The Algarve’s Secret Islands

Maisie Summer Rozzo

Van Life Pup.

Are you fed up with crowded beaches with barely enough space for you and your towel? Can't face the combination of car parking, the noise and the mass of people? There really are few places in Europe where you can experience that perfect secret beach paradise feeling. Read on as we share our insider tips on where (and how) to find those precious beaches. Pack light, and don't forget the sunscreen as we set sail on an island exploration off the Algarve’s pristine coastline.

Island Hopping in the Algarve

Island hopping doesn’t come to mind when you first think of the Algarve. However, to the east of Faro lies a collection of unspoiled, breathtaking islands nestled within the biodiverse coastline of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. There is something magical about taking a boat ride to a secluded beach. It’s a unique feeling to step onto a boat and smoothly sail away, enveloped by shimmering blues as the land fades into a frothy wake behind you. In that serene moment, distant from cars and urban sprawl, enveloped by the harmonious blend of sand and sea, you'll realise that you could venture halfway across the globe and still not discover a beach as tranquil and idyllic as this. A day trip is all you need to feel transported elsewhere. Returning to the mainland in the sunset hues, you will feel sun-kissed and relaxed to another level. Luckily enough, you will dock right next to some great sunset waterside bars and restaurants where you can get replenished with petiscos and sunset drinks before heading back to your cosy camper home. So, If you're looking for another gem to create your unique road trip itinerary, these Islands are a must.

Rare fauna and flora on Praia do Barril

Ria Formosa National Park

Ria Formosa National Park is a large network of barrier islands and inlets created by constantly shifting sand banks along the southern coast of the Algarve. This collection of islands stretches between the towns of Anção and Manta Rota and encompasses the municipalities of Loulé, Faro, Olhão, Tavira, and Vila Real de Santo António. Recognised as one of Portugal’s Seven Natural Wonders, this region is home to numerous protected species, as well as seahorses, chameleons, and more than 200 species of birds.

Remember to check ferry schedules when you're there! They are always very regular, but they do change each summer.

A drone shot of the Ria Formosa Natural Park

Ilha Deserta (The Deserted Island)

​​📍 Praia da Ilha da Barreta / Ilha Deserta 

🗺️ How to get here: 30-minute boat ride from Faro Marina

True to its name, Ilha Deserta is a haven of tranquillity, boasting 7 km of pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters. Reachable by boat departing from Faro Marina, this uninhabited island offers a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of mainland life. There is one restaurant on the Island, so if you don’t fancy spending lots of money on dining, bring your own packed lunch and plenty of water. With very few shady spots on the island, you’ll want to bring a sun umbrella!

A fisherman's house sits on the coast of Ilha Culatra

Ilha da Culatra (the eastern part of the island)

📍​ Praia da Ilha da Culatra

🗺️ How to get here: 30/40-minute ferry from Faro Marina and Olhão

Step ashore Ilha da Culatra, and you'll feel like you've entered a postcard-perfect paradise.  With an all-year-round resident population of just over 1000 and a rich 200-year history, this island offers a unique insight into a laid-back fishing community and a glimpse of life at a very different pace. You can catch a ferry to either the west or east side of the island from the towns of Olhão and Faro. It is the perfect place to wander through the narrow sandy streets and admire the colourful fishing boats bobbing in the harbour. Considered one of the best islands for seafood, you can find the freshest fish caught that morning in any of the island’s 14 dockside cafes and restaurants – Restaurante O Rui is a favourite among the locals.

A walkway leads to the beach on Ilha Culatra

Praia da Ilha do Farol (the western tip of the island)

📍 Praia da Ilha do Farol

🗺️ How to get here: Regular ferry service departing from Faro

Farol, the Portuguese word for lighthouse, is a small village to the west of the island. For a leisurely walk between the villages of Culatra and Farol, visitors can wander along the 4 km wooden boardwalk through the dunes and natural beach flora. For the ultimate experience, climb to the top of the island's lighthouse for panoramic views of the surrounding seascape – a sight not to be missed.

Two beachgoers walk along the beach to Ilha Fuzeta

Praia da Ilha da Armona

📍 Praia da Ilha da Armona

🗺️ How to get here: 15-minute ferry from Olhão

Ilha da Armona is a vibrant island community in the heart of the Ria Formosa Nature Preserve. Easily accessible by ferry from Olhão, this island offers a peaceful retreat for those seeking solitude and serenity. Whether you hang out on the estuary village side around the warm, calm waters or walk the 1.5 km boardwalk through the dunes to the pure, energising Atlantic waves, an extensive sand bar runs all the way to Fuzeta, so it is easy to stroll a short distance and be truly alone. Meander the long pristine beaches, collect seashells scattered along the shoreline, and as the sun sets, savour a delicious meal at one of the island's waterfront restaurants, where freshly caught seafood takes centre stage.

