Is Faro worth visiting for your sun-splashed escape this year? We’re here to answer that exact question. This guide will dig down into the secrets and highlights of this rather untrodden town (at least, that is, it’s untrodden for the Algarve!). We’ll take a look at some of the top reasons you should set aside some time in its narrow streets and taverns before breaking out to the beaches. Oh, and we’ll lay down any reasons why it might not be the best choice for you, too.
Faro sits roughly two-thirds of the way between the southwestern tip of Portugal and the Spanish border. It languishes on the lowlands behind the stunning Ria Formosa Natural Park, where flamingos and storks wade through the brackish streams. There are some great sand stretches within reach, though they might not be quintessential Algarve stuff. And there are other joys in the center itself…
Yep, an enchanting Cidade Velha (old town) unfolds in a haphazard tangle of streets and alleys and little plazas topped by sub-tropical trees. It’s arguably one of the prettiest historic quarters in the region. On top of that, you get oodles of rustic seafood kitchens selling traditional Algarvian stews, and B&Bs that ooze old-school character. But more on all that later. Let’s get stuck in, shall we?
It’s the gateway to the Algarve
Reason one on this list of the top reasons to hit Faro this year is the very simple fact that it’s the gateway to the sun-scorched, uber-famous region of the Algarve. Yep, the truth is that most travelers making their way to the iconic beaches and resorts – Albufeira, Luz, Carvoeiro – further west will touchdown here anyway.
That’s basically on account of huge Faro Airport. Also known as the Algarve Airport, it’s the third-busiest airport in the whole country, pipped to the post only by Lisbon (the capital) and Porto (the second city up north).
An estimated nine million passengers per year pass through its concourses, and there are oodles of low-cost and charter connections arriving from all over Europe, especially during the high-season months between May and September.
The airport is also super well placed for breaking out to some of the top draws in the Algarve. You can easily score a rental car and be on the main east-west motorway for the region in a matter of minutes. Some places you could head include:
- Vilamoura (15 miles west, 25-minute drive) – An upscale R&R resort with golf courses and yachting marinas.
- Tavira (25 miles east, 30-minute drive) – An intriguing town that not many people visit, close to the Spanish border and with its roots in the Roman era.
- Albufeira (27 miles west, 35-minute drive) – Arguably the tourist heart of the Algarve, an old fishing village that’s now a pumping nightlife hub and family holidaying hotspot.
- Sagres (72 miles west, 1h10 drive) – A salt-washed surf town on the edge of the western Algarve. Great waves, great people.
The Cidade Velha
The Cidade Velha is the piece de resistance of central Faro. It’s the kernel of the old city; a place where remnants of its Moorish and kingly past still linger in the architectural gems. The boundaries of the Cidade Velha are roughly at the Marina de Faro in the west and the Museu Regional do Algarve in the east, though the most famous part of the quarter unfolds on the hillsides just above the lagoon to the south of the Jardim Manuel Bivar.
One of the great joys of the Cidade Velha is simply wandering and getting lost. It will be hard to find your bearings because the alleys and the roads here weave and wiggle around each other. You’ll emerge onto cobbled plazas filled with cafés and duck into leafy plazas where the sounds of fado music bounce between the tiled and painted façades. Lovely.
The main sight within is the handsome Igreja de Santa Maria. Also known, simply, as Faro Cathedral, it dates back to the 13th century and is now an official National Monument of Portugal. You’ll also want to take some time to duck under the Muralhas de Faro. Those were once the great fortification walls of the city, serving both its Moorish and then Christian masters in later centuries.
The Praia de Faro
No trip to the capital of the Algarve could possibly be complete without a jaunt to the beach. That’s what this region is most famous for, after all! In Faro, that usually means heading out through the backwaters to the long run of golden powder that is Praia de Faro. It can be reached either by car or by direct ferry, which runs regularly throughout the summer months from the main Faro Marina in the old town.
It’s important to point out that the beaches of the eastern Algarve (the area of Faro) aren’t quite the same as the beaches of the western Algarve. The first are longer, sandier, softer affairs, often backed by low runs of dunes or brackish lagoons. The latter are usually more dramatic; the sort of beaches that regularly make it onto postcards of Portugal.
