The capital of the Algarve is a versatile city that will attract people for different reasons. As a coastal town it’s easy to indulge in the eternal joys of sunshine, beaches, bars and great seafood. But there’s also a rare natural environment just offshore, a lagoon with a maze of waterways between islands.
The Ria Formosa as it’s known is a habitat for the most diverse and colourful birdlife you could hope to see, and the shellfish farmed in these waters doesn’t have to travel far to Faro’s enticing seafood restaurants. Plus, captured within Faro’s ancient walls is a peaceful old town full of the city’s top landmarks.
Lets explore the best things to do in Faro:
1. Faro Cathedral
This monument was started in 1251, just two years after Faro had been “reconquered” from the Moors.
That explains the warlike appearance of the facade, dominated by a square Gothic tower, one of the few things that dates back to the cathedral’s earliest years.
You can scale this tower to gaze over Faro’s streets and the lagoon.
The remainder of the building has changed because of an attack by the English in the 1596, razing almost everything.
In the 17th and 18th century the interiors were enriched with the luxurious gilded woodwork and tile panels that were in style.
The altar and side chapels gleam with gold, and the walls of the choir have multi-coloured azulejos.
2. Arco da Vila
In 1812 old Faro’s waterside gateway was given a striking Neoclassical redesign.
This was done by the Italian architect Francisco Xavier Fabri, giving Faro’s seafaring visitors a stately welcome.
There are pediments, a balustrade, pinnacles and a belfry, on top of which is a permanent stork’s nest.
Just above the portal you can see a statue of St Thomas Aquinas in an alcove.
This opening in Faro’s walls goes all the way back to Moorish times, and as you pass through the gateway that 1,000-year-old stonework is still visible.
3. Cidade Velha
You could use this arch by the marina to enter Faro’s old town, which is night and day compared to the rest of the city.
This enclave is much quieter, with calçada portuguesa, whitewashed houses roofed with terracotta tiles, and sequestered little squares where you might discover solitary restaurants.
Make for the beautiful plaza in front of the cathedral, which has rows of orange trees.
The episcopal palace on this square is the former home of Faro’s bishops and dates to the 16th-century.
There are occasional exhibitions inside, and you have to go in to see the oriental-style library and stairway decorated with tiles.
4. Ria Formosa Cruise
The coast of Faro is a nature reserve protecting an immense lagoon that runs along the coast for 60 kilometres.
The Ria Formosa is where natural splendour and traditional modes of life are safeguarded.
The birdlife is as rich as it gets and includes flamingos, razorbills, spoonbills, storks, ospreys, stilts, shanks and the florid purple swamphen.
You can take a nature-spotting trip on an old tuna-fishing barge, and may catch a glimpse of traditional industries; some fishers still use Portuguese waterdogs, and you’ll see the enormous farms cultivating mussels, oysters and clams.
5. Island Beaches
The lagoon’s outer islands are trimmed with golden sandy beaches.
And since the only way to reach them is by boat, these beaches are completely unspoiled.
On quieter days there are no signs of human life beyond the lighthouse and small isolated communities on the Ilha da Culatra.
You can catch a ferry out to Ilha da Culatra, or see Ilha Barreta (also known as Ilha Deserta) on a guided boat trip.
And if you’d prefer to spend a whole day on the beach you could also organise a drop off and pickup at a given time with a motorboat company.
6. Igreja do Carmo
Built in the middle of the 18th century, this church is among the Algarve’s most prized historical monuments.
It’s has all the hallmarks of Portuguese baroque architecture, and the best sculptors in the region were recruited to craft its gilded woodwork.
Check out the stained glass and tilework inside, before moving on to the church’s creepy ossuary.
The Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) is from 1816 and displays the bones of more than 1,200 monks from the Carmelite cemetery.
They line the walls and vault to remind worshippers of the ephemeral nature of human existence.
7. Faro Municipal Museum
This is the second oldest museum in the Algarve, opening in 1894 on the 500th anniversary of the birth of Henry the Navigator.
In 1969 it moved to its current home, the 16th-century Nossa Senhora Assunção convent, and the cloister is a solemn home for the museum’s archaeological displays.
