First Impressions of Every Day Life in the Algarve (Southern Portugal) from an American Point of View

For so many years I had wanted to go to southern Portugal and just when I was finally going to go the pandemic started and international borders were closed. After another almost two-year wait, I was able to go to the Algarve region. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely 100%. Was it what I expected? In some ways yes, in other ways, not at all. I’ll go over some basic things I experienced, like driving, the food, and the people, and my thoughts on each.

Driving in Southern Portugal

People in Portugal drive on the right side of the road so that was easy for me as an American. I can’t speak about driving in Lisbon, Porto, or any other part of Portugal since I only drove after I picked up my rental car in Faro. The highways are well-marked and well-maintained. There aren’t many stop lights but there are roundabouts instead, which I mostly loved as I saw how there was only traffic backed-up at the places where the stop lights were. I did have to get an international drivers license for my trip but that was taken care of with a stop for passport photos followed by a stop to my local AAA for the small booklet. The downside is the license is only good for one year, which means the next time I go to Portugal I’ll have to get another one.

When you get into the main part of town, especially in small towns, driving can be a bit nail-biting. The roads in town are of course very old and were built way before the existence of today’s large vehicles. I was glad to have my compact car and even with that was nervous I’d scrape the sides of the vehicle next to me when I encountered another car. Fortunately the drivers that I encountered seemed willing to let others merge and seemed courteous for the most part. The only times I encountered any kind of car-related hostility was parking-related. As you’re probably aware, gas prices in Portugal (and Europe as a whole) are outrageous so be prepared for that. You should also acquaint yourself with European signs before your trip as well.

Do you need a car in the Algarve? If I would have only wanted to stay in my little corner of the Algarve where my Airbnb was in Ferragudo, I could have skipped the rental car entirely. However, I knew I wanted to explore the southern coast, which meant I would absolutely need a rental car. My only advice about renting a car is pay attention to the charges on your rental agreement. I’m currently disputing a charge with my credit card company about a toll fee that should have been credited back to me by the rental company but they neglected to do so, despite the fact I never drove on a toll road.

The Food in the Algarve

If you enjoy fresh seafood with loads of fruits and vegetables, this is the place for you. I’m not sure if we had seafood every day we were there but it must have been close. I had been told I should try the grilled squid, which I normally don’t enjoy in the US, and it was delicious, as were the grilled sardines, which are gargantuan compared to the nasty tinned sardines in the US. Even my teenage daughter devoured her sardines, which should tell you how good they were.

Portugal is also famous for their little pastries called pastel de nata or pastel de Belem. These are little egg custard tarts sometimes dusted with cinnamon. We had these for breakfast several times and once for an afternoon snack during a long walk. They were so tasty my daughter wants to learn how to make them!

So much fish here! Not a single meal wasn’t at least very good and most were excellent!

Some of my favorite restaurants in the Algarve include: Haven in Vilamoura, an expensive city with golf courses, expats, and a harbor filled with yachts. Side bar- there’s also an archaeological site in Vilamoura, Cerro da Vila but it was temporarily closed so we couldn’t visit. Another restaurant I loved was the fantastic O Molhe, in Ferragudo, with fresh seafood, servers fluent in at least 5 different languages (I heard them speak French, English, Portuguese, Spanish, and German), and some of the best views in the Algarve. I also enjoyed some wonderful Vietnamese food at Sen Tonkin in Ferragudo. Finding Asian restaurants is a rare find in the Algarve so it was a nice change. Another favorite was in Sagres called Three Little Birds. This is a large restaurant with a comfortable outdoor seating area in addition to many indoor tables.

Shopping in the Algarve

I was surprised to see so many Lidl grocery stores, the German-based company, but I guess I shouldn’t have been since apparently there are 11,000 Lidls in Europe. There were also several French-owned grocery stores called Intermarche, as well as the German-owned store Aldi. I always like checking out selection and prices at grocery stores when I travel and I found the selection and prices to be reasonable with some things priced lower than I would pay in North Carolina but other things were about the same. I didn’t go to a Continente grocery store, which has the most grocery stores in the Algarve so I don’t know how the prices are there but I suspect they aren’t much different from the others.

I know I seem to be contradicting myself a bit here because I’ve said before I prefer to shop locally when I’m traveling abroad and the grocery stores I’m talking about here are all chains. Further, I also shopped at a Decathlon, not once but twice when I was in the Algarve. Decathlon is a French sporting goods store with almost 1700 stores worldwide but none are in the US (there used to be one in San Francisco but it closed recently, citing the pandemic).

One rainy day I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to finally get to go to a Decathlon store in person. I have bought several things from Decathlon online, and I was so impressed with the products I wrote a post about some of my purchases (Review of Decathlon Running Apparel or Why Running Tights Should Not Cost $158). If you’re not familiar with Decathlon, they sell everything from gear for running, hiking, cycling, swimming, surfing, camping, and well, you get the idea, for extremely affordable prices. My daughter was excited to see short-sleeve running shirts for 5 Euro, pullovers for 10 Euro, and I was excited to see a backpack for 15 Euro, all of which I bought, along with a box of cereal bars for something like 3 Euro (for 12 bars). When we were in another town just strolling around and happened-upon another Decathlon, of course we had to pop in. It was a much smaller “boutique-size” store right on a beach, with mainly bathing suits and a small selection of other sporting goods. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as the main store we had visited a few days prior and we didn’t buy anything at this store.

