The Algarve or Madeira? Portugal’s Dreamy Destinations

Algarve or Madeira
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
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If it’s come down to the Algarve or Madeira, then let’s just say this first: You’re not going to be disappointed. There are oodles of reasons why these two destinations are up there with the most visited in Portugal. Both have a rich culture and history, balmy climates with plenty of sun, and more natural draws than you can shake a bowl of salt cod at (that’s a PT specialty, by the way)!

But that’s not to say that they are the same. They aren’t. In fact, the Algarve and Madeira offer two very different sorts of things. For one, Madeira is an island, languishing out in the heart of the Atlantic. It’s also the top of a shield volcano that’s mostly submerged in the ocean. On the flip side, you’ve got the Algarve, a hilly and softly contoured part of the Portuguese mainland that’s best known for its golden-sand beaches and surf.

This guide will help you make the pick as to whether it’s going to be the Algarve or Madeira this year. It will dive into seven key aspects of both places and explain where they differ and where they’re the same, ranging from the nightlife to the hotels, what there is to do to ease of access.

Algarve or Madeira: Getting there

Algarve cliff view
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Before you can crack out the sunscreen and laze on the sands or start tasting wine in the highland taverns, you’re going to need to arrive at either one of these spots.

For south Portugal that’s actually pretty simple. There’s a dedicated airport in the town of Faro. It’s called Faro Airport or the Algarve Airport interchangeably, and it’s among the top three busiest hubs in the country. Flights jet in from all over Europe. What’s more, low-cost carriers like Ryanair and easyJet dominate the market, with connections that shouldn’t break the bank from London, Liverpool, Rome, and Brussels. The Algarve Airport also has one or two transatlantic seasonal links. Oh, and the region is only a few hours’ drive south of Lisbon, which hosts the bulk of long-haul arrivals into Portugal.

99% of the time, getting to Madeira means landing at the Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport (yep, the footballing legend is from here). Slightly smaller than its compadre over in the Algarve, this one serves some three million passengers annually. There are very regular domestic connections from Lisbon and Porto, along with a range of seasonal budget links from the UK, France, the Netherlands, and Poland. The thing you have to remember, though, is that Madeira is much farther from Central Europe than the Algarve. Flight times can top four hours to here, while a link from Faro (in the Algarve) to, say, London, is often under three hours in the air.

Winner: The Algarve

Algarve or Madeira: Crowds & the general vibe

Algarve crowds
Photo by Eduardo Drapier/Unsplash

Both Madeira and the Algarve are darlings of the Portuguese tourism industry. Together, they bring in a whopping 4.5 million visitors each year. The majority of those (3.5 million) head for the Algarve region, but the crowds disperse across a whole province that’s far larger than the island of Madeira. The upshot? Both of these places will be busy because they are both very popular, and high-season crowds can be crazy no matter where you choose to visit.

What’s interesting is that the sort of tourists that visit these places are strikingly similar across the board. Madeira has long had a reputation for hosting older generations and retirees; folk keen to laze by the hotel pool and sip sweet wines until sundown. However, that’s recently changed, as the island is being transformed into one of Europe’s major hiking meccas and adventure hotspots, with scuba diving and MTB on the menu.

It’s almost identical down in the Algarve. Resorts like Vilamoura and Quarteira have long invited older golf buffs and yachters. However, the beaches of the western Algarve have now become a haven for surfers, especially the Atlantic-facing bays of Arrifana and Tonel Beach in Sagres. One thing that the Algarve has that Madeira doesn’t is heady nightlife. We’ll talk more about that later, but suffice to say that 18-30 partiers should be aiming for Albufeira, not the island capital of Funchal.

Winner: Draw

Algarve or Madeira: Beaches

Beach on the Algarve coast
Photo by Antonio Mendes/Unsplash

The Algarve isn’t hailed as one of the top beach destinations in the world for nothing. It boasts over 125 miles of coastline, ranging from the flamingo-dotted lagoons around Tavira in the east to the wave-splashed bays of the Costa Vicentina in the west. Between those two places are some of the most stunning, most jaw-dropping, most eye-wateringly wonderful beaches you could possibly imagine. They include:

  • Praia da Fuseta – A long sweep of perfectly golden sand and greenish sea with enough space for everyone.
  • Praia Vale do Lobo – Perhaps the main jet-setter beach in the region, Vale do Lobo has chic bars and powdery sand covered in sunbeds.
  • Praia de Nossa Senhora da Rocha – One of the most photographed beaches in the Algarve, this one’s gleaming powder is hemmed in by high, honey-colored cliffs.
  • Praia da Bordeira – A wild bay cut through by a big river on the west of the Algarve, this one’s for surfers and sunbathers looking to feel the power of the Atlantic.

Sadly, Madeira simply cannot compete when it comes to beaches. As a volcanic island, its shores are mainly rocky, save for a few runs of black sand. There is a manmade beach at Praia da Calheta, but it’s usually very busy in the high season months, and – frankly – not a spot on the beautiful coastline of the south Algarve.

