If you’re planning that Portugal vacation and it’s come down to Tavira or Lagos then you’ve come to the right place. This guide will pick out seven key features of both locations to help you decide which is best for you and your travel crew. From nightlife to where has the better lux hotels, the sands to activities, we’ll cover the lot.
The truth is that there are actually oodles of reasons why you’d want to visit both of these spots. Both are accomplished getaways with plenty of sun and access to wonderful beaches. Both have rich Portuguese history on show, along with fantastic tavernas and eateries.
However, they aren’t the same. For starters, they sit at opposite ends of the Algarve, one closer to the wide, open shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the other nearer to the Spanish border. One is also more of a bustling town, while the other is sleepier, more off the beaten path. And that’s really just scratching the surface of the differences…
Tavira or Lagos for general vibe?
Lagos is one of the main hubs of the ever-popular Western Algarve. It’s a region that sees millions (yep, millions!) of visitors each year, most during the summer months between June and August. The upshot? You’re probably not going to be alone on the beaches or in the old town bars here. A lot of the local economy is driven by tourism, so get ready to be hassled by everything from kayak renters to club reps. That said, Lagos is more of a lived-in place than, say, Albufeira, so it’s not all bad. There’s a rich old town that offers history (more on that later) and lots of scope to escape to authentic south Portuguese fishing villages or hill towns nearby.
Tavira has some lovely character precisely because it’s a little further away from the uber-dramatic beaches out west. It’s also not undergone the same development, which has left the historic center and its riverside walks virtually untouched and still oozing charm. The same goes for the nearby beaches, which are noticeably quieter and more natural than their compadres down the A22 motorway. To put it another way: Tavira is the chilled option.
Tavira or Lagos for nightlife?
Lagos is the one to go for if you’re heading to the Algarve for nightlife. At least, that is, it’s the best option here (more generally, Albufeira might be the one for you). The action is really anchored on that happening old town district. It’s packed with all sorts of venues. There are small, family-owned Portuguese taverns that serve seafood soups and cold Super Bock beers. But there are also raucous all-nighter bars where body shots and beer tubes are the norm (check out Whytes Bar and Stevie Ray’s for those). In addition, Praia de São Roque that spreads east from Lagos’s downtown is a hotspot for beach clubs line Duna – think chic, chilled drinking by the oceanside.
Tavira has an altogether more relaxed after-dark scene. That’s not to say it’s quiet. There’s actually plenty going on. The best places to party are on the two promenades that fringe the Rio Gilão, along with the heritage districts immediately to the east and west of the river. Don’t worry, they’re linked by a wide Roman bridge when you’re ready to stumble from one side to the other. Most venues are fusions of eateries and bars, where there’s cold beer and local seafood on offer. There are a few good pubs, especially Sitio Café and Santa Lucia. You can also head over to the nearby resort of Cabanas, which hosts a few cool drinkeries aimed specifically at visitors.
Tavira or Lagos for beaches?
Really, the difference between the beaches in Tavira and Lagos is all about the difference in the beaches between the Western Algarve and the Eastern Algarve. The first region is a veteran of travel brochures the world over, famed for its dramatic bays of rich golden sand and ochre-tinged clifftops and rock stacks. The latter is more out of the limelight, with beaches that run along open lagoons and sandbank islands for miles and miles without interruption.
In Tavira, there’s only really one beach within reasonable reach of the town. Thankfully it’s a whopping 6.5 miles from end to end. It rolls across the south side of the Ilha de Tavira without stopping, a long and gorgeous sweep of powdery sand with oat-topped dunes to its back. The water is still because the beach faces a little east away from the main swells. The best way to explore that is by boat down the lagoon from the center of Tavira itself.
Lagos, on the other hand, has stacks of beaches on the menu. Depending on how far you’re willing to travel from the center, you can get wave-bashed Atlantic bays and those classic Algarve beaches alike. Check out:
- Porto Mós Beach – An arc of yellow sand immediately south and east of Lagos.
- Praia dos Estudantes – A small city beach that’s pure drama, offering a rock arch.
- Praia de São Roque – The long run of golden sand that goes east from Lagos’s downtown core.
- Praia da Luz – A well-accomplished beach resort with loads of family amenities and a decent winter surf break, only 12 minutes’ drive from Lagos.
Winner: Lagos – that variety!
Tavira or Lagos for hotels?
There’s no shortage of hotels in either Tavira or Lagos – this is the Algarve, remember? We would say that there are generally more places to stay on offer in Lagos. That’s because the beaches are more accessible (AKA, they aren’t on a long barrier island that’s only reachable by boat) and the town is generally larger. You can get inner-town aparthotels close to the historic center, along with beach resorts that have pools and balconies overlooking the Atlantic. Some of our favorites would be:
- Guesthouse D. Manuel I ($$) – An adult’s only guesthouse with its own private pool that’s perfectly located between the beaches and the old town of Lagos.
