After the region’s gateway city of Faro, Portimão is the most important commercial centre in the Algarve and the main hub for the region’s thriving sardine-canning, leisure cruising and big-game fishing industries.
The city first gained prominence as an important trading link for the Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians before attracting the Romans who promptly settled around in its natural port on the wide estuary of the River Arade, naming it Portus Magnus.
It was from the sheltered waters of Portimão’s impressive harbour that Portugal’s King Sancho I launched a successful siege of Silves, the Moorish capital of the Algarve, with the help of crusaders (some of them English) in July 1189.
For many years it was one of the main centre of Portugal’s sardine fishing and canning industries and by the mid-70s dozens of trawlers were operating from its waters to catch the fish that were subsequently processed in a similar number of the town’s factories.
A popular part of town is Praça Visconde de Bivar on the east bank of the River Arade from where you can enjoy panoramic views of Ferragudo on the other side.
Largely rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, the church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição dates back to the 14th century and features a magnificent Gothic portal and many impressive 17th- and 18th-century azulejo glazed tiles. Close by, the 17th-century Jesuit’s college comprises the largest church in the Algarve decorated with gilt-covered wood carvings and housing the tomb of the college’s founder, Diogo Gonçalves.
A main draw to Portimão, particularly during summer, is the town’s long esplanade lined with gardens and outdoor cafés. Nearby stands one of the Algarve’s most important tourist attractions, the Museu de Portimão, which focuses on archaeology, underwater finds and the recreation of the local fishing industry as well as featuring a superb collection of Roman and Moorish artefacts, all housed in a former fish-canning factory.
Portimão is synonymous with fishing and summer visitors shouldn’t miss the popular sardine festival, one of the most popular events in southern Portugal where charcoal grills cook the fish to perfection along the town’s riverfront.
The town is also a major centre for deep-sea fishing trips and relaxing cruises along the golden Algarve coastline with its grottoes and and rare rock formations etched out of the cliffs.
The closest place to Portimão is the pretty little whitewashed village of Ferragudo a few kilometres west at the mouth of the River Arade. Blessed with a wonderful beach – Praia Grande – the village is a maze of old cobbled alleyways leading up the hill towards Ferragudo’s 16th-century parish church.
Praia da Rocha, just 2 km south of Portimão, was one of the first seaside resorts to emerge in the Algarve. Backed by sandstone cliffs, its famous 2-km-long stretch of golden, sandy beach is interrupted by rock formations which the sea has sculpted into remarkable shapes, complete with tunnels and arches.
The Carthaginian, Hannibal, is believed to have founded the pleasant little village of Alvor on the shores of a lagoon 8 km to the west of Portimão. Its parish church is dedicated to the Holy Saviour and dates from the 16th century.