Tacky tourist traps make me want to run screaming back to the countryside. Thankfully, Tavira has managed to avoid such horrors despite being in the Algarve, i.e. Portugal’s most popular region for tourists and expats. Although unspoilt and decidedly laid back, there are still plenty of things to do in Tavira.
Rich in history and culture, Tavira is the perfect place to take your time and soak up the peaceful atmosphere.
If you happen to be there in spring, you’ll enjoy bonus wafts of orange blossom as you wander around the streets admiring the traditional architecture.
Note: If you’re thinking of using it as a base, see my guide to the Best Places To Stay In Tavira.
Here are my suggestions for what to do in Tavira.
1. See Tavira through the camera obscura
Housed in the old water tower next to the castle, the camera obscura claims to use Leonardo da Vinci’s technology to give visitors a 360º view of Tavira.
I was unsure as to how impressive this would turn out to be but Mike was keen so we paid our money and waited until a young man came to collect us.
He took us up into the tower via an elevator and told us to stand around a gigantic white dish. The room went black as our guide switched off the lights and demonstrated how the double lens mirror system enabled him to project real time images into the dish.
By gradually alternating the camera focus and angles, he took us on a virtual tour of Tavira, pointing out places of interest and elaborating on their stories.
We learned about the haunted old boys’ school and the ‘temporary’ bridge that’s been in place for the past 26 years. We even got to see the salt pans that we’d heard about but wouldn’t have time to visit on this occasion.
The camera obscura is open Monday to Friday from 11 am to 3 pm, and costs 5 euros.
2. Stroll around Tavira Castle gardens
There’s very little left of Tavira’s medieval castle but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it.
Inside the castle walls lies a beautiful small garden and you can climb up old stone steps within the walls to get even better views over the city. Just be careful as there are no railings or safety features!
If you don’t fancy walking uphill to the castle, check out one of the Tavira tuk tuk tours.
3. Cross the Roman bridge in Tavira
The current structure was actually built in the 17th century but everyone calls it the Roman bridge because of the style of its arches.
The temporary bridge I mentioned earlier was built following the 1989 floods which took out the Roman bridge for a while. Nowadays, it’s the focal point of the town and extremely photogenic, although my efforts leave much to be desired.
Take your time strolling across it – you might encounter buskers or street sellers on the bridge itself or spot people fishing in the Gilão river. At low tide, you’ll see fishermen knee-deep in the water, scooping their triangular nets.
4. Watch the world go by in one of Tavira’s pretty squares and gardens
Tavira is perfect for sitting in a square or riverside café for a spot of people watching. We were treated to an impromptu dance routine by a girl who was blissfully lost in the music in her headphones and the sheer joy of a younger girl, skirt tucked into her knickers, who was running between the short jets of water in the fountain.
There are several cafés with outdoor seating in Praça da Republica – some of them do delicious cakes, too.
Other options include the café at Mercado da Ribeira, just through the small park, the café to the left of the Roman bridge, or the ones on the right of the bridge in Rua Borda d’Agua da Assêca.
Another pretty square in Tavira is Jardim da Alagoa, also lined with cafés and restaurants.
A small, peaceful garden near the churches of St James and St Mary of the Castle is Jardim do Largo Dr Jorge Correia.
5. Go shopping for Algarvian crafts and produce
Instead of being littered with cheap nasty souvenir shops (although they do exist here), Tavira is a great place to find tasteful, arty products you’d actually be proud to have in your home.
A particularly good one, for quality homeware and decorative objects, is O Arco, just over the Roman bridge.
Not far from this is Sunkiss Deco, which sells quality handpainted ceramics from different regions of Portugal.
Look out for local craft markets,too. We found one in the gardens at Largo da Republica and inside the Mercado da Ribeira with goodies ranging from delicious fig cakes to gorgeous handmade ceramics.
Or see this article for more suggestions about Portuguese gifts and souvenirs.
6. Try fig ice cream. Or chocolate!
It’s probably the most delicious ice cream I’ve ever tasted. Gelataria Delizia have three outlets in Tavira and sell other flavours of their 100% natural artisan yumminess.
If you don’t fancy an ice cream fix, why not try fig chocolate instead? For this, head to iBelle, an artisanal chocolate shop that’s a bit out of the main centre, on Avenida Doutor Mateus Teixeira de Azevedo, but worth the effort. They have lots of other flavours, including the locally produced flor de sal (gourmet salt crystals).
