Alvor or Lagos? History, Beaches & Culture In The Algarve

alvor or lagos

If you’re planning a Portugal holiday but can’t decide if it should be Alvor or Lagos, check out this guide. It will run through seven key features of each place to help you pick where to go this season, offering info for all sorts of travelers, no matter if you’re a classic beach bum or an adventure-seeking family.

Both of these towns lie on the sun-kissed coast of the southern Algarve. That’s one of the sunniest regions in Europe, not just Portugal, so you can rest assured each place offers oodles of topping up the tan and beach potential. Both also come steeped in Algarvian history, mixing handsome medieval castles with traces of Moorish heritage.

But there are also key differences between the two. Lagos is pretty lively and busy, while Alvaro is a quaint and small village with a little bit of tourist action on the side. They also have different beaches on the doorstep, a different array of hotels, and a different range of things to do for visitors. So, let’s see which it will be this year: Alvor or Lagos…

Alvor or Lagos for general atmosphere?

Woman traveling through Lagos
Photo by Envato Elements

Lagos is one of the largest towns in the region of the Algarve. It’s sat smack dab in the middle of a subregion known as the Western Algarve, which is one of the most (if not the most) popular vacation destinations in the country. there are hotel resorts all around the city, stringing the coastline to the west and east, while the center of town is a bustling mass of shops, bars, and cafes. However, it’s not JUST a tourist place. Lagos also has lots of resident locals, a vibrant arts scene, and its own southern sun and surf culture.

Alvaro is much quieter, though it’s worth remembering that it still resides in the Western Algarve. In fact, it’s little more than six miles from Lagos itself, around the end of a long, horseshoe bay. What’s more, the buzzy regional hub of Portimao is right next door in the other direction, so don’t come here expecting a complete escape from the crowds. It’s just noticeably quieter and more tame than other resorts in the area. It’s also managed to retain a strong connection to its historic roots, but more on that later…

Winner: Alvor. It’s riddled with traditional Algarve charm.

Alvor or Lagos for beaches?

Alvor beach views
Photo by Envato Elements

Beaches are a big part of any holiday to the Algarve. The good news? Neither Alvor nor Lagos will disappoint you. Both towns actually share a pretty similar coastline. They are only six miles apart, so whatever beaches await in Alvor can certainly be part of your itinerary in Lagos. It might be better to compare the city beaches here – AKA, the sands that you can reach within walking distance from your hotel.

They’re pretty darn impressive in Lagos. There’s the Praia do Camilo, where craggy clusters of honey-hued rock rise from an azure ocean. There’s Praia dos Estudantes, which isn’t so great for sunbathing but has a dramatic rock arch. The eastern side of the town filters off into the long, arcing run of sand that is Praia de São Roque, which eventually turns to Praia do Vale da Lama (though they are technically the same thing) and then enters, you guessed it, the town of Alvor.

Alvor’s city beach is about 10 minutes’ walk from the town center. It’s known, conveniently, as Praia Alvor and runs for a couple of clicks along a soft, low coastline that’s covered in sand dunes. The more dramatic bays that the Algarve is known for can also be found here, but expect to walk a little longer to Praia dos Três Irmãos and Praia João de Arens.

The one thing that might just set Lagos apart here is the fact that it’s a touch further west than Alvor. That makes it a better jump off point for the far west coast of the Algarve, a sublime land of wave-sprayed bays like Arrifana and Praia da Cordoama, perfect for bracing coast hikes and surfing alike.

Winner: Lagos. But only because it’s closer to the wild surf beaches of the westward-facing Algarve Atlantic.

Alvor or Lagos for history and culture?

Couple sitting on beach in Portugal
Photo by Envato Elements

The old town of Lagos is a real joy to explore. Set off to get lost in the maze-like grid of lanes that circle in on themselves and you’ll find a truly handsome district. The whole thing is ringed by city walls that date back to the 16th century, while the muscular Castle of Lagos offers visions of towering keeps that actually have their origin in the era of Moorish rule over Iberia. You also won’t want to miss the stunning Baroque façade of the Igreja de Santo António and the Porta de São Gonçalo, a massive gateway that looks like something out of a fantasy novel.

Alvor doesn’t have the same totemic sites as Lagos. There’s no massive castle, no big city walls. However, it’s still a very venerable place, with a past that can be traced back to the 4th century AD and the Roman period in this part of Southern Europe. There is a central citadel, known as the Castle of Alvor, but it’s a sort of half-ruined mass of rough-stone walls that now hosts a green plaza, though the history of it is fascinating. Where you really get that fix of culture here is in simply enjoying the feel of the old town area, which is a whole world away from the heavily developed resorts of the greater Algarve.

Winner: Lagos. There are just bigger historical sites, though Alvor does have a more authentic vibe.

Alvor or Lagos for nightlife?