- Carvi Beach Hotel ($$-$$$) – Stay right on the Atlantic by choosing this hotel and its lofted pool above the Algarve cliffs.
- Belmar Spa & Beach Resort ($$$) – Be pampered with a full fitness and wellness center, sprawling gardens topped by palms, and gorgeous contemporary suites.
Tavira excels in heritage hotels. There’s a couple of stays in the enchanting old town here that have a genuinely unique character. We’re talking B&Bs in centuries-old buildings by the Rio Gilão and boutique residence hotels in medieval convents. Staying within eyeshot of the ocean is a little harder, because the beaches aren’t that developed, but that’s a good thing, no? Our top hotels in Tavira would include:
- Pousada Convento de Tavira ($$-$$$) – A luxury hotel that’s housed in a 16th-century convent on the east side of Tavira’s old town. There are mod cons, too, like that lovely swimming pool.
- Residencial Mares ($$) – A charming, family-owned hotel with a balcony overlooking the Rio Gilão.
- Galeria Guesthouse ($$) – Live like a local in this authentic Tavira cottage in the backstreets of the old town.
Tavira or Lagos for culture and history?
Here’s a tricky one. Both of these towns boast an enthralling old center of cobbled alleys and sunny squares. Lagos’s spreads up a low hillside to the north and west of its marina. Much of it was built during the 16th and 17th centuries. You can still see remnants of the fortification walls from that era, which lead the way to the muscular Forte da Ponta da Bandeira, or Lagos Fort. That citadel was raised in the 1600s to protect the sea channel below. It’s now a fascinating journey back in time, with creaking drawbridges and a chapel dedicated to Saint Barbara on display.
Tavira’s past goes all the way back to the age of the ancients. It was once a major Roman trading outpost, but it was probably settled sometime in the Bronze Age. Relics of that time pop up with the preserved Roman bridge that crosses the main river. Later ages are preserved in the layered remains of the Castle of Tavira. It showcases bulwarks built by the Moors after their conquests in the 8th century. There are also loads of medieval churches of Gothic style in the old town area. It’s simply a joy to wander for history buffs.
Tavira or Lagos for families?
It’s no secret that the Algarve is one of Europe’s top family vacation destinations. What’s more, both Tavira and Lagos are up there with the most popular family destinations within the Algarve itself. But which is better? It’s a tricky one to call…
Tavira is fantastic for families who crave a more authentic, culturally rich side of Portugal. It’s got a darn lovely historic center and a medley of sights that are bound to spur the imagination, from that mystical Moorish castle to the old Roman bridge. It’s also really close to the airport in Faro, so transfers by taxi or rental car shouldn’t be too long for the little ones. On the downside, it’s not a full-on resort a la Lagos. That means you don’t get the same number of beach hotels with entertainment packages and all-inclusive service.
Lagos is great for families who want to hop beaches. And, let’s face it, that’s what oodles of families look forward to down on the Algarve coast. The hotels are well-acquainted with visitors who bring the tykes along, so have restaurant menus, breakfast buffets, and entertainment schedules to match. This one’s not as quiet though, so R&R on the beach will be harder to get overall.
Winner: Draw. Lagos for something livelier. Tavira for a bit of an escape.
Tavira or Lagos for ease of travel?
The Algarve is served primarily by the Faro International Airport. It’s actually often known as, simply, Algarve Airport. As you might imagine, there are stacks and stacks of arrivals coming in. Many of them are seasonal, running only between May and October. Options range from budget-friendly links with the likes of easyJet and Ryanair, arriving from London, Milan, Nice, Paris, Newcastle, Vienna – the list goes on. And there are lots of arrivals on flag-carrying airlines like BA and Air France that go to their respective hubs to boot.
So, it’s easy to jet into the Algarve, but what about getting to Tavira or Lagos. Well…that’s just a question of hitting the A22 highway that runs the south coast. There’s a mere 20 minutes in it, with drives to Lagos taking about an hour and drives to Tavira taking about 40 minutes. Trains are also an option. They run from Faro central about 13 times daily to Tavira and go to Lagos about the same number of times, taking about 1.75 hours in all.
Winner: Tavira, but there’s a mere 20 minutes in it if you’re driving, so we wouldn’t decide on this alone!
Both Tavira and Lagos are your chance to get a taste of that classic Algarvian sun, sand, and sea. These towns offer oodles of beaches, though we’d say Lagos has slightly better bays given that it’s located in the dramatic Western Algarve. Tavira trumps Lagos for history, but only just, because the latter also has a lovely old town. More generally, Tavira is a little quieter and more relaxed than its compadre to the west.