Faro – Highlights
Top attractions in Faro:
• Old Town
• Shopping Streets
• Monuments and Museums
• Estoi Palace (converted into a hotel)
• Milreu (Roman Ruins)
• Beautiful beaches on the Sandy Islands
• Good local gastronomy
Faro – General information
Faro is the capital of the Algarve, with a long history. It has Roman and Arab ruins, but most of the town was built after the earthquake of 1755. The city has more than 50.000 inhabitants and serves as the administrative centre of the Algarve. The University of the Algarve (with more than 8000 students) is also located in Faro.
Faro welcomes many tourists every year, and the only international airport of the Algarve is located in Faro. The airport handles more than 5 million passengers a year. The city of Faro has an excellent location in the Algarve and is the ideal first place to visit when you come to the Algarve.
Faro – what to see
Faro has a beautiful, historical old town, where also many restaurants and cafes are situated. The city in addition has well-maintained parks, a municipal market and several churches and museums. Last but not least, the lagoons of the Ria Formosa and the sandy beaches surrounding Faro ensure that you have plenty to visit during your stay here.
Visiting the old town
We suggest that you start your visit in Faro at the garden Jardim Manuel Bivar (near the harbor) and walk through the town’s gate Arco da Vila (tourism office on the left), which was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1755 on the site of medieval archway. Notice the statue of St .Thomas Aquinas, the Patron Saint of Faro, above the gate.
Enter the gate, where you can see a horseshoe arch on the left side. 100 metres further you arrive at Largo da Sé, the main square, bordered by the Town Hall (19th c.) on the left, the bishop’s palace and the seminary on the right and the cathedral in front (Sé Catedral de Faro, also known as Igreja da Sé).
This church was originally built in the 13th century on the site of a mosque and was called the church of Saint Mary. From the original building remain the gothic tower portico and some gothic chapels. The rest was rebuilt or added in several periods, especially in the Renaissance and Baroque styles. When in 1577 the bishop’s seat was this church, it started to be used as a cathedral. In 1596, during the English attack on Faro, the cathedral was ransacked and burned. In the posterior rebuilding of the cathedral, some gothic chapels were restored and separated by round arches on narrow Doric columns.
Walk towards the left aisle. The 2nd chapel (dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Rosário), which is decorated with glazed tiles representing “The Flight to Egypt “and “The Child and His Parents Visit to Jerusalem“. There is also some wooden carvings (18th c.). The last chapel on the left aisle is a Gothic Chapel (13th c.) with a statue of Nossa Senhora da Conceição (15th c.) and glazed tiles (17th c.).
The chapel on the Holy Lord, with beautiful gilt carved woodworks (17th c.) and representations of the four Evangelists and four Angels. The chancel was built in 1640 and is decorated with an altarpiece (17th c.) showing the wooden statues of Our Lady of the Assumption (in the middle) and St. Peter and St. Paul on the sides. The tympan’s medallion represents the Coronation of the Virgin.The large paintings on the sides of the chapel are from the Italian painter Guerini (18th c.). The glazed tiles are from 1664. To the right side of the Chancel we have the reliquary chapel of Santo Lenho. All around it, there are reliquaries with the likely remains of martyrs and other Christians. Now follows another Gothic chapel on the right aisle, and then the chapel of São Brás. But really remarkable is the chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres (18th century), with the representation of Our Lady sided by four Angels. The basis contains marble inlays. To finish, we would like to mention the impressive Baroque organ from the 18th century. In the southwest of the Cathedral Square there is a small gate, built in 1630 in the city wall, known as Porta Nova (New Gate), from where you can see the wall and coast of Faro with lagoons and sandy islands.
Coming back to the Old Town, you can visit one of the several Art Galeries. The next important square is Praça Afonso III, where the statue of the Portuguese king stands, who conquered Faro in 1249. On the southern side of this square the Archeological Museum is situated, whose building, with a beautiful two-storey cloister, was the Convent of Nossa Senhora da Assunção, built from 15181-1523. The best displays of the museum are Roman Mosaics from Ossonoba and Roman statues from the excavations of Milreu, as well as glazed tiles dating from the 16th century onward.