People partying in club
Photo by Envato Elements

The nightlife in Lagos is among the wildest in the Algarve. We’d say that the only place that can really give it a run for its money is Albufeira, which has long been the out-and-out 18-30s resort in the region. but Lagos has its own rollicking dance bars, its own craft beer outlets, and a few alt rock venues – enough to keep you going whenever you fancy an evening on the town. The liveliest places of the lot are The Tavern, Mynt Bar, and Whytes, though we’d also say head to the beaches at sunset to catch a happy hour there.

Alvor isn’t a party town. It’s as simple as that. Yes, there are some decent venues that serve cold Super Bock beers and Portuguese wine until late, but this isn’t the place to come if you’re after a no-holes-barred blowout with the buddies. There is an option here if you find yourself craving a shindig, though: Praia da Rocha. It’s about 15 minutes in a taxi to the east but has oodles of pumping expat bars on the beach, lively EDM discos, shot bars – you name it.

Winner: Lagos

Alvor or Lagos for ease of travel?

View of Alvor from above
Photo by Envato Elements

Because these two towns are so close together, there’s really not that much in it when it comes to ease of travel. At least, there’s not enough in it to significantly alter where you pick to go. The closest airport to both is in Faro. That’s known as the Algarve Airport (FAO) because it’s the gateway to the region. It’s about 45 minutes from Alvor and 50 minutes from Lagos, driving down the main A22 highway that cuts across the whole length of the south coast. However, the 125 road is generally prettier and links up some of the region’s top historic towns (though it will take longer to drive).

You shouldn’t have any trouble finding flight connections to FAO because it’s served by a whopping great big number of low-cost carriers. The vast majority of them – Ryanair, easyJet – fly seasonally, so there is sure to be fewer options between November and March.

We’ve given Lagos the win here because it’s got direct bus arrivals and good train links with Lisbon. Again, that’s not too much of an issue because it’s only a quick taxi from Lagos to Alvor when you do arrive. Still, there are EVA and Rete Expresso buses going straight to one but not the other. There are also locomotive links from Lisbon’s Entrecampos station to Lagos, but they will require a change in Tunes.

Winner: Lagos, but really there’s nothing in it!

Alvor or Lagos for hotels?

Poolside of hotel
Photo by Envato Elements

Alvor and Lagos follow a pretty similar pattern when it comes to hotels. There tend to be homey B&Bs and inner-city apartments up for grabs in the middle of the town, and then sprawling, pool-filled resorts on the outskirts and along the coastline to the east and west. Alvor is generally less developed, which is both a blessing and a curse – think fewer hotels but smaller crowds. In fact, Alvor has around 400 hotels to Lagos’s 1,000+. Still, there are some very nice options in the smaller town, including…

When it comes to Lagos, expect an overload of options, from spa resorts to historic guesthouses. There are some that put you close to the beaches, others that put you in the buzzing heart of the city. Here are some of our overall favorites:

  • Quinta das Origens ($$) – Escape to the Portuguese countryside with a stay at this farm-style residence. There are luxury additions, like a pool and garden hammocks.
  • Dom Manuel I Charming Residence ($$$) – An adult’s only hotel with a private garden and pool close to the downtown of Lagos.
  • Dona Ana Garden ($$) – Get close to the beach with this clifftop stay near the namesake Praia de Dona Ana.

Winner: Draw.

Alvor or Lagos for things to do?

Aerial shot of Alvor beach
Photo by Envato Elements

Last but certainly not least, what is there to do in both Alvor and Lagos? Well…both these towns excel in R&R. They sit between some of the most gorgeous beaches in the Algarve, after all. You can spend your days lazing on the sand, swimming in bath-warm Atlantic waters, or SUP boarding from cove to cove, no matter which you pick. For wilder beaches and a chance to hit the famous Portuguese surf, you’re probably better off with Lagos, as Sagres and the west-facing bays are closer. For more resort-style beaches, Alvor is a better choice.

Nature buffs shouldn’t miss the boardwalks of Alvor, which zigzag over the wetlands and sand dunes to the west of the town. They offer plenty of birdwatching and hiking. Lagos’s best answer to that is probably the clifftop trail at Porto Mós Beach. You’ll also want to take some time to enjoy the old town of Alvor to the full. It’s not as good as Lagos for sightseeing (Lagos Castle and the old town walls take care of that), but there are great cafés for people watching and getting lost in a book.

Winner: Alvor, but only just. The town as boardwalks, beaches, and history in one.

The verdict

It might seem like we’d say Lagos is the better option, but really it all comes down to a tale of two different towns. There’s no question that Lagos is livelier, has better nightlife, and comes replete with beaches. However, Alvor has stunning bays of its own and some great hotels, it’s just all-round quieter and less developed. The best advice we can offer is to do both during your trip. It shouldn’t be hard – they are only six miles or so apart, after all!

Reece Toth

Reece is the creator and editor of Travel Snippet. He has visited more than 38 countries over a 10-year period. His travels have taken him through the majestic mountains of Italy, into the cities of central Europe, across the islands of Indonesia, and to the beaches of Thailand, where he is currently living. He is passionate about travel and shares his expertise by providing the best travel tips and tricks to help you plan your next adventure.

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