In the Eastern Algarve, Olhão da Restauração is a coastal town on the Ria Formasa lagoon. Despite its phenomenal setting Olhão has only recently begun to attract tourists. The ocean and shellfish beds in the lagoon have always been the main source of income, and the fish market in the town is a sight for sore eyes.
You holiday in Olhão will be a whirl of island-hopping voyages to the sandbars that screen the lagoon from the ocean and have perfect beaches with silky golden sand. Each of these islands has its own personality, with little resort enclaves, dunes, whitewashed fishing villages, wild surf or crystal clear lagoon waters.
Lets explore the best things to do in Olhão da Restauração:
1. Ria Formosa
This Natural Park runs 60 kilometres along the Algarve’s coast, and is made up of a gigantic lagoon blocked from the ocean by long barrier islands.
You don’t need to be an ornithologist to be spellbound by the extraordinary birdlife that his lagoon protects: Shanks, storks, spoonbills, stilts, osprey, flamingos and many more all thrive here, and are plentiful in spring and summer.
You can take a guided cruise around the lagoon for photos of these birds, but also to see the shellfish beds, salt farms, rolling dunes, and to spot terrapins swimming in the clear blue waters.
2. Ilha da Culatra
The first of the two barrier islands served by the ferry from Olhão’s harbour is this slice of unspoiled coastal beauty.
After arriving you can potter about the harbour and be won over by the cute whitewashed cottages.
Then head for the dunes, which are traversed by a boardwalk to protect their rare plantlife.
On the oceanfront is several kilometres of natural beach.
Even in summer the beach’s dimensions and remoteness keeps things pretty quiet; there’s just a long column of soft sand, low rolling waves and a few bars and restaurants at the southern end.
3. Mercado de Olhão
Try to visit Olhão’s superb market as early as you can, because it only trades until 13:00each day in this brick hall with a metallic frame.
It’s a cornerstone of daily life in the town and if you have a taste for fish and seafood you’ll need a double-take when you see these counters.
They’re stacked with almost any ocean creature within reason; there are rays, swordfish, eels and species you may never even have heard of.
All will be cleaned and filleted as you prefer.
The non-fish stalls are in a separate hall, and there you’ll be met by tons of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as artisanal goodies like local cakes and honey.
4. Ilha de Armona
Like Culatra, this island can only be reached by boat.
You could take the ferry to the harbour on the landward side, or arrange a drop-off and pick-up time with a water taxi.
For most of the year Armona is almost deserted, and you might find yourself along on a walk.
In summer there’s a lot more going on, with shops where you can hire gear for kite-surfing, a couple of bars and huts renting out sun loungers.
As with Culatra the ocean is mostly safe, but even when the surf is choppy the blue waters of the lagoon are calm and clear.
5. Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário
Olhão’s mutual society for fishermen (Compromisso Marítimo) funded this church, erected at the turn of the 18th century and is opposite their palatial headquarters.
The church took damage during the famous earthquake in 1755, which is why the facade bears the date, 1783, when the reconstructions were completed.
There are five altars inside, all replete with the gilded woodwork en vogue in Portugal in the 18th century.
There’s also a gleaming triumphal arch, and the Rococo image of Nossa Senhora do Rosário is in the ceiling framed by yet more gold.
6. Museu Municipal de Olhão
That Casa do Compromisso Marítimo in front of the cathedral now holds the town’s municipal museum.
This palatial building is also from the 18th century and keeps a lot of the fittings from the time, like the apothecary, which still has its cabinet and ceramic pots.
It’s also no surprise that there’s a maritime thread running through the galleries, whether it’s model fishing boats, navigation equipment, weapons or insights about Olhão’s old canning industry.
There’s some archaeology too, with collections of coins and inscribed stones.
7. Olhão’s Old Quarter
Approaching from the chaotic fishing harbour, Olhão can have quite a rough feel.
But the town is a lot more cultivated once you step in from the waterfront.
This is where the town’s wealthy merchants built their homes in the 1800s, sporting balustrades, pretty tilework and wrought iron balconies.
Praça da Restauração, which has the Nossa Senhora do Rosário church is a great jumping off point.
