For two centuries the harbour town of Lagos was the capital of the Algarve. Henry the Navigator also had his headquarters here and it was to Lagos that ocean-going caravels returned, laden with sugar, grain, and gold from Africa and the East Indies. In 1434, the explorer Gil Eanes left Lagos on his pioneering voyage round Cape Bojador, leading to the discovery of northwest Africa.
It was also from here, in 1578, that the fanatical King Sebastiao set sail on his North African crusade, which culminated in the disastrous battle at Alcacer-Quibir, when almost his entire army was destroyed, and with it the flower of the Portuguese aristocracy.
Today, Lagos serves as a centre for the British, Dutch, and German holiday-makers staying in the coastal resorts of the western end of the Algarve. Despite devastation by the 1755 earthquake, and more recently by the tidal wave of tourism, the town still has a certain elegance.
The fort and part of the city walls still stand, the streets are cobbled and narrow, and there are still some fine churches. This, combined with a cheerful abundance of restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops, makes Lagos one of the most popular towns on the coast.
Most of the town’s sights are within a short distance of the Praca da Republica (confusingly also called the Praca Infante Dom Henrique) where a large bronze statue of Henry the Navigator, sextant in hand, looks out to sea.
Igreja de Santa Maria (Church of St Mary)
The 16th-century church was almost entirely restored in the 19th century. The finest features of the interior are the 18th-century wooden statues, including one of Sao Goncalo, patron saint of Lagos. It was from the Manueline window of the church that King Sebastiao is said to have roused his troops and bid a last farewell to the people of Lagos.
Igreja de Santo Antonio (Church of St Antony)
The sober façade of this small church hides the Algarve’s most exuberant ecclesiastical interior. Known as ‘the Golden Chapel’, it has a profusion of carved and gilded woodwork, surrounding scenes from the life of St. Antony. Miraculously, the main body of the church survived the 1755 earthquake, though the beautifully painted vaulted ceiling was rebuilt.
Mercado dos Escravos (Slave Market)
On the Praca da Republica, an arcade beneath the Lagos Customs House marks the original site of the only slave market in Portugal. During the days of the great discoveries, hapless individuals were brought back from Africa to Lagos and sold off at this site. Today the arcade has a happier function: it acts as an open air art gallery.
Museu Municipal (Municipal Museum)
Adjoining the Igreja de Santo Antonio, this small museum is devoted to archaeology, ethnography, and religious art. A section displaying pots, coins, Roman mosaics, and other local finds is followed by Algarvian lobster pots, fishing nets, and farming tools, plus a few freak animal foetuses, including a two-headed cat and a one-eyed sheep.
The main beach is the long exposed stretch of Meia Praia, northwest of the centre. More picturesque, sheltered (and crowded) are the cove beaches west of the town, tucked under golden cliffs. For coastal scenery you cannot beat Ponta da Piedade, a promontory where cliff erosion has produced free-standing pillars, stacks, and arches. From the cliff top you can walk down a path to the grottoes. Alternatively, you can go all the way in a fishing boat from the Lagos waterfront.2