Tavira is a small riverside town located in the east Algarve. Due to its unique location it blends a historic riverside town, with many of the features of your more typical seaside resort. While retaining much of its authentic Portuguese charm. It’s a great place to base yourself in for longer trips to the Algarve, or a brilliant town for a day trip. Flowing through its historic town centre is the idyllic Gilao river. It’s a slow flowing river that meanders through mudflats and out into the Ria Formosa lagoon. Within the lagoon you’ll find sandbar islands and the delightful Ilha deTavira, Tavira’s seriously impressive island and incredible beach.
What to See and Do in Tavira
Tavira has a unique place in the Algarve. It’s one of the oldest settlements with a rich history spanning the Phoenicians, the Romans, through to the Moorish period. You’ll find evidence, history, and archaeological influence from its long history. Most people tend to start exploring Tavira from the centrally located Praça da República. You’ll find fountains, palm trees, a public auditorium, historic buildings, and lots of cafés. It’s an impressive ‘square’ that welcomes you to Tavira. On one side of the square you’ll find a long building with several archways. This is the Câmara Municipal de Tavira, the equivalent of a townhall in English. The centre of Tavira and its life flows similarly to its river, slowly, and best enjoyed with a coffee!
The Roman Bridge – Ponte Romana de Tavira
The first thing many people notice is Tavira’s historic bridge. Ponte Romana de Tavira. Although the name might trick you into thinking it’s Roman, it’s actually not. It was built sometime around the 12th century, to replace a bridge believed to have Roman origins. It’s unconfirmed if even the Roman bridge existed, but the name stuck! Much of the structure, and its 7 impressive arches also date to improvements made in 17th century. It’s a postcard perfect bridge that’s one of Tavira’s most famous places. It’s pedestrian only so take your time and enjoy the walk if you’re crossing.
Castelo de Tavira – Tavira’s Castle
A short walk from Praça da República, you can find the remains of Castelo de Tavira. The once impressive castle was the location of fierce fighting between the Moors and Portuguese forces during the reconquest period. It’s believed the first castle was of Moorish origin, but evidence of a Phoenician settlement has been found as well. Following the reconquest, and during the reign of king Dinis in the 13th century, it was repaired and reinforced. What remains today are its thick stonewalls, and several towers. The panoramic views from the top of the walls are some of the best you’ll get.
You’ll be able to see along the River Gilao, out into the Ria Formosa, and into the mountains of the Algarve. Inside the castle grounds, you’ll find a well-maintained garden with an array of Mediterranean plants. If the weather is hot, the shade of the walls and tall trees makes it a great place to stop and catch your breath. The castle is open from 10:00-17:00 during winter, and 10:00-19:00 during summer. There are no entrance fees either. So you’re free to walk around and enjoy the atmosphere for as long as you like!
Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo
Exiting out of the rear of the castle will lead you to Largo Abu-Otmane, the location of two of Tavira’s notable churches – it has 37! The first you’ll come across is Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo. It’s bell towers and large white and yellow clock faces are easily recognisable from all over Tavira. The original church was built in the 13th century in Gothic style, with Manueline additions from the 16th century. The church was built on the site of a mosque and Moorish artifacts have been found inside following modern excavations. Like many historic buildings in the Algarve, it was destroyed by the great earthquake of 1755 and then rebuilt.
Of note to the local history of Tavira, are the tombs of the Sete Cavaleiros Mártires and Paio Peres Correia. In English, that’s the seven martyr knights. In the 13th century, the seven knights were ambushed and killed in the countryside around Tavira. The local Order of Santiago led by Paio Peres Correia would have their revenge. They attacked and conquered the city from its Moorish occupiers. It’s said that when Correia passed away, his bones were brought back to Tavira to be buried with the seven knights. Entrance to the church is €2.50, which includes access to the bell tower and its impressive views.
