Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Faro
Faro is the largest city in the province, and the gateway to southern Portugal. Lying on the coast overlooking the shallow lagoons of the protected Ria Formosa Natural Park, this is a destination blessed with rich cultural wealth and a stunning location. Faro's history is compelling. The Romans called it Ossonoba, and their legacy is tangible. But the greatest historical monuments date from the 16th and 17th centuries and are clustered together within the walls of the Old Town. Proud of its maritime heritage, Faro remains a busy and colorful port. From the marina, fishing boats and pleasure craft ply the narrow channels that meander towards the open sea, passing dense marshland and deserted islands. The wetlands are among Europe's most important natural habitats and attract a dazzling array of seabirds and other wildlife.
Tourists, meanwhile, are drawn to the city's eclectic choice of visitor attractions, traditional restaurants and inexpensive shopping. The cafés lining the harbor esplanade are favorite rendezvous points. And nearby golf courses and some fabulous beaches are irresistible leisure options.
See also: Where to Stay in Faro
Exploring Faro's compact Old Town is the ideal way to get to know the Algarve's capital city. Encircled by dusty medieval walls built over Roman foundations, the vicinity is a veritable history book of visitor attractions, a pleasing page-turner that introduces the city's venerable but sometimes turbulent past. The Arco da Vila provides a suitably grand entrance, a 19th-century gateway, the portico of which is Moorish in origin. Cobbled pedestrian streets scented by rows of orange trees make Cidade Velha blissful to explore on foot, and all roads lead to Largo da Sé where Faro's squat, chunky cathedral takes center stage. Lying opposite in the same square is Paço Episcopal, the bishops' palace. Unfortunately, this handsome 18th-century building is not open to the public. A short amble away though is the absorbing Museu Arqueológico whose convent setting only adds to its allure. Accessible, too, is a section of the wall that overlooks the tranquil Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. And dotted throughout this historical neighborhood are several cafés and a number of restaurants where sightseers can relax and enjoy the scene.
Location: East of the city center near the marina.
Built on the site of an Arab mosque, Faro Cathedral was consecrated in the late 13th century, but successive facelifts have added Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque features that lend the building's exterior a rather haphazard look. Its near destruction in 1596 after an attack by the English didn't help either, but by the mid-1600s it was looking considerably more attractive, especially inside. The interior holds the eye with a glittering chancel coated with azulejos panels and the Capela de Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres, an ornate chapel dripping with gilded and lacquered wood carvings and inlaid marble. Take time, too, to mull over the incongruous Chinese motifs that adorn the church's 18th-century organ. Topping it all is the view from the medieval belltower. From the terrace, you can soak up a fine estuary seascape and almost touch the beady-eyed seagulls that glide effortlessly overhead. Note that sometimes the cathedral is inexplicably closed, usually with a hand-written explanation pinned to the door that translates as: "Please respect our privacy - we are praying!"
Location: Largo da Sé, Faro
Also referred to as the Museu Municipal, this outstanding and award-winning cultural showpiece benefits from its integration within the former 16th-century convent of Nossa Senhora da Assunção; the beautiful Renaissance cloister alone is worth discovering. Arranged chronologically, the permanent collection spans prehistory and the Roman, Moorish, and medieval periods, plus the 18th and 19th centuries. Roman artifacts unearthed at nearby Milreu are given suitable prominence, but as you silently browse each gallery, look out for the delicately crafted Arab oil lamps, some of which resemble Popeye's pipe. The finely carved Manueline statuary will resound with admirers of 16th-century sculpture, but the "must-see" exhibit is the enormous Roman floor mosaic featuring a fierce looking Neptune that dates from around the 3rd century AD. This is a very pro-active facility, and museum staff are happy to explain a piece in more detail if asked. You might also have to share the floor with throngs of visiting school children, as this is a popular field study venue.
Address: Largo Dom Afonso II, Faro
Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Carmo
Away from the Old Town, Faro's city center is landmarked by the 18th-century Carmo Church. The striking and much-photographed twin-towered façade of this Baroque beauty dominates the neighborhood, and is as much a site of devotion for locals as a sightseeing prize for tourists. A wander inside reveals an impressive altarpiece, glistening with gold leaf from Brazil, and an ornamented sacristy. But there's a more ghoulish attraction behind the church, the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones). Built in the 19th century, the chapel's interior is lined with the remains of nearly 1,250 monks' skulls and other bones arranged in bizarre symmetry that decorate the walls and even the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The bones were removed from the friars' cemetery in 1816, a practice common throughout Catholic Europe at that time when skeletons were used to embellish ossuaries. The largest and best-known bone chapel in Portugal is at Évora, in the Alentejo.
