Home to the biggest fishing port in the Algarve, the once-sleepy town of Olhão has been transformed in recent years into a major beach resort.
Just a short distance from Faro, Olhão (pronounced ol-yowng) is perfectly placed for those wanting to explore the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa’s sandy islands, Culatra and Armona.
Olhão is a bustling fishing port with a pleasant and active waterfront and a distinctly northern African feel.
It is known as the “cubist city” as much of its architecture is in a Moroccan flat-roofed style.
Many visitors come to Olhão for the seafood alone.
The town of Olhão is located less than 14 kilometres east of Faro Airport. A taxi from the airport takes about 15 to 20 minutes.
If you are hiring a car (there are several car hire companies with booths in the arrivals area), plenty of pay and display parking spaces are available on the waterfront when you arrive in Olhão.
Take the A22 motorway (toll road) or the secondary N125 road.
It is also easy to travel to Olhão by train or bus. You will need to take a taxi or a bus from the airport to Faro train or bus station first.
The Spanish border is just 30 minutes’ drive away.
Port and Waterfront
The port itself isn’t particularly attractive. Unless you are interested in fishing boats or warehouses, you will probably want to give that part a wide berth.
However, around the corner from the port, the waterfront offers a paved promenade enhanced by lovely gardens (Jardim Pescador do Olhanense).
The gardens are a great place to seek out some shade and escape from the sun.
Along the waterfront there are two market buildings selling a huge variety of freshly caught fish and shellfish, as well as locally grown fruit and vegetables.
There are numerous pavement cafés here to sample the local catch of the day.
Venture into the historic heart of Olhão and you will see elegant merchant homes with wrought iron balconies, beautiful stonework and tile decorations.
In the centre of town, you will find the Nossa Senhora do Rosário church, which was built in 1698. It has a graceful baroque façade, and was the first stone building constructed in the town.
Behind the church, is the small but interesting Olhão city museum.
Take time to wander around the narrow, cobbled streets of the Old Town. It has a quite different feel to it than around the port area.
There are plenty of shops and cafés to tempt you along the way.
Olhão is a working town with no beaches but, as it is next to the Ria Formosa lagoon, some of the best beaches in Portugal are just a short ferry ride away – including the islands of Armona and Culatra.
Ilha da Armona is the nearest – just a 15-minute ferry ride away.
From the ferry terminal it’s about 15 minutes’ walk to the sand dunes and beach on the other side of the small island.
The ferry to Ilha da Culatra takes 35 minutes. A further 10 minutes on is Farol, which also has a stunning beach.
Ria Formosa Natural Park
The Ria Formosa Natural Park (Parque Natural da Ria Formosa) is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Portugal.
This exceptional coastal lagoon is a protected area and a paradise for birdwatchers.
The lagoon also has one of the largest populations of seahorses in the world.
A guided walk, boat trip or kayak tour shouldn’t be missed.
The main area for al fresco dining is along the seafront (Avenida 5 de Outubro).
As you would expect in a fishing port town, you will find dozens of seafood restaurants offering favourites such as charcoal-grilled tuna and swordfish.