Olhão Guide: 5+ Best Things to Do

Olhão, nestled in the heart of the Algarve, is a town that beautifully captures the essence of the region’s maritime heritage. Dominated by its bustling fish market, which is best visited on Saturdays, the town is a testament to the Algarve’s deep-rooted fishing traditions. Every day, local fishermen bring in a fresh catch that ranges from sardines to octopus, making the market a vibrant hub of activity and a haven for seafood enthusiasts.

Beyond its market, Olhão’s proximity to the Ria Formosa, a sprawling natural park of lagoons and islands, adds another layer to its charm. This unique ecosystem, with its maze of canals and rich biodiversity, offers both locals and tourists a chance to explore sandy beaches, watch diverse birdlife, and embark on boat tours to nearby islands. The town serves as a gateway to this natural wonder, making it a sought-after destination for those keen on experiencing nature’s untouched beauty.

However, like many towns with a rich history, Olhão has its complexities. While certain parts of the town have faced challenges and garnered a mixed reputation, the town is making a big effort to attract more tourists, expat, and locals. One helpful project is the umbrella project, copied from Águeda in Central Portugal, while another is the Circuit of Legends of Olhão.

Águeda umbrellas

The blend of its maritime legacy, natural beauty, and evolving urban landscape makes Olhão a town of contrasts, intrigue, and undeniable potential.

Fallen in love with the Eastern Algarve? Take a look at these properties in Olhão

Useful Resources for Your Trip to Olhão

Here’s our top tips and tricks for getting the best deals for your trip to Olhão. 
  • Accommodation: Booking.com and Airbnb are the two most comprehensive websites for finding hotels, hostels, apartments, and other types of accommodation in Olhão. 
  • Car Rental: Discover Cars and Rental Cars are the two most useful sites for booking local car rental. 
  • Airport transfers: There are taxis and Ubers at Faro Airport, but you can also pre-book an airport transfer with Welcome Pickups
  • Tours & Things to Do: Both Get Your Guide and Viator list lots of local tours and activities in Olhão and the surrounding Algarve region. 
  • Luggage Storage: Luggage Hero and Bounce are two great sites for finding places to store your luggage in Portugal. More options can be found in our article about luggage storage in the Algarve
  • Public Transport: Cp.pt is the main website for trains in Portugal. For longer distance buses, see Rede Expressos. Flixbus.pt often has cheap tickets between cities in Portugal. 
  • Flights: Skyscanner and Google Flights are the two most useful websites for finding flights to Portugal. The nearest airport to Olhão is Faro Airport. 

 

What to See & Do

Olhão Mercado Municipal

olhao vegetable market

The Olhão Mercado Municipal, easily identifiable by its distinctive red brickwork, stands as a testament to the town’s rich history and vibrant local culture. Constructed in 1915 and later renovated in 1997, this market is divided into two main halls. The first hall offers an array of fresh local produce, offering everything from fruits and vegetables to flowers, dried fruits, meats, nuts, and traditional Portuguese sweets. It’s a favourite spot for locals to pick up their daily essentials.

The second hall is dedicated to the bounty of the sea. As the largest and arguably the most fascinating fish market in the Algarve, it showcases a vast array of fish species, some of which might even be unfamiliar to visitors. Naturally, the Algarve’s staples like sardines, octopus, and various shellfish are prominently featured. Especially on Saturdays, the market buzzes with activity, drawing both locals and tourists.

A plate of grilled sardines in Olhão

Located at Loja, 43, Dos Mercados Municipais, Av. 5 De Outubro, Olhão, Faro, Portugal, the Mercado Municipal operates from 07:00 to 14:00 on weekdays and 07:00 to 13:00 on Saturdays. Do note that it remains closed on Sundays.

Take a Trip to the Ria Formosa

Ria formosa

The Ria Formosa Natural Park is a serene coastal lagoon that stretches for 60km along the Algarve’s coastline, from Faro to Manta Rota. This protected area, bestowed with Natural Park status in 1987, is a haven of unique landscapes and rich wildlife.