But that’s not to say Praia de Faro is disappointing. It most certainly is not. It rolls out along a spit of land for a whopping 4.5 miles from tip to toe, so there’s oodles of square meterage for you to unfurl the towel and escape the crowds. The sand is always clean and shimmers a certain gold-brown hue, like muscovado sugar. There’s also some action going on, especially if you head to the central area of the beach where the ferries arrive. That’s laden with beer bars and cafés and seafood eateries aplenty.
The food and wine
Portugal might not have the same culinary rep as, say, France or Italy. But foodies are taken care of here – trust us! That’s especially true for the pescatarian minded gourmet that heads to the capital of Algarve, for the regional dishes here take more than a nod from the surrounding Atlantic Ocean.
For example, oysters are very popular. They’re fished and farmed in the Ria Formosa lagoon area and have been for centuries. You can even venture out to visit a traditional Algarvian oyster farm for a day and try the wares. Or just stick to one of the tavernas along the riverside in Faro’s center, where platters of shellfish are usually served with a side of piri-piri and lemon.
Sardines – as in the rest of Portugal – are also a mainstay. They’re simply cooked using just olive oil, salt, pepper, and a smattering of herbs. Then there’s the heart-warming Cataplanas, a stew that’s typically made from a mix of seafood and shellfish and even game meat.
For drink, it’s the Tavira wine region that really takes center stage. It has a Vinho Regional designation like many places across the country, plus a prestigious DOC designation. Overall, the wineries here are known for their crisp whites and blush roses.
A range of cracking hotels
Is Faro worth visiting for the hotels alone? Quite possibly. There are lots of reasons for that. Firstly, there’s a good chance that the accommodations in this less-popular corner of the Algarve will be cheaper than their compadres in the west, especially in major resorts like Albufeira and Vilamoura. On top of that, the fact that they’re city B&Bs lends them something of a more authentic Portuguese air, so you can feel the age-old character of the city in your stay.
There’s a good mix of options to pick from. Budget backpackers are bound to like the wallet-friendly rates at the Tilia Hostel. Housed in a daffodil-yellow building in the middle of the Cidade Velha, it’s the perfect base for seeking out the main sights, but there’s also a rooftop terrace for those cold beers with other travelers. Demo House B&B is a good choice if you’re looking for a little boutique style in the midst of the old city. It comes with grand king beds and windows strewn with Neo-Victorian curtains.
There’s also a great range of beach hotels in Faro. Look for them down on the barrier islands past the Ria Formosa. Our favorites include Wax Hostel, another budget-friendly place to stay with simple rooms but unrivaled views over the lagoon, and Faro Beach House, a private villa where you and the family can find a home away from home just a stone’s throw back from the Atlantic Ocean.
To explore the Ria Formosa
The vast Ria Formosa Natural Park encompasses over 100 square miles of land to the south, east, and west of Faro. It’s unquestionably one of the natural jewels of southern Portugal, showcasing a unique environment of saltwater lagoons, slow-moving riverways, mudflats, saltmarshes, and huge swathes of sea oats.
The good news is that the city starts right on the Ria Formosa itself. You can hop on trips that whisk you out and into the strange wilderness for a whole day of exploration and wildlife viewing. They involve sailing through the main channels in search of flamingos and fishing boats, before stops for lunch at one of the many island villages – the towns on the Ilha da Culatra and Ilha do Farol have fantastic seafood kitchens that cook with ingredients straight off the boat.
Most of the packages out into the Ria Formosa also include jaunts to the further-flung coastal barrier islands of the Faro region. They’re often totally deserted and have strands of perfect sand where you can leave footprints where no one else has stood that day. Just be sure to keep watch for some of the 300 bird species that make their home there as you travel – they include egrets, storks and much, much more.
Okay, so Faro isn’t on the trademark gold-sand beaches of the Algarve. It doesn’t have those sheer-cut cliffs rising from bays of teal-tinged water. But one of the real joys of all that is the town manages to remain just a little out of the spotlight.
We won’t pretend that there aren’t any crowds in Faro come the summer months. There most certainly are. That enthralling old town, the flamingo-stalked wetland reserves, the long beach spits, and the fact that countless low-cost airlines jet into the local airport ensure that there’s always a bunch of folks around.
It’s just that Faro retains a certain authentic Portuguese charm that the out-and-out resorts further west in the Algarve simply do not have. There are local taverns selling fish from the nearby riverways. There are coffee shops that spill out onto cobbles below the Baroque cathedrals. There are people actually living and working in the offices and apartments that pepper the main streets.
