The perfect place for us has got to be van friendly, enjoyable for small people with as much space as possible to run free – ideally in a natural spot.
Off season in the Algarve the coast is magical and some days even sunny and warm with highs of 20 Degrees C. Most importantly the nights were cosy too! We often had beautiful places all to ourselves as lots of places are not suffering from the influx of people that would make this place a bit too chaotic in the summer.
There are so many places to explore and we do a lot of it by trial and error but sometimes you don’t have the fuel to burn and a gentle pointer in some direction or another can be really helpful! We find a lot of the budget travel books are geared up to the backpack crowd. So after living in Portugal for a whole winter, driving up and down the Algarve coast we thought we would share our list of van & family friendly places to pin on the map as you consider your own adventure.
Dramatic scenery from every turn, sea cliffs, crashing waves, Sagres is a laid back village, popular with tourists and surfers who like their beaches a bit wilder and no high rise buildings. There are a number of cool little beach bars and eateries, take away pizza bar and a real homemade Italian Gelato shop named after Alice in Wonderland! We love this place. This place feels alive even off season, it is perfect for walking, cycling, surfing or diving. After hanging out all day on Mareta beach, we love to have lunch on the picnic tables in the square and then let off more steam running around the skate park overlooking the sea. We even spotted dolphins from the beach on our first day here.
There is a local Intermarche that provides a grey water dump and chemical toilet disposal point. They also offer self service washing machines and dryer.
Vila do Bispo
A small town about 10 minutes up the road from Sagres. We loved this place and spent a lot of the winter parked up here although there is nothing overly special about it. It’s handy as there is a Lidl for loading up on cheap munch (check out all those Portugese milk tarts in the bakery aisle!), a practical little wash house for filling up with water or doing small batches of hand washes for free. There is also a lovely little local market here for stocking up on cheese, honey and dried figs (you have to splurge on some dried figs…they are just incredible!) The main reason we loved hanging out here so much though is if you drive out of town and up the hill towards the coast you will find the cutest little BBQ area under the pine trees, with a forest play park and a scenic but easy going family walking trail. Such a peaceful spot when you need to get away from the slightly more busy Sagres. The only interruption you might have is the wandering goat herder and the noise of cattle bells.
We do not normally bother with or even think about recommending campsites but this place is special. It does not have fancy add-ons or shiny facilities. It does have an eclectic beach vibe, with the coolest looking campers and collection of friendly international long termers. The owner here is an incredible human being that you can’t help but feel drawn to. The whole place is welcoming and fun. The main hub is the bar, it puts on live music nights for campers and locals. The atmosphere here is just special and you have to try it for yourselves to fully appreciate it. The campsite is walking distance to the beautiful little cove that is Praia Ingrina. The campsite has basic but very comfortable facilities. It is a genuine, peaceful campsite with a rustic charm that has completely melted our hearts. It costs 6.5 Euro’s per person, children and dogs are free. If you pop in for a night and a hot shower I can guarantee you will be finding an excuse to return.
Barão de São joão – Hippy Market
A small and peaceful village with an eclectic vibe. Take the time to wonder through the cobbled streets, alongside the tiny white houses, lines of washing hung up outside and the local old boys sitting out in the sun on their benches. Evening hits and the bars spring to life with friendly locals that spill out onto the street, some bars have live music too. For the children there is a small playground up at the cultural centre.
Onthe last Sunday of every month is the hippy market, travelling musicians, great vibes, vegan and slow food stalls, children’s activities and lots of van people selling their wares. (Tip: Find a place to park one or two days day before as it gets very busy…the traders start arriving on the Wednesday before the market and the whole village takes on a fun festival atmosphere). Also check out the National Park forest up the hill from the village for nature walks, BBQ area, toilets, water point and a forest playground. If you are lucky you may even park up at the same time as some of the children’s workshops that are hosted in the forest on week days. We stumbled across a great circus skills and story telling workshop that runs once a week for locals (the chap ran the workshop in English, German & Portugese for the mix of children who attended, it was impressive!) From chatting to the other parents we learned that there is a music workshop too on some days, if interested just ask the other campers with families once you arrive for up to date days/times. Age range was a lovely mix of 2-10 year olds and he asked for a donation of 3 Euros per child towards his time.
A large port city, it has everything you might need for any extra supplies that you can’t find in the small towns, such as mobile phones, SIM cards, clothes (there is an H&M and primark at the Aqua shopping centre), camping equipment or replacement gas bottles and adapters. With good parking and not too windy streets to get lost in! Although its a big place it still manages to have an appealing feel about it. More like a city for the locals rather than just for the tourists. Portimao has an old quarter, tourist information with helpful English speaking staff, and a busy Marina with large car park next to the beach. The beach is called Praia da Rocha, it is a long sandy stretch, with gentle waves perfect for little ones to splash around in, overlooked by a medieval fort. Out of all the built up paces it was probably our favourite and easiest to get in and out of when we needed to replenish any practical stuff.
Benagil Sea Caves & Praia da Marinha
A stunning stretch of coastline dotted with little coves and beaches, golden cliff tops with interesting rock formations that make for a stunning sunset overlooking the sea. The main reason for a visit to the Benagil area is to see the beautiful sea caves, if you are adventurous you can actually paddle on a surfboard or kayak out to them. There were also people going out on SUP boards or you can pay a fee to be taken out by a tour boat. Beautiful un-crowded beaches off season all around this area.
Make sure to pay a visit to the beach at Marinha too, it has a car park without height restrictions so we find it easier to park here and use it as a base for exploring, as the whole coast along here has some real picture postcard beaches. Sandstone cliffs, fires pits, cold beers, sunsets, caves and arches. I think I read somewhere it’s rated one of the top beaches in the world…It was definitely our favourite of the whole trip.
If you fancy a break from all the beautiful beaches with a bit of sightseeing this unhurried and charming town is a great destination. Check out the castle high up on the hill, a reasonable 2.80 euro entrance fee makes it an interesting place to spend a couple of hours, chill in the garden and take in the views. However a quick heads up if you are visiting with toddlers – the Portugese aren’t too fussed about railings on the battlements and there are a few drops here and there so keep little ones close. Lots of options on ‘park4anight’ app for places in and around Silves if you want to stay. .
We found this tiny little village by accident one evening after taking a wrong turn. If you drive right through the village you will come across the little bit we fell in love with…the warm (not quite hot!) spring. A stunning little river spot, cobbled street with an old wash pool that the village used to use for bathing and washing their clothes. The locals told us that in spring they dam up the river further down and allow it to fill up by the wash house so everyone can take a dip in the warm waters that flow here. It is a beautiful spot to chill for lunch or go out for a walk up the footpaths. Also a good park up located next to the cemetery (easy to spot from the main road in) with the company of a few other van neighbours.