Comprising a series of barrier islands, marshes, and tidal flats, the Ria Formosa is a sanctuary for a diverse range of marine and birdlife. Among its many inhabitants, visitors might spot the rare purple swamp hen, flamingos, and even the elusive chameleon.

The park is also a significant stopover for migratory birds journeying between Europe and Africa. The Portuguese water dog, originally bred to assist fishermen, hails from this area.

Olhao boat tours

For those keen to explore, regular boat trips from Olhão offer a chance to delve into the park’s beauty. These tours, lasting between 3 to 4 hours, often include visits to Cultura Island, known for its fishing community and lighthouse, and the untouched Barreta Island, locally dubbed the ‘desert island’. And for those who prefer land to sea, Praia da Faro Island, connected to the mainland by a bridge, offers a more accessible beach experience.

Snorkelling in the lagoon’s clear waters might even reveal seahorses. On land, the Ria Formosa is home to traditional industries like salt production, with saltpans that continue age-old harvesting techniques dating back to Roman times.

For a more independent exploration, the park’s headquarters, located just 2km east of Olhão in Quinta Marim, offers a visitor centre, informational walks, and a museum set in a historic tide mill.

Admire the many murals

Strolling through the streets of Olhão, visitors are greeted by a vibrant tapestry of murals that celebrate the town’s rich fishing heritage. These captivating artworks, predominantly concentrated around Rua da Fábrica Velha, offer a visual journey into the town’s past. They vividly portray fishermen navigating their boats, their wives diligently cleaning fish or toiling in the canning factories, and scenes of nets sprawled across the harbour. Each mural tells a story, capturing moments and memories of a bygone era, bringing the town’s history to life on its walls.

The brilliance behind these murals is the collective effort of four talented artists, commissioned by the local council. Drawing inspiration from historical photographs and resources, they’ve masterfully encapsulated the essence of Olhão’s past, ensuring that the town’s legacy is not just remembered but celebrated.

A notable point of interest is the Largo da Fábrica Velha or the Old Factory Square. Here, an information board stands as a testament to the town’s industrial evolution, highlighting that the Algarve’s first canning factory was established in this very spot towards the end of the 19th century. This industry not only bolstered the local fishing and ship-building sectors but also played a pivotal role in shaping the development of Olhão.

Explore the Circuit of Legends of Olhão

The Circuit of Legends of Olhão offers a captivating journey through the town’s rich heritage, brought to life by a series of evocative sculptures scattered throughout the old town. These statues serve as silent storytellers, recounting the myths and legends that have shaped Olhão’s cultural tapestry.

One of the standout figures is Arraúl, who stands tall and proud in Largo João da Carma. Another is Floripes, whose story is is particularly enchanting. Represented by a bronze statue, Floripes is depicted as a striking young woman with her dress flowing behind her.

Legend has it that she would occasionally appear on Olhão’s rooftops, luring men with her beauty. She challenged them to cross the estuary holding a lit lamp, promising her heart and her father’s kingdom to any who succeeded. Yet, many were led to their doom, drowning in the ria, captivated by her allure.

Another intriguing legend is that of the Menino dos Olhos Grandes or “Boy with Big Eyes”. This mysterious boy, described as small and round with large, captivating eyes, was said to have first appeared at Largo do Carolas. As the story goes, a local resident once tried to move the boy to a safer spot, only to find him impossibly heavy. The boy’s unexpected weight and sudden appearance left the townsfolk in awe, adding another layer of mystery to Olhão’s rich tapestry of legends.

Bom Sucesso fishing boat

Nestled behind the municipal market on a quaint pier, stands a replica of the famed Caíque Bom Sucesso, a boat whose name aptly translates to “Good Luck” in Portuguese. This vessel, though a mere 20 metres in length and 5 metres wide, holds a significant place in the annals of Olhão’s history. In 1808, during the tumultuous times of the French occupation of Portugal, a brave group of 17 fishermen embarked on a perilous journey aboard the original Bom Sucesso. Their mission was audacious: to traverse the vast Atlantic, from Olhão to Brazil, and convey to the exiled Prince Regent João VI the uplifting news of the Algarve’s resistance and eventual expulsion of the French invaders.