Leaving the Old Town by the Arco do Repouso, you can easily access the shopping streets. But if you would like to visit more churches and museums in Faro, we recommend the Church of São Francisco (situated on the side of the former Franciscan monastery, which is now used as a casern of the Faro Infantry Regiment). The church was built in the 17th and 18th century. The glazed tiles depict scenes from the life of St. Francis. The chancel has an important gilt woodwork. The ceiling is decorated with tiles depicting The Coronation of the Virgin.
We also recommend the Carmo church (with some of the most beautiful gilt carved woodwork in the Algarve) built in 1719 and the Bones chapel (capela dos ossos), whose walls are covered with human skulls and bones.
If you want you can check out the Maritime Museum, where models of local fishing crafts, as well as miniatures of caravels and other vessels are displayed. Finally, there is the Ethnographical Museum, with displays of traditional farm and fishing instruments, typical architecture and handicrafts.
With its large student population, Faro has a vibrant nightlife. Nightlife in Faro begins late and ends late. In the summer, you can find people outside in the city center enjoying a beer. The centerpiece of the nightlife in FAro is Rua do Prior, which has several bars and clubs. There is a variety of musical genres that one can enjoy in Faro. If you prefer more traditional music, you can visit a performance of Fado.
The beaches of Faro
The main beach is the Ilha de Faro (8km from Faro towards the airport). Just a few tourists know that just some kilometers from the airport there is one of the longest and best beaches of the Algarve. As there is a bridge to this island, it is possible to reach it by car or by bus. The other beaches of Faro (Farol, Culatra and Deserta) can be reached only by boat from Faro or Olhão.
Restaurants in Faro
Faro has many restaurants and it will not be difficult to find a good affordable restaurant. A lot of restaurants serve Portuguese food. In the old city (inside the city walls) there are a few restaurants, usually with nice outside terraces. You will notice that most clients are tourists. The quality of the food is in most cases good, and such restaurants can be recommended, but prices are higher. In the central area of the downtown there are also good restaurants, as well as around the Municipal market.
One of the traditional dishes of the Faro area and the Ria Formosa in general is Arroz de Ligueirão, which means Razorfish Rice. This dish was considered among the 70 best dishes of the Portuguese Gastronomy a couple years ago. By the way, there are a few traditional rice specialities in Portugal, which include Arroz de Marisco (shellfish rice) and Arroz de Peixe (Fish Rice). Another delicious specialty is Cataplana. This is a fish, shellfish or meat stew, as there are different traditional dishes made in the Cataplana, which is a traditional stew pan from the Algarve. Or maybe just grilled fish and a salad. If you dare to try a specialty, which is loved by many Portuguese people and never tried by tourists, we recommend you Caracóis, which means a portion with about one hundred small snails boiled with spices. You can find it in some restaurants around the Municipal Market. Usually it is a specialty that one learns to appreciate. If you don’t try, you will never appreciate it.
Staying in Faro
There are two four star hotels in the harbour area near the center and a few three and two star hotels in the central area and outside the city of Faro. In recent years, many hostels have appeared on the market and some of them are considered good or very good. Faro has also a youth hostel (in Portuguese: Pousada da Juventude), which offers cheap accommodation solutions.
Roman ruins of Milreu (7 km from Faro)
The ruins of this Roman villa were excavated in 1877 by Estácio da Veiga. The plan of the ruins shows the characteristic form of a Roman villa with a courtyard surrounded by a gallery of columns (peristyle). There were several rooms built around this central area, some of them still with beautiful mosaics, which represent geometric and fish motives. At the west of the peristyle one finds a large Roman bath divided in several compartments as apoditerium (changing-room), which can be recognized as the large room with the contouring benches, supported by ranges of arches, ‘frigidarium’ (cold bath) and ‘caldarium’ (warm bath). Particularly outstanding is the brick building situated at the south side of ruins, which was a water santuary (nympheum) of late Roman period and was converted later into a Christian basilica. There are beautiful mosaics on the surrounding walls near the staircase of the temple.
