The city of Tavira sits on Portugal’s southern coast, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and just over 20 miles east of Faro in the Algarve. Is Tavira worth visiting? Absolutely. Hundreds of years of occupation by numerous different old empires over several centuries have created one of the most beautiful cities in Portugal.
Tavira is home to a population of around 25,000 people and retains an old-world charm which has long been lost in other parts of the Algarve. Tavira’s long history has left the city with a gorgeous collection of grand old architecture and charming winding streets. Through the beautiful center of Tavira flows the Gilao River, which runs straight into the nearby ocean. All along that ocean are some of the best beaches in Portugal which are within easy reach of the city center. Here the glistening golden sands stretch for miles along the Algarve’s most beautiful coastline.
If a stunning old city that’s a stone’s throw from some of the most breathtaking beaches in the country sounds good then you can consider Tavira worth visiting. If you need more convincing here are seven reasons why you should visit Tavira.
Tavira’s historic old town
Tavira was an important part of several empires. The Romans and the Moors both saw the town as a vital and strategically located port city during their respective reigns of the region. The Romans were here as far back as the 5th Century, while the Moorish took control for around 500 years a few centuries later. Both empires left an indelible mark on the city, which today has a spectacular old town filled with picturesque churches, palaces, museums and more.
There’s an almost endless array of magnificent historic buildings that line Tavira’s old streets. Amongst them are the stunning Igreja da Misericordia, a 16th century Renaissance church with a breathtaking interior, and the Gothic-inspired Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo, which originally dates from the 13th century. Spanning the Gilao River is the Roman Bridge, which is now believed to have been built by the Moorish in the 12th century. The current design dates from the 1600s.
Amongst Tavira’s oldest buildings is the Castelo de Tavira, the remains of the castle built by the Moorish occupiers in the 11th century. Tavira had already passed through the hands of various other empires by the time the Moors built the castle, including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Celts, and the Romans. The castle was built in the 11th century and frequently modified, first by the Moors and again by the Portuguese after the Moors were defeated in 1242.
Much of the castle was severely damaged by the devastating 1755 earthquake that destroyed huge areas of Portugal, Spain and northern Africa. Today the remains of the castle are a fascinating insight into Tavira’s varied history and are worth exploring. The surviving castle is located inside a beautiful garden and there are wonderful views of the city from the castle’s remaining tower.
Palacio da Galeria
The Palacio da Galeria is the main venue for Tavira’s Municipal Museum and hosts a variety of cultural exhibitions and events throughout the year. The Palacio da Galeria is well worth visiting in order to explore the fascinating building, which dates from the 16th century and features a variety of architectural influences including Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance styles. The majority of the exterior of the building dates from renovations carried out during the 18th century. The building’s courtyard and arcades are considered to be amongst the finest examples of Renaissance-inspired architecture in Portugal.
Also inside the building is the chance to see more of Tavira’s ancient history. The Palacio da Galeria was constructed on top of an original Phoenician settlement. Recent renovations and excavations inside the building have revealed several important archaeological finds located beneath the Palacio da Galeria, including wells that date back as far as the 7th-6th century BC. Some of these finds have been left visible so that visitors can see them whilst visiting the museum.
The beaches of Tavira Island
Not only is Tavira home to some of the most beautiful historic architecture in Portugal, the city is also famous for having some of the country’s very best beaches. A few hundred meters to the south of the city is Tavira Island, an 11-kilometer stretch of land that is lined with some of the finest beaches in the Algarve, if not Portugal. What was once a fishing port is now a major tourist destination, with hundreds of sunbeds lined along parts of the beach. However, thanks to the length of the beach that stretches along the island’s entire coastline, it’s easy to find a secluded spot by taking a stroll away from the crowds.
The beach at Praia da Ilha de Tavira is the nearest to Tavira, and ferries for this beach leave from a ferry port on the Gilao River in the center of town. One of Tavira’s more unusual photo spots is the Graveyard of Anchors that are embedded into the sand near Barril beach. The anchors came from the old fishing boats that were used to catch tuna here for decades. The number of tuna in the sea eventually dropped and fishing here came to an end in the 1960s. The anchors now serve as an arty and slightly eerie reminder of the beach’s former days as a fishing port. Nearby the old fisherman’s cottages are now mostly used as cafes and snack bars.
Tavira’s Camera Obscura
Right next to the remains of Tavira Castle is the intriguing sight of a former water tower that in 2004 was repurposed to house a camera obscura. Visitors are able to enter the old water tank, which is now a darkened room in which a large lens and mirror have been installed that combine to project a live feed of the city onto a two-meter screen in the center of the room.
Tavira’s camera obscura is well worth visiting and has become one of the city’s most popular attractions. Besides the unique 360-degree view of Tavira, a visit to the camera obscura also includes a very informative talk from a local guide who explains some of the history and many revealing facts about various historic areas and buildings that can be seen in the projection of the city. Entrance is just €5 for adults and this is a great way to find out more about this fascinating city.
Relax in Praca da Republica
As you’d expect from a city in the Algarve, life often takes place at a slightly slower pace in Tavira. This is often due to the need to retreat from the perennial heat and the existence of town squares that invite passers-by to pull up a chair outside the nearest café. Here you can take the weight off your feet and knock back a rejuvenating coffee or, if it’s a little later in the day, perhaps something a little stronger.
The pedestrianized Praca da Republica is the perfect place to do just that, right in the heart of Tavira and a stone’s throw from the Gilao River and the Roman Bridge. There are several cafes along the Praca da Republica as well as the neighboring streets. Tavira is hot all year round and one of the sunniest cities in Europe, making this the best place to stop and take a break no matter what time of year you visit.
The Fado com Historia
For the chance to enjoy a genuinely Portuguese cultural experience visit the Fado com História, an auditorium that hosts fado performances every day. Fado is a traditional Portuguese style of usually mournful music that is performed by a very impressive vocalist accompanied by acoustic guitars and sometimes violas. Fado originated in Lisbon in the early 18th century and is commonly performed in small, crowded bars and cafes around Portugal, particularly Lisbon.
Performances at the Fado com Historia last around an hour in which songs in a variety of styles of fado are performed. The performers explain a little about each song that they perform which helps the audience to know more about fado and understand the context and meaning behind each song. Watching a performance at the Fado com Historia is an unforgettable experience and one that is worth visiting Tavira for alone.
Is Tavira busy?
Tavira is a fairly small city of around 25,000 people. An easy day trip from Faro and a popular spot for visitors to the Algarve, the busiest tourist season is in the summer from around June to August. Mostly manageable on foot (except for the beach which is a boat ride away) Tavira does become busy with a steady influx of visitors in the summer. Though it’s far from unbearable during the summer if you really want to avoid crowds Tavira is worth visiting in spring, autumn or winter when it is less busy and the heat can also be less fierce.
Does Tavira have a beach?
Yes, and it’s one of the best beaches in Portugal. The nearest beach to Tavira is Praia da Ilha de Tavira on the 11 kilometers long Tavira Island that lies just to the south of the city. The beach can be reached by a ferry from the center of the city. Once there, explore the rest of the island where you’ll find 11 kilometers of pristine heavenly beaches of golden sand.
Is Tavira safe?
Tavira is generally very safe and crime rates are noticeably low. That said, as with most places where tourism is common it makes sense to exercise due caution when out and about. Don’t leave any valuables out on show when in busy areas as petty theft such as pick-pocketing does occur from time to time.