The backdrop to this daring voyage was a series of skirmishes and naval engagements in June 1808, initiated by the fishermen and farmers of Olhão. Their valiant efforts culminated in uniting the major towns of Faro and Tavira against the French occupation. After nearly three months at sea, the fishermen’s arrival in Rio de Janeiro on 22nd September was met with a royal reception. Prince Regent João VI, upon hearing of the popular uprising spearheaded by Olhão, bestowed upon the town the distinguished title of “Vila de Olhão da Restauração”. This honour not only separated Olhão from Faro but also granted it the autonomy to establish its own municipal offices, bestowing upon it numerous liberties.

Today, as a tribute to that incredible voyage and the indomitable spirit of its fishermen, the replica of Bom Sucesso takes pride of place in front of the market. Constructed in 2008 to commemorate the bicentenary of the voyage, it stands as a testament to the bravery of those who undertook the journey and the subsequent growth of Olhão as a prominent fishing port and canning centre.

Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário

A stone’s throw from the municipal market in Olhão stands the parish church, Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário, or Our Lady of the Rosary Church in English. Constructed between 1698 and 1715, this historic edifice was funded by the generous contributions of local fishermen and their guild. The church’s exterior boasts intricate stonework, especially noticeable along its top facades. Inside, visitors are greeted by a splendid gilded wooden altar, seamlessly merging with an ornate ceiling. A particular highlight is the beautiful fresco and an image of Nossa Senhora do Rosário.

Adjacent to the main church lies the chapel of Nosso Senhor dos Aflitos. This sacred space holds a special place in the hearts of the fishermen’s wives, who would fervently pray here for the safety of their husbands during tumultuous sea storms. The church’s bell tower, besides its religious significance, also played a pivotal role in the town’s defence, believed to have been used to alert residents of impending French invasions.

For those wishing to explore this architectural gem, the church is open from Monday to Saturday, between 9 am to 12 pm and 3 pm to 6 pm. Entry to the church is free, but for a modest fee of €1, visitors can ascend the tower and be rewarded with a panoramic view of the city.

Capela Nosso Senhor dos Aflitos

The Capela Nosso Senhor dos Aflitos is a 17th-century church, which took nearly two decades to construct. Its façade is distinct, featuring six prominent windows reminiscent of a civil building, adorned with intricate Baroque designs at the top. The interior boasts a beautifully decorated triumphal arch and a striking sculpture of Christ crucified on a side altar. Additionally, the church houses the Capela dos Aflitos at its rear, where a notable tile panel depicting the crucified Christ can be admired.

The church is overshadowed by the neighbouring Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário and has few reviews in comparison. However, one thing that’s particularly interesting about this church are the promessas de cera, or “wax promises,” something you’ll find in many churches around Portugal.

These are moulded into the shapes of answered prayers, for example a premature baby who pulled through; breast cancer that went into remission; or a homes or businesses that survived the financial crisis.

República 14

republica 14

República 14 in Olhão is a vibrant association centred around a unique space designed to make everyone feel at home. It’s a hub for creativity, collaboration, and the development of meaningful projects. The association is dedicated to fostering a diverse range of cultural and sports activities. From music performances, theatre, and dance to exhibitions, book launches, and artistic residencies, República 14 is a melting pot of artistic expression. Additionally, it serves as a platform for gatherings, conferences, debates, workshops, and training sessions, making it a dynamic epicentre for community engagement and learning in Olhão.

Go to the beach

Ilha Deserta near Faro

While Olhão itself doesn’t boast a beach, its proximity to several picturesque beaches ensures that sun-seekers are never left wanting. Whether you prefer to drive or take a ferry, there’s a beach waiting for you just a short distance away.

Praia dos Cavacos
A mere 6km east of Olhão’s centre lies Praia dos Cavacos. Though just about walkable, the journey is along a busy stretch of the N125, making local transport or driving necessary. Don’t worry: there are plenty of taxis and Ubers in Olhão.

