Home to the biggest fishing port in the Algarve, the 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 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 North African feel.
It’s known as the ‘cubist city’ as much of its architecture is a Moroccan flat-roofed style. Many visitors come here for the seafood alone.
The town of Olhão is located less than 14 km east of Faro Airport. A taxi from the airport takes about 15-20 minutes.
If you are hiring a car (there are several car hire companies with booths in the arrivals area), there are plenty of pay and display parking spaces on the waterfront when you get to Olhão.
Take the A22 Motorway (toll road) or the secondary N125 road.
It’s also easy to travel to Olhão by train or bus. You’ll 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.
The port and water front
The port itself isn’t very attractive. Unless you are interested in fishing boats or warehouses, you probably want to give that part a swerve.
However, around the corner from the port, the waterfront offers a paved promenade backed by some lovely gardens (the Jardim Pescador do Olhanense).
The gardens are a great place to seek out some shade and escape from the sun.
Along the water front 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 lots of pavement cafés along here to sample the local catch of the day.
The town centre
Venture into the historic heart of Olhão and you’ll see lots of elegant merchant homes with wrought iron balconies, beautiful stonework and tile decorations.
In the centre of town, you’ll find the church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário, 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 very different feel to it than around the port.
There are plenty of shops and cafés to tempt you along the way.
Olhão is a working town with no beaches, but being set next to the Ria Formosa lagoon, some of the best beaches in Portugal are just a short ferry ride away.
The islands of Armona and Culatra are home to some of the most wonderful beaches in the Algarve.
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 beautiful beach.
Ria Formosa Natural Park
The Ria Formosa Natural Park (Parque Natural da Ria Formosa) is one of the 7 natural wonders of Portugal.
This unique 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 a kayak tour shouldn’t be missed.
The main place for al fresco dining is along the seafront (Avenida 5 de Outubro).
As you would expect in a fishing port town, here you’ll find dozens of seafood restaurants offering favourites such as charcoal grilled tuna and sword fish.
If you fancy a change from Portuguese fare, try Indian Hut on Rua Vasco da Gama, or for Chinese food, Restaurante Chinês Jing Shan on Avenida 5 de Outubro.