Lagos is one of the main cities in the Algarve and one of Portugal’s favorite holiday destinations. In addition to being one of the best beach towns in Portugal, it is also a historic city with plenty of monuments, a wonderful historic center, and lots of restaurants and bars.
So, despite the beaches being the city’s main attraction, Lagos is a total tourist destination. In this article, we’ll explore the best things to do in Lagos, from the best beaches, monuments, tours, hikes, and even history.
History of Lagos
Located in the Western Algarve, Lagos has been inhabited since ancient times. The primitive name, Lacobriga indicates a Celtic origin about 4000 years ago. Later, it went through Phoenician, Greek, and Carthaginian periods.
However, during the Roman rule, Lagos prospered, and it is still possible to see some remains in the city, such as the Roman port and the Roman Bridge. The first walls were built in the 10th century, and it was only from 1249 that Lagos became part of the territory of Portugal.
The location of Lagos, facing the Atlantic and Africa, makes it vital in the 15th century. This is the city’s Golden Period, as it is the departure and arrival port of the Portuguese ships and, therefore, an important center for the trade of exotic products. At that time, Lagos became the bishop’s seat and the capital of the Algarve as it was the seat of the Governors of the Algarve.
Over time the city loses relevance, the capital is moved to Faro, but it remains an important urban center in the Algarve and the country. It is currently a dynamic and active city, much at the expense of tourism and its numerous historical and natural points of interest. So let’s explore the best things to do in Lagos.
What to Visit in Lagos? 12 activities not to be missed in Lagos
Ponta da Piedade
Ponta da Piedade is one of the natural wonders of the Algarve, one of the most beautiful and most photographed natural landmarks in Portugal. These rock formations excavated by the sea are beautiful, and create unique images. From the right angle, they look like animals, people, objects… and the strong colors of the rocks (yellow, ocher, red) contrast with the crystalline turquoise of the sea.
For a complete perspective, and to better understand how striking Ponta da Piedade is, we always advise you to visit it from two different angles, sea and land.
That way, we can go over the top, along the walkways and paths that take us to some spots of rare beauty. Admission is free, and with a short walk, you can visit viewpoints, use the ancient steps that descend to the sea, and walk along the footbridges along the coast.
To see Ponta de Piedade from a different perspective, you can take one of the several boat tours that take you to caves, marine caves of great beauty but also arches and rocks with the most diverse shapes. Those who are more adventurous and energetic can go kayaking or SUP and see everything at their own pace.
We advise that if you want to take a boat tour or Kayak and SUP, book in advance. There are lots of vendors at Marina de Lagos, but during the summer, the tours can sell out rather quickly! If you book online, you ensure that you go exactly when you want.
See the Dolphins
Another highly popular activity in Lagos is taking a dolphin cruise to see marine life. Several tours offer this possibility, usually about 2 hours.
Besides the obvious attraction of seeing this wonderful animal up close and in its natural habitat, these tours turn out to be fun as they allow us to take a pleasant boat trip, feeling the wind in our face and the sea in our skin.
Once again, we strongly advise you to book in advance so you can guarantee that you will go on the day and at the time you want. Note that from our experience, the prices online and in the marina are similar.
The beaches in Lagos are often considered the most beautiful in the Algarve and are often on the list of the best beaches in the world. Whether or not they are the most beautiful in the Algarve or the world is very difficult to say, but they are certainly fabulous and well worth a visit, or several.
The beaches between the city of Lagos and Ponta da Piedade are the best known and, in our opinion, the best in Lagos, which is why some of them they made into our list of the best beaches in the Algarve. These are the beaches of Batata, Praia dos Estudantes, Praia do Pinhão, Praia Dona Ana and Praia do Camilo. In the list, we only included two, because we had to limit ourselves and not make a list comprised of only Lagos beaches…
Though, they all share the same characteristics, as they are relatively small stretches of sand nestled between the typical colored cliffs of the region and surrounded by unusual rock formations – the same ones we see when we take boat tours to Ponta da Piedade.
The sand is usually fine and yellow, and the water is warmer than on the west coast but much cooler than on the Eastern Algarve. The sands of these beaches are relatively small and, in some cases, very small. Camilo beach, for example, is one of the prettiest but it is especially small, and therefore it becomes overcrowded very quickly. That’s why it’s important to go early in the summer.
