Possibly the prettiest town in the Algarve, Tavira is a seaside getaway that has taken tourism in its stride and kept hold of its old character. The town straddles the banks of the Gilão River as it enters the Atlantic at the Ria Formosa natural park.
You can take your time on the old streets and alleys on either side of the river, pausing for a seafood lunch caught only hours before. On the outer shore of the Ria Formosa are the local beaches that you’ll get to on a miniature train, by ferry or water taxi, all in a few minutes flat.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Tavira:
1. Praia do Barril
On the Ilha de Tavira barrier island is a world-class beach.
Praia do Barril has a long and wide belt of white sand, with rows of parasols and sun loungers and a dune system behind.
Children will get a kick out of the journey, as after parking up on the shore you board a miniature train.
This crosses the dunes and creeks until you arrive at the remnants of an old tuna-fishing community.
Their huts and homes are now a beach restaurant and mini museum, while the fishing fleet’s anchors have been planted in the dunes as a monument to the old times.
2. Tavira Castle
The best remnant from the town’s Moorish era, Tavira’s castle has walls dating from the Almoravid dynasty in the 1000s.
It was beefed up later during the Almohad Caliphate in the 12th century, and many of the surviving vestiges are from that time.
You can work out where the walls were made from compacted clay and gravel, and there’s an “albarrana tower” to climb for a complete panorama.
This kind of watchtower, linked to the walls by a stairway, was a signature of Moorish fortresses.
Those are the older elements, while the remainder of the castle was restored after the Reconquista.
You can also observe the town from the walls and pause for a few minutes in the garden, always lovely when the centennial bougainvillea is in bloom.
3. Igreja da Misericórdia
The Renaissance facade of this church demands your attention, and is from the church’s construction in the mid-16th century.
In the central niche is an image of Mary as “Our Lady of Mercy”, flanked by high reliefs of St Peter and Paul.
See the Portuguese coat of arms and the high quality of the stonework on the frieze above the doorway and the pilasters down either side.
Also take a peek at the Renaissance columns inside, with gargoyles as capitals, while there are episodes from the Life of Christ in azulejo panels on the walls.
4. Praia da Ilha de Tavira
The nearest beach to the town also has the most going on.
As the name tells you, it’s on the barrier island isolated from the mainland by a small channel.
The ferry across costs €2 for a return and shuttles back and forth all day.
After landing there’s a short walk past a campsite before you’re confronted by a length of spotless sandy beach that seems to go on forever.
Sun loungers and parasols are spaced thoughtfully apart from the next, and you have a choice of restaurants, many with free Wi-Fi if you can’t resist bragging to your friends.
5. Tavira Camera Obscura
Not to be confused with the “Torre Tavira” in the Spanish city of Cádiz, Tavira has its own camera obscura, set up in a converted water tower.
The tower is from 1931, and stands near the castle and the Igreja Matriz.
After being obsolete for a few decades a camera obscura was installed inside the water tank, using carefully positioned mirrors to project a live image of the town onto a table in the darkened room.
You’ll watch everything happening around Tavira in sparkling clarity and a get a short presentation on the mechanisms that make this possible.
6. Ponte Antiga Sobre o Rio Gilão
Often described as a “Roman bridge”, this structure spanning the River Gilão isn’t quite so old, but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.
The bridge is most likely from Moorish times in the 1100s and then took on its current appearance in the 1600s.
It’s a pedestrian-only crossing and take your time as you go because as it’s a supreme vantage point for Tavira’s riverside mansions and the Praça da República.
There are benches in the niches above the cutwaters where you can appreciate the slow-flowing river and Tavira’s historic townscape.
7. Praça da República
Home to Tavira’s tourist office, and the beginning of any walk around Tavira, the pedestrianised Praça da República has an elegance can’t be matched in the Algarve.
On one side the whitewashed town hall as a beautiful arcade, and on the other there’s a string of bar and restaurant terraces where you can dine alfresco in the evenings or down a shot of coffee by day.
Tucked beside this row is a Moorish horseshoe arch, once part of the castle defences.
8. Jardim do Coreto
You can continue your jaunt around Tavira by entering the Jardim do Coreto, joining Praça da República to the riverfront.
With palms, hardwood trees, flowerbeds and walkways paved with mosaic patterns it’s the ultimate place to take a breather or get your bearings.
