Southern Portugal is a bit of a balancing act. There are several towns along the Algarve coast, many overdeveloped but with plenty to do, and some quiet, with not much going on. Lagos certainly falls towards the former category, but it doesn’t feel drowned in concrete. Natural good looks help – the city unfurls along a spectacular stretch of coastline, with several envy-inducing beaches and a photogenic marina.
History plays a part, too – Lagos was arguably the key launch pad for Portugal’s Age of Discovery, and it played a dark role in the transatlantic slave trade as the host of Europe’s first slave market. The museum about the slave trade inside the old market is open daily throughout the summer.
Its position is the key, though. As the most westerly of the central Algarve’s ultra-touristy towns, it provides a perfect base for exploring the wild, surf-smashed side of the region.
A comfortable bed
The Inn Seventies B&B (www.facebook.com/innseventies) goes for big retro-kitsch bold colours, black-and-white cliffscape photography and freestanding glass basins. The upstairs terrace, with small plunge pool and cracking city views, is lovely. Rooms cost from €69 (Dh284).
Right next to the marina, the Marina Club (www.marinaclub.pt) offers suite-style hotel rooms, plus three- and four- star apartments. The latter are Mediterranean minimalist – bright-white furnishing and decor; wooden floors – but with kitchen facilities and large balconies overlooking the agreeably sizeable pool. They cost from €114 (Dh470).
The Cascade Wellness & Lifestyle Resort (www.cascaderesortalgarve.com) has a huge free-form pool, its own full-sized football pitch, courtyards full of exercise bikes and tastefully decorated rooms with either Asian, South American, African or European themes. Apartments cost from €201 (Dh828).
Find your feet
Start off at the marina, then stroll along the river to Avenida dos Descobrimentos, dipping in to take a look at the Museu Municipal. It’s a real old-school hotchpotch of art, archaeology and coins from around the world, but it also allows access to the magnificently over-the-top Igreja de Santo António – a blizzard of engraving, woodcarving and gilding.
Nearby, it's worth clambering to the top of the riverside Fortaleza de Ponta de Bandeira, but the small beach next to it – Praia da Batata – is where the kayak tours around the spectacular coastline depart. Several companies offer daily tours dipping into the caves and under-rock arches towards the rock tower dotted Ponte da Piedade. Outdoor Tours (www.kayak-lagos.com) is among them, charging €25 (Dh103). Numerous boat-tour companies offer similar trips, but the kayaks can get into narrower channels and smaller nooks and crannies.
Meet the locals
The kayak tours go past two of Lagos’s staggeringly pretty, red-cliff-backed beaches – Praia da Dona Ana and Praia do Camilo. But locals tend to prefer the four-kilometre-long Meia Praia on the other side of the river or the much quieter Praia Porto da Mos on the western side of Ponta da Piedade.
Book a table
Restaurante dos Artistas (www.artistasrestaurant.com) in the city centre looks unpromising from the outside, with a dated sign and inexplicable cartoonish fibreglass snake on the wall, but the food and service is excellent. Sea bass, mussels, lentils and peppers costs €19.50 (Dh80), but the stellar bargain is the €27.50 (Dh113) three -course tasting menu.
Nearby, Mullen's (www.mullens-lagos.com) is more relaxed, with a lovely little garden at the back and an atmospheric, mood-lit main room featuring gigantic barrels and stone walls. Dishes such as the €10 (Dh41) Mozambique-style beef show off Portugal's colonial past.
The standard of shopping isn’t exactly top drawer in Lagos, but there are a couple of decent efforts among the deluge of tat.
Mediterranea Lifestyle (Rua 25 de Abril) has some attractive shoes and bags, metalwork lamp-holders and colourful ceramics.
Expo (Rua Marquês de Pombal) isn’t bad either – everything is made by local craftspeople and sold as a collective. That encompasses everything from colourful glazed-clay lizards to black-and-white nature photography and bamboo napkin holders.
What to avoid
In the tradition of resort towns, Lagos has some dire dining options – albeit sprinkled with plenty of good ones. To dodge the worst, stick to the fail-safe rules of not eating anywhere with touts outside, pictures of the food or “tourist” menus.
The Algarve’s west coast, with several world-class surf beaches, has a totally different vibe to the rest of the region. Lagos is the best hub for accessing these beaches – as well as the Cabo de San Vicente at Portugal’s south-western tip. There’s an end-of-the-world feel as the waves crash into the rocks below the lighthouse.
As for hitting the surf, Praia do Amado has several surf schools, while Praia da Arrifana has two different types of break.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies from Dubai to Lisbon, from Dh4,660 return, including taxes. From Lisbon, trains to Lagos take about three hours and 40 minutes, with a couple of changes, and cost about €30 (Dh124); driving takes about three hours.