Igreja Matriz de Santiago
A short walk from Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo is Igreja Matriz de Santiago. It’s more sedate in both its architecture and scale, but still a fairly interesting focal point. Once again, it’s possible to head up its bell tower, but if you’ve already taken in the views from either the castle or Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo, you may not want to pay for the same views. The church dates from a similar period and is believed to have been built on top of a Moorish building, however, it was donated to the Order of Santiago where it takes its name from. Its most unusual feature is the large gold medallion featuring a knight on the front of the main façade.
Camera Obscura Tavira
The final attraction in this small area of Tavira is the Camera Obscura Tavira. The attraction is built inside an old water tower which you access through an outside staircase. Inside it, you’ll find the Camera Obscura and a lesson on one of the basic principles of photography. What is it? Well, it’s essentially a lens and mirror system, that projects a real-life observation of Tavira on to a table in front of you. It’s a simple process that has been experimented with for centuries, and eventually led to the invention of photography. Up to 15 people at a time can enter the water tower followed with a guide, many of the historic buildings and monuments visible in the camera are explained. It’s a unique attraction, but at €5.00 an adult it seems a little pricey for us. However, if historic art, and the principles of photography interest you, it might be worth it for you! Honestly, we much prefer the same view from the castle!
Igreja da Misericórdia
Heading back towards Praça da República you’ll find Igreja da Misericórdia. It’s Tavira’s grandest church and the last church we’ll mention in this guide – there’s at least a few more we could mention! Igreja da Misericórdia was built in the mid-16th century and is perhaps the finest example of Renaissance architecture in the Algarve. Admittedly, from a distance the outside is a rather plain affair, but take a step closer and you’ll be greeted with an impressive Renaissance façade and a sculpture of Nossa Senhora da Misericórdia. Continue through the large carved doorway and you’ll be greeted with something quite extraordinary, especially if you’re new to Portuguese architecture.
The Church interior has simple whitewashed walls and a vaulted wooden ceiling supported by eight stone columns. It’s all over the walls that a you’ll find a truly stunning feature. It’s seemingly covered in blue and white Azulejo tiles depicting several bible scenes from the life of Christ. These stunning tiles are believed to have been added in the 1760s. You can find other examples of them in churches of the Algarve like Igreja de São Lourenço in nearby Almancil. At the end of the church you’ll find an eye-catching gold leafed altar. If you’re trying to pick one church to visit in Tavira – there’s really only so many a person can visit in a day – it should be this one. Entrance costs €2, and for an additional €1 you can also head up its bell tower for some great views of Tavira and its river. Inside the church is also a museum housing an array of religious artifacts and historic furniture – if you’re interested in those.
Jardim Público de Tavira – Jardim do Coreto
For something a little more relaxed, take a short walk through Jardim do Coreto. It’s where you’ll really learn to appreciate the slow pace of life Tavira offers. It’s a small, but idyllic palm tree lined park with plenty of benches and outside seating. A popular spot for the locals to catch up in the shade and drink coffee. At the centre, you’ll find a repurposed bandstand, that’s now a water feature and habitat for some rather cute turtles. One of our favourite things to do is grab a takeaway coffee from any of the nearby cafés and people watch under the shade of a palm tree!
Mercado da Ribeira
Continue to the eastern end of the park and you’ll soon meet the Mercado da Ribeira. It’s the original central market that’s since been replaced by a bigger and more modern building a little further away. Unfortunately, you won’t find the traditional market goods inside, but you will find several cafés, restaurants, and an ice cream shop. Several of the establishments have river side seating, which is another great place to sit and watch the river and smaller boats drift past.
Mercado Municipal Tavira
Follow the river just a little bit further, and you’ll find the Mercado Municipal. It’s the much bigger replacement for the historic market at the riverside. For lovers of more traditional markets this is a fantastic place to visit. You’ll find fresh produce, fish and meat, spices and teas, and even local artisan products. It’s one of the best markets in the Algarve, if you enjoy shopping this way. If you’re interested in fresh fish, then its imperative you arrive early. Like most fish markets, there isn’t much left past midday! If you’re staying in Tavira and want to get involved in local life, this is a great place to do some shopping.
