“Where is everyone?” It is 3pm, Friday afternoon in Faro and I am standing in the main square – Largo da Sé. The square is nearly empty and I have the Cathedral and the blossoming orange trees all to myself…
Strange, since this is supposed to be the main tourist attraction of Faro…
It reminds me of the coastal city of Málaga in southern Spain.
Both are mainly treated as airport hubs and merely a quick access to the more popular beach resorts. A shame, because there are plenty of things to do in Faro for a weekend.
The main sight in the old town is the Cathedral, aka Sé, originally built in 1251, on the site of a former mosque. Nowadays only the bell tower and a few chapels remain of the original exterior, the rest has been destroyed during the 1755 earthquake and rebuilt afterwards.
You can visit the main courtyard, the cathedral itself with its dazzling gilded carved statues and a museum housing numerous religious objects, but the main reason for coming here is to climb the tower and enjoy the stunning views across the walled town, all the way to the sea and the lagoon of Ria Formosa!
Cidade Velha or old town
The old town or “Cidade Velha” is surrounded by medieval walls or “muralhas”. They have a very varied history: the Romans, the Moors, the Jewish and the Muslims all played a part in their resurrection or development. When walking around the walls, blue and white tiled panels will explain you their history. The walls that can be seen today date back to the 17th century and have various churches and other structures built into the remains. The green grass, trees and benches near the Parque Biossaudavel are the perfect spot for a picnic.
You enter the Cidade Velha via one of the 3 entry gates. The ornate, neoclassical Arco da Vila is the most impressive one, but make sure you have a look at the Arco de Repouso (Resting Arch) too, which according to the legend was the place where Afonso III took a rest after taking Faro from the Moors.
The rest of the old town is a pleasant mixture of cobbled streets, picturesque squares and old style lamp standards. It’s not a big area, but a very pleasant and well-preserved place to spend a morning or afternoon.
The fishing harbour
After exploring the old town, go for a walk on the outside of the medieval walls, along the ferry pier. It makes for a romantic stroll with nice views over the coastal lagoon. At the marina, fishermen prepare their boats before setting off into the open waters. A slice of traditional Portugal…
The Baixa area
Faro doesn’t stop at the old town; outside the walls is the newer, downtown part of Faro, called Baixa. It’s the area where most people live and is scattered by squares and numerous churches and chapels. A few of them are open to visitors. Make sure to check out the Igreja do Carmo, home to the “Bone Chapel”. The chapel is lined with bones and skulls from over a thousand monks! They were exhumed in the 19th century from Faro’s overcrowded cemetery. Creepy…
One of the pleasures of visiting Portugal (or any country for that matter) is the food. In Faro, start your evening in a little bar/restaurant that offers a free “petisco”(the Portuguese equivalent of Spanish tapas) with every glass of beer or wine. Or feast on some tasty dishes like “pimentos de piquillo com bacalhau” ( which sounds so much better than small peppers stuffed with salted codfish) and a chickpea salad before heading to another bar for a dish of “chocos grelhadas”. (grilled cuttlefish)
The official name of the island is actually Ilha Barreta, but it’s better known by its nickname of “deserted island”. The ferry sets off amidst the beautiful lagoon of Ria Formosa, a shallow coastal lagoon with a belt of dunes, protecting a system of salt marshes and seagrass beds. It’s a perfect haven for birdwatching at low tide. Forty-five minutes later you set foot on Ilha Deserta. The name is very accurate as the only building is the Estaminé Restaurant, apart from a few fishermen huts.
There is a circular walk, called the Santa Maria boardwalk that takes you around the island in about 45-60 minutes.You’ll be able to witness the Atlantic Ocean flooding the Ria Formosa, creating a labyrinth of channels, intertwined with salt marshes and seagrass beds. As you walk along, you’ll be accompanied by flowers, bushes and butterflies! Once you reach the beach, all there is to do is to stretch out and enjoy the gorgeous stretch of white sand! If the sun’s out, this is the perfect place for a lazy sunny afternoon with a drink, a book and nothing else!
There are 2 options to get to Ilha Deserta, depending on the price and in how much of a rush you are. The ferry is the slower option, it costs €10 return and takes about 45 minutes to get to Ilha Deserta. The quicker option takes you there in +/- 15 minutes and is double the price. (€20 return) Both leave from the Cais das Portas do Mar.
I had a brilliant weekend in Faro, but there is one thing I would’ve loved to see: the Benagil Cave, an open-sky cave less than an hour away from Faro! Hopefully next time!