Olhão is a traditional fishing town in the east Algarve, Portugal. Unfortunately for Olhão, it has a reputation of being a more rugged working town, than a tourist destination. However, if you’re willing to ignore the reputation, Olhão is a great town to explore and is perfect for a day trip to experience some of the real Algarve. It’s also a great point to explore the Ria Formosa, and with good transport links to the wider region and some of the more traditional beauty spots. The commercial centre has a warm atmosphere spread across several lively streets. The biggest fishing port and fish market? Well that results in fresh fish daily and some of the best fish restaurants in the Algarve! Read on to find out everything there is to see and do in Olhão, Portugal.
How to get to Olhão, Portugal?
Olhão is only 10 minutes from Faro by car on the N125. If you’re using public transport, Olhão is served regularly by bus from Faro. Unless you’re visiting from the coastal east Algarve, buses will usually originate in Faro to get to Olhão. The main services are operated by EVA, Faro to Olhão (63), and Faro to Vila Real de Santo Antonio (67). If you’re visiting from the east Algarve then the number 67 departs the towns of Tavira, Monte Gordo, and stops at Olhão before returning to Faro. Alternatively, the train is also a good option as Olhão has a station on the regional line in the Algarve. If you’re coming from Faro, it’s just two stops west from Faro’s central station. The regional line has multiple stops across the Algarve so this is a good route if you’re coming from major towns like Albufeira, Loulé and Tavira.
The Municipal Market – Olhão Mercado Municipal
In a prominent spot on Olhão’s waterfront is the large twin red brick buildings of Olhão’s Mercado Municipal. The municipal market is made up of two identical rectangular buildings. The eastern one is the fish market, while the western is the fruit and vegetable market. The first market in Olhão actually dates back to 1866. Like many other markets during this time, you could only really describe it as a simple shed. In 1912, it was decided Olhão needed a proper municipal market to serve its growing population. Taking advantage of the impetus of progress dictated by the Republic, the City Council promoted the construction of the two markets that exist today. They were inaugurated in 1915. On Saturday mornings, visitors to the market can experience a much larger farmers market. Local farmers and producers exhibit and sell their products directly on the streets around the market building.
Was Olhão Municipal Market designed by Gustave Eiffel?
Interestingly, you will hear lots of people claim Gustave Eiffel designed the Olhão Market buildings. Yes, the very same Gustave Eiffel behind the Eiffel tower, and in Portugal the Ponte Maria Pia in Porto. Multiple blogs, Instagram posts, local hotel websites, and even Wikipedia continue to list Olhão Mercado as one of his works. However, this is simply not true. The official listing on the Portuguese register of Patrimonio Cultural does not list him as the architect or designer. Just to make sure we reached out to both the Municipal Archive of Olhão and the Municipal Museum and both confirmed that Gustave Eiffel did not design or build the municipal market buildings. They are attributed to José Lopes do Rosário who in 1910 held the position of Chief of Studies and Construction of Roads and Public Buildings in the Eastern Algarve.
Caíque Bom Sucesso
Behind the municipal market on a small pier you’ll find a replica of a boat called the Caíque Bom Sucesso. This type of boat is called a caíque and the name translates to Good Luck in Portuguese. The story of this boat? The original, a small vessel at 20m long and 5m wide would make the treacherous journey across the Atlantic from Olhão all the way to Brazil in 1808. It’s a particular point of pride and a major event in the town’s history. The background of this story is the French occupation of Portugal in the early 19th century. At the beginning of June 1808, a small uprising in Olhão, would envelope the whole of the Algarve. By mid-June, following a series of small land battles and naval engagements by the simple fisherman and farmers from Olhão had united the major towns of Faro and Tavira.
Soon after, the whole region declared the expulsion of the French. On the 7th July, a small group of fishermen in a small boat would depart Olhão to tell the exiled Prince Regent the good news. It would take them nearly 3 months, but they arrived in Brazil on the 22nd of September. On their arrival in Rio de Janeiro they would be greeted by the Prince Regent João VI. Who would be informed about the popular uprising being led by Olhão. To congratulate the fisherman and the people of their success, the king would designate Olhão a Vila. Officially giving it the title of Vila de Olhão da Restauração. This separated Olhão and its township from Faro allowing it set up its own municipal offices and granting it many freedoms.