The park is also the haunt of elderly locals, locked in animated conversation or playing games of dominos.
Jardim do Coreto is the oldest public park in the town, configured in the 1890s.
The octagonal wrought-iron bandstand that gives the park its name (coreto), was designed in Porto in 1890 and then brought by boat to Tavira.
9. Núcleo Museológico Islâmico
A branch of the Municipal Museum, this exhibition for Tavira’s Moorish period opened in 2012. Digs at manyplaces around Tavira, like the Convento da Graça, Palácio da Galeria and Pensão Netos brought to light an array of artefacts that have been restored and displayed here.
The outstanding piece is the Vaso de Tavira (vase), which has clay figures of men on horseback and musicians on its rim.
But there are many other riveting artefacts like a Moorish capital, ablution sinks, inkwell and a fragment of the Islamic rammed-earth walls.
10. Palácio da Galeria
The main venue for Tavira’s Municipal Museum is a Baroque palace on a site going back to Phoenician times, around 2,600 years ago.
Excavations revealed ritualistic wells dedicated to Baal, their god of storms.
These lie preserved in the basement, along with a small assortment of artefacts in cases around the walls.
The remainder of the museum handles more recent subjects, like local contemporary art, the makeup of the local diet, as well as fishing and folk traditions in Tavira, backed up with photos, movies and costumes.
11. Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo
Beside the castle, this church was started right after Tavira was retaken from the Moors in 1242. It even sits on the very site where the town’s mosque used to be.
The Gothic building stood strong for 500 years until the epochal earthquake in 1755 that toppled monuments all over Portugal.
It was rebuilt with a Baroque design, but the Gothic portal is medieval and dates to the 1300s.
On this ogival arch rise four archivolts above foliate capitals.
Another trace of the older church awaits in the Capela do Senhor dos Passos, from the 1520s with accomplished Manueline masonry in its vaults.
12. Cabanas de Tavira
A breeze from the Taviras, Cabanas is another sweet old town.
You have to pay a visit, as the town sits right in front of the Ria Formosa lagoon.
There are yachts and painted wooden boats anchored in the smooth waters and across the channel you can watch the dunes that form another barrier island.
Avenida Ria Formosa is the place to be in Cabanas, where you can bask in the views on the new boardwalk or dine at a waterside restaurant.
And at the jetty water taxi will ferry you to the island opposite, where there’s yet another paradisiacal Blue Flag beach.
13. Ria Formosa
Also at Cabanas de Tavira you’ve got to catch a boat for a cruise around the eastern side of the Ria Formosa lagoon.
It’s a natural park, sprawling over 170 square kilometres of water channels, islands, salt pans, beaches and shellfish beds.
Ria Formosa is help by the experts as one of the most important wetland sites on earth, with more than 200 bird species that are either permanent residents (purple herons, western swamphens), spend winters here (flamingos) or rest during migrations (spotted redshanks, booted eagles). As well as the diverse birdlife you can also watch fishermen and salt-farmers going about their work in the same way their families have done for generations.
14. Water-Based Fun
Optimal wind speeds, water temperature, and miles of deserted beach combine to gift Tavira some of the best kitesurfing conditions around.
The Eolis school can accommodate absolute newcomers as well as experienced boarders who want to get some serious air-time.
Meanwhile, the other advantage of the Ria Formosa, beyond the natural beauty and ecological wealth, is its calm water and the peace once you get once you escape the main towns.
SUP (stand-up paddleboarding) could have been invented for this environment, and you can float through the park with just the company of loved ones or take a guided tour from a clued-up local guide.
15. Typical Cuisine
To taste Tavira’s heritage you could order an estupeta de atum, either as a snack or a starter.
This is a fresh tuna salad with tuna flakes, onion, green pepper and tomato, seasoned with olive oil and vinegar, piled on a slice of bread.
A tuna main course is mucuma de atum, which features salt-cured tuna fillets paired with a leafy salad.
Arroz de marisco (seafood rice) and cataplana de marisco (seafood stew), are Algarve classics, all the tastier in Tavira for the surplus of fresh shellfish.
And then there’s octopus (polvo), which is caught in large quantities in Tavira and can be deep fried in cakes, grilled or cooked in a risotto.