What’s more, when the summer travel rush does finish, Faro returns to its slow pace of life. Winter can actually be a fantastic time to come. It’s super quiet here apart from the locals and you’ll get plenty of space to explore the churches and castles at your own pace.
As the cultural and historical capital of the Algarve, Faro comes with a side of fantastic museums. They run the gamut from Portuguese national history to life sciences, so there should be something for every type of traveler.
We’d 100% recommend dropping into the immersive Museu Municipal de Faro (The Municipal Museum of Faro). It’s sure to catch the eye even from the outside. That’s because it’s housed in a centuries-old convent building with gilded Baroque tops and beautifully carved cloisters. The collections inside trace the story of Faro from its earliest days, offering Roman relics and Moorish items alike. Another historical gem is the Faro Jewish Heritage Centre, which traces the culture and past of the Jewish community of the city, so brutally expelled by an inquisition in the 15th century.
To cap all that off, the Centro Ciência Viva do Algarve (Algarve Live Science Center) is one for the families with kids in tow. It’s a hands-on science exhibit that houses strange arachnids and sea creatures. The little ones will love it!
We’re not going to go and say that the nightlife in Faro is as hedonistic and heady as it is in nearby Albufeira. It’s not. But that’s not to say there’s nothing happening in the town once the sun sets. A good population of local students combine with the consistent inflow of international travelers here to ensure that there’s always something going on…
The old town center hosts most of the places. They cluster in the side streets around the lovely Faro Marina. Favorites of ours include the welcoming craft beer emporium of Boheme (go there for your unfiltered Portuguese hops concoctions) and ramshackle Anchor (a bar that looks plucked straight from the Age of Discovery of the 1600s!).
The two biggest clubs around are the Prestige Dance Club and Call In Faro. They’re both pumping DJ venues with laser-lit light shows and sprawling dancefloors. The parties in both tend to start late and finish early…like, early the next day sort of thing! Oh, and you can always organize a transfer to party down in Albufeira if you want something heavier – the trip is only 40 minutes.
Is Faro worth visiting for the weather? You bet it is. This part of Portugal has one of the most enjoyable climates in the whole of Europe. At least, it does if you’re keen on endless days of sun, balmy daytime highs and cooler nights bathed in fresh sea breezes. Yep? Us too.
The peak season is from June to September. That brings up average highs of between 79-89 degrees, with August reigning as the hottest month of the lot. And there’s more good news on the temperature front, because this town rarely gets too chilly even in the height of winter. Average max mercury readings are always above 60 F, and things are usually warm enough to hit the beach by at least April time.
Rainfall is also pretty light. There’s an estimated 53 days of rain throughout the whole year in Faro, with almost half of those occurring in the winter months of February, January, and March. That means you can rest assured you’ll be gifted with plenty of continuous sun if you come in the summer or fall. Talk about tanning weather!
The array of day trips
We’ve already mentioned how Faro – mainly thanks to Faro Airport – is the gateway to the whole Algarve region. However, you don’t have to have your own car or hop on a train to venture to other places. You could make Faro itself your base and do day trips out to some of the most fantastic destinations in the area.
Some will leave via the sea. Boat excursions can be a chance to witness the flamingo-spotted wetlands and wilds of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, to spend some hours on rustic fishing isles like Ilha da Culatra, and for swims along the stunning Praia da Barreta. There are also boat trips that can take you into the open Atlantic to spot dolphin pods and visit strange coastal cave systems elsewhere in the Algarve.
If you’re keen to stick to dry land, then head north to wander the Ruins of Milreu. They’re a cluster of 2,000-year-old villas and temples that were built by the Romans. Then there’s the incredible Castelo de Loulé, a mighty, muscular fort that was raised by the Moors in the 8th century but has been added to and expanded since.
So, is Faro worth visiting?
Is Faro worth visiting? We’d say it most certainly has its draws. For culture lovers looking to see the rich history of the Algarve region before heading for the beaches, or for nature buffs keen on spotting flamingos in saltmarshes, there’s really hardly any better place to kick-start that Portuguese adventure. Oh, and there’s fantastic seafood and excellent weather to factor in on top of that.
is Faro worth visiting as part of a bigger PT trip? In fact, perhaps the best way to see Faro is as a part of a bigger trip through the region. Big Faro Airport is perfectly situated for breaking out to do that. What’s more, throwing in extra destinations besides Faro means you can also see some of the more-dramatic beaches of the western Algarve, go surfing, and hit pumping resort towns like Albufeira.