A distinctly North African atmosphere permeates the narrow streets of this attractive and busy fishing port. Clustered near the riverfront, the flat-roofed houses have a Moorish design signature, an architectural heritage from the days when Olhão traded goods with Morocco. The city is deprived of all outstanding historical sites. Instead, you will find plenty of other fun things to do. Visitors are charmed by Olhão’s local character, especially if you visit the bustling market on the harbor front or take a stroll on the lively Avenida da Republica, the main street.
Olhão is also an ideal base to explore the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa and the sandbank islands of Armona, Culatra and Farol. The protected natural park is a haven for marine life, and taking a sightseeing cruise is the best way to appreciate this beautiful and fragile habitat. For sun worshippers, the island’s beaches are peaceful and secluded and virtually untouched by tourism.
Read also: Tourist Attractions in Salvador
It’s often still dark when Olhão’s market starts trading, and if you arrive before dawn you can see groups of gray fishermen landing their catch on the harbor side. Business starts early here, and by dawn the locals are already gathering for the best buys. The covered market is split between two early 20th-century redbrick buildings, each characterized by onion domes with corner turrets. One houses the fish market, the other sells meat, fruit and vegetables. By mid-morning, both are bubbly. The choice of fish and seafood is mind-boggling. The marble-topped tables groan under the weight of shiny tuna, sea bass, and the ubiquitous sardine. Opposite, in the second hall, the whole Algarve countryside looks like it’s for sale. Look out for specialties like succulent figs and golden squash. For a real treat, come on a Saturday morning, when outdoor stalls line the quayside tempting customers with flowers and homemade jams.
Address: Avenida 5 de Outubro, Olhao
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Olhao
2 Quinta de Marim
Olhão is on the border of the Natural Park of Ria Formosaand three kilometers east of the city center is Quinta de Marim, the park’s headquarters. The fairly basic facility doubles as an environmental education center and is located within the conservation reserve. The quiet area is ideal walking country and you can spend several hours after signing up nature trail from the car park winding through coniferous forest, coastal dunes and mudflats, salt marshes and freshwater lagoons. An interesting archaeological feature along the way is an old tide mill, the last of 30 that used to be on the Ria Formosa. Ahead are the remains of five Roman salt tanks of the 2nd century. The park is a birdwatcher’s paradise, and squadrons of white storks can often be seen overhead, spiraling on a thermal area. Among the many resident wading birds is the rare purple gallinule; a seasonal treat is the greater flamingo. Also keep your eyes peeled for appearances by violin crab, the harmless viper snake and, if you’re really lucky, the Mediterranean chameleon. The trail eventually leads back to the visitor center.
Location: about three kilometers east of Olhão city center, just off the EN125 highway.
3Ria Formosa Natural Park
Natural Park of Ria Formosa
One of Europe’s most important wetlands and a prize draw for tourists who love nature and the great outdoors, the Ria Formosa Protected Nature Reserve follows 60 kilometers of Algarve coastline, from Praia de Faro Unpleasant Cacela Velha. A valuable and delicate ecosystem, the lagoon area of marshes, salt pans, islets and channels is a haven for resident and breeding wetland birds, including the rare purple gallinule. The lagoon waters are also home to numerous species of fish. Sheltering from the Atlantic Ocean, this pristine environment is a series of barrier islands – huge sand dunes, in fact – natural anchors for a diversity of flora and attractive to wildlife such as snakes, toads and the shy Mediterranean chameleon.
To fully appreciate this beautiful marine park, consider the relaxing Ria Formosa Natural Park Four Islands Boat Trip from nearby Faro. The boat cruises through the shallows for about five hours, exploring the remote and almost deserted sand dune islands.
4 Nossa Senhora do Rosario
Sights in Old Town Olhão include exploring the Parish Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Built between 1681 and 1698 and financed entirely with donations from the local fishermen, this is the town’s most prominent historic building. The whitewashed baroque façade glows positively when the sun shines, but it is the external chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos, located at the back of the church, which attracts the attention of the public. In a tradition that goes back centuries, women still come here to pray for their husbands’ safety when there’s a storm at sea – a display of devotion that’s quite moving. Inside, when open, visitors can climb the clock tower for an inspiring view over the maze of streets and flat-roofed terraces that characterize the old town center and the Ria Formosa out there.
Address: Praca da Restauracao, Olhao
5 Ilha da Armona
Ilha da Armona
Olhão is sheltered from the open sea by a series of barrier islands – flat narrow sandbars that are part of the protected area Natural Park of Ria Formosa. One of these is Ilha da Armona, a pristine nine-kilometer sandbar that is accessible ferry from the city’s waterfront. The island of Armona, a popular summer destination for day-trippers, is dotted with holiday homes and a number of cafes. Otherwise, it’s the swaths of gloriously soft, white sand that draw visitors, and the farther away from the pontoon you walk on, the less likely you are to share the beach with anyone else. Pack a picnic and plenty of sunscreen.
6 Island of Culatra
Ilha da Culatra
The ferry from Olhão connects the city to a number of barrier islands – long, narrow strips of sand that protect the river Natural Park of Ria Formosa of the open sea. Culatra is one of the busier islands: the village of Culatra, at the eastern tip of the spit, has a resident population of about a thousand. Eschewing the trappings of modern life (there are no cars here), the islanders maintain a more traditional way of life that charms visitors. Fishing is the mainstay, which is probably why the fish restaurants are some of the best in the Algarve. Another endearing feature is the beach – a long stretch of white sand as soft as velvet.
7 Ilha do Farol
A towering lighthouse with a scarlet roof (farol) is the signature feature of this popular holiday destination. Confusingly, Farol is still part of Ilha da Culatra – the western tip of the island is where the lighthouse is located, so locals refer to the area as “Ilha do Farol.“Tourism is well established here, and a regular ferry service runs from Olhão and Faro. Clusters of holiday homes are located near the jetty, served by a number of excellent restaurants. The sprawling beach is known for its lively cafes, which are a magnet for teenagers.
8 Museu da Cidade
Olhão’s jolly town museum is housed in an 18th-century mansion that once served as the headquarters of the Maritime Commission and has significant architectural merit. The museum’s collection is in fact an illustrative history of the city and its immediate surroundings. A modest but attractive variety of archaeological finds on display on the lower floor include Bronze Age pots, fragments of Iron Age tools, and Roman and Islamic vases. On the upper floor, Olhão’s industrial and maritime heritage is explored with a variety of artifacts, such as 19th-century fishing equipment and gear, oil presses, and a display of model fishing boats. Vintage black and white photos of Olhão and its inhabitants decorate the walls.
Address: Praca da Restauracao, Olhao
Discover more must-see sights in the Algarve
Portugal’s southernmost province is a delight to explore at any time of the year. Known for its world-class beaches and luxury resorts, the Algarve is also home to several must-see historic towns, places such as Tavira, Lagos and Portimão. The Algarve’s cultural influence is enhanced by some of Portugal’s greatest monuments, including several impressive castles. Leisure options also include a mind-boggling choice of top class golf courses. To get the most out of your trip and plan your trip, check out our Portugal itineraries page.