Portimão is the second largest town in the Algarve, on the right bank of the Arade River just before it reaches the ocean.
The remarkable thing about Portimão is how ordinary it is; this is a typical Portuguese working town with a municipal market, pedestrianised shopping streets, quiet squares and the skydive center.
The famous Praia da Rocha is only a few hundred metres to the south, and this is one of dozens of alluring beaches inside a few minutes, while all the activities and fun of a modern holiday resort are always at hand.
Praia da Rocha
The undisputed star of the Portimão area is this 1.5-kilometre beach fronting the resort of the same name.
On the east side by the Arade Estuary there’s a vast swathe of soft white sand.
This shelves very gently, leaving lots of shallow water to paddle in despite the rolling waves.
As you go east things start to get rocky, and there’s a powerful cliff and rocky outcrops, all striped with red and yellow limestone.
In the cooler season you can come just to get a photo of these monsters.
Walk around and you’ll get to more sheltered coves walled on three sides by these tall cliffs.
Museu de Portimão
Long before tourism arrived in the Algarve Portimão made a living from fishing and canning.
This museum is housed in the evocative old Feu Cannery and presents an industry that boomed in the early 20th century.
A lot of the equipment from the factory has been left in place, and there’s a movie with archive footage recounting the days of canning in the town.
Downstairs there’s an interactive exhibition revealing the measures being taken to conserve the seabed off the coast, and there are also archaeological exhibits with finds from underwater and the megalithic complex at nearby Alcalar.
Megalithic Monuments of Alcalar
At Portimão’s museum you can get a combined ticket to this enigmatic site a few minutes from the town.
On a hilltop and spreading out over 10 hectares is a necropolis that would have been founded about 5,000 years ago.
There are 18 burial monuments to see in the complex, but the showpiece is the vast cairn at its heart, with a shape resembling a beehive.
There’s a useful interpretation centre at the site with fascinating insights about the people who lived in the area at the time, their ancient funerary rituals and explanations of the mysterious carvings that show up on the stones.
One of the upsides of an ordinary, untouristy town like Portimão is real local amenities like this terrific market that has just been given a makeover.
In a town with Portimão’s heritage it’s no shock that the fish and seafood selection is out of this world.
There are also fruit and veg merchants, butcher counters, florists, bakeries and delicatessens.
The best time to come is Saturdays from 07:00 to 14:00 when there’s also a special farmers’ market.
Starting at the Museu de Portimão in the south you can stroll up this riverside esplanade at the site of town’s old docks and imagine the chaos that would have unfolded here a century ago.
It’s now a very restorative place to be, with a long row of palm trees and benches to sit and survey the Arade.
This is broad at this point and beautiful at night when you can see the lights on the opposite bank.
From here you can cut in to the town for its shops and restaurants, and pause for a moment at Praça Manuel Teixeira Gomes, one of the most animated squares in town.
Igreja do Colégio
Dating to the 17th century, this is the most complete church in Portimão as it came through the 1755 earthquake mostly unscathed.
It has an interesting origin story because it was funded by the merchant Diogo Gonçalves, who had made his fortune in the Far East.
His reward was to be buried in the church and you can still see his tomb today.
After the Jesuits who founded the church were expelled in 1759 this church was lined up to become a cathedral for Portimão, but the plan was never carried out.
Jardim 1º de Dezembro
A couple of streets in from the Ribeirinha is another square where you can take a breather for a few minutes.
And as you rest beneath the foliage you can also get a Portuguese history lesson, because when this square was remodelled in the Art Deco style in the 1930s tile panels were installed recording momentous events from Portugal’s past.
These recall the first Portuguese constitution in 1820, Pedro Álvares Cabral discovering Brazil in 1500, the foundation of the country with the Treaty of Zamora in 1143, and many more events.
Praia do Vau
Between Praia da Rocha and Alvor, Praia do Vau is a gorgeous beach that is often ignored in favour of its better-known neighbours.
It’s an alluring stretch of golden sand, with those famous orangey cliffs backing up the west and east ends, and a small holiday community in the middle.
This is where all the services and facilities are set (bars, sun loungers), and there are also fewer rocks in the water at this point.
Those cliffs also help to shield the beach from the wind, so the waters are mostly calm and child-friendly.
Carry on to the craggy west side and you can clamber across the rocks to reach the Praia do Barranco, a cloistered little cove.
Fortaleza de Santa Catarina
On a cliff Behind Praia Rocha there’s an intriguing monument from the Philippine period (early-1600s), when Portugal was under the Spanish yoke.
The Fort of Santa Catarina was built to control the Arade Estuary and designed by the Italian military engineer Alexandre Massai.
Atop these walls there isn’t a great deal of the original architecture remaining, but the panoramas are undeniably beautiful, encompassing the beach and the river mouth.
One thing that has survived in the courtyard is the Santa Catarina hermitage, which gave the fort its name and was here before it existed.
Praia de Alvor
The last beach on the list is barely five kilometres from Portimão and has a different character to Praia da Rocha and Praia do Vau.
This one starts with light tourist development in the east, but the further west you go the more remote the beach becomes.
Eventually there’s nothing more than sand dunes and a coastal lagoon fed by the Alvor River, which empties into the ocean at the far western end of the beach.
This is the one for you if you need to leave the crowds behind, and there’s a raised boardwalk tracing the entirety of the beach and leading you through the dune system behind.
On the east shore of the lagoon, Alvor is a fishing village inside the Portimão municipality.
It’s a whitewashed settlement with Moorish roots, as you might tell from the Arabic name, and there’s a lattice of old streets laid out on a hillside rising up to the ruins of a Moorish fortress.
Alvor is both traditional and tourism-oriented, abounding with international restaurants and bars, but also with a couple of adorable old churches to seek out: The Igreja Da Misericórdia, built in the 17th century, and the Igreja Matri, from the 1600s, both merit a peek.
The lagoon at Alvor is a geographical anomaly, sheltered from the ocean but still exposed to robust breezes.
These are the best conditions for kitesurfing in the Algarve, and there’s a centre just down from Alvor with a rooftop bar and a menu of packages to show you the ropes if you’ve never kited before.
On Praia da Rocha the waves are reliable enough for more conventional surfing, and the schools on the beachfront can also arrange trips to Praia da Mareta or wherever the conditions are best are on the day.
In a coastal tourist centre like Portimão you’ll never be short of inspiration for seafaring excursions, and there’s a big choice appropriate for your interests.
If you’re holidaying with younger children you could take them on a voyage on a replica pirate ship, the Santa Bernada.
You’ll set sail for remote beaches and have a barbecue on board.
There are pods of bottlenose and common dolphins off the Algarve, and lots of companies taking you out on “seafaris” to find them, or to discover the caves that pock the region’s rocky coastline.
And if you’re an active soul there are guided sea kayak trips.