Of course there are also the touristy beach shops selling things like t-shirts, magnets, photo holders, and other souvenirs. There were two things I didn’t buy that I wanted to: an adorable ceramic honey pot decorated with typical blue and white Algarve designs and a small zippered bag. I didn’t buy the honey pot because I don’t check bags when I travel and I knew I’d never eat all of the honey before we flew back home plus you can’t fly with honey in a carry-on and I didn’t buy the bag because I wasn’t sure I’d actually use it for anything useful. The one thing I did buy was a keychain. I buy an ornament for our Christmas tree when I travel to a new place but I didn’t like any of the ornaments we saw in the Algarve so I bought a cute key chain instead (I’ve done this before and by now have several keychains that I put on the Christmas tree from places we’ve traveled to over the years).

The People

I realize I may be getting into a controversial subject here but my first impression of the people was not what I expected. Every other person in the US that I’ve talked to that’s been to Portugal has raved about how beautiful the country is, how amazing the food is, and how friendly and nice the people are. My experience was not like that when it came to the people I encountered.

Not that I expected the people to gush compliments and be the most friendly people I had ever met but I didn’t expect them to be rude and ignore me at times. Not only was I yelled at by an elderly Portuguese man who thought I was taking his parking spot (I was just trying to turn around) when I was in Lagos, there were other people there who yelled at me for parking in an inappropriate spot (temporarily, since I quickly moved the car when I figured out why they were yelling at me). If any of those people would have just talked to me instead of yelling at me, it would have been an entirely different experience for me.

Then there was the time when my daughter and I went to a restaurant for lunch and we were blatantly ignored by three different people who worked there. They saw us standing by the entrance then looked the other way and carried on with their business. At best, all of the people we encountered were civil but in a cool and distant way, if that makes sense. In other words, they were merely doing their job and were not chatty or in no way tried to get to know us or basically had any real interest in us.

Since I didn’t take any photos of the people there, here’s one of my lovely daughter wearing her new shirt from Decathlon!

One thing I don’t think I mentioned that is a big reason I wanted to go to the Algarve was to see if it could be a potential retirement place for me. Some of the boxes were checked, like good food, reasonable prices, great weather and scenery but the one box that I don’t feel like I could check off was friendly people. I will go back to southern Portugal and give it another chance but honestly, I’m not sure I’d want to live in a place where the people aren’t that friendly. Maybe I just had a bad first impression and on that account but I’m willing to give it another chance. I’ve since talked to other people who have said they’ve heard the people are more friendly in Lisbon and Porto than in Southern Portugal. Who knows if that’s true in general but since I would want to live in the south because of the warmer weather, even if it were true, it wouldn’t help me.

Have you been to Portugal? If so, where did you go and what was your experience like?

Happy travels!

Donna

Author: runningtotravel

I'm a long distance runner with a goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states in the US. I also love to travel so I travel to other places when I'm not running races. Half the fun is planning where I'm going to go next!

13 thoughts on “First Impressions of Every Day Life in the Algarve (Southern Portugal) from an American Point of View”

  1. On the whole, I’ve found European food to be amazing, the scenery awesome but prices are high (for clothes) and the people are great but ONLY if you speak their language.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to assume that the people may be due to Pandemic. It’s effected so many. I’ve never been to Portugal, though. Or maybe American politics; who knows?

    I don’t speak a second language but I’ve only ever had one mediocre experience in Europe. In Paris, one restaurant where the waiter ignored us. We were there 5 days, though, and the rest of the time people were nice. I do usually make the effort to learn a few phrases — we haven’t been to Europe for a long time though. 5 years ago? 6? Something like that.

    Anyway both myself & my husband often have the experience in Europe of people coming up to us & assuming we live there & talking to us in whatever the native language is. One time it was a group of young American girls who were so relieved that we spoke English, LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point about the pandemic. It’s definitely made people less friendly.
      I always like when people from other countries speak to me as if I’m from there. I try to not dress or act like a blatantly stereotypical American when I travel. I’d rather not stick out. Especially like you pointed out given our often political issues.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The keychains on the Christmas tree is a great idea! I’ve collected some in the past and they’re just in a plastic bin.

    Jason’s psychologist regularly goes to Portugal and plans to retire there but unfortunately I’m not sure what area!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’ve had to get creative in some cities that weren’t so touristy and didn’t have ornaments.
      I know Portugal has become a popular place for Americans to retire to. It’s still one of the cheaper European countries that still has good infrastructure and is safe.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with you the food in Portugal is especially good, specifically the seafood. My daughter was there a few years ago and still raves about the pastries. I don’t remember the people being especially friendly or rude. I don’t think I had any memorable encounters.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s too bad the people left a negative impression. I think you’ve got the right idea to go back and see if it was a fluke or if it was the real deal. Other than that it looks lovely and I’m so eager to get over there.

    Liked by 1 person

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