Portimão is perfect if you want to stay in a bustling fishing port rather than a hotel perched right on the beach. Since the 1930s, Praia da Rocha has snared sun-loving traffic. Today it’s challenged by Praia dos Três Irmãos, but tourists still flock to Portimão in the summer. The aroma of the noble Portuguese sardine permeates every street. Portimão is the leading fish-canning center in the Algarve. For a change of pace, this town, on an arm of the Arcade River, makes a good stopover for its fine dining. Stroll through its gardens and its shops (especially noted for their pottery), drink wine in the cafes and roam down to the quays to see sardines roasting on braziers. The routine activity of the Algarvians is what gives the town its charm.
Even those staying in Portimão head for the beach first thing in the morning. The favorite is Praia da Rocha, a creamy yellow strand that has long been the most popular seaside resort on the Algarve. English voyagers discovered the beauty of its rock formations around 1935. At the outbreak of World War II, there were only two small hotels and a few villas on the Red Coast, most built by wealthy Portuguese. Nowadays, Praia da Rocha is booming. At the end of the mussel-encrusted cliff, where the Arcade flows into the sea, lie the ruins of the Fortress of Santa Catarina. The location offers views of Portimão’s satellite, Ferragudo, and of the bay. Praia dos Três Irmãos, southwest of Portimão, has 15 km of burnished golden sand, interrupted only by an occasional crag riddled with arched passageways. This beach has been discovered by skin divers who explore its undersea grottoes and caves.
Nearby is the whitewashed fishing village of Alvor, where Portuguese and Moorish arts and traditions have mingled since the Arab occupation ended. Alvor was a favorite coastal haunt of João II, and now summer hordes descend on the long strip of sandy beach. It’s not the best in the area, but at least you’ll have plenty of space. Alvor is accessible by public bus from Portimão’s center. Although it lacks great monuments and museums, Portimão is worth exploring. Just wander through its colorful streets, stopping at any sight that interests you. The once-colorful fishing boats used to unload their catch here at the port but have moved to a terminal across the river. High-rise buildings ring the area but the core of the old town is still intact.
Try to be in Portimão for lunch. Of course, you can dine at a restaurant, but it’s even more fun to walk down to the harborside, where you can find a table at one of the low-cost eateries. The specialty is chargrilled sardines, which taste like nothing you get from a can. They make an inexpensive meal accompanied by chewy, freshly baked bread; a salad; and a carafe of regional wine. If you’re in town in August, stay for the Sardine Festival, where the glory that is the Portuguese sardine is honored, lauded, and, finally, devoured.
In the center you can see the ruins of the Castelo de São João, which was constructed to defend Portimão from English, Spanish, and Dutch raids. At Praia da Rocha, you can explore the ruins of the 16th-century Fortaleza de Santa Catarina, which was constructed for defensive purposes.
Fish, fruit and vegetable markets are held every morning in the market building and open square. On the first Monday of every month, a gigantic daylong regional market sells local artifacts, pottery, wicker and even snake oil. Boutiques offering the Algarve‘s best selection of sweaters, porcelain, and pottery abound. You’ll find modern, Pan-European commercialism in this once-sleepy fishing village, most noticeably on such busy shopping streets as Rua Comerciale and Rua Vasco da Gama. Goods include hand-knit sweaters, hand-painted porcelains and tons of pottery from factories and individual artisans throughout Portugal. Look for knitwear, ceramics, pottery, leatherwear, and woodcarvings.
The town center has about a dozen tascas (taverns) and bodegas, but you might be happier with the glossier after-dark venues in internationally minded Praia da Rocha. Many bars and pubs, as well as the resort’s casino, line Avenida Tomás Cabreira. Depending on your mood, you might enjoy popping in and out of several of them, a ritual akin to a London pub-crawl.