I always enjoy visiting Olhão in the Algarve but I was a little nervous about taking a visiting friend there in April to show her its understated charms. Would she find it too low key or shabby? Not at all! In fact, she loved its laid back authenticity, as did other friends of mine who spent a few days there in May 2023.
There are plenty of things to do in Olhão if you like this kind of place.
While there are few major monuments in Olhão, besides the market, the largest fishing port in the Algarve has wonderful murals and sculptures that brighten up its streets and share the stories and history of the town.
It’s a great base for exploring the marvellous Ria Formosa Natural Park, which has won the Marine Area category of the ‘7 Natural Wonders of Portugal’.
I’ve also bought some delightful art work and ceramic pieces made by great local artists whenever I’ve visited, as well as stocking up on fig cakes at the market!
So, along with other ‘must see’ things to do in Olhão, here are my recommendations that will make you glad you added it to your Portugal itinerary.
1. Shop for local produce at Olhão Market
The two iconic red-brick market buildings (one sells fish, the other fruit and vegetables) right near the waterfront are a great place to check out the fresh goods and be part of the local hustle and bustle.
The market was built in 1915 and renovated in 1997 and it’s a great place to do some people watching, especially on Saturday mornings when the market attracts extra vendors and spills out onto the street.
This is a great place to purchase souvenirs, especially edible ones. I’m partial to queijo do figo (fig cheese). Don’t worry, there’s no cheese in them, although fig and cheese is a great combination, the name comes from the shape, which resembles a typical Portuguese cheese. It’s a dense mixture of figs, almonds and cacao, sometimes with a splash of the local firewater (medronho). You can see a few (centre bottom) in the photo above.
2. Purchase arts and crafts from local artists
4Elementos Cerâmica & Azulejo studio
You can buy one-off, quality pieces in a range of styles at this fabulous ceramics studio. Run by a husband and wife team, you can see the work of several different artists who are based in Portugal and even take part in one of the workshops available if you plan ahead.
Head to the back of the store to visit the ceramicist’s workshop and see her at work.
For further information check out their Facebook page.
Atelier ZEA art gallery
I’ve always had a fascination for the ornate doorways that you see in many of the buildings around the towns and cities of Portugal, particularly the ones that have seen better days. I’ve taken endless photos of these but imagine my surprise – and joy – to discover you can buy mixed media replicas of these doorways, in miniature!
Atelier Zea has crafted these amazing pieces in incredible detail and as soon as you enter her shop you’re met with an explosion of colours. She has paintings there too if you’re not into doorways.
For more examples of her talents, check out her Facebook page.
The gallery is open Monday to Friday from 9:30 am to 12 pm and 4 pm to 7 pm. Saturday 9:30 am to 1 pm. Closed Sunday.
Mosaic Olhão on Rua de Comercio has LOTS of finished pieces for sale and you’ll probably see the artist at work in the shop, making more decorative pieces of varying sizes.
Workshops are possible so if you’re staying a few days in Olhão, enquire in advance to see what’s possible. They also do commissions.
Shop for quality cork products at Ideal. Although this independent local shop still sells shoes, you’ll find a range of cork purses and other accessories, all of which are made in Portugal, rather than China.
3. Relax at one of Olhão’s parks and gardens
The beautiful town of Olhão is home to many parks and green areas that provide the perfect spot for a little relaxation.
Jardim Pescador Olhanense
One of the best places to visit is the Jardim Pescador Olhanense, located next to the market on the waterfront. It’s a small park full of lush palms and grassy areas, a perfect place to sit back and take in the views of the lagoon and the marina.
Jardim Patrão Joaquim Lopes
The Jardim Patrão Joaquim Lopes is a continuation of the above gardens that offers wonderful views over Ria Formosa Lagoon from the other side of the market buildings. It consists mostly of trees, making it a peaceful haven where you can recharge after wandering around town, or wait for your boat trip (see below).
Quinta de Marim
To the east of Olhão old town, within the Ria Formosa park you’ll find Quinta de Marim, both a tranquil walking spot and an environmental educational centre. The 3.5 kms of paths meander through woodland, coastal dunes, mudflats, salt marshes and freshwater lagoons, offering bird watching opportunities.
