There are a few places in Europe known for their beaches, and then there are those whose sandy shorelines are a little more unexpected. Portugal, though obviously a coastal country, is for some reason not the first destination that comes to mind for a beach honeymoon. The French Riviera, Ibiza, Positano and Barcelona can move on over, however. The Algarve, Portugal's southernmost region, is home to dozens of jaw-dropping beaches, and with its sun-drenched Mediterranean climate, clifftop fishing villages, surf breaks and cute cafés it's an intimate and slightly off-the-beaten-path place to honeymoon.
Unless you want to be stuck in one town, the best course of action is to rent a car in Lisbon — making sure to spend a few days in the gorgeous city — and take a road trip south and east (none of the distances are staggering). While parts, such as Lagos and the main hub of Portimão, are quite developed and touristic, the western coast can still feel undiscovered and rugged. Although it's technically in the Alentejo region north of the Algarve, Vila Nova de Milfontes is worth a pause en route from the capital. A charming small-town vibe and protected beaches make it appropriate for family outings, but it is home to one of the most romantic spots on the coast: Restaurante A Choupana, where you'll have a front-row seat to the drawn-out neon sunset over rolling green waves, while enjoying a bottle of vinho verde (Portugal's signature white wine varietal) and grilled freshly caught fish. The point beach below is particularly magical: Visitors have stacked up the many smooth stones into hundreds of fairy-like towers that create an enchanting, one-of-a-kind atmosphere.
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Driving near the coast is a less trafficked route than the direct road to Portimão, and allows a stop at Odeceixe, the northernmost beach of the Algarve and a truly breathtaking one at that. The dramatic approach is from above, like with most of Portugal's beaches, and goes alongside a turquoise river that bends gracefully around a spit of white sand into the Atlantic. Grab a hot sandwich, just-reeled-in seafood and vodka with maracuya (like passionfruit) at Kiosk Agapito, overlooking the wide praia (beach in Portuguese).
Further down the way, Arrifana is a surfer's paradise. It's also an incredible place to learn, since the consistent jade-hued waves come in like clockwork and there are plenty of lessons to join. At the top of the cliff, in town, there are several surf camps and simple but tasty local restaurants along with the Neapolitan-style pie joint Arte Bianca Pizzeria Italiana and trendy Hello Sailor, where you can enjoy live jazz music alongside your sangria and tacos or pasta.
Photo: Courtesy of Bela Vista
The challenge with driving down Portugal's coast is that each beach will have you gasping more than the last. Praia Bordeira's rugged limestone cliffs, extensive sand dunes and gorgeous waves are among the most picturesque in the world. Keep in mind it's just a day stop as there aren't restaurants or hotels here. Continue onto Sagres, which at the southwestern corner of Europe feels like the end of the earth. There, Memmo Baleeira is the must-stay, with its bright white interiors and pristine sea views. Indulge in a marine-themed massage at the spa, and dishes like roasted local octopus or wood-fired pizza at the restaurant. If you sign up for surf lessons here, you might end up at Praia Cordoama, another picturesque spot that will have you wondering if heaven is actually in the Algarve. You won't be alone at the lighthouse for the nightly sunset scene, but it's breathtaking — and windy. By night, Dromedario is one of the lively bars where mixology and DJs take things up a notch.
For more excitement, head east along the coast to Lagos, the not-so-sleepy-anymore surf town that's much larger and features more hotels, all types of cuisine and plentiful bars where you can hear reggae, live bands or even an Aussie singing American hits. East of there the Algarve becomes even more delightful, and the food improves drastically from bustling tourist towns like Lagos and Portimão (if you do stay in the hub, opt for a Moorish-style room at Bela Vista, the Algarve's very first hotel, opened in 1934). O Barradas is a standout restaurant near Silves, housed in a converted country farmhouse — sit outside in the gardens in warm weather, or inside by the cozy fireplace when it's cold — with its very own wine and innovative spins on Portuguese cuisine, using primo local and homemade ingredients like fig chutney.
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As you drive east, venture a bit inland to Vila Monte Farm House, where bougainvillea and citrus trees create a lovely setting for whitewashed finca-style accommodations. The boutique-y property is beautifully designed, and features two tempting pools and a rustic-chic restaurant serving Portuguese and Mediterranean flavors. Just 15 minutes east is Tavira, a can't-miss town that will charm your pants off with castle ruins, a Roman bridge, historic churches, and cobblestone streets. Stay in the converted convent-turned-hotel Pousada Convento de Tavira, where plush four-poster beds will take you both back in time. There's also a market, fishing port and fantastic powdery white beaches within easy reach. Beyond that, even closer to the Spanish border, is the adorable small town of Cacela Velha, where bright white cottages have vividly colored trim, and cobbled paths lead past gardens and orange and olive groves to a long beach. The spectacular sands unite the whole area, but the character of each town is what makes an Algarve road trip so memorable and romantic.