The i-escape blog / Lucy Richardson

By Lucy Richardson, Editor

Introducing Olhao, a bustling seaside town near Faro that’s loved by us for so many reasons: the food, the beaches, the authenticity, the affordability. Here’s everything you need to know…


Why Olhao?

This former fishing village, now a major fishing port, offers a glimpse into authentic Algarvian life. We love Olhao precisely because it’s not your typical tourist resort. It’s an unpretentious, affordable, working town with a Moorish-influenced centre, a sprawling fish and produce market, and a busy marina where ferries hop across to the unspoilt island beaches of the Ria Formosa lagoon. It has cute boutique hotels, serves up some of best seafood in the Algarve, and is easy-peasy to get to from Faro Airport: a 15-minute drive along the N125, or two stops on the train from Faro’s central station. What’s not to love?

A brief history

Olhao’s big moment came in 1808 when the O Caíque de Bom Sucesso vessel sailed from here to Rio de Janeiro, its crew tasked with informing the exiled Portuguese King João VI that Napoleon’s army had retreated. As a reward, the town was granted a royal charter and was developed as a fishing port and canning centre. And so began its growth.

After this, trading links with North Africa led to an infiltration of Moorish architecture: geometric houses with open roof terraces and minaret-inspired chimneys flooded the town’s centre, and today, they still stand in their beautiful cubic form.

What to see in Olhao

Visit the island beaches

From Olhao marina, a quick (and cheap) ferry or taxi boat ride will whisk you to the unique island beaches of the Ria Formosa. The pristine white sandbars of this sheltered turquoise lagoon are breathtaking. Shores are untamed and beautiful, largely deserted save for a few clusters of simple seafood restaurants, holiday homes, and cute and colourful houses where a handful of islanders live – population: circa 50. It’s pleasingly laidback with hints of the Caribbean.

From Olhao, you’ve a choice of three island beaches: Armona (the closest – 15 mins), Culatra or Farol. Together they offer over 10km of sand, accessed via boardwalks that take you across wild dunes and scrubland inhabited by birds and reptiles. If you choose Farol, have lunch at MarAmais beach hut, a laid-back shack with a shady terrace looking straight out to sea.

Boat trips through the lagoon’s protected wetlands are a great way to see the coast. These full-day excursions usually include two island stops, with time for lunch and a chance to plunge into the glassy waters from the boat. Don’t forget your snorkel!

Browse Olhao market

The vibrant mercado is the beating heart of Olhao. Spanning two enormous red-brick buildings on the seafront promenade, it’s a hub of activity from dawn ‘till dusk, Mon-Sat. The eastern building houses the largest fish market in the Algarve, re-stocked each morning with the dawn’s fresh catch; tuna, sea bass, cod and anchovies are common in these parts.

In the western building is the produce market, selling fruits and veg, flowers, breads and handicrafts. This is where local restauranteurs source their ingredients, which you can sample at their eateries lining the perimeter of the market. Try delicacies like dry-cured tuna muxama, or Folar de Olhao, a sticky Portuguese bun topped with honey, orange, cinnamon and sugar – those from Kubidoce Café and Bakery are heavenly (as are the Portuguese tarts).

Saturdays are the biggest trading days, when a farmer’s market brings additional stalls, overflowing with everything from baked goods to pottery, budgies to bunnies.

Explore the historical sites

Take a look inside the 17th-century Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Church of Our Lady of the Rosary), whose bell tower you can climb, and the adjoining chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos, where offerings and prayers are made for the town’s fishermen.

Across the cobbled square is the Museu de Cidade, which houses a small but interesting collection of archaeological finds, embroidery, model boats and black and white photos documenting Olhão’s past.


See the street art

Introducing Olhao’s edgy side. The town is a reputed street artists’ hub, and many of the old, whitewashed buildings are cloaked in beautiful murals, with vivid colour decorating their crumbling facades. Wander along the Rua da Fábrica Velha, in the Barrio do Levante neighbourhood, and you’ll see quirky paintings created by a quartet of urban street artists. They tell the tales of the town’s history, each piece inspired by an old photograph of Olhao – everything from factory workers to life at sea. Some of the people depicted in them are still residents here today. Very cool.

Come for the seafood festival

Did we mention how great the seafood is here? If you need more convincing, come for the annual Festival do Marisco, which takes place every August along the seafront in Jardim Pescador Olhanense. It’s a celebration of the region’s cuisine, with pop-up food stalls and a line-up of musical entertainment. David Guetta performed here in 2015.


Take a day trip

For a stretch of the legs, head 3 kilometres out of town to the Quinta de Marim, a coastal wilderness of woodland, freshwater lagoons and salt flats. Start at the educational centre, and follow the 3km nature trail through the protected landscape. Bring some binoculars to spy on the wading birds – you might see flamingos and, if you’re lucky, rare purple gallinules.

If the coast is more your thing, there’s plenty more to see. Rather conveniently, there’s a railway station in the middle of Olhao, so hop on a train to neighbouring Fuseta, a 5-minute journey, to spend the day on its stunning island beach. A little further along the line is Tavira, another of our favourite fishing towns in the Algarve.

Where to eat in Olhao

With fish this fresh, it’s no surprise that Olhao’s best restaurants are seafood-orientated. One of the best places to sample the catch of the day is around Avenida 5 de Outubro, the road that runs along the seafront. Here, restaurants spill onto pavements, and fish comes straight from the market. Maré Shrimp & Stuff does the juiciest prawn dishes – try the red prawn bisque. Or for a modern twist, See Sea Sim seafood restaurant, in the new marina, is great for sunset drinks before your fishy feast.

A few streets up from the coast, Chá Chá Chá sits on the corner of a cute cobbled street where bougainvillea climbs the whitewashed walls. They serve Portuguese-style tapas, incorporating lots of fresh veggies and cheeses, plus larger plates of meat, fish, seafood and salad. For pudding, head next door to São Gelados, which does a mean selection of velvety ice creams.

Super hungry? Vai e Volta offers a knockout all-you-can-eat fish barbecue for the very reasonable price of EUR 15 per person!

For drinks, The Zona Cocktail Lounge has glorious views out to sea and towards the marina. And for evening entertainment, Cantaloupe Cafe has live jazz performances.

Where to stay in Olhao

Some of the town’s bijou cubic houses have been artfully transformed into pretty boutique hotels, with original features carefully restored to retain their Moorish charm. And because Olhao isn’t your typical tourist town, rooms are very reasonably priced.

1 Convento

Convento has one of the most beautiful inner courtyards we’ve seen, all hand-painted blue tiles, graceful white columns, climbing foliage and grand wooden doors. There’s a distinctly Moroccan feel to the hotel, with stylish rooms leading off the courtyard. A little pool on the roof terrace completes the Moorish look.

Rooms from GBP 95.

2 Casa Rosa Villa Hotel

Equally stylish Casa Rosa Villa Hotel occupies a handsome pink-fronted building and has a funky blush colour scheme throughout. It also comes with a sparkling pool in its courtyard, and a roof terrace for morning yoga.

Rooms from GBP 91.

3 Olhao House

Set in what was once a fish warehouse, Olhao House is a great option for a family of 3-4 or a couple wanting extra space and privacy. It’s elegant and minimalist, with two double bedrooms upstairs, a stylish kitchen-diner downstairs, a leafy shaded patio with a heated plunge pool, and a roof terrace with long views across the town’s rooftops.

House rental from GBP 164/night.