This Destination Is Called the 'California of Europe' — and It Gets an Average of 300 Days of Sunshine Per Year

In this sun-soaked region, you’ll find Michelin-starred meals, an exciting wine scene, and a new group of young, progressive creatives.

"Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem recently visited the Algarve," textile artist Vanessa Barragao's studio assistant said during my visit. She was one of many who mentioned the Hollywood elite flocking to this region with 300 days of sunshine a year, a coast that forms a jagged smile along the Atlantic, and a burgeoning wine scene. A much less elite Angeleno, I thought to myself, had I traveled nearly 6,000 miles to discover the "California of Europe?"

I didn't mind — I love California. And after spending 10 days in Portugal’s southernmost region with my boyfriend, it was obvious that California and the Algarve have both similarities and striking differences. 

One common thread is that the Algarve has more Michelin-starred restaurants than all other areas of Portugal combined (and California has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other U.S. state). We tasted local cuisine over a three-hour meal at Vista, a restaurant helmed by chef João Oliveira.

Within minutes, I shed tears of joy. From the first bite (a molecular explosion of green apple, wasabi, and fennel) to dessert (a miniature citrus tree with an orange sphere encased in a ganache-covered shell and filled with orange chocolate mousse), Oliveira and his staff performed an opera of flavor. 

But zoom out, and the local Algarve cuisine splits with California. The Algarve is inflected with a North African influence. After all, the area spent centuries under Moorish rule. Pepper, curry, and coriander spice up the menus, and a traditional dish called cataplana is the Algarve’s answer to tagine.

Similarly to California, the Algarve offers a lovely mix of beaches, countryside, and city life, but it looks a bit different. For instance, in the fisherman's village of Olhão, we climbed the bell tower of the Church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário for a spectacular view over a zigzagging blanket of white Cubist buildings that conjured comparisons to towns Morocco's Tetouan or Spain's Cadaqués.

Later, we spent a few days in Vila Real de Santo António, the border town between Portugal and Spain, on the right bank of the Guadiana River. This city was planned during Portugal's "Age of Enlightenment" and features neoclassical buildings and symmetrical, Pombaline blocks (akin to Lisbon). Nothing in California compares.

A main shopping street in Vila Real, Algarve, Portugal

Stacy Suaya

Then, in the capital city of Faro, the comparisons to California returned. Here, you might notice nods to William Krisel's Palm Springs or John Lautner's Hollywood, as it's a hotbed of modernist buildings designed for a tropical climate.

Exterior of modern homes in the central city of Faro in Algarve, Portugal

Stacy Suaya

Michael Stock, the co-owner of Quinta Dos Vales vineyard, explained that Californians are flocking to the Algarve for a similar laid-back lifestyle with a lower cost of living and no divisive politics. He added that there's a bevy of international schools, almost everyone speaks English, and taxes are low. Strolling with him among his vines, with the Monchique Mountains as our backdrop, the view and landscape did slightly recall Napa or Sonoma. 

A pool at the Quinta Dos Vales vineyard in Algarve, Portugal

Stacy Suaya

And when we later did a tasting at Morgado do Quintão, a historic estate with a 2,000-year-old olive tree, it was clear, too, that the Algarve’s wine scene might follow in Northern California’s footsteps. Quintão's approach is to reclaim their roots: low intervention, biological practices, and use of the indigenous grapes (called crato, negra mole, and castelão). They're also one of the first vineyards in the Algarve to export to the U.S. and have their wines in three-star Michelin restaurants worldwide.

The coast here also rivals the Golden State. The Algarve's beaches have earned 87 Blue Flags — one of Europe’s highest concentrations. It is said that the sandier, quieter beaches are on the eastern side of the Algarve, with warmer water and calmer winds.

The beach in Praia De Santo Antonio in Algarve, Portugal

Stacy Suaya

I walked the east side’s Praia de Santo António and experienced a pristine panorama of shimmering ocean and untouched golden sand. Cliff and cove lovers should be aware of the western side, though, which has echoes of Malibu, and, at times, San Luis Obispo. 

After returning to L.A. and reflecting on this trip, I thought of the Mark Twain quote: "All scenery in California requires distance to give it its highest charm." The same could be said of the Algarve. Their version of sun, sea, and Michelin stars may approximate California in certain ways, but it definitely has its own special vibe, too.

Best Places to Stay in the Algarve

Casa Modesta: Overlooking the Ria Formosa lagoon, this nine-room boutique hotel offers a design-oriented place to sync with nature's pace. It's also a former fisherman's home, lovingly restored by his architect granddaughter and run by her brother.

Interior of a guest room at Hotel Bela Vista in Algarve, Portugal

Stacy Suaya

Bela Vista Hotel & Spa: This 19th-century, Moorish-style family home-turned-hotel provides gated privacy within a walkable neighborhood on one side and direct beach access on the other. Breakfast on the panoramic terrace is a must. 

Best Places to Eat and Drink in the Algarve

Los Locos: A tiny, candlelit restaurant hidden in a cobblestone alley offers surprising flavor combinations and techniques. Trip: Try the salad with smoked greens.

Sushi Pearl: This upscale sushi spot serves just-caught local fish with Portuguese flourishes.  

A dish from VISTA Restaurant in Algarve, Portugal

Stacy Suaya

Vista: Expect an unparalleled, Michelin-starred dining experience focused on seafood and vegetables.

The interior and a cocktail from Grand House Bar in Algarve, Portugal

Stacy Suaya

Grand House: A Belle Epoque-style bar where you can say your favorite spirit and wind up with a tailor-made, one-of-a-kind cocktail. 

Chá Chá Chá: A British food writer opened this charming restaurant, which revolves around the morning’s catches.

Best Things to Do in the Algarve

Benagil Sea Cave: Accessible by boat, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard, this spot resembles nature’s cathedral, with an open-air oculus framing the blue sky. 

Modernist Architecture Walking Tour: Faro's impressive collection of modernist and art deco buildings are discoverable with a guide created by the owners of the Modernist Hotel. (There’s an in-room copy for hotel guests' use.)

The 2,000 year old olive tree on the Morgado do Quintao estate property in Algarve, Portugal

Stacy Suaya

Morgado do Quintão: Come for the wine tasting and a romantic afternoon, leave with the maximum amount of bottles that will fit into your checked baggage.

Best Places to Shop in the Algarve

Kozii: This Tavira boutique sells beautiful, eco-conscious clothing and jewelry inspired by the techniques, people, and landscapes of Jaipur.

Interior of Vanessa Barragao's studio in Algarve, Portugal

Stacy Suaya

Vanessa Barragão: A young textile artist weaves giant tapestries that reflect on climate change, especially its impact on oceans. (By appointment only.)

Loulé Design Lab: Local artisans make and sell unique clothing, jewelry, and crafts here.

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