Palace of Estoi (8 km from Faro)
This beautiful palace was built in the second half of the 19th century and is the best example of the Romantic architecture in the Algarve. The palace has been turned into an (historical though expensive) hotel. This is very much like the “Paradores” in Spain, where some important monuments (which were in most cases abandoned before) are now used as high standard hotels, where you can feel the “soul” of the place and get a unique experience.
You can take some beautiful photographs of the palace from the outside. The set has three levels: the upper level, with the palace and the front gardens, the middle level, with a large fountain, and the lower level, with statues of Venus, Diana and the so-called 3 Graces. At the sides of the lower level, there are the statues of the last German Emperor and his wife. From the street, you have the best view over the palace.
Santa Barbara de Nexe (7km from Faro)
This is an old village where you can visit the Parish Church (15th c.). In the region, there are some luxury villas of foreign residents and some Portuguese who like to live in the beautiful and quiet countryside, but not too far from the coast.
Faro – secret tips
Every Sunday morning (until 1 o’clock PM), there is a Sunday market on the Largo do Carmo (in front of the Carmo Church). This market is ideal for those who like to appreciate local traditions and the way of living of some local people. It is not a touristic event. Farmers from the surrounding countryside sell fresh fruits and vegetables for affordable prices. Many types of fruits, depending on the season, are sold for about 1 euro a kilo or even less. For instance, delicious oranges, melons, watermelons and many other fruits and vegetables, depending on the season. For a few hundreds of people from Faro (who know the existence of this market), it is a way of buying fresh products directly from the producers and cheaper than in a supermarket.
Visit the municipal market (about 10 minutes walking from the centre). Every town in the Algarve has a municipal market that is open every day (until 1 o’clock PM) except on Sunday. In the case of Faro it is open also on Sunday. Every day, but especially on Saturday, thousands of people use this market for buying products. This is a modern market (the new building replaced a much older one, which stood there until a few years ago), with high standards of hygiene and quality. Like most markets in the Algarve, it consists of a fish section and a fruits and vegetables section. In the fish section you see many of different sorts of fish, usually from the previous night or the same morning (otherwise Portuguese people do not consider it fresh). There are two exceptions on the freshness of the fish: on Sunday and Monday. This is because fishermen usually rest on the previous nights, i.e. Saturdays and Sundays. That is the reason not many people buy fish on those days. This is also interesting for you if you intend to eat fresh fish in restaurants: do it from Tuesday to Saturday. Of course on those days fish is refrigerated in restaurants and it is hard to notice the difference whether it is really fresh (from the same day) or was caught a few days before.
Not to miss during the visit of the old town is the Convent of Nossa Senhora da Assunção, which is in our opinion one of the most remarkable monuments of Faro. Built between 1519 and 1550, it was a convent for women (usually women from the upper classes for whom a “suitable” marriage was not found) until 1834. Once entering this convent, women were no more allowed to go outside or to be seen by people from outside. The only way of having some visual contact with the outside world was from the tower of the convent, which was also protected in order not to be seen from the outside. Following a civil war between liberals and the conservatives, which ended with the victory of the liberals and the implementation of the so called liberal revolution, all religious orders were abolished in 1834 in Portugal. Nuns and monks had to leave from all convents, which have been nationalized and in most cases sold by the state. In the case of the Convent of Nossa Senhora da Assunção, the building was sold and transformed into a cork factory in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1948 it was considered national monument and restored afterwards. Since 1973, the building is used as the Municipal Museum of Faro. A visit of the building and museum is a must for understanding the history of Faro.
Take a trip to the Ria Formosa by boat. Until a few years ago this was really a secret, as there were no organized trips. Nowadays there are organized trips along the channels, marshes and islands of the Ria Formosa. If you have luck of having a good guide, you can get a good insight into the geography, wildlife and the traditional activities of the Ria Formosa.