Our Lady of Rosary Church – Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário
Within a short walking distance from the municipal market you can find the main church of Olhão. Officially called the Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário or Our Lady of the Rosary Church in English. It was built between 1698 and 1715, supposedly from the donations of local fisherman and their guild. The highlights on the inside are the roof decoration a beautiful fresco and an image of Nossa Senhora do Rosário and the Baroque altar piece. On the rear of the church, you can find the chapel of Nosso Senhor dos Aflitos. This was the place where the fishermen’s wives would pray on stormy days for the safety of their husbands out at sea.
Municipal Museum of Olhão
Across the street from the Olhão’s main church you will find the Municipal Museum of Olhao. It’s housed in the former Casa do Compromisso Marítimo. A building that dates from the 18th century and was initially meant to support fishermen. This museum has a small collection of archaeological materials and information about the history of Olhão spread across three exhibits. The three exhibits cover some Roman history, Maritime history and the importance of salt production in the area. Unfortunately, the museum is only in Portuguese, so if you’re Portuguese is lacking you might not get to find out too much. However, the entrance is free if you want to see some of the exhibits.
Parks and Street Art in Olhão
Olhão has several large open spaces that form nice parks and places to rest or enjoy some open space. On either side of the market buildings are two of these parks. One is called Jardim Pescador Olhanense and the other one is called Jardim Patrão Joaquim Lopes. Although less parks and more just open spaces away from crowds they do have some nice focal points in the form of ceramic tiled benches. These ceramic tiles depict historic events of Olhão like the voyage of the Bom Successo. Elsewhere in Olhão you’ll also find some interesting statues depicting local folktales and stories. As well as large murals showing the industrial history and heritage of Olhão.
Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, Olhão
The Ria Formosa is a lagoon system that stretches 60km along the coastline of the Algarve, approximately Faro all the way to Manta Rota. It’s a tidal lagoon system that’s made up of peninsular land, barrier islands, tidal inlets, beaches and wetland. It is home to a variety of wildlife and an important habitat for many migrating birds. Due to its unique habitat, it’s classified as a protected area that’s governed by the ICNF, Portugal’s natural heritage body. The headquarters of the park are located just 2km east of Olhão in Quinta Marim. It has as a small visitor centre, a circular walk with informational signs, and a tide mill that’s now a museum. It’s not only seabirds and marine life, if you’re looking carefully you might also spot some very rare chameleons among the trees! It costs €3 to enter and your fee supports the infrastructure and the ICNF.
Explore the Ria Formosa Natural Park on Your Own
If you’re more of a self-guided person, then there are several other routes to experience the Ria Formosa without using the visitor centre above. A short walk to the west of the market buildings will lead you to a small area of the lagoon. It’s popular with dog walkers and runners and gets you upfront to several abandoned saltpans and behind them several that are in use. You’ll see both machinery and hand harvesting of salt at the right time of year. Among the abandoned saltpans you’ll see an array of wildlife, foraging birds and lots of crabs. It’s also a beautiful spot to watch a sunset.
A second option is a specific wildlife watching tour of the Ria Formosa and its islands by boat. There are several available from Olhão. These will take you through the channels, and usually let you spend an hour or two roaming some of the islands around Olhão before bringing you back to the town. Bigger boat trips with lots of people can be around €10 per person, while small groups and smaller boats can be organised for €30 per person. The trips range from a couple of hours to full day tours with lunch included.
Is there a beach in Olhão, Portugal? A quick guide to Olhão’s best beaches!
Unfortunately, there is not a beach directly in Olhão. However there are several beaches within walking, driving or even a ferry ride away. Some of these beaches are actually regarded as some of the most beautiful in the Algarve. We’ll start with the closest, Praia dos Cavacos. The area around these beaches is typically beautiful as they are all part of the natural park. They’re excellent places to spot local wildlife in the marshes and saltpans around the beaches. Particularly worthy of note is the variety of wading birds that scan the silt as they hunt for food with their long beaks. You can expect to see black-winged stilts, pied avocets, black-tailed godwits, little stints, white storks, flamingos and various members of the heron family. just behind the beach.