Exploring the historic center
Like many other Portuguese cities (Guimarães, Viana do Castelo, Elvas, for example), Lagos has a very beautiful old town, full of history and stories, with several monuments and outstanding buildings. Walking through the narrow streets of Lagos and discovering each of its corners is always a pleasure.
The historic center of Lagos is well condensed and with a short walk we reach all the most relevant tourist spots, such as the Gil Eanes square, the municipal market, the churches of Santo António and Santa Maria, the old market of Slaves, the walls and the castle of the Governors. Below, we will take a little more about some of the monuments to visit in Lagos.
Avenida dos Descobrimentos and Lagos Marina
Avenida dos Descobrimentos is the main avenue in Lagos, running along the mouth of the Ribeira de Bensafrim, from the Marina to the Ponta da Bandeira fort. It is a very nice seafront, and a very pleasant walk, especially in the morning or in the evening. Along the avenue you will find some kiosks selling crafts, beach products, and some of the tours we talked about above.
The marina in Lagos is next to the avenue and is accessible via the small pedestrian bridge. At the marina, you will find several nice restaurants and bars and even more counters selling boat tours and trips to Ponta da Piedade, Algar de Benagil, dolphin watching, and coastal tours. Prices are similar to buying online, but in summer, it’s best to buy as early as possible to guarantee your seat on the day and tour you want.
In this area, there is a third attraction, the Caravela Boa Esperança. But it deserves a topic by itself in this article of the best things to do in Lagos.
Good Hope Caravel (Caravela Boa Esperança)
Built in 1990 in the shipyards of Vila do Conde, the Boa Esperança Caravel is anchored in Lagos, in front of Avenida dos Descobrimentos. This ship is an approximate replica of the typical Portuguese caravels from the 15th century, used in the maritime exploration of the African coast.
Built in wood, using techniques similar to the old ones with some modifications to improve comfort and safety, the Boa Esperança is almost 24 meters long, and the large mast is 18 meters high. It has a capacity of 22 people.
Despite being a little poorly cared for and in need of good maintenance, it is undoubtedly one of the monuments of Lagos. Therefore, currently (2021), it is not possible to visit it officially. There are no tickets or guided tours. In any case, you can see from the outside and enjoy this beautiful boat.
We were fortunate to meet one of the caretakers of the Boa Esperança Caravel when we were in Lagos and enjoy the interior of the caravel. The gentleman was extremely friendly and allowed us to climb aboard, take some photos, and even gave us a little guided tour. It is a pity that there are no official visits at this time, but we were told that the restoration of the caravel is planned and with it a new opening to the public.
Lagos Municipal Market
If there’s one thing we like to visit, it’s the local markets and fairs, and Lagos market is an excellent example of what a market should be. It has been open since 1924, where the Porta de Portugal factory used to be.
On the ground floor, the market offers a huge variety of fish and seafood, of course, but also butchers, while the first floor is designed for fruits and vegetables. On the top floor, we have a spectacular viewpoint and a restaurant with a beautiful terrace. We didn’t try the restaurant, but the prices seemed a bit high, which is understandable given the location.
The municipal market is located in the center, facing Avenida dos Descobrimentos. It is open from Monday to Saturday, from 7 am to 2 pm, so make an sure you go there in the morning, preferably early.
Santo António Church
Originally built in 1707, it was rebuilt in 1769 after being completely destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. The clock tower is only from the 19th century.
Although the exterior is relatively modest, it hides an immense secret because inside the gilded decoration, in Baroque style, it is considered one of the most beautiful in the country. The interior walls have typical blue and white tile panels, while on the ceiling, the wooden roof imitating a barrel vault is painted colorfully and wonderfully.
This wonderful and rich interior is considered one of the main examples of Portuguese baroque. For this reason, it attracts many visitors, making it the third most visited monument in the Algarve, only behind the Sagres Fortress and Silves Castle.
The Walls and the Governor’s Castle
The evolution of the defensive fortifications of Lagos follows the long history of the city. Still, unfortunately, a good portion of the walls and the castle have not reached the present day. Even so, it is the Algarve city with the most extensive fortified perimeter, even larger than Silves. It’s not, however, so charming.
