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Lagos, the Algarve, Portugal

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Lagos - pronounced Lah-goss or Lah-gosh - was once the capital of the Algarve. It is located in the Barlavento, which is the windward, or western part of the Algarve, on the south coast of Portugal. The city is the centre of a municipality that contains a variety of smaller towns and villages.


The Roman Lacobriga was the first town to occupy the city's current position, at the mouth of the Bensafrim River. Prior to this Lacobriga, the camp of the lake, was an Iron Age hill fort on the opposite side of the river and further inland. This was the camp that Quintus Setorius, the Roman rebel, helped the Lusitanians defend against the Roman army of Metellus Piso.

The foundations of the bridge leading over the river to Meia Praia (Praia means beach) are also Roman. Here, as on much of the southwest coast, the principal industry was that of salting fish, and making the special Roman condiment of Garum. The garum of Portugal was so highly prized that it was shipped direct to Rome.

Roman remains have been found throughout the Lagos area and at Praia da Luz, Boca do Rio and at Martinhal, on the north shore of the Bay of Sagres.

The Moors were the next to influence the town. They called it Zawiya. At this time Chelbs, modern day Silves, was the capital of the province known as Al Gharb, meaning The West.

The oldest 'purpose-built' church in the Algarve, rather than an adapted Roman temple, is that of St. John the Baptist. This was constructed by the Christians of Lagos, who were given permission to do so by the Wali (the Arab governor) of the town around 1174 AD, as long as the building was outside the town limits. Today this little church is still just outside the main area of the town, by the Caravel1 Fountain roundabout on the road north to Lisbon and east to Portimão. To the north of this church lie the old communal washing tanks of the city.

After the knights of the Re-Conquest had regained the Algarve in the 13th Century, nothing much of note happened here, until the end of the 14th Century. The Bay of Lagos became a gathering point for the fleets coming round Cape St. Vincent from Lisbon, before leaving to fight the Moors at Cueta, in Africa.

The Infante Dom Henrique, the third surviving son of King João I of Portugal, and his English wife Philippa of Lancaster, was one of the Princes on board these ships. Later Prince Henry was given grants of land at Sagres, Raposeira and Lagos.

The harbour at Lagos was most suitable for the construction of the Caravels; the lateen-sailed ships that were to take the Portuguese on their fantastic voyages of discovery. The merchants put their money into Prince Henry's projects, and many a young man from the district became a navigator or pilot. The town entered a period of great prosperity.

All this was to finish at the death of Henry the Navigator. His body rested for a short while at the old parish church of Lagos, before it was transported north to Batalha, to lie in the Founder's Chapel near his parents. There no longer being a member of the Royal Family with any great interest in the Algarve, many of the established trading houses were moved to the capital, Lisbon.

At the end of the 16th Century, the Boy-King Sebastian elevated the town to the rank of city. This young man, in his late teens, fancied himself as a warrior, and had gathered an army to invade Morocco. The fleet assembled at Lagos, and the troops mustered in front of the castle, where tradition says that they were addressed by the young King from the Manuelin2 window in the walls of the Governor's Palace. It was an ill-fated expedition. Many fell in the battle of Alcacer-Quibir in Morocco, and among them the King, who had no heirs, except his ageing Uncle Henry, the Cardinal.

King Philip of Spain became the King of Portugal, by right of both blood and conquest. During this time he entered into war with England, and Lisbon was one of the muster points for the Spanish Armada. This made the Algarve a target for Sir Francis Drake, who would harry the coast on his way to and from his inspections of the Spanish fleet lying in Cadiz. On one such raid Sir Francis attacked Lagos, but the citizens put up such a good defence that he left empty-handed and made his way to Sagres. Here resistance was much weaker, and he set fire to the town and captured the fort, taking the cannon for his ships.

After this, the Algarve coast was much at the mercy of several groups of pirates, such as the English and Dutch freebooters, and the most feared of all, the slave-taking Corsairs. To help in the defence of the land, a series of small forts were constructed all along the coast from Castro Marim to Cape St. Vincent and on up towards Lisbon.

The Fortelezas around this southwest peninsula were at: Meia Praia, da Ponta da Bandeira, Pinhão, Ponte de Piedade and Porto de Mós at Lagos, Praia da Luz, Burgau, Almádena, Figueira, Zavial, Baleeira, just south of Sagres fishing harbour, Sagres itself, Beliche and then on up the west coast, Carrapateira. Most of them remain, but the majority in a ruinous state.

