10 Top Things To Do In Faro, The Overlooked Capital Of The Algarve

It’s a pity that more people don’t visit Faro, although that is starting to change. The Algarve’s capital city has more going for it than a mere gateway to the beaches and resort towns.

Once you read about the many things to do in Faro and around, I think you’ll agree that it merits at least a day trip. Especially if you are looking for a dose of culture.

Factor in the nearby nature reserve and beaches and easy access to other Algarve towns and Faro could even be your base for exploring the central and eastern parts of the Algarve region such as Loulé and Tavira.

If you fly into Faro airport you may want to consider hiring a car to explore the region easily and in your own time.

Car hire in Faro airport is straightforward and here are some tips to help your drive go smoothly.

See my suggestions for where to stay in Faro

1. Explore Faro old town

Once inside Faro old town, passing through the 19th century archway called Arco da Vila, it really does feel like you’ve stepped into another century with cobbled streets and quaint whitewashed traditional houses and buildings.

Cobbled streets and bell tower over Arco da Vila, Faro, Portugal
Cobbled streets and bell tower over Arco da Vila, Faro, Portugal

For a fun way of exploring Faro’s historical highlights, check out this 90-minute Cultural Segway Tour.

If you’re on foot, enjoy exploring the streets of the old town, (aka Vila Adentro) and look out for art galleries and quirky shops as you go. There are several small squares within the ancient city walls, most of which have street cafés and restaurants so you won’t go hungry!

Follow the brown and white signs for the Sé (cathedral) and you’ll arrive in a large, eye-catching town square lined with citrus trees. The most imposing buildings here are the city hall and the catheral.

2. See the views from Faro Cathedral

Faro Cathedral and town hall, Algarve, Portugal
Faro Cathedral and town hall

On one visit to Faro, I went inside the cathedral, something I’d put off for inexplicable reasons. Faro Cathedral dates back to the 13th century although it had to be reconstructed after the devastating 1755 earthquake.

Now that I’ve developed a keen interest in azulejos, inlaid marble and carved wood, I found it a treat, especially the floor-to-ceiling tiles in the vaulted side chapels. I hadn’t expected the bone chapel in the courtyard though!

Even if such decorative arts hold no great appeal for you, the view from the bell tower will.

View of Faro old town and the Ria Formosa Natural Park from Faro Cathedral
View of Faro old town and the Ria Formosa Natural Park from Faro Cathedral

3. Enjoy a live Fado session at Faro’s Municipal Museum

You can begin to understand the importance of Fado with this 40-minute show presented at the museum.

A short film is followed by a live concert which includes Portuguese guitar, viola, and voice. The session is completed with wine tasting and a visit to the Museu Municipal de Faro. (More details of the museum are below).

4. Relax at the marina

Whether you arrive by bus, train or car, you’re most likely to end up near Faro marina. It’s small but attractive, with views over the Ria Formosa estuary and the pretty park of Jardim Manuel Bivar on the other side.

There are a couple of restaurants near the waterfront and a café in the park should you need refreshments before you explore the historical centre of Faro.

Boats moored at Faro marina and old town, Algarve
Faro marina and old town, Algarve

5. Delve into history at Faro Municipal Museum

My favourite place to visit in Faro is the Museu Municipal, also known as the Museu Arqueologico. You’ll find it near Arco Repouso, another of the arched entrances to the old town, just behind a statue of King Afonso III.

It’s housed in an attractive 16th century convent with arched cloisters and an inner courtyard garden.

Cloistered courtyard at Faro Municipal Museum, a 16th century convent building
Cloistered courtyard at Faro Municipal Museum, a 16th century convent building

Highlights of the collections include a gigantic mosaic of Oceanus from the nearby Roman ruins of Milreu. I also loved the Arraiolos tapestry that depicts one of the Canticles of Holy Mary, poems written by King Afonso X the Wise in the 13th century.

Local artist, Carlos Porfírio also used legends published in 1898, mostly with a Moorish theme, as inspiration for his paintings, many of which are on display here.

Face of Oceanus mosaic, Faro Municipal Museum
Oceanus mosaic, Faro Municipal Museum

6. Visit the Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos)

Although there is a tiny bone chapel in the cathedral, you’ll have to head out of the historical centre to find Faro’s main bone chapel. If you’re looking for unusual things to see in Faro, then this is the place to head for.

It’s housed in the gardens belonging to Igreja do Carmo (Carmelite church). The skulls that decorated the outer entrance to the chapel have long since disappeared but the skulls and bones that were used to build the interior walls are still intact.

Why use human bones as construction materials? Partly because the city’s cemeteries were full to the brim and partly to remind us of our own mortality.

If you’re uncertain as to whether this would be appropriate for children, take a look at this family’s bone chapel experience.

View from entrance in Chapel of bones, Faro, Algarve, Portugal.
Chapel of bones, Faro, Algarve, Portugal.

7. Taste local flavours as ice cream

If the bone chapel doesn’t turn your stomach too badly, indulge in a delicious ice cream from Chelsea, a bakery and ice cream shop on Rua Dom Francisco Gomes. Carobs and figs are major crops in the Algarve and I happen to be partial to both so my choice was easy.

In case you’re wondering, carob tastes rather like chocolate.

Carob and fig ice cream from Chelsea in Faro
Carob and fig ice cream from Chelsea in Faro

8. Admire the pretty cobbled shopping streets

Among my favourite Faro attractions are its pretty cobbled pavements. The few shops within the walled old town are largely geared towards foreign visitors but venture into the patterned streets leading off Praça Dr Francisco Gomes near the marina and you’ll see where locals shop.

Among the clothes and shoe shops, hardware and grocery stores, you will also find crafts, gourmet local produce and souvenirs. While there are high street chain stores, others are unique shops that have served the local population for decades if not longer.

Looking along length of Patterned pedestrian streets of Faro, Algarve
Patterned pedestrian streets of Faro, Algarve

9. Spend time on Faro beaches

If you’re mainly looking for a beach holiday, be aware that while there are beaches near Faro city centre you’ll need to take a boat, bus or taxi to get to them unless you choose accommodation right by the beach.

Praia de Faro

Faro’s main beach is 20 minutes away by bus, near the airport. It’s a long, sandy spit, separated from the peaceful Ria Formosa estuary and wetlands by a strip of low-rise buildings. When I went in the morning, there were plenty of fishermen, both in the lagoons and on the beach.

One of the best beaches in Faro, it’s popular with Portuguese families throughout the summer and you’ll find several no-frills beach-front restaurants serving up the catch of the day. Off season, i.e. mid September to mid May, it’s pretty quiet and many restaurants will be closed.

Ilha Deserta

Alternatively, you could take a ferry or catamaran from Porta Nova pier in Faro’s old town to Ilha Deserta. Although it’s not exactly a desert island, especially not in the summer, you should be able to find a quiet spot on the 11 kilometres of beach!

There’s also a boardwalk hiking trail and a popular seafood restaurant on the island.

10. Explore the Rio Formosa Nature Reserve near Faro

You’ll get great views of the lagoon from Faro’s marina and elevated spots such as the cathedral tower. If you’re tempted to get up close and personal with the nature reserve there are several ways you can do this.

This small group tour from Faro takes you to Barreta and Farol Islands before spotting the wildlife in Ria Formosa Natural Park.

I went on this Segway tour which, although not that great for birdwatching, was a fun and non-energetic way of exploring the trails, lakes and salt pans. You can of course walk or cycle along these paths or go on horseback.

If you’d rather be on the water, again, there are options ranging from kayak trips to sunset boat excursions.

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