Built in the reigns of D. Manuel I, D. João II, and Filipe I, the walls used to completely surround the city, to defend it from pirates and enemy fleets. Among the fortifications, the various gates (Santa Maria, Praça de Armas, Conceição, Alcaria or das Freiras, Porta dos Quarto, Santo Amaro or Paiol, São Francisco and Torre do Trem) and the bastions stand out.
Castle of the Governors
Built in the second half of the 15th century, the Castle of the Governors is a well-preserved area of the walls. It is said to have a Muslim origin and to have been built over the Muslim fortress, but there are no visible traces left.
In the 16th century, the castle was adapted to be the residence of the Governors of the Algarve (hence the name) when the capital was transferred to Lagos. The 1755 earthquake that destroyed a large part of the city also destroyed a large part of this complex. Only in the 18th century was it adapted to Hospital by the Misericórdia de Lagos.
The main façade has the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Algarve over the doors and, between them, the seal of the Count of Avintes. The arch of São Gonçalo flanked by the 2 turrets was built only in the 40s to represent the patron saint of Lagos. However, the most striking feature is the Manueline window from which it is said that D. Sebastião reported that he was going to the battle of Alcácer-Quibir.
Ponta da Bandeira Fort
Located at the mouth of the Ribeira de Bensafrim, in front of the Governors’ Palace and next to the beaches west of Lagos, the Ponta da Bandeira Fort is one of the outstanding monuments of Lagos. Once outside the old town and the walls, it’s on the opposite side of the walls, in Descobrimentos avenue. Still, it is easy to walk there from the city, and especially convenient for those going to the Potato and Estudantes beaches.
Ponta da Bandeira Fort, also known as Forte do Pau da Bandeira, was built in the 17th century and served as one of the most important defensive forts in Lagos. The entrance via a drawbridge over a moat is one of the best features of the fort. Being relatively recent and having undergone a major restoration during the 60s of the 20th century, it is very well preserved. It is considered one of the ex-libris among the defensive fortifications of the Algarve.
Inside we have a small 17th-century chapel and a beautiful set of typical Portuguese tiles from the 18th century. Exhibitions are also sometimes organized in the fort.
Located in Infante D. Henrique Square, the slave market is a small museum with exhibitions centered on the slave trade and the role of Portugal. Due to its mannerist architecture and connection to the Discoveries, the building is one of the best-known monuments in Lagos. It is, however a building with a dismal past.
It is believed that in 1444 the first slaves brought from Africa arrived in Lagos, giving rise to the first slave market in this building. The first floor would also be used as a Customs House, Guard House, and Military Prison. During the 20th century, archaeological excavations uncovered more than 150 skeletons of African origin, reinforcing the idea of the sinister use of the structure in the past.
Nowadays, the ground floor is occupied by an art gallery, while the upper floor has the coat of arms of the Marquis de Nisa on the façade. This small museum tries to bring together a little history and some pieces from that horrific past in the history of Portugal.
This is not an easy visit, but maybe that’s why it’s important to go there.
Where to stay in Lagos?
As an old city, Lagos has a historic center full of narrow streets and alleys, not advisable for cars. So, if you are traveling by car, we advise you staying outside the walls, in the newer parts of the city. If you don’t have a car, take the opportunity to stay in the center – being in the heart of the action it is always a much better and more exciting experience. This central area of Lagos is great for those looking for guest-houses, and Airbnbs.
On the other hand, if all you really want is a beach vacation and visiting the city is secondary, we advise you to stay completely outside the historic center, in the Meia-Praia beach or near the beaches of Dona Ana, Camilo, etc.
Best time to visit Lagos
The best time to visit Lagos is in summer, as it is the best time to enjoy the fabulous beaches of the region. Remember that the beaches of Lagos have much colder water than those of the Eastern Algarve. On the other hand, most beaches have relatively small sand areas that fill up quickly, so it is necessary to find a balance.
In our opinion, the balance between large crowds and the weather needed to enjoy the beaches is found at the beginning of September and during June. If you don’t mind, and even like to take vacations with many people, a lot of confusion, a lot of partying, July and especially August are great options.
Any other time of year will be nice to visit the city, you’ll find much lower prices, but with a lower possibility of going to the beach, or at least to find high temperatures.