Location: Largo do Carmo, Faro
Centro Ciência Viva do Algarve
Traveling with children? They'll love the Algarve Live Science Center. This engaging activities center is geared towards promoting technological and scientific awareness in a fun-filled way. Kids can take part in easy-to-play interactive games and experiments like getting to grips with the earthquake simulator and climbing up into an observatory for a voyage around the universe. One of the aquariums has a touch pool representing the nearby Ria Formosa. Elsewhere, there is a gallery dedicated to the senses and another explains the phenomena of light. Outside, a garden with greenhouse has been designed to highlight renewable energy solutions, and there's a play park for tots. Supervised by an enthusiastic (and patient) staff of qualified teachers, most of whom speak several languages including English, youngsters will be kept amused for hours, finding out more about physics and the environment in an engrossing and highly original manner. Oh, and parents can learn a thing or two as well.
Address: Rua Comandante Manuel Francisco, Faro
Faro Jewish Heritage Centre
Faro's unique 19th-century Jewish cemetery forms the centerpiece of this unusual and poignant visitor attraction. The cemetery is the only remaining vestige of post-Inquisition Jewish presence in Portugal and is laid out in the traditional Sephardic manner, with children nearest the entrance, women in the center, and men at the back. Most of those interred were returning Jews from Gibraltar and Morocco. Careful restoration has seen the gravestones cleaned and repaired; the earliest marker dates back to 1838. In one corner of the cemetery stands a tiny museum housing items that illustrate the city's Jewish heritage and the story behind the founding of the Center. Rare artifacts include furniture salvaged from one of Faro's now obsolete synagogues. There's also a facsimile of Samuel Gacon's 1487 Pentateuch in Hebrew, the first printed manuscript produced in Portugal. Visitors can watch a DVD presentation of the award-winning documentary "Without the Past." Donations are welcome.
Address: Rua Leão Penedo, Faro
Tourists will be stage-struck by this little Italianate gem of a theater. The playhouse was once a Jesuit college, but in 1845, the curtain was raised over its new role as a music and concert hall. In the 1860s, the auditorium was widened, and further restoration in 1901 saw the inclusion of four tiers of boxes replete with wrought iron balconies and a top-floor gallery. The theater's opulent handcrafted interior has led to it being described as a "miniature La Scala", and the rich, classical ambiance is tangible. However, lack of funding means the once frequent program of plays, concerts, and recitals has diminished, and Lethes is, sadly, often closed for months. But the historical venue hasn't been abandoned and still hosts occasional entertainment. Faro's tourist office can provide more details. Otherwise, sightseers can ring the theater's front door bell and, if lucky, will be invited by the custodian to take a quick peek inside.
Address: Rua da Portugal 58, Faro
Museu do Marítimo Almirante Ramalho Ortigão
Faro's Maritime Museum pays fitting tribute to the Algarve's proud seafaring heritage. It's based in the city's Port Authority building, which overlooks the southwestern corner of the marina, and the whimsical collection of marine ethnography is named in honor of one of the Portuguese Navy's most distinguished admirals. The museum is divided into three separate galleries, each one dedicated to a particular theme. The scale model boat and watercraft are stunning in their detail and feature 15th-century caravels and 18th-century galleons, modern warships, cargo vessels, and fishing trawlers, among others. Ancient charts, navigational instruments, boat-building tools, and other miscellaneous nautical paraphernalia enrich the displays. Of particular note is the recreation in miniature of a vast line of compartment fishing nets that give visitors an idea of how complex sea fishing methods can be. Another striking exhibit is the alarmingly realistic painting by respected Algarve artist, Carlos Porfirio, which depicts thrashing tuna being rounded up by a crew of equally wide-eyed fishermen.
Address: Rua da Comunidade Lusíada, Faro
Ilha de Faro
Many a hot day has been spent languishing on Faro Island. This is the westernmost island of the Rio Formosa, and the only one accessible by car; the single-lane bridge can slow traffic down to a near-standstill during the summer months. Sun seekers are drawn to Praia de Faro - the unbroken bar of soft white sand that forms the island's south coast. Lapped by a crystal-clear sea, this is the nearest beach to the city and is a very popular windsurfing and kitesurfing destination. The other side of the ilha faces a shallow, more sheltered lagoon and is favored by canoeists and kayakers. A single road dissects the island and is lined with holiday homes, a variety of cafés, kiosks, and restaurants flavored with the tantalizing aroma of grilled sardines. A boardwalk at the eastern tip of the island reaches a cluster of ramshackle fishermen's huts where the dunes are more secluded. This is as near to off-season as you'll get.
Location: Approximately ten kilometers northwest of the city, beyond the airport. Take bus 14 or 16 from opposite the bus station.