Praia dos Cavacos
The first and simplest to get to is Praia dos Cavacos. It’s approximately 6km east from the centre of Olhão. It’s possible to walk there, but it’s a long walk along a small but busy stretch of the N125. So, it’s probably better to take local transport. If you’re driving, it’s marked as Estacionamento Praia dos Cavacos on Google Maps. When you arrive you’ll find a small but pleasant man-made beach facing the cool waters of the Ria Formosa. As well as the beach, an area is sectioned off for swimming. Other than this though, there are no beach facilities and no lifeguards. As it’s on the lagoon, its shallow, with barely any waves, so still safe for family swimming. A short walk to the west will lead you to an abandoned tide mill that makes an interesting focal point for a walk while trying to spot some wildlife!
Praia da Culatra
Culatra Island or Ilha da Culatra, is one of the sandbar islands that is located just south of Olhão. The island is still part of the Ria Formosa natural park and is one of the barrier islands that shelters the lagoon waters. It’s a 20-minute ferry ride to reach Ilha da Culatra from Olhão. On Culatra you’ll find a relatively undeveloped village with no paved roads and a few cafés and bars. On the south side of the island is the long stretch of golden sand that makes up Praia da Culatra or just Culatra beach. Opposite, on the northern side you’ll find the lagoons, pools and seagrass meadows that are a habitat for local wildlife. As well as the village and its facilities, Praia da Culatra is also served by a large beach bar that offers all the usual beach facilities for a day at the beach.
Praia da Armona
To the east of Ilha da Culatra is the second sandbar island in the vicinity of Olhão, Ilha da Armona, or Armona Island. It’s another short ferry ride this time to the east of Olhão. The ferry dock leads directly into the small streets of Ilha da Armona where you’ll find several, bars, cafés and small shops. Here you can find refreshments and your typical beach gear before going to the beach. Technically, there are two official beaches on Ilha da Armona, Praia da Armona Ria and Praia da Armona Mar. Praia da Armona Ria faces the Ria Formosa and is right next to the ferry dock. Praia da Armona Mar is perhaps the most stunning beach and faces the ocean. It’s a long stretch of white sand that stretches for several km. In fact this stretch of beach becomes Praia da Fuseta at the other end of the island.
To get to either of the islands you’ll need to use the passenger ferry or a water taxi. Typically, a one way fare on the ferry is €1.85 for adults, and €1.10 for children.
Best Restaurants in Olhão, Portugal
Vai a Volta – Offers great atmosphere in a small restaurant that only serves grilled fish. Once seated, you’re given a small starter of bread, olives, and tuna paste. Then a mixture of potatoes, salad and açorda. After this a plate of fresh grilled fish, that includes salmon and mackerel will be brought to your table. At this point they’ll keep bringing a selection of fresh grilled fish to your table until you tell them to stop. At €12 it’s incredible value and a great experience. The restaurant gets very busy so get there early!
Mare Shrimp & Stuff – If you didn’t guess from the name, specialists in shrimp and seafood dishes in a cosy environment. It’s located just off the main street. Although pricier than everything else, their traditional cataplana is exceptional!
Indian Hut Restaurant – Tucked away in a narrow street just of the main road this restaurant offers some delicious food and is perhaps one of the best Indian restaurants in the east Algarve. We can highly recommend either the Goan style fish curries or a Saag. Indian hut also has a selection of vegan and vegetarian options if you’re looking for something vegan in Olhão.
Cha Cha Cha – Another small and friendly restaurant slightly hidden away from the main street. Specialising in local tapas/petiscos style food. It’s proudly local and serves a selection of salads, fresh fish and meat dishes. Desserts that are gluten free too, if that’s a dietary requirement of yours. Unfortunately, cash only, so bear that in mind before visiting!
Events in Olhão
Festival do Marisco – Every year in August, the Festival do Marisco takes place in Olhão. This is a festival dedicated to all types of seafood and typically the local specialities. There is a wide variety of music, local acts, and an arts and crafts market for entertainment once you’ve had your fill of seafood!
Pirata Festival – Yes, a festival dedicated to pirates. August 2020 will be its 6th year running and each year its got bigger and bigger. Okay, so it might be more based on your Disney pirates and fancy dress, then historical pirates. But it’s still a great celebration of local culture, food and music. And a great excuse to dress like a pirate if you want!
Should you visit Olhão, Portugal?
Olhão is a great place to visit to experience the real coastal Algarve. With enough things to see and do to fill a day trip, and with enough to see and do to fill a longer weekend or more it’s a great place to spend a weekend or longer. With some beautiful beaches in easy range, it’s great for a beach holiday to!