12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Faro
Faro is the largest city in the Algarve 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.
For more ideas on the best places to visit, read our list of the top attractions in Faro.
See also: Where to Stay in Faro
1. Cidade Velha
Exploring Faro's compact Old Town is one of the most popular things to do and 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 Municipal 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.
2. Sé (Cathedral)
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 bell tower. 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
3. 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 proactive 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
Official site: http://www.patrimoniocultural.gov.pt/
4. 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, salt pans, 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
5. Land Train
The Comboio Turística, or tourist train, provides a novel way for tourists to discover Faro. Departing from Jardim Manuel Bivar in front of the marina, the land train trundles its way past the city's most evocative landmarks and visitor attractions.
The circular route takes around 45 minutes to complete and takes in the Old Town before allowing passengers a glimpse of modern Faro and places like the municipal market (ideal for a later shopping spree). The itinerary also includes the impressive Carmo and São Pedro churches.
The ride is a great option for family groups (youngsters are kept occupied), the elderly, and anyone with tired feet, and is a lovely introduction to the Algarve's regional capital.
Official site: https://www.delgaturis.com/en/
6. 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
7. Milreu and Estoi
A little more than 10 kilometers north of Faro lies 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 was once 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; other vestiges 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 ruined 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 Municipal.
Milreu is set just outside the quiet little village of Estói. Its sleepy pace and traditional character is immediately apparent, 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 landscaped gardens, which are open to the general public.
Address: Rua São José, Estói
8. 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
Official site: www.ccvalg.pt
9. 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
Official site: http://jewish-heritage-europe.eu
10. Teatro Lethes
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 ambience 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
Official site: www.teatromunicipaldefaro.pt
11. Parque Ribeirinho de Faro
Set on 16 hectares of land overlooking the Ria Formosa, Faro's recreational park provides residents and visitors alike pleasant respite from the city's urban hustle and bustle.
Accessed by foot from behind the railway station or from the car park opposite Faro's Algarve Forum shopping mall, the park features a footpath and cycle lane that loops the entire area.
Running parallel to the route is a keep-fit trail. Wildlife enthusiasts, meanwhile, will appreciate the bird observation platforms set at various points along the water's edge.
For kids, there's a fully equipped children's adventure playground to be discovered, and everyone can take advantage of the park's café, which has bathroom facilities.
The whole idea is to get people out and about and back to nature, and the 45-minute circuit works wonders on the legs while affording delightful views of the estuary and its diverse ecosystems.
12. 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.
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 cafés.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you get from Faro airport to Faro?
Faro International Airport is located seven kilometers from the city center.
Buses operated by Próximo depart every 20 minutes or so from outside the arrivals terminal for Faro's main bus terminal.
There is no Metro linking the airport with the city. Taxis are numerous, however, and serve the entire region.
What are the best beach resorts near Faro?
Vale do Lobo: Located 20 kilometers west of Faro city center, Vale do Lobo is a luxury villa resort that nestles under a canopy of fragrant pinewood.
A choice of wellness centers, two championship golf courses, and a world-renowned tennis academy reinforce the resort's exclusive credentials. Several highly regarded restaurants peer over the beach, which is a water sports hot spot.
All amenities are open to nonresidents.
Quinta do Lago: This is the most luxurious beach resort in Portugal.
Occupying a beautiful corner of the Algarve, 15 kilometers west of Faro, the vast residential and recreational resort of Quinta do Lago lures a discerning clientele to its collection of 5-star hotels and several distinguished restaurants.
Five of the region's most celebrated golf courses are located within its boundaries.
A fashionable shopping mall, Quinta Shopping, provides a social hub for residents and nonguests alike.
What are the best golf courses near Faro?
Royal Course: Designed by Rocky Roquemore, the 18-hole, par 72 Royal Course at Vale do Lobo is one of Portugal's most prestigious golf courses.
The layout is a dream to play, and highlights include the almost island green of the 9th and the celebrated 16th, which requires an awesome cliff-top carry over and is one of the most photographed holes in Europe.
San Lorenzo: Regularly cited as one of the best golf courses in Europe, this 18-hole, par 72 layout takes full advantage of Quinta do Lago's undulating topography, much of it bordering the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa.
The 5th hole is arguably the most picturesque, set as it is against a backdrop of golden beaches and the Atlantic Ocean.
But it's the 18th that many players regard as providing one of the most exciting finales experienced anywhere on an Algarve golf course.
Quinta do Lago South: This stunning 18-hole, par 72 layout is a favorite among European Tour professionals.
Playing here is a privilege, and is the reason why many amateur golfers are prepared to wait months to do so.
The 8th, 15th, and 18th are testing holes for low handicap players, but the course's varying degree of difficulty challenges golfers of all levels and abilities.
What are the must-visit destinations near Faro?
Olhão: Approximately 10 kilometers east of Faro lies Olhão.
This is the Algarve's largest fishing port, and pretty much everything here revolves around fish and seafood.
The town's famous daily market is the most obvious reason to visit Olhão.
Arrive on Saturday for the liveliest shopping experience, when vendors from across the entire region descend on the seafront to sell their wares.
Around the second week in August the town celebrates its affinity with the ocean with the Olhão Seafood Festival, one of the biggest of its kind in Europe.
Armona Island: Lying off the coast of Olhão is the island of Armona, a narrow nine-kilometer-long band of sand lapped by warm, shallow waters.
In summer a magnet for water sports enthusiasts, Armona is otherwise deserted save for a small resident community.
Ferries depart hourly from Olhão, and the 15-minute boat trip is itself a wonderful salt-laced assault of the senses.
Quinta da Marim: Fringing Olhão's eastern outskirts is this environmental education center and headquarters of the Parque Natural da Rio Formosa.
The facility is very much geared towards greeting researchers and academics, and most of the literature available is presented in the Portuguese language.
Tourists will be more inspired by the three-kilometer-long nature trail that meanders through pinewood to skirt the coast and pass the remains of Roman salt pans and one of Portugal's last remaining tidal mills.