8 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Olhão
A distinctly North African atmosphere pervades the narrow streets of this attractive and busy fishing port. The flat-roofed houses clustered near the riverfront bear a Moorish design signature, an architectural legacy from the days when Olhão traded goods with Morocco. The town is bereft of any outstanding historic attractions. Instead, you'll find plenty of other fun things to do. Visitors are charmed by Olhão's local character, especially when browsing the bustling harborfront market or strolling lively Avenida da Republica, the main avenue.
Olhão is also an ideal base from which to explore the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa and the sandbank islands of Armona, Culatra, and Farol. The protected natural park is a haven for marine life, and taking a sightseeing cruise is the best way to appreciate this wonderful and fragile habitat. For sunseekers, the island beaches are peaceful and secluded and practically untouched by tourism.
It's often still dark when Olhão's market begins trading, and if you arrive before dawn, you can watch groups of grizzled fishermen landing their catch on the harbor side. Business starts early here, and by sunrise, locals are already gathering for the best buys. The covered market is divided between two early 20th-century redbrick buildings, each distinguished by onion-domed corner turrets. One houses the fish market, the other sells meat, fruit, and vegetables. By mid-morning both are bustling. The choice of fish and seafood is bewildering. Marble-topped tables groan under the weight of gleaming tuna, sea bass, and the ubiquitous sardine. Opposite, in the second hall, the entire Algarve countryside looks like it's for sale. Look out for specialties like juicy fig and golden pumpkin. For a real treat come on a Saturday morning, when outside stalls line the quay and tempt customers with flowers and homemade jams.
Address: Avenida 5 de Outubro, Olhão
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Olhao
2 Quinta de Marim
Olhão lies on the boundary of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, and three kilometers east of the town center is Quinta de Marim, the park's headquarters. The rather basic facility doubles up as an environmental educational center and is located within the protected reserve. The tranquil setting is ideal walking territory, and you can spend several hours following a signed nature trail from the car park that meanders through conifer woodland, coastal dunes, and past mudflats, saltmarsh, and freshwater lagoons. An interesting archaeological feature along the way is an ancient tide mill, the last of 30 that used to operate on the Ria Formosa. Farther along are the remains of five Roman salting tanks dating from the 2nd century. The park is a birder's paradise, and squadrons of white stork can often be seen overhead, spiraling on a thermal. Among the many resident wading birds is the rare purple gallinule; a seasonal treat is the greater flamingo. Keep your eyes peeled to the ground, too, for appearances by fiddler crab, the harmless viperine snake, and, if you're really lucky, the Mediterranean chameleon. The trail eventually loops back to the visitor's center.
Location: Approximately three kilometers east of Olhão town center, just of the EN125 highway.
3 Parque Natural da Ria Formosa
One of the most important wetlands in Europe and a prize attraction for tourists who appreciate nature and the outdoors, the protected Ria Formosa Natural Reserve follows 60 kilometers of Algarve coastline, from Praia de Faro to Cacela Velha. A valuable and delicate ecosystem, the lagoon area of marshes, saltpans, islets, and channels are a haven for resident and breeding wetland birds, including the rare purple gallinule. The lagoon waters are also home to numerous species of fish. Sheltering this pristine environment from the Atlantic Ocean is a series of barrier islands - in fact, huge sand dunes - natural anchors for a diversity of flora, and attractive to wildlife such as snakes, toads, and the shy Mediterranean chameleon.
To fully appreciate this beautiful marine park, consider the relaxing Ria Formosa Natural Park Four Islands Boat Trip out of nearby Faro. The boat spends about five hours meandering through the shallows and explores the remote and near-deserted sand dune islands.
4 Nossa Senhora do Rosário
Sightseeing in Olhão old town should include exploration of the parish church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Built between 1681 and 1698 and financed entirely with donations from the local fishermen, this is the town's most prominent historic building. Its whitewashed Baroque façade positively gleams when the sun shines, but it's the external chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos, situated at the back of the church, that tends to catch the public's eye. In a tradition stretching back centuries, women still come here to pray for their men's safety when there is a storm at sea - a display of devotion that's quite moving. Inside, if it's open, visitors can climb the bell tower for inspiring views across the maze of streets and flat-roof terraces that characterize the old town center, and the Ria Formosa beyond.
Address: Praça da Restauração, Olhão
5 Ilha da Armona
Olhão is sheltered from the open sea by a series of barrier islands - flat narrow bars of sand that are part of the protected Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. One of these is Ilha da Armona, a pristine nine-kilometer sand bar that's reached by ferry from the town's waterfront. A popular summer destination for day-trippers, Armona Island is scattered with holiday homes and a number of cafés. Otherwise, it's the swathes of gloriously soft, white sand that draw visitors, and the further away from the ferry pontoon you walk, the less likely you'll be sharing the beach with anyone else. Pack a picnic and plenty of sunscreen.
6 Ilha da Culatra
The ferry from Olhão links the town with a number of barrier islands - long, narrow strips of sand that shelter the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa from the open sea. Culatra is one of the busier islands: Culatra village, on the eastern tip of the spit, has a resident population of around a thousand souls. The islanders eschew the trappings of modern life (there are no cars here) and maintain a more traditional way of life that charms visitors. Fishing is the mainstay, which is probably why the seafood restaurants are among the best in the Algarve. Another endearing feature is the beach - a long strip of white sand as soft as velvet.
7 Ilha do Farol
A lofty, scarlet-topped lighthouse (farol) is the landmark feature of this popular vacation destination. Confusingly, Farol is still part of Ilha da Culatra - the western tip of the island is where the lighthouse is situated, so locals refer to the area as "Ilha do Farol." Tourism here is well established, and a regular ferry service runs from Olhão and Faro. Clusters of holiday homes lie near the jetty, served by some excellent restaurants. The sweeping beach is noted for its lively cafés, which are a magnet for teenagers.
8 Museu da Cidade
Olhão's jaunty City Museum is housed in an 18th-century manor house that once served as the headquarters of the Maritime Commission and is of considerable architectural merit. The museum's collection is, in effect, an illustrative history of the town and the immediate vicinity. A modest but appealing miscellany of archaeological finds displayed on the ground floor includes Bronze-Age pots, fragments of Iron-Age tools, and Roman and Islamic vases. Upstairs, Olhão's industrial and seafaring heritage is explored through a variety of artifacts, items such as 19th-century fishing tackle and equipment, oil presses, and a display of model fishing boats. Vintage black-and-white photographs of Olhão and its townsfolk decorate the walls.
Address: Praça da Restauração, Olhão
Exploring More Must-See Sights in the Algarve
Portugal's southernmost province is a delight to discover at any time of the year. Known for its world-class beaches and upscale resorts, the Algarve is also home to several historic towns you shouldn't miss, places like Tavira, Lagos, and Portimão. The Algarve's cultural clout is reinforced by some of Portugal's greatest monuments, among them several impressive castles. Leisure options, meanwhile, include a bewildering choice of top-rated golf courses. To get the most out of your trip and to plan your journey, check our Portugal itineraries page.