Winner: Algarve

Algarve or Madeira: Things to do

Madeira mountains
Photo by Stephen Lammens/Unsplash

You could plan a trip to the Algarve that was about nothing more than soaking up the rays on Praia de Nossa Senhora da Rocha and then partying the night away in Albufeira. But there’s also way more on offer if you’d like. Yep, the resort of Vilamoura is a golfing mecca, with more 18-hole courses than you could possibly get through in a single week. Further east is the acclaimed Ria Formosa Natural Park, a place to boat to remote fishing villages, dine on seafood, and spot flamingos. Then comes the western Algarve. It’s connected by some fantastic hiking paths and has surf that some consider to be the best in Europe – beaches like Arrifana and Tonel stand out from the crowd.

It’s a similar story on Madeira. Yes, you’re free to do nothing but laze by the side of the hotel pool if you’d like. However, a whole wonderland of mountains beckons those after a true adventure. Portugal’s finest hiking exists inland, on trails known as vereda. They weave around Pico Ruivo (the highest summit that has a lookout that’s often above the clouds) and wiggle over the dramatic Cape San Lorenzo (keep watch for dolphins). Hiking aside, you can do whale watching between April and October, scuba diving in the volcanic reefs near Funchal, and even wine tasting in traditional Madeiran wineries.

Winner: Madeira (whale watching just about tips it!)

Algarve or Madeira: Nightlife

Nightlife in the Algarve
Photo by Cristiano Pinto/Unsplash

Madeira enjoys the laid-back feel of a true island destination. It’s not really about no-holes-barred partying until the early hours. Even the capital city of Funchal is a relatively tame affair. There are things to do once the sun has dipped, there, but you’re talking long dinners in al fresco terraces, wine evenings, and cocktails on the panoramic patios of your hotel.

Then comes the Algarve. The nightlife there can get seriously wild in the summer months. It’s all mainly down to the unabashed 18-30s resort of Albufeira. The place goes into overdrive from May to August, when young revelers from the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany descend en masse. Most of the action is centered on The Strip, a long run of bars east of the main town. Head there for pumping DJ parties and karaoke and shot deals. There’s also some low-key nightlife in other Algarvian towns, like live-music après surf over in Aljezur and Sagres, for example.

Winner: Algarve

Algarve or Madeira: Weather

Weather in Madeira
Photo by Rowan Vork/Unsplash

Both of these destinations follow a pretty similar seasonal pattern. They have hot summers and cooler winters, with higher rainfall coming between October and March.

Madeira is much further south than the Algarve, though. It’s further south to the tune of more than 300 miles. That brings extra humidity and means average daily temperatures never dip below 60, with highs of over 100 F in the peak months of June and August. The relief of Madeira Island also cranks up the rainfall a little and can be a magnet for clouds, but you’re much more likely to get wet in the winter than in the summer.

Sun worshippers will be glad to know that the Algarve is both generally warmer and has over 1,000 hours of extra sun per year than Madeira. It’s one of the warmest places in all of Southern Europe, in fact. We’d say that the weather is less changeable in the Algarve than on Madeira, mainly because the region enjoys a Mediterranean climate that’s only slightly influenced by the Atlantic. Yes, evenings get cold in the winter, but there are long summers lasting from May to October and loads of dry days to sweeten the deal.

Winner: Algarve, but both of these places have gorgeous weather

Algarve or Madeira: Hotels

Madeira house
Photo by Daniela Turcanu/Unsplash

The Algarve has to be one of the most hotel-rich parts of Europe. Booking.com reveals over 11,000 individual properties here. You simply will not be short on choice. From hidden pousadas in the olive groves inland to chic beach hotels on the bays of Albufeira, you can rest assured that there will be somewhere to suit your style.

If we had to pick, we’d say that the Algarve does family hotels pretty fantastically well. Options like the three-star Aqua Mar – Moon Dreams is a prime example, offering a pool, gardens, and proximity to the beach. However, there’s also honeymoon-worthy luxury, courtesy of establishments like the Pousada Palacio de Estoi (housed in a 19th-century palace, no less!), and rustic surf retreats like the Utopia Guest House up in Aljezur.

Madeira might only have a fraction of the total number of hotels that exist in the Algarve, but it’s smaller so that’s to be expected. What’s more, there’s still a whopping 2,000 accommodations to pick from. They run the gamut, too. At the top end, there’s the uber-lux Saccharum – Resort & Spa, a Savoy signature hotel that’s nestled in its own little bay. Budget seekers can go for something like the Jaca Hostel Porto da Cruz, with its boho-chic interiors just back from Alagoa Beach. There are also plenty of resorts with pools suited to R&R seekers – check out Pestana Churchill Bay and Residencial FAROL.

Winner: Draw

So, should I travel to Algarve or Madeira?

Both of these spots promise something pretty awesome. The Algarve enjoys more sun than much of Southern Europe, has exquisite beaches, and some of the top surf on the continent. Madeira is an exotic mix of Atlantic, African, and European culture, topped off with wondrous hiking trails and oodles of adventure pursuits.

You really can’t go wrong in either. However, we’d say partiers and beach lovers should pick the Algarve for sure. Hikers will prefer the island, and so will those looking for something a touch different to Europe’s usual sun, sand, and sea vacation.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.