The bulk of the collection is from the Roman period, and there are several inscribed stones, a mosaic from the 2nd century and, best of all, a pair of marble busts of Emperor Hadrian and Agrippina.
The remainder of the exhibits tend to be religious works assembled from dissolved monasteries and churches around Faro.
8. Muralhas de Faro
The walls that continue to encircle the compact old town have primitive, pre-Roman origins.
During this empire they were beefed up, and later restored twice during the Moorish period in the 9th and then the 12th century.
This second phase, during the Almohad Caliphate, gave us the Arco do Repouso (Arch of Rest), which remarkably is still standing.
Along with Arco da Porta Nova and Arco da Vila, it’s one of the three gateways used in medieval times.
See if you can locate the tile panels that are installed in front of the walls and recount events like the city’s liberation in 1249 by Afonso III.
9. Museu Marítimo Almirante Ramalho Ortigão
It’s always interesting to learn how life used to be in the Algarve before it was a tourist destination.
This museum shows you just that, and is set in the port authority buildings and founded back in 1931. There’s an introduction here to the marine species off these shores, like tuna, squid and sardines, and the story of Faro’s once prosperous fishing industry.
Also on show are some archaeological discoveries, and shelves and display cases packed with authentic navigation instruments and model ships.
10. Praia de Faro
This beach is one you can get to by road.
It’s just past the airport, and you can use the bus that serves the airport from the centre of Faro to get there.
As with the beaches on the islands of the Ria Formosa, there’s a seemingly endless length of pristine golden sand with knee-high waves.
Where the road crosses the lagoon there’s a clutch of hotels and bars, so you’ll have no shortage of facilities in the busier areas.
But if you value seclusion you won’t have to walk too far before you’re on an empty patch.
11. Milreu Roman Remains
Hundreds of years of history are waiting to tell their tale on this hillside less than ten minutes up from Faro.
It began with a lavish country villa in the 300s and a lot of the foundations and lower floor survive.
There are mosaics with bold fish motifs that look almost new, and the inner-workings of the baths.
The estate had agricultural facilities, like oil and wine presses, as well as a temple that was turned into a Christian place of worship in the 500s.
Later the Moors also used the site until the 900s, and there’s evidence of a cemetery from their occupation.
12. Palácio de Estói
Close to the Roman ruins is an opulent palace that was started in 1840. The style is a kind of Rococo pastiche: The insides have frescos framed by lots of moulded stucco, and the terraced gardens have a monumental stairway and a cute pavilion with blue and white azulejo panels.
This whole site was a ruin until a few years ago when it was sensitively restored and reopened as a pousada (heritage hotel). But day-trippers can still come for guided tours of the palace and its refined gardens.
13. Centro Ciência Viva do Algarve
A rainy-day activity if you’re holidaying with impatient kids, this hands-on science centre has live animals and exhibits to engage young minds.
There’s a touch pool here with species of fish and shellfish living in the Ria Formosa.
Children will also be invited to hold a scorpion or a tarantula, and you might find that they’re braver than grown-ups at this activity! Other exhibits here deal with astronomy, tectonic plates and earthquakes, kinetic energy and tides, all in an interactive manner.
14. Forum Algarve
Another option when the weather isn’t cooperating is this sizeable shopping mall in Faro’s western outskirts.
It has all of the shops you’d encounter on an Iberian shopping street, so expect brands like Zara, Bershka, fnac, Oysho and Pull & Bear that are all creeping across Europe at the moment.
As well as a large food court there’s a multi-screen cinema at the mall.
And one of the useful things about Portuguese theatres is that, unless stated otherwise with a DOB label, all movies have English sound and Portuguese subtitles.
15. Local Cuisine
The shellfish beds in the Ria Formosa are the source of a few gastronomic specialities.
Caldeirada is a warming Portuguese fish and seafood stew, and will have whitefish like cod, hake or flounder, oily fish like tuna, squid, and locally-produced shellfish such as clams and mussels.
Those farms also give us arroz de lingueirão, which is a simmered rice dish made with razor clams.
Oysters are always best unadulterated, and will be presented with nothing more than a wedge of lemon and glass of white wine.