassuming side room where we paid a 1 euro per person admission fee to see the chapel. We stepped outside into a quiet courtyard and then into the Bones Chapel on the other side. The chapel was built almost entirely from the remains of former monks and was meant to serve as a reminder of our own mortality. I've never seen a 'real' human skeleton before and it was amazing to see the bones bear the weight of the church structure. I've never seen anything like it before and it was definitely humbling. We could actually reach out and respectfully touch the bones that had found their final resting place here.
Things to do in Portugal in December: Visit the Chapel of the Bones in Faro

8 EUR Fruitcake

I thought I'd end my post about visiting the Algarve in winter with a bit of a funny story. We stopped at a local bakery while exploring the pedestrian streets of Faro town and they had Christmas cakes covered in almonds and walnuts sitting in the window. They looked amazing so I managed to order one using a combination of mime and a few words of Portuguese. Unfortunately, I don't know how to say "How much does it cost?" in Portuguese. It turns out that it cost 8 euro for a tiny (but dense) slice of fruitcake. It was definitely one heck of a fruitcake. I guess fruitcakes are much more in demand here than they are in the US. I can imagine why -- this one was actually quite tasty, maybe not 8 euro worth of tasty but tasty nonetheless.

Ilha Tavira

We spent our final hours in the Algarve on Ilha Tavira, a small beach island a 10-15 minute drive from our hotel. During the high season, you can take a boat trip there from Tavira's town center, but the owner of the Quinta do Caracol told us about another way to get there -- via a floating pedestrian bridge on the outskirts of town. We braved the undulating bridge and then took the tourist tram to the beach. We passed through some marshy areas along the way. It was just a quick walk down the boardwalk until we were dipping our toes in the sand. There is an 'anchor cemetery' right along the water. We had the beach entirely to ourselves, a nice reward for visiting Portugal in December during the off-season. We took a moment to admire the ocean and reflect on the first part of our trip before heading back to the 'mainland' on foot and hopping on a train to Lisbon...
The Algarve in Winter: Anchors on Ilha Tavira

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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: The Algarve in Winter: Why Visit Portugal in December
The Algarve in Winter: Why Visit Portugal in December
Plan a trip to the Algarve in winter. Visit Portugal in December. Discover things to do in Southern Portugal.
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