You’ll find interesting archaeological finds like ancient tide mills and 2nd century Roman salting tanks.
4. Stroll along the waterfront at sunset
Besides being the location to catch a boat to the islands, the harbour is a nice place to stroll around. A lot of money has been invested in the riverside area and there are plenty of restaurants and bars that overlook the water.
5. Marvel at the Bom Sucesso fishing boat
Anchored in the marina just in front of the market, you’ll find a replica of Bom Sucesso, the fishing boat with quite a story to tell.
Back in 1808, 17 fishermen from Olhão climbed aboard the 20 metre length vessel and somehow managed to cross the Atlantic ocean to Brazil to tell King João IV that French invaders had finally been driven out of Olhão.
As acknowledgement of their bravery, the king granted Olhão a special charter giving its residents administrative freedom from Faro, eventually allowing them to grow as a fishing port and canning centre.
In 2008, to celebrate the centenary of this remarkable voyage, the replica was built and takes pride of place in front of the market.
6. Visit the fisherman’s quarter (Bairro dos Pescadores)
Take a walk in the Bairro dos Pescadores (Fisherman’s quarter) and you’ll find a warren of cobbled alleys and whitewashed cube-shaped houses.
The flat terraced roofs and low walls around them were designed so that the fishermen’s wives had an unimpeded view of the harbour and could keep a lookout for their husbands to return from sea safely.
7. Go back in history through Olhão’s murals
Wander around Olhão and you’ll find marvellous murals that pay homage to the men and women of this fishing community.
The most important and interesting murals are on and around Rua da Fábrica Velha. They depict the true heritage of the town: fishermen at work in their boats, their wives cleaning fish or working in the canning factory, the nets laying on the harbour and many more vignettes of times gone by.
These and other fantastic murals are the work of 4 artists who were commissioned by the local council. Using old photographs and resources, they have produced murals which go a long way to capture what must have been the essence of Olhão in the past.
In Largo da Fábrica Velha (Old Factory Square) there is an information board which explains that the first canning factory in the Algarve was established here at the end of the 19th century. This new industry provided a boost to the local fishing and ship-building activity as well as the development of the town.
8. Find the legendary sculptures of Olhão
Another fun way to learn about the myths and legends that belong to Olhão’s rich heritage is through its sculptures. Dotted around the old town, you’ll find characters such as the Missing Boy, Marim, and my favourite, Arraúl, who stands proud in Largo João da Carma.
This metal giant, with his stiff long hair, is the son of Hercules. Legend has it he was swallowed by a whale but survived this trauma and was brought ashore at the place where Olhão now stands. He fell in love with the location and built a sand barrier to protect it, thus creating the barrier islands of the Ria Formosa.
9. Visit the parish church
The parish church of Olhão, aka Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário, was built between 1698 and 1715, with the contribution of local fishermen. The front and rear facades of the church are eye-catching with some intricate stonework, particularly along the top, and inside there’s a lovely gilded wooden carved altar blending into an ornate ceiling.
It’s believed that the bell tower was used to warn the populace of the imminent French invasion.
Opening times are Monday to Saturday, from 9 am to 12 pm and from 3 pm to 6 pm.
Free entry. €1 to climb the tower for a view of the city.
10. Explore the Ria Formosa Natural Park
Stretching to the east and west along the coastline of the Algarve you’ll find a series of lagoons, wetlands, marshlands and islands. Combined, they form the Ria Formosa Natural Park.
This natural reserve is home to an abundance of wildlife and a variety of plants essential for their survival. It’s a well-loved area and very popular amongst locals and tourists.
There are many bird watching excursions available as well where people can observe species such as curlews, flamingos and terns. This one uses an eco-friendly solar boat which allows you to get close without alarming the birds.
If you fancy a cycle around the park there are a number of bike rental places close to Olhão market.
11. Visit the Ria Formosa islands
Although Olhão has no beaches itself, a quick ferry or boat ride will take you to some lovely islands with gorgeous beaches.
The lagoon has a system of barrier islands (remember the legend of Arraúl?) that connects to the sea through six inlets; five natural ones and one artificial. These islands are very popular to visit mainly because of the beautiful sandy beaches, but also for the opportunity to appreciate the natural beauty and seclusion that you can find.