The town walls of Lagos were repaired and reinforced, for the last time in earnest.

The Great Earthquake, on 1 November 1755, caused almost total destruction, and many buildings, such as the parish church of Santa Maria da Graça, within the oldest town walls, were never to rise again. Others, such as the church of St. António, were badly damaged, but still retain some of their earlier features.

As the death of Prince Henry had removed the commercial opportunities of the town, the Earthquake of 1755 removed the political importance of the city. With his castle and all the principal buildings in ruins, the Governor of the Algarve moved to Tavira.

During the Napoleonic wars, there were naval battles between the English and French in the Bay of Lagos, and, also, in the 19th century, the Portuguese War between liberalists and absolutists resulted in the town being besieged for a short time.

Fishing was the background industry of this once highly prosperous town. In the Middle Ages, whales were brought ashore at many points along the coast, as is indicated by the place-name Baleeira, derived from the Portuguese word for whale. As whaling declined, the fishermen's attention turned to tuna. These were caught in great funnel nets, which were set up offshore along the routes that the fish took in their migrations to the Mediterranean. The nets were stored in a large warehouse termed Armação. As the tuna became scarce and their runs made further out to sea, the next harvest to be exploited was that of the sardine. In the late 19th century there were four sardine canning factories in the vicinity. Only the chimney-stacks of these remain, to provide nesting platforms for the white storks.

Cork, figs and almonds were the traded produce of the local farms.

Society and Culture

Although a fleet of small fishing boats still go out commercially, the main industry is now tourism. Many yachts from all over the world can now berth at the Marina de Lagos.

Officially a Roman Catholic country nonetheless, the Portuguese are a very religiously tolerant people. Apart from the historic churches, there are places of worship within the city for Baptists, Evangelicals and other protestant communities; within the Lagos Council, Church of England services are held in one of the Catholic churches and within the Algarve there is an active Jewish community. Bahai's have meeting places here as well. There is a grand mosque in Lisbon.

Fado is the traditional singing style of the Portuguese and Brazilians. A lone singer sings songs of longing and homesickness, termed saudades, with the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar.

A Rancho Folclorique is a local folk dancing troup, accompanied by accordion and simple percussion instruments. In this area, the troupes specialise in the Algarvian folk dances, which are fast and merry. Some involve a type of competition, with couples spinning rapidly in turn across the stage. At the end of the summer, Folk Dance troupes visit from all over the country, prior to the Finale of the National competition in Praia da Rocha, Portimão.

The Tivoli Hotel holds Folk evenings. Folk Dancing or Fado singing are attractions that can also be appreciated at some of the restaurants. Details of these events are usually published in both the local English papers3 and English and German magazines.

The Lagos Cultural Centre has regular art and photographic exhibitions in their rooms, and holds Concerts, Ballet, poetry readings, symposiums and theatrical performances in the auditorium. Some of these events are purely local, but national and international organisations attend as well.

Another open-air auditorium, set within the west walls, also holds entertainments in the summer.

Art, historic and photographic exhibitions are also held in the historic slave market, the Forte da Ponta de Bandeira on the sea front and in the Military Armazen4.

There is a Music Festival throughout the Algarve in the late spring, when visiting ensembles give concerts in the Cultural Centre and the local churches.

There is a local orchestra and brass marching band.

There is a two-screen cinema that shows current films, with their original soundtracks and Portuguese sub-titles, unless they are children's cartoons, when they are dubbed. A further cinema is in Praia da Luz.

There are numerous restaurants and take-aways, offering a wide variety of menus from the humble, but generous, Portuguese, to the exotic Far East. There are many bars and discotheques to keep you entertained in the evening.

Local community sports include car rallies, cycling races, yacht races, half-marathons, pigeon races, cross-country races, endurance horse rides, Petanque5, handball, roller-skate racing and, of course, football. However, the tourist will usually be unaware of the many things going on, as they are only advertised in Portuguese.