Where to Stay in Faro for Sightseeing
Many of Faro's attractions are in or close to the winding streets of Cidade Velha, the old town, but most tourists head straight to the beaches that line southern Portugal's Algarve shore. You don't have to choose, because the Ilha de Faro beach is easy to reach. If you have a car, nearby Estoi is a quiet alternative. Here are some highly-rated hotels in Faro:
- Luxury Hotels: The large guest rooms at Pousada Palacio de Estoi, a 10-minute drive from Faro, are in a modern wing overlooking the gardens of the elegant former palace, which also has a pool and spa. Also in the village of Estoi, the lovely old home of Casa de Estoi has bright, airy rooms filled with antiques and art, some with balconies; it also has a pool. Aqua Ria Boutique Hotel is on a quiet pedestrian-only street just across the park from Faro's old town and has transportation to the beaches.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Overlooking the marina near the rail station and old town, Hotel Eva has a rooftop pool and a gym, large rooms with balconies, and complimentary breakfast and parking. Also overlooking the marina and close to the Cidade Velha and station, Hotel Faro has a pool, gym, sauna, and steam room, as well as free transportation to its own beach. An easy walk to the old town, marina, and market, Hotel Sol Algarve serves free breakfast in its courtyard.
- Budget Hotels: At the edge of the old town, beside the main pedestrian shopping street, Stay Hotel serves fresh-squeezed orange juice at breakfast and is handy to restaurants and cafes. A 10-minute walk to the center and only four minutes from the airport bus, Hotel Alnacir includes free parking and breakfast. Somewhat dated but spotless, Residencial Avenida is handy to both the bus and train stations.
Parque Natural da Ria Formosa
Faro is blessed with a subliminal natural asset - the beautiful and pristine Ria Formosa nature reserve. Following 60 kilometers of coastline from Praia de Faro to Cacela Velha, the park encloses 18,000 hectares of lagoons and marshland, saltpans, islets, and channels. These in turn are sheltered from the open sea by a chain of barrier islands - in effect, huge wind-sculpted sand dunes. This valuable and fragile ecosystem is protected and constitutes one of the most important wetland habitats in Europe. Several sightseeing cruises depart daily from Faro and tour the lagoon waters up to Ilha Deserta (Deserted Island). The vessels take passengers through an environment teeming with birdlife, where species like flamingo and spoonbill are regularly sighted. Ilha Deserta has one single restaurant surrounded by swathes of sandy beach, and the lunch is memorable. On dry land, nature trails and cycle paths meander west from Ilha de Faro through pinewoods, around lakes, and past world-class golf courses. If you're fortunate you'll spy some of the residents, creatures like the elusive Mediterranean chameleon or the rare purple gallinule, symbol of the park.
Address: Porta Nova Pier, Faro
A little over ten kilometers north of Faro is the village of Estói and nearby Milreu, one of the most important Roman sites in the Algarve. On a hill surrounded by orange groves, the evocative ruins, which date from the 1st or 2nd century AD, are those of what once was a substantial peristyle villa complex, built around a central courtyard. The property owner would have been someone with obvious wealth and high social ranking given the size of the estate and the several buildings set within it. The foundations are enlivened with some wonderfully detailed geometric mosaics; others feature nautical motifs, notably those illustrated by jumping fish that adorn the bathing chambers. Two marble columns are all that remain of the colonnade that would have supported the roof of the villa, although its cylindrical buttresses are still apparent. Far more visible are the large chunky walls of a temple that overlooks the site. This was later converted into a Christian basilica, probably around the 5th century. The adjoining visitor center displays a series of poker-faced marble busts unearthed during excavations, but the most valuable and interesting artifacts are housed in Faro's Museu Arqueológico.
Location: 1 kilometer west of Estói
The quiet little village of Estói is a mirror image of rural Algarve. Its sleepy pace and traditional character is immediately apparent, with the hourly chime of the church bell the only discernible noise pollution. But the parish can boast a notable visitor attraction, Palacio de Estói. Built in the mid-19th century, the Rococo palace was the former residence of a wealthy landowner and is now a stunning pousada, a hotel of considerable cultural significance. While non-residents can eat at the restaurant, the rest of the property is only accessible to guests - except the gardens, which are open to the general public. The landscaped grounds are laid with flowerbeds that burst into a riot of color in spring. The bouquet is quite heady, especially when fused with the tangy zest from the orange trees dotted along the borders. Swaying palms add an exotic, subtropical element to the environment. The terrace above the gardens is embellished with a pair of stained glass pavilions, and a fountain gurgles contentedly in the center of a spruce lawn.
Address: Rua São José, Estói