You can camp on the edge of Olhao: Olhão – Roteiro Campista, which is also situated next to the entrance of the amazing Tidal Mill Nature Reserve.

Barril beach restaurants on Ilha da Fuzeta

Ilha da Fuzeta

📍 Praia da Ilha da Fuzeta

🗺️ How to get here: €2 for a 15-minute Ferry from Fuzeta

Home to salt marshes, fresh seafood and barrier Islands, Fuzeta holds a special place in many locals' hearts. A vibrant local fishing town, it is a perfect place for families with its playgrounds by the docks and bars, where you catch the ferry to the island. “The Play Bar,'' as we affectionately used to call it, has a great all-day-long colourful and friendly ambience, and you can't fail to enjoy being at the beach bar for a sundowner. There is also a campsite close to the beach (and in the summer, this is a noisy one; bring your earplugs)!

The sun sets over Ilha Fuzeta

Praia da Ilha de Tavira

📍 Praia da Ilha de Tavira-Mar

🗺️ How to get here: Ferry from central Tavira or Quatro Aguas

Set sail for Ilha de Tavira, where sandy shores and azure waters beckon travellers seeking sun-soaked bliss. Accessible for just €2 by ferry from the historic town of Tavira, this island is a favourite among beachgoers, backpackers, and nature enthusiasts alike. Whether you go to the Atlantic side of the island for those who enjoy playing in the surf or stay on the more sheltered estuary side for gentle swimming, there's something here for everyone. Various restaurants and bars serving fresh food means you don't have to take lots of bags and ice boxes. A campsite for tents in the wooded area attracts a young crowd and creates a lively party vibe. On the balmy summer evenings, expect volleyball games to be played around the beaches.

Landing back in central Tavira, you'll find yourself in one of the most magical and picturesque Algarvian towns to explore at night. Its ebbing wide tidal river flows through the centre, and many restaurants along its embankments create the perfect Algarvian summer night. On the edge of town, you can camp at Tavira – Algarve Motorhome Park.

Old fishing net anchors on the beach of Praia do Barril

Praia do Barril

📍 Praia do Barril

🗺️ How to get here: 15-minute walk from Pedras d’el Rei, or cute 10-minute train ride

Don't fancy a boat ride but still want to experience a pristine island beach in the ocean? Well, there's a sneaky walking route over. Park here, and walk across the river via a long bridge; from here, you can take a cute old train through the dunes to the most spacious beach. Your kids will rate this as one of their holiday highlights! You can also walk alongside the tracks through some pines in around 15 minutes. Once there, you will not regret the extra effort! This has one of the clearest seas, as much beach space as you need, a bar/cafe/restaurant and showers.

Stand-up paddle boarding in the Ria Formosa

Ria Formosa Activities:

  • BIRDWATCHING: The natural park of Ria Formosa is a true paradise for birders. Some of the best places for birdwatching here can only be accessed by boat. The many salt pans in the area are home to flamingos. The sight of these long-legged majestic birds stepping through the pink-hued salt pools at sunset is not to be missed!

  • SEAHORSE TOUR: Learn all about these rare and beautiful creatures during a two-hour snorkelling boat trip with Seahorse Observation - Passeios Ria Formosa.

  • KAYAKING: If you fancy a beach adventure with exercise, why not rent a kayak and explore the nooks of the Islands on your own time?

  • KITESURFING: This area is famous for kitesurfing.  With its sheltered inland lagoons and waterways, it's the perfect place to enjoy the blend of wind and sea power. For Kayaks, Kitesurf and Foils, lessons, or just equipment hire, try Kite Culture Algarve

  • STAND-UP PADDLE: The tranquil inland waterways provide optimal conditions for SUP adventures. With sand banks and islands to rest on, you can really explore incredible nature while enjoying this great activity. You can hire a SUP board from Siesta for just €15/day.

  • MOUNTAIN BIKING: There is a great section of the Ecovia do Litoral bike trail through the Ria Formosa, and a local train with stops in Faro, Olhao, Fuzeta and Tavira is always happy to take bikes on board. You can easily enjoy a one-way ride through the scenic Ria Formosa coastal trails, lunch/dinner out, and then take a train shuttle back to your camper. Siesta offers bike and bike rack hire, so you are fully independent.

A drone shot of the Ria Formosa


This less-travelled region of the Eastern Algarve is often overlooked alongside the big West Coast names, but with its unique islands, secluded beaches and charming fishing villages, this side of the Algarve offers diverse experiences. Once you press your toes into these beaches' soft white sands and experience their tranquillity firsthand, you will really understand their great lure. This collection of islands really embodies a Caribbean-like feeling, yet you can beach walk for miles and barely see a soul. Punctuate blissed beach days with charming good-value bars and restaurants, and your campervan adventure in Portugal will be a richly varied and authentic experience.

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