Thanks to its inland location, Loulé has remained unscathed from the blight of holiday resorts that mar some of the coastal areas in the Algarve. What you’ll find here is a quiet, attractive town with a strong local community and plenty of culture and creativity.
Here are some of the things to do in Loulé, whether you’re here for a few hours or a longer stay.
You’ll find my Loulé accommodation picks at the end of the article in case I manage to tempt you to stay a night or more. Or use this guide to the best places to stay in the Algarve for other ideas.
Looking for a guided experience? You can get a taste of delicious Algarve cuisine on this 3-hour food and historical center tour of Loulé.
1. Indulge your senses at Loulé market
The market which takes place inside the refurbished Neo-Moorish market hall attracts visitors from all around this part of the Algarve.
The indoor market operates Monday to Saturday from 7 am to 3 pm and sells everything from fresh fish and seafood to attractively packaged gourmet souvenirs of your trip to the Algarve.
When I visited early one weekday morning, it was a very quiet affair, with many stalls still closed and fish deliveries in progress. On Saturday mornings, however, the otherwise laid-back town centre is transformed into a bustling hive of activity, attracting hoards of people.
No longer confined to the indoor market, the streets surrounding the striking building are lined with traders plying fruit, vegetables, freshly fried filhos (batter cakes) liqueurs and bacalhau (salted cod fish).
You can visit the market on a day trip by bus which starts at various places on the Algarve coast.
2. Find a treasure in the craft and souvenir shops in Loulé
There’s a profusion of shops in the historical centre selling cheerful hand-painted ceramic dishes, cork products and locally woven baskets.
Among my favourites is the Projecto TASA shop (Rua de Portugal, 35) where you’ll find the best of several worlds.
The project teams designers with local craftspeople and sets them the challenge of creating something useful to be made with natural products. The results are worthy of anyone’s home. Or bicycle, if you plump for the cork saddle.
3. Learn (a little) of the art of winemaking
Recently the wineries of the Algarve have become one of the highlights of the region, gaining recognition both nationally and internationally. Low temperatures in the winter and high in the summer provides perfect conditions for the local grape varieties.
You can experience some of this history at Quinta da Tôr, a family winery which began in 1500. You’ll learn all about the wine making processes and choose tastings to suit your palate. Check out the details of this Winery & Wine Tasting Guided Tour.
4. Flex your creative muscles with Loulé Criativo
Loulé is Portugal’s first official creative tourism destination. As such, it offers a range of workshops which enable you to learn traditional and contemporary crafts and skills from talented local artisans.
What better souvenir could you take home than one you’ve made yourself?
Well, that depends on the result of your endeavours but either way, you’ll be taking home memories and a story or two. Find out more in this post about Loulé Criativo’s activities.
5. Visit Loulé’s art galleries
You could easily miss the art gallery inside the Convento do Espirito Santo but despite its discreet entrance, it’s worth a visit. I was more than happy to discover a photographic exhibition in the cloisters with gorgeous images of doors, windows and architectural details. Just my cup of tea!
The main indoor exhibition space hosts temporary exhibitions by renowned international and national artists throughout the year.
The privately owned Art Catto gallery is another interesting venue hosting frequently changing exhibitions by extremely talented artists. You can, of course, buy these pieces if you happen to fall in love with them.
6. Explore Loulé Castle, a traditional kitchen and museum
There’s not much left of the 12th century castle but good use has been made of the ruins. In the courtyard, you’ll see a battering ram and other medieval siege weaponry and there’s a small archaeological museum on the ground floor.
Be sure to go up the stairway next to the museum where you’ll find a replica traditional kitchen complete with an array of earthenware, metal utensils and pots plus a couple of figurines in the hearth.
If you’re lucky, you’ll meet Ana Maria Ventura, one of the ladies who work there. She can point out features you may not have noticed, like the hooks on the inside of the chimney where people used to smoke their chouriços and other sausage-type cured meats.
Sra Ventura also showed me the bread-making equipment and explained that as a young girl, she used to make bread from scratch, and I mean from scratch. First she had to grind the wheat using millstones in order to make flour before mixing, kneading and baking the dough.
Because of the amount of work involved, bread-making was a fortnightly event. As you can imagine, by the end of the two-week period the bread was hard and dry, hence its use in açordas (bread-based stews).
After you’ve seen the kitchen, go up another flight of stairs to reach the battlements and two remaining towers.
One of them hosts a remarkable model village with moving parts that are triggered by a sensor. Local paediatrician, Francisco José, trained himself in the art of clay and wood sculpture. The miniature village has a butcher hacking meat, a band of musicians, women washing clothes in the stream and a working windmill, among other characters.
7. Discover the importance of salt
Travel down to a depth of 230 metres and discover the history of the rock salt mine that lay beneath the city of Loulé. You’ll see 230 million years old geological formations and you’ll be sure to learn lots of fun facts about geology and mining.
This 2 hour Rock Salt Mine Tour includes a guide and provides all of the necessary safety equipment.
Tip: The company that own the mine try to use the spaces in an innovative way – look out for the art exhibitions.
8. Marvel at the Islamic baths in Loulé
Don’t be put off by the closed door. It is possible to visit the most well-preserved Islamic baths in Portugal – just ask at the castle/museum entrance and if Isabel, the chief archaeologist and key holder, is around, you’ll be able to go inside.
Before you enter, look at the paving outside where you’ll see the outline of the former baths, which extend beyond the walls of the building that currently sits on top of them.
As Isabel explained, these baths were used by men and women alike, evidenced by the tweezers and beads they found during the excavation. They were shut down in horror when the Christians took the city of Loulé from the Muslims but the population later petitioned the king to reopen them and the bath house was regularly used for at least another generation.
9. Check out the churches and chapels in Loulé
The tiny chapel of Our Lady of Conception is tucked away in the side street near the entrance to the castle. Inside, you’ll find a stunning gold altarpiece and some beautiful blue and white azulejos from the 18th century.
The much larger parish church, also known as St Clement’s church, dates back to the 13th century and some of the artwork in the side chapels is exquisite.
There are several other churches scattered around the town, including the Igreja da Misericordia with its twisted rope Manueline doorway.
10. Sip coffee with locals at an Art Deco café
The 1920s Café Calcinha is a replica of one in Brazil and has kept its period decor and furnishings. Some of the clientèle have been coming for decades, too.
Each time I’ve walked past this café, it’s been busy with locals catching up on gossip over a coffee.
One of the more permanent features is a bronze statue of the city’s favourite poet, António Aleixo. He used to stand in the doorway of Café Calcinha and recite his poems to the customers. Nowadays, he almost sits at your table.
Where to stay in or near Loulé
I’ve stayed twice in the Loulé Jardim Hotel and would gladly do it again. For a 3 star hotel, it has an amazingly rich and varied breakfast and to top it all, there’s a rooftop pool. Check availability and grab a room if you can.
If you’re on a budget, Loulé Coreto Hostel is run by exceedingly friendly and helpful people, has modern decor and a rooftop terrace. Besides dorm beds, there are also private rooms. See photos and room options
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