Historic Lagos – Algarve – Portugal Travel Guide

Historic Lagos

Beach near Lagos.

Over a total of 18 weeks, my wife and I have travelled extensively throughout the entire Algarve. Our favorite place of all is Lagos, a small fishing port of less than 20,000 near the western end of the province. It has been occupied over the centuries by Carthaginians, Romans and Moors, whom the Portuguese expelled for good in the mid-1200s. Today it has a bit of everything – a sheltered marina, natural beauty, a leisurely lifestyle, some historical artifacts, and good shopping. Bus service to the rest of the Algarve is good, and there is a clean and conveniently-located railway station. I.A.M.A.T. members will find an accredited clinic with English-speaking staff in nearby Alvor.

With two dozen courses altogether and normally good weather, golf is a big attraction throughout the Algarve. In the immediate vicinity of Lagos there are the Palmares and Alto courses with great sea-views, and the Penina Championship Course, where the Portuguese Open has been held many times. Many other sporting activities are also available, such as sailing, wind-surfing, fishing, para-sailing, scuba diving, and ultra-light flights.

Famous rock formations at Ponta da Piedade.

Fortunately, Lagos is far enough west to have escaped – thus far – the frantic over-building that has marred much of the central coast. While population growth has brought many modern homes and apartments outside the old town, there is only a limited amount of accommodations for tourists. In fact, when last we visited there were only a couple of large tourist hotels, located at the eastern and southern ends of town. This is one place that seems to have preferred to retain its tranquil way of life, while letting others to the east compete for the tourist business, with all the congestion it entails.

This was long a town with both military and maritime importance. In 1415 young Prince Henry and 50,000 troops sailed from Lagos and captured Ceuta, a Moorish stronghold on the Moroccan coast, which today is an enclave belonging to Spain. Thus began Henry’s interest in Africa, which led him to establish his navigation school at Sagres, and launch the Age of Discovery. When his naval architects designed the caravel, Lagos became the major ship-building centre and commercial port. This is where the ships set sail on their voyages, and where they returned laden with gold, ivory, jewels, – and human cargo as well. Sadly, by the mid-1400s it was the site of Europe’s first slave market.

Fort Ponta da Bandeira now overlooks the marina at Lagos.

As mentioned in the introductory article, Sir Francis Drake attacked the small towns all along the coast in 1587. Lagos’ harbour was protected to some extent by Fort Ponta da Bandeira, and the town was surrounded by high stone walls constructed long before by the Moors. Nevertheless, Drake’s raid did cause damage. Although the fort is still standing and has recently been restored, the town walls were largely destroyed in the terrible earthquake of 1755. Those parts that remain today are an impressive testimony to the size and scope of the original fortifications.

The highway comes right to the entrance to Lagos, unlike other towns which it usually skirts at a distance. What strikes you first when you arrive is the long park-like seaside promenade which runs right from the highway, past a section of the old stone wall, as far as the Fort. Neat, uncluttered and pedestrian-friendly, it is reminiscent of similar promenades on the French Riviera. Parking is available all along its length, but wherever you see a circular sign with the letter “P” on it, keep going. It doesn’t mean “Park”; it means just the opposite – “Proibido” – and, as we discovered, you don’t really need the hassles that go along with a parking ticket in a foreign country.

The seaside promenade in Lagos.

Access to the old town is easy through entrances in the wall. The main shopping and tourist area is closed to vehicles, so you can browse and take in the sights at your leisure. Once inside, you’ll find a market and neat, well-supplied shops specializing in silver filigree, copper, leather, a good selection of wines, great breads and delicious pastries. There is also a wide variety of restaurants for all tastes. The great earthquake destroyed or damaged many of the historic buildings, but left unscathed one which you absolutely must not miss. It’s one of Portugal’s national treasures, the military chapel of Santo Antonio, which will be the subject of a separate article.

By following the waterfront promenade farther, you reach the newer section of town, and it’s only a short drive or hike south to one of the prettiest spots on the entire coast, Ponta da Piedade. This is a fantastic region of multi-coloured rocks, sculpted by the pounding seas, and surrounded by a number of picturesque grottoes. Fishermen at nearby Dona Ana beach will be happy to take you for a pleasant tour. You can also descend a sturdy concrete stairway which will take you right to the water’s edge, and which has platforms at various places where you can stop to take photos when the sea is rough.

If you go to the Algarve, by all means take the time to get to know Lagos. It won’t be hard to see why it’s our favorite destination there.

Lagos Photo Gallery »

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