Once there, you’re greeted by a quaint man-made beach overlooking the serene waters of the Ria Formosa. A designated swimming area ensures a safe dip, but do note the absence of lifeguards and other beach facilities. However, its lagoon location ensures shallow waters with minimal waves, making it family-friendly.

Praia da Culatra
Venture just south of Olhão, and you’ll find the sandbar island of Culatra, nestled within the Ria Formosa natural park. A brief 20-minute ferry ride transports you to this relatively untouched haven.

The island’s village, devoid of paved roads, exudes an old-world charm, punctuated by a smattering of cafés and bars. The southern side boasts the expansive golden sands of Praia da Culatra, while the northern side offers tranquil lagoons and seagrass meadows teeming with local wildlife. And for those who fancy a drink with their sunbathing, a beach bar stands ready with all the essentials for a perfect beach day.

Ilha da Armona
Eastward from Culatra lies the sandbar island of Ilha da Armona. Another short ferry journey east from Olhão brings you to this island’s welcoming streets, dotted with bars, cafés, and quaint shops.

Two primary beaches grace Armona: Praia da Armona Ria, overlooking the Ria Formosa and conveniently located next to the ferry dock, and the breathtaking Praia da Armona Mar, which faces the vast ocean. This pristine stretch of white sand extends for kilometres, seamlessly transitioning into Praia da Fuseta at the island’s other end.

What to Eat

Olhão, the Algarve’s largest fishing port, is a culinary haven where the bounty of the sea takes center stage. The town’s gastronomic offerings are a testament to the freshness and excellence of its marine produce.

As you wander through Olhão’s streets, you’re greeted by a symphony of scents: the tantalising aroma of fresh fish grilling over charcoal, the rich fragrance of cataplanas, and the savoury notes of razor clam rice and xarém. The dishes here are prepared in the traditional fisherman’s style, ensuring that the natural flavours of the ingredients shine through.

Among the local delicacies, xarém with conchilla stands out, having been recognized as one of the 21 finalists in the 7 Gastronomic Wonders of Portugal. Other specialties include alhada ray, Olhão-style litão, anchovies, clams, and the iconic Olhão folar.

Speaking of Olhão folar, this traditional Easter cake is a marvel in itself. Known for its layered structure, the cake is generously coated with sugar, butter, and cinnamon, resulting in caramelized leaves that are visually striking. Unlike other breads, the Olhão folar remains moist over time, with its caramel exterior offering a delightful contrast. The sweetness and aromatic nature of this bread make it stand out among Portugal’s diverse bread offerings. João Mendes & Rita, a family-run establishment, has been crafting this delicacy for around four decades, preserving its rich tradition.

Beyond seafood and baked goods, Olhão boasts a range of artisanal products that capture the essence of the Algarve. Fazenda do Cré Primeiro is renowned for its traditional liqueurs and brandies, infused with regional flavors like carob, cinnamon, fennel, rosemary, and figs.

Monterosa’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil, produced in Moncarapacho, is a result of meticulous craftsmanship. The olives, handpicked and immediately processed using ancient Roman techniques, yield an oil of unparalleled quality.

For canned delicacies, something that’s typical in Portugal and other Southern European countries, Conserveira do Sul, a family business since 1954, offers a range of pâtés and canned fish under various brands. Their store in Olhão is a must-visit for gourmands seeking authentic Algarvian flavors.

Getting Here

  • Flying: The nearest airport to Olhão is Faro Airport, which is situated around 17 minutes by car. At the airport, you can get a taxi or Uber to Olhão.
  • Train: Olhão is on the trainline and there are regular trains between Faro and Olhão as well as the rest of the Algarve. From Faro, you can also connect to other destinations in Portugal like Lisbon and Porto. For tickets and timetables, see cp.pt.
  • Bus: Buses connect Olhão with the rest of the Algarve, particularly towns that don’t have train stations, and the rest of Portugal. For local buses, see vamus.pt. For longer distance coaches, see Rede Expressos and Flixbus.pt.
  • Driving: The drive from Faro to Olhão takes around 15-20 minutes along the N125, depending on traffic. It’s always recommended that you rent a car when exploring the Algarve, although Olhão is quite well connected by public transport due to its train station.

 

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