Things to see

The oldest inner town walls and the Governor's Palace were much reconstructed in the 1960's, but are believed to define the original Roman-built settlement. Within the entrance arch is a small room, which is declared to be the birthplace of Lagos's home born saint, São Gonçalo. His statue stands on the cliffs above the Yacht Club and the harbour entrance. The Manuelin window, from which King Sebastian viewed the troops, overlooks the gardens next to the parish church of St. Mary and the square commemorating Prince Henry the Navigator.

The outer town walls date to the 17th century. The east 'wall' of the city is the river and sea. The main car park and justice court is backed by the old sea wall. Here ships used to tie up to take on water, which was brought in from the north by aqueduct to the square in front of the town hall. The old lifeboat house is also stranded inland on this wall as a lot of reclamation has been carried out to provide the riverside promenade and dual carriageway of the Avenida dos Descobrimentos (Avenue of Discoveries).

Beside the main parish churches of São Sebastian and Santa Maria da Misericordia, there are several other churches and monasteries within the city walls. The most interesting of these is that of Santo António. In the top of the entrance arch is an unusual sculpture of the nursing virgin, the Child at her breast. The altarpiece, which survived the earthquake, is a glorious riot of gold leaf. In the floor is the resting place of Hugo Beatty, an Irishman who once was the Commander of the garrison. The entrance to the privately run Lagos Museum is in this church. Alongside Archaeological items of note from Lagos, Luz and Boca do Rio, traditional tools of local crafts, and Ecclesiastical robes, ornaments and archives are preserved oddities such as a two-headed kitten and eight-legged goat.

The monasteries of São Francisco, Carmo and Trinidade are all in ruins and permission has to be sought for a visit to the latter two. The G.N.R.6 stables occupy the remnants of the Franciscan Monastery. The Church of São João Batista is outside the walls, as already mentioned.

The caravel, Boa Esperança7, a replica of the 15th century ships that fore fronted the Portuguese discoveries, is sometimes moored outside the Marina and is open for visitors. This ship is now owned by three of the local councils, and as well as visiting each in turn, is also used to promote the area at International Tourism Fairs. In 2003, she journeyed to London.

One of the historic buildings most often pointed out is the 15th century Slave Market. Built by Lançerote de Freitas, one of the foremost merchants and sheriff of the town around the 1440s, the open arched ground floor is said to have witnessed the first public auction of African Slaves in Europe.

The Forte da Ponta da Bandeira, just within the harbour mouth, was built in the 17th century to guard the bar of the river. This now houses exhibitions of archaeological and historic content.

Lagos has a wide variety of street art, from the naturalistic statues of Prince Henry the Navigator, Gil Eanes and São Gonçalo to the enigmatic statue of El-Rei Sebastião by the sculptor João Cutileiro; the roundabouts of the Caravel, its sails sheets of fountaining water, the eclectic seven giant chairs of the council of the revolution8, the weird ball and square and the naturalistic scenes of rocks and gnarled olive trees; the fountains and underlying it all, the decorative mosaic work, calçada9, of the walkways, squares and promenades.

In summer, street musicians and artists entertain the crowds, and gipsy traders sell clothing and costume jewellery.

South of the city a road stretches down to the lighthouse of Ponte de Piedade. On the west are several gullies that lead down to small hidden beaches within the sandstone cliffs. Under the Ponte de Piedade are grottos, caves and stacks carved out by the sea, the destination of many of the available boat trips.

Things to do

For those whose interests are afloat, there are boat trips, parasailing, dolphin watching, deep-sea fishing trips and tours of the grottoes that lie beneath the Ponte de Piedade. For the even more active, windsurfing boards can be hired at many of the larger beaches. There are opportunities for divers to explore the seabed, but you must bring your certificates to enable you to participate.

The West Coast is ideal for surfing in the atlantic rollers from deserted beaches.

There is a microlight centre at the Municipal aerodrome.

For those who prefer to keep their feet on dry land there are three golf courses in the area, two bowling greens, an archery field, tennis courts and squash courts. There are arranged nature walks, led by an Algarvian society, and other nature and bird-watching tours. The Algarve Archaeological Society sometimes has field trips in the area.

There are two horse-riding centres in the area, both approved by the Association of British Riding Schools and the Federação Equestre Portuguesa, the National Equestrian Federation.

There is a local Zoo, seven kilometres north of town.

If you want to do nothing at all, but just laze in the sun, there are beaches of all shapes and sizes, from the long sandy stretch of Meia Praia to the small cliff-bound hideaways of the Ponte de Piedade. Remember that the sea is not the sheltered Mediterranean, but the cold Atlantic Ocean.