From here you could idle along Rua do Comércio, a pedestrianised shopping street laid with calçada portuguesa pavement and lined with cafe terraces and local shops.
8. Capela de Nossa Senhora de Soledade
To the rear of the Casa do Compromisso Marítimo is another old building to browse.
This one is older than the previous two, going back to at least the 1600s and was the original church for Olhão’s fishermen, but now used as a pilgrimage and funerary chapel.
The outside is almost free of any kind of ornament, but if you look up at the cross on the roof you’ll see that it now has a stork’s nest under it.
The unassuming facade won’t prepare you for the shining decor inside, with another of those resplendent gilded alters.
Officially part of Olhão, the charming village of Moncarapacho is under ten kilometres to the northeast.
You could park up to explore the whitewashed streets for a few minutes, ducking into the church, browsing the museum if it’s open, and cooling off at a cafe on the central square, under the palm and laurel trees.
The tallest hill in the area, the Cerro de São Miguel rises to the north and reaches more than 400 metres.
You can drive or walk to the top ton gaze out over much of the Algarve’s coastline.
The same kind of distance to the west, Faro is under 15 minutes by road and is somewhere to keep in your plans.
That’s because of the old town, which is encircled by walls that were put up by the Romans and then reinforced by the Visigoths, Moors and then by the Kings of Portugal.
This ancient part of the city has palaces, a monumental gateway and a Gothic cathedral.
There are museums and sights to keep you in Faro for a whole day, like the Igreja do Carmo, which has a 200-year-old ossuary, styled with the skulls and bones of more than 1000 Carmelite monks.
11. Villa Romana de Milreu
It will also be a breeze to get to this fascinating archaeological site in the hills above the coast.
This started out as a magnificent Roman villa, but there’s proof of hundreds of years of habitation, up to the 1000s when it was used as an Islamic cemetery.
Maybe the most exciting remnants belong to the villa, which has traces of marble stonework and painted stucco and best of all, maritime-themed mosaics with images of fish that could come from a modern bathroom.
One structure still standing is a Paleochristian chapel, converted from pagan temple in the 4th century.
12. Palácio de Estói
It’s hard to believe, but this opulent palace, now a pousada, was dilapidated until a few years ago.
The palace goes back to the 1800s and was designed to revive the flamboyant Rococo decor of the century before: The ceilings and walls are full of intricate plasterwork, while the grounds, which visitors are free to roam, are even more opulent.
In front of the palace is a parterre, hemmed by a balustrade and centring on an exquisite fountain.
You can take a ceremonious staircase to the level below to see the pavilion, clad with blue and white azulejos.
13. Monterosa Olive Oil
In the 20 beautiful hectares of the Horta do Felix outside Moncarapacho is an olive grove and mill producing award-winning oils.
Monterosa has been here since the 1960s, while olive trees have been cultivated at this location since Roman times.
A tour of the farm takes 75 minutes and talks you through olive growing, and the oil production process.
Five distinct varieties of olives are cultivated for Monterosa’s oils.
When you taste them you’ll see how distinct these can be, marking the contrast between the peppery cobrançosa and the smooth verdeal.
On any working weekday you can delve into another local industry that goes back hundreds of years.
Cork oak trees are a fixture of the Algarve countryside, and at São Brás de Alportel you can visit a completely modern cork-making facility.
It’s highly recommended, especially if you’re a wine-lover.
You’ll tour the plantation, and will be guided through every stage of production, from bark cultivation to the final product, getting up close to the factory floor at all times.
It’s a hands-on experience too, as you’ll feel the difference between raw, unprocessed cork, and the valuable material that ends up in wine bottles and flooring.
15. Local Food
Another upside of Olhão’s untouristy feel is that it’s impossible not to eat like a local.
And at the main fishing port in the Algarve, the local diet anchored in the ocean.
The cockles, clams and oysters are as fresh as can be as they’re straight out of the Ria Formosa.
Arroz de lingueirão is a rice dish made with razor clams, while squid with beans, while cuttlefish can come deep-fried or prepared in its ink.
And as a former cannery Olhão continues to do a roaring trade in sardines and tuna, two Portuguese staples.