You can combine a tuk tuk tour with a visit to this chocolate shop.
7. Go inside one of Tavira’s many churches
For such a small town, Tavira has a lot of churches. 21 within the town itself and 37 if you count the outlying parishes.
Even though many of them are locked up most of the time, the one priest that serves them must be extremely busy!
Among the churches that are usually open to the public, the 16th century Igreja da Misericordia has an impressively carved gold leaf altar and blue and white azulejo panels depicting the 14 acts of mercy. Much of the decor is from the Baroque/Renaissance period, as is the case in most of Tavira’s churches because of the devastation caused by the 1755 earthquake.
Another impressive church with an amazing trompe l’oeil ceiling is Our Lady of the Waves, aka Nossa Senhora das Ondas or Igreja de São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo.
8. Stay in a 16th century convent
The former Our Lady of Grace Convent near Tavira Castle has been transformed into a luxury hotel with a delightful cloistered courtyard.
The convent was originally founded by Augustine monks in 1542 and was added to over the years. After the abolition of religious orders in Portugal in 1834, the building served as a military barracks but you’d never guess that from the tastefully decorated interior.
More info and bookings: Pousada Convento de Tavira
9. Discover Ilha de Tavira
Just a few hundred meters off the coast, to the south of Tavira, lies Ilha de Tavira or Tavira island. There you’ll find 11 kms of the best beaches in the Algarve, perfect for swimming or sun bathing. There are also places where naturism is legally allowed.
There are a number of ways to get to the island. You can take the ferry that leaves from the center of Tavira or Doca de Quatro Àguas, see here for schedule and prices. Ferries leave all year round from the Doca but only during the summer from the centre. Another advantage of Doca is the amount of free parking available.
Another option is a water taxi. There are many to choose from and, although they are more expensive than the ferry, you do get your own boat and when you want to go.
To the west of Tavira is a small place called Santa Luiza where you can catch a regular summer ferry to one of the beaches.
And, just a little further along, is Pedras d’el Rei where you can walk across a footbridge or take a tourist train to the island.
10. Walk the Tavira salt pans
Historically, salt has played a huge role in the prosperity of Tavira. It was even exported throughout the Roman Empire and today this ‘flor de sal’ is a vital ingredient for many chefs. Salinas (or small salt basins) are found throughout the nature reserve and provide some excellent walking routes.
If you do decide to try one of the routes remember there is very little shade so take hats, sunscreen and water. And bird watchers will probably be rewarded with some great sights, too.
11. Find an anchor cemetery
I finally got around to walking to Praia do Barril one Christmas Day.
Essentially, you get three treats for the price of one: a marshland and dune nature reserve, a beautiful beach and a wonderful photo opportunity from the rows of rusty anchors laid to rest in the sand.
These anchors are the remaining remnants of a thriving tuna fishing industry once practiced on the island. Between 1841 and 1967, upto 80 families lived on Barril beach and practiced a form of fishing that used the Almadrava technique, an ancient method that captured migrating tuna. In the 1960s the tuna numbers declined due to a change in migratory patterns and the industry collapsed. These anchors – used to weigh down netting – were put here to commemorate what was once an important part of life for the locals.
This unusual sight is just a few kilometres outside of Tavira. To get there, you can either cross the pontoon from Pedras d’el Rei or take the bus to Santa Luzia for a longer, circular walk.
Tip: If you go there off season, or on Christmas Day or any other public holiday when most things are closed, take your own refreshments as the café/restaurant was closed.
Guided tours in and around Tavira
If walking around the town feels like too much effort, there are tuk tuks such as this 60 minute tour.
If you want to visit as many of the Eastern Algarve’s pretty towns as you can in one day, take this full day tour.
Wondering where else to stay in the Algarve? See my guide to the region’s best accommodation and towns
Algarve guide books and maps
Pack a dedicated regional guide book and map to help you make the most out of your time in the Algarve.
Click to see more about these :
Algarve Travel Guide: 54 Cities/Towns/Villages gives you an overview of the most significant settlements in the Algarve with practical information that’s useful for holidaymakers as well as those researching a place for relocation.
If you’re just coming to the Algarve for a holiday, this pocket guide covers the key places of interest and more Algarve Marco Polo Spiral Guide (Marco Polo Spiral Guides)
You may find a map comes in handy too: Algarve Marco Polo Map 1:150,000 (Marco Polo Holiday Maps)
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