Tavira Museum – Museu Municipal de Tavira
For history lovers, and anyone interested in the history of Tavira, Museu Municipal de Tavira is a worthy place to visit. It’s currently housing an exhibition on the Islamic history of Tavira and the Algarve. The Moors ruled over the Algarve from the 8th century to the 13th century and left cultural remains in many places. It features notable artifacts in several small exhibits. It is a small, but intriguing museum. It’s open from Monday to Friday, 9:15 am to 4:30 pm and entrance is €2.
The Best Beaches in Tavira
The Algarve is perhaps most famous for its incredible coastline and beaches, and Tavira has its fair share of excellent stretches of sand. Keep reading to find out the best beaches to explore when visiting Tavira.
Praia da Ilha da Tavira
The biggest and best beach is on Ilha de Tavira – widely known as Tavira island. The white sand beach stretches for nearly 4km before it blends into Praia do Barril. It’s impressive for a beach walk, or simply to find your own space! The pristine waters are usually given a blue flag each year, and there’s an array of restaurants and bars for refreshment. It’s surprisingly easy to spend a whole day on the beach! Unfortunately, accessing the beach is its biggest problem. You’ll need to take the regular water ferry, or a private water taxi. Which means it sometimes misses out on the freedom of other beaches in the region. It’s white sand and pristine waters are still very impressive though and not to be missed.
Praia dos Tesos – Tavira
Again, access isn’t as simple as many would like, but another beach within easy reach of Tavira, is Praia dos Tesos. It’s more famous for wildlife spotting and the Forte de Santo António de Tavira, than it is for its beach. But for short walks, or even small swims, it’s a nice enough beach to visit. It’s an approximate 3km walk, or drive from the centre of Tavira. The walk is exceptional though, and will take you through the saltpans, and alongside the Ria Formosa before reaching the beach. Keep an eye out for Flamingos too, the saltpans are a popular feeding spot!
Praia do Barril
The last noteworthy beach within easy reaching distance of Tavira is Praia do Baril. It’s 6km outside of Tavira and accessed by a postcard worthy toy train. For those not wanting to wait for the train, or for days it’s not in operation a simple footpath is available alongside the track. To access Praia do Barril you’ll need to head to the holiday village of Pedras d’El-Rei to find the start of the bridge. There is plenty of parking available, and regular bus service from Tavira. Once you’ve made the crossing, you’ll find the white sand Praia do Barril stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions. You’ll find the full beach facilities available, included sun bed, parasol rental and lifeguards. There’s two cafes and public toilets as well.
The other thing Praia do Barril is famous for is the ‘Graveyard of Anchors’. A small section of beach with a tribute to the tuna fisherman and community that used to call this area home. Now long gone, all that’s left is an array of anchors laid out as if they’re gravestones.
Somewhere to Stay in Tavira?
Tavira has a wide range of hotels for all budgets and occasions. For somewhere that is equal parts luxury and charming, consider Pousada Convento Tavira near the city centre. It’s a 5-star hotel in the grounds of a 16th century convent. For something a little more quiet and natural, consider Vila Gale Albacora. It’s a luxurious hotel and spa in the grounds of a former tuna factory on the banks of the Ria Formosa. With direct access to a beach, and its own private boat service to Ilha da Tavira it’s a serene experience. Alternatively, for a guesthouse, or your own apartment, take a look on Airbnb for some wonderful options.
Should You Visit Tavira?
For a small town Tavira really punches above its weight for things to see and do. It really does have a little bit of everything, and something for everyone. Arts, culture, history, some awesome food, and of course some of the best beaches in the east Algarve! Tavira should be on your bucket list for at least a day trip, if not more! Let us know in the comments if you’re planning on visiting Tavira soon!