Algarve is the prime Portugal holiday destination, and invokes the horror images of concrete-encrusted coast, seaside promenades filled with tipsy, lobster-red Brits trailing screaming children behind them; fish and chips bars and Full English Breakfast cafes.
This hellish image is largely an overstatement, and even if occasionally true, applies more to the most developed stretch around Quarteira, Albufeira and towards Portimao. As you move west, the coast becomes less developed and correspondingly more pleasant, although in all fairness it's all very much a tourist land. Algarve gets more visitors than the rest of Portugal combined and you can't avoid them, especially on the coast.
Lagos is the last larger town on the Algarve coast before what's essentially the end of Europe at Cabo de Sao Vincente. It's a notable tourist centre, but also a place in its own right, and, particularly out of the highest summer season, can be a good compromise between the concrete strip of the most developed part and the relative wilderness of the west Atlantic coast further down the road.
Lagos has a permanent population of about 20,000 people and in addition to the main Algarvean attraction of beaches has some other attractions for the holidaymaker.
It's an ancient town with a long-standing maritime tradition, in fact, the whole region has strong, and well advertised, connections to Henry the Navigator who spend a lot of time in Lagos and directed his explorations of the high seas from here. The Lagos sea connection has also less savoury aspect, as it was a major centre of the slave trade and in a location of the first slave markets in the 15th century. After Henry's death the Portuguese ruling family somehow lost interest in Lagos and town's fortunes declined. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, but was rebuilt and its historical centre remains an attractive area, great for strolling about and dotted with interesting monuments.
Among the old buildings worth a look is the church of St. Anthony of Lisbon (which largely survived the Great Earthquake of 1755), with fantastically lavish tile and woodcarving decorated interior.
Forte da Ponta da Bandeira guards the entrance to the harbour and can be entered via a drawbridge. There are displays relating to the maritime history of Lagos and Henry the Navigator, while the battlements and the top terrace provide attractive views of the harbour and are now adorned with intricate metalwork mobiles depicting strangely fantastic vessels: steampunk in the wind.
Lagos has a large marina and an attractive promenade by the harbour. The coast west of the town is dotted with dramatic rocky outcrops, lined with high cliffs and grottos. The promenade is normally full of agents selling the grotto boat trips and such a trip is definitely worth taking. The trips vary from a two-hour sightseeing tour to half-day barbecue cruises or fishing trips: take your pick, but go as the rocks viewed from the sea are most impressive.
There are also dolphin and whale watching trips in large Zodiac type inflatables - but the whales are not guaranteed, so it's at your own risk!
Attractive beaches line the coast on both sides of Lagos town. To the east there is Meia Praia, a huge sweep of sandy beach bordered by dunes, to the west there is a sequence of very picturesque coves bordered by rocky cliffs (these are the ones viewed from the boat trip). Of these, Praia Dona Ana is the most beautiful and if you have seen pictures of Algarve coast with impressive rock formations, they were probably of Dona Ana beach.
Past Dona Ana beach a road leads to Ponta da Piedade, with a lighthouse, even more picturesque rocks and a small harbour for the excursion boats. The road train runs from the Lagos marina all the way to Ponta da Piedade and is a very pleasant (if slightly more expensive than the local buses) way to travel about Lagos.
The surrounding area offers a lot of opportunities for sightseeing and activities, from the new local zoo to old castle at Silves and fortress at Sagres.