My friend and I took a boat trip to the islands to get a taste of what they’re like
Try this 5-6 hour boat tour in Ria Formosa which includes explanations of the fauna, flora and fishing activities that are so important to the local communities.
You don’t spend all the time on the boat, by the way! There are stops at each island of between 45 and 90 minutes, which gives you time for lunch, a swim and a stroll through the villages to the other side of the island.
Ilha da Armona
Armona is 9 kilometres in length and its main beach on the Atlantic side is very popular with holidaymakers from Olhão. It’s a short ferry ride away and if you’re really eager to get there, a water taxi is even quicker. Fuzeta island beach is further along the island.
This was the first stop on our boat trip and we both really enjoyed the beach and village.
Ilha da Culatra
Culatra is a barrier island to the south-west of Ilha da Armona and 6 kilometres east of Olhão. It’s shorter than Armona (6 kms) and has a small year-round population. On the ocean side of the island is a lovely sandy beach whilst the lagoon side is used for boat anchorage and an active fishing harbour.
To get to the main beach you have to take wooden boardwalks through the protected sand dunes. It took us about 20 minutes each way to walk to the beach, where there’s a small bar and some sun shades to rent.
Ilha da Barreta
Sometimes known as ‘The Deserted Island’, Baretta is one of the more isolated islands in the Algarve. That said, it gets busy in the summer at the eastern end, where there’s a restaurant. You don’t have to walk too far along the sand to find a quieter spot though. It’s around 7 kms long and the public ferry can get you there throughout the year. One of the beaches is used by naturists.
You can take this Ria Formosa 3-Island Full-Day Tour from Olhão which includes opportunities to swim, visit markets and experience life on these islands.
You can try your hand at sailing on this Ria Formosa Half Day Sailing Tour. As part of a small group, you’ll get the chance to learn about the local wildlife and pick up a few sailing techniques.
For something special, try this Ria Formosa Sunset Tour for a great photo opportunity.
12. Go dolphin watching
Although you can never be certain when you climb aboard a boat in search of dolphins, if you’re lucky enough to spend some time with them it can be well worth the wait. Besides spotting dolphins in the ocean you can appreciate the delights of Ria Formosa Natural Reserve on this Dolphin Observation tour from Olhão.
13.Get your seafood fix at Festival do Marisco
One of the most popular events on the Algarve coast is the Festival do Marisco (Seafood Festival), held in August each year at Jardim Pescador Olhanense in Olhão. You can feast on all types of shellfish and bivalves caught in the Ria Formosa and be entertained each evening by well-known artists.
For the first time ever this year, there will be vegetarian options available, too. In 2023, the festival runs from 10th to 14th August.
Where else to eat in Olhão
If you’re in the mood for good seafood and can’t make the above festival, try Restaurante Prazeres (Pleasures from Ria Formosa). Everything is fresh and delicious and the servings are generous. They’re on Avenida 5 de Outubro and opening times are Tuesday to Sunday 12 pm to 11 pm, closed Monday. See here for menus.
There are plenty of good restaurants in Olhão but for something different, Mogno has a whole range of healthy food options, including vegan. We loved it so much we went there both nights of our recent stay!
You’ll find them at Av. 5 de Outubro, 160. Open everyday 9 am to 10:30 pm. See their website for details.
Where to stay in Olhão
There’s a range of hotels in Olhão but the only 5 star one is the Real Marina Hotel & Spa overlooking both the Ria Formosa Natural Park and marina. Luxury rooms come with a balcony and there are 2 restaurants onsite. It has all of the facilities you’d expect from a 5 star hotel. See photos.
It may only be 3 stars but Pure Formosa Concept Hotel really excels and I’m surprised it’s not a 4-star hotel, to be honest. There’s a rooftop pool and bar, beautiful textiles, helpful staff and a great breakfast buffet. Book your room.
For something unique, stay on Mulubinba SeaHouse, a 2-bedroomed vintage boat. It’s tranquil with wonderful sunsets but also offers the opportunity to explore the deserted islands of the Ria Formosa. Read the reviews.