The capital of the Algarve is a multifunctional city that attracts people for different reasons. As a coastal city, you can easily indulge in the timeless fun of sun, beaches, bars and delicious seafood. But there is also a rare natural environment offshore, a lagoon with a labyrinth of waterways between islands.
Ria Formosa is known to be home to some of the most diverse and colorful birdlife you can hope to see, and shellfish raised in these waters don’t have to travel far to Faro’s tempting seafood restaurants. Also, captured within Faro’s ancient city walls is a peaceful old town filled with the city’s top landmarks.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Faro:
1. Faro Cathedral
The monument was built in 1251, just two years after Faro was “reconquered” from the Moors.
This explains the belligerent appearance of the facade, dominated by square Gothic towers, one of the few things dating back to the cathedral’s earliest years.
You can climb this tower and overlook the streets and lagoons of Faro.
The rest of the building was altered as a result of the British attack in 1596, razing almost everything.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the interiors feature sumptuous gilded woodwork and stylish tiled panels.
The altar and the adjacent chapel shone with golden light, and the walls of the choir were colorfully varnished.
2. Arco Davila
In 1812, the waterside portal of Old Faro underwent a striking neoclassical redesign.
Completed by Italian architect Francisco Xavier Fabbri, it offers a solemn welcome to Faro’s seafaring visitors.
There are gables, balustrades, minarets and bell towers, topped by a permanent stork’s nest.
Just above the portal you can see the statue of St. Thomas Aquinas in the niche.
This opening in Faro’s city wall dates back to Moorish times, and as you walk through the gate, you can still see the 1,000-year-old stonework.
3. Cidade Velha
You can use this arch next to the marina to enter Faro’s old town, which is day and night compared to the rest of the city.
This enclave is much quieter, with calçada portuguesa, whitewashed houses with terracotta roofs, and little isolated squares where you might find lonely restaurants.
Head to the beautiful square in front of the cathedral, which is lined with orange trees.
The Bishop’s Palace on this square is the former residence of the Bishop of Faro, which dates back to the 16th century.
There are occasional exhibitions inside, and you have to go in and see the oriental-style library and the stairs decorated with tiles.
4. Ria Formosa Cruise
Faro Coast is a nature reserve that protects a huge lagoon that stretches 60 kilometers along the coast.
Ria Formosa is a place to preserve natural beauty and traditional way of life.
Birds are diverse, including flamingos, razorbirds, spoonbills, storks, ospreys, stilts, calves and showy purple swans.
You can take a nature tour on an old tuna fishing barge and maybe glimpse a traditional industry; some fishermen still use Portuguese water dogs, and you’ll see huge farms for mussels, oysters and clams.
5. Island Beach
The outer islands of the lagoon are dotted with golden sand.
Since the only way to reach them is by boat, these beaches are completely unspoiled.
On quiet days, there is no sign of human life except for the lighthouse and isolated small communities on Ilha da Culatra.
You can take a ferry to Ilha da Culatra, or visit Ilha Barreta (also known as Ilha Deserta) on a guided boat tour.
If you want to spend the whole day on the beach, you can also arrange transfers with the jet ski company at the given times.
6. Igreja do Carmo
Built in the mid-18th century, this church is one of the most precious historical monuments in the Algarve.
It has all the hallmarks of Portuguese Baroque architecture and employs the best sculptors in the region for its gilded woodwork.
Before heading to the church’s creepy ossuary, check out the stained glass and tiles inside.
Capela dos Ossos (Church of Bones) was built in 1816 and displays the bones of more than 1,200 monks from the Carmelite cemetery.
They line the walls and vaults to remind worshippers of the ephemeral nature of human existence.
7. Faro City Museum
This is the second oldest museum in the Algarve, opened in 1894 on the 500th birthday of Henry the Navigator.
In 1969, it moved to its current home, the 16th-century monastery of Nossa Senhora Assunção, while the cloister is the stately home of the museum’s archaeological displays.
Most of the collection is from the Roman period, there are also several stones with inscriptions, mosaics from the 2nd century, and most importantly, a pair of marble busts of Emperor Hadrian and Agrippina.
The rest of the exhibits tend to be religious works assembled from defunct monasteries and churches around Faro.
8. Faro Murals
The walls that continue to surround the compact old town have original pre-Roman origins.
During this empire they were strengthened and later restored twice during the Moorish period of the 9th and 12th centuries.
The second stage, during the Almohad Caliphate period, gave us the Arco do Repouso (Arch of Rest), which still stands.
Along with Arco da Porta Nova and Arco da Vila, it is one of three portals used in the Middle Ages.
See if you can find the tile panels installed in front of the wall and tell of events like Alfonso III’s liberation of the city in 1249.
9. Museu Marítimo Almirante Ramalho Ortigão
It’s always interesting to learn about life in the Algarve before it became a tourist destination.
This museum shows you that, housed in the Port Authority Building, which was built in 1931. Here are the marine species of these coasts such as tuna, squid and sardines, as well as stories of the once thriving fishing industry in Faro.
Also on display are archaeological finds, as well as shelves and display cases filled with authentic navigational instruments and model ships.
10. Faro Beach
This beach is the one you can reach by road.
It’s right next to the airport and you can get there using the bus from Faro city center to the airport.
Like the beaches on Ria Formosa Island, there is a seemingly endless stream of pristine golden sand and knee-high waves.
There are many hotels and bars where the road crosses the lagoon, so you won’t be short of amenities in a busy area.
But if you value seclusion, you don’t have to go very far to get into the open.
11. Milreu Roman ruins
Hundreds of years of history are waiting to tell their stories on a hillside less than ten minutes from Faro.
It started as a luxury country house in the 300’s, with many foundations and lower floors surviving.
Mosaics with bold fish motifs look almost new, as well as the inner workings of the bathroom.
The estate has agricultural facilities such as 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 is evidence that they occupied a cemetery.
12. Estoi Palace
Near the Roman ruins is a magnificent palace, built in 1840. The style is a rococo imitation: the frescoes inside are made of many moulded stuccoes, the terraced gardens have a huge staircase and a lovely gazebo with blue and white azulejo panels.
This entire site was in ruins until a few years ago, when it was sensitively restored and reopened as a pousada (heritage hotel). But day-trippers can still come and visit the palace and its exquisite gardens.
13. Centro Ciência Viva do Algarve
If you’re vacationing with impatient kids, it’s a rainy day activity, and this hands-on science center has live animals and exhibits to keep the youngsters’ attention.
There is a touch pool with a variety of fish and shellfish living in Ria Formosa.
Children are also invited to hold a scorpion or tarantula, and you may find them braver than adults in this activity! Other exhibits here deal interactively with astronomy, tectonic plates and earthquakes, kinetic energy and tides.
14. Algarve Forum
Another option when the weather is bad is this large shopping centre in the western suburbs of Faro.
It has all the stores you’ll encounter on an Iberian shopping street, so expect brands like Zara, Bershka, fnac, Oysho and Pull & Bear to be spreading across Europe right now.
In addition to the large food court, there is a multi-screen cinema in the mall.
One useful thing about Portuguese cinemas is that all movies have English sound and Portuguese subtitles unless otherwise stated on the DOB label.
15. Local Food
Ria Formosa’s shellfish beds are the source of some gourmet specialties.
Caldeirada is a warm Portuguese fish and seafood stew that includes white fish such as cod, cod or flounder, oily fish such as tuna and squid, and locally produced shellfish such as clams and mussels.
The farms also provided us with arroz de lingueirão, a rice stew made with razor clams.
Oysters are always best straight, and only come with a wedge of lemon and a glass of white wine.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Faro, Portugal
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