“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 travelled nearly 6,000 miles (9,656.06 km) 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 US 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 flavour.
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 the 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, the border city between Portugal and Spain, on the right bank of the Guadiana River. This destination was planned during Portugal’s “Age of Enlightenment” and features neoclassical buildings and symmetrical, Pombaline blocks (akin to Lisbon). Nothing in California compares.
A guide to spending time in the ‘California of Europe’
Then again, 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.
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 bevvy 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.
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 US 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.
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.
Bela Vista Hotel & Spa: This 19th-century, Moorish-style family home-turned-hotel provides gated privacy within a walkable neighbourhood 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 flavour combinations and techniques. Trip: Try the salad with smoked greens.
Sushi Pearl: This upscale sushi spot serves just-caught local fish with Portuguese flourishes.
Vista: Expect an unparalleled, Michelin-starred dining experience focused on seafood and vegetables.
Grand House: A Belle Epoque-style bar where you can say your favourite 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 is discoverable with a guide created by the owners of the Modernist Hotel. (There’s an in-room copy for hotel guests’ use.)
Morgado do Quintão: Come for the wine tasting and a romantic afternoon, and 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 jewellery inspired by the techniques, people, and landscapes of Jaipur.
Loulé Design Lab: Local artisans make and sell unique clothing, jewellery, and crafts here.
(Hero and feature image credit: Rui Carvoeiras/Getty Images)
This story first appeared on travelandleisure.com