Further afield, but easily reachable with transport, are the Water Slide parks, and the Marine Zoo. Each is a good choice for a day out, especially if you have children with you.


There are four large supermarkets for general shopping and a quantity of smaller ones; also butchers, bread and patisserie shops and small general grocers and greengrocers. There are also two municipal markets open to 3pm for meat, fish and vegetables, except Sunday, and on Saturdays, a farmer's market for local produce and live chicks, ducklings, chickens and rabbits, held next to the bus station.

Boutiques, shoe and leather shops, jewellers, china shops and artisan shops can provide you with gifts and souvenirs. Portuguese wines, Port and liqueurs are best bought at a supermarket. Marzipan, and fig and almond creations are a speciality of the region.

On the first Saturday of the month there is a general fair next to the new football stadium, where the offerings range from shoes and clothing to china and plastic goods - but do inspect your purchases carefully as some of the goods are factory seconds. It is allowable to try a little bargaining, as if you are identified as a tourist the price may be hiked up. As the locals all shop here as well, though, most of the prices will be displayed.

Once a year, in mid-November, the Feira Franca is a far larger occasion. This is the 'Free Fair', covering two days, in the same location as the monthly market, where local produce and artisans' work is also on offer, and there is a section with fun-fair rides.

Getting there

Most people fly direct into the Algarve through Faro airport. From here shuttle buses run to the train and bus stations in Faro.

The Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses (Portuguese Railway) offers a choice of a slow train or a slightly faster one, with fewer stops. The slow train is the most frequent. The fare is reasonably cheap. The train takes about two hours to get to Lagos, which is the end of the line. From the station a walk through the Marina and over a footbridge takes you to the centre of town.

There is also a choice of buses. The most direct is the Expresso. The slowest stops at many villages on the way. The bus station in Lagos is just to the north of the town centre, near the sea front.

The best way to travel throughout the Algarve is with a hire car. There are many firms supplying this service, with desks at the airport, or the car may be pre-booked through your accommodation agent or on-line.

From Faro, take the Via do Infante motorway in the direction of Portimão. This becomes the A22 that will take you all the way to Lagos. At Lagos there are two exits. The first, junction 2, is signed Odeáxere, Lagos Este and brings you out onto the EN125 west of the town of Odeáxere and east of Lagos if you are holidaying at Meia Praia or Odeáxere. The next, junction 1, is signed Lagos Oeste and brings you onto the EN125 west of town, convenient for Praia da Luz and the further westward journey to Sagres and Vila do Bispo.

From Lisbon take the A2, across the April 25th Bridge (no toll heading south) eventually joining the tolled motorway that joins up with the east to west Via do Infante in the Algarve.

Trains and Coaches also run between Lisbon and Lagos.

A Coach can be taken from Victoria Coach Station, London, to Lagos. The journey takes 36 hours and involves a change at, and your own journey across, Paris.

Local transport

Car hire opens up the whole of the west coast to explore. For those who do not intend to travel so far, there is the option of moped, motorbike and bicycle hire.

There are town buses which run a circular route within the town boundaries, and the country buses that go out west to Praia da Luz, Burgau, Vila do Bispo and Sagres; east to Odeáxere, Portimão, Praia da Rocha, Lagoa, Silves and Monchique and north to Barão de São João, Bensafrim and Aljezur.

Taxis are available in the centre of town, and also in the larger villages.

The Portuguese are a friendly nation, and nowadays the younger people are all keen to try out their English on you.

Lagos is still to be reckoned one of the most attractive cities of the highly developed tourist area of the Algarve.


  • Lagos, Evolução Urbana e Patrimonio. Rui M. Paula. Cãmara Municipal de Lagos.
1A carvel built, latten sailed ship.2A distinctive style of architecture developed during the reign of King Manuel I of Portugal.3The News and the Algarve Resident.4The regimental warehouse building, 18th Century.5A type of continental bowling.6Guarda Nacional da Republica, the country police force. The Policia is the town police force.7The Good Hope, named after the caravel which Vasco da Gama sailed to India.8Known as the Carnation Revolution of 25 April, 1974.9A traditional type of coloured cobble stones laid in patterns, much like a larger version of Roman mosaics.

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