The best independent guide to Olhão
The best independent guide to Olhão
Olhão is a characterful fishing town in the central region of the Algarve.
The town has a pretty waterfront, a busy fishing harbour and a maze of cobbled back streets within the fishermen’s quarter. Olhão opens out onto the calm waterways and lagoons of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, while to the south are the sandbar islands of Ilha da Armona and Ilha da Culatra, with their beautiful beaches.
Olhão is one of the only towns within the Algarve where the primary focus is not tourism, this is a busy fishing town, with a hardworking people. Olhão is also a comparatively new town; the first stone building was only constructed in the late 17th century, and the Nossa Senhora church dates from 1715.
This lack of historic sights and gritty working town appearance may deter certain tourists, but this is a shame, as Olhão is the most authentically Portuguese town in the Algarve. The restaurants and cafes are filled with Portuguese, the traditional fishermen’s houses are owned by locals, and the predominant language heard is Portuguese.
This article will provide a tourist guide to Olhão, and includes a tour of the town along with details of the main tourist attractions.
Related articles: Algarve introduction - Faro guide – Tavira guide
Olhão makes for an enjoyable destination for a day trip. The town has a range of unique tourist attractions, and the atmosphere of Olhão is very different from the major resort towns in the Algarve.
The main sights of Olhão can be seen within two hours of sightseeing, and the day could be extended by visiting the beaches on the Ilha da Armona or the fishing community on the Ilha da Culatra.
Another option is to explore the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. There are boat tours that depart from Olhão harbour, or there are pleasant hiking trails around the Quinta de Marim, where the visitor centre is situated.
For your day trip, it is very easy to travel to Olhão as it is served by the Algarve regional railway.
Below is an interactive map for a suggested day trip to Olhão. The green route is a suggested tour of Olhão town, while the yellow route is a 3km trail around the Quinta de Marim.
Sights: 1) Avenida da República 2) Nossa Senhora do Rosário church 3) Nosso Senhor dos Aflitos chapel 4) Museum of Olhão 5) Olhão town hall 6) Praça Patrão Joaquim Lopes 7) Mercado de Olhão 8) Jardim Pescador Olhanense 9) Bom Sucesso boat 10) ferries to Armona and Culatra 11) Olhão fishing harbour 12) Fishing murals 13) Fishermen’s district 14) Quinta de Marim 15) Tidal mill museum
Olhão is not a conventional holiday destination, such as Albufeira, Lagos or Tavira. Olhão is a residential fishing town, with a charming historic centre but equally some very bland and dilapidated areas. The other aspect about Olhão is that there are no beaches within walking distance and a ferry must be caught to travel to them.
If you are on a touring holiday, Olhão can make for a good base to explore the central Algarve region, with day trips to Faro, the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa and Estoi.
The beaches of the Olhão region are found on the southern side of the two sandbar islands, Culatra and Armona. These two islands can be reached by ferry services that depart from Olhão harbour.
The beaches extend along the entire length of the islands, and offer over 10km of golden sands and calm seawaters. As the beaches are protected by the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, they have a pristine setting, surrounded by sand dunes and beach vegetation.
The beaches of Culatra and Armona tend to be very quiet, especially when compared to other beaches in the Algarve. On the Ilha da Culatra is a traditional fishing village, while Armona village is filled with holiday homes.
If you are on holiday in or near Olhão, these beaches will not disappoint
Olhão market is the vibrant heart of Olhão, and is divided between two Arabic inspired red brick buildings. The eastern building houses the largest fish market in the Algarve, and is packed with stalls selling fresh fish from previous night’s catch.
Within the western building is a produce market, and the varied stalls sell locally grown fruit and vegetables, flowers, breads and regional handicrafts. Surround both markets are a selection of cafes and bars.
The market is open Monday to Saturday (closed Sunday), on Saturday there is an outside market with an assortment of stalls; further details can be seen of the market’s website: mercadosdeolhao.pt
Moored at Olhão harbour is a replica of the “Bom Sucesso” fishing boat. This small boat and seventeen fearless fishermen managed to navigate from Portugal to Brazil, in 1808, using only the stars and a simplistic map.
The fishermen made this perilous voyage to Brazil in order to send a message to the exiled king João VI, about the defeat of Napoleon’s army in the Algarve. The tiny boat of just 20m in length and with two sails, which was designed for sardine fishing, managed to sail a journey of over 5,500km. This heroic act was rewarded with Olhão being given the status of a town, freeing it from the rivalry between Faro and Tavira.
The Bom Sucesso replica is open to the public and free to enter.
The replica of the Bom Sucesso fishing boat
The fisherman’s quarter, close to the port, comprises narrow cobbled alleys and whitewashed houses.
The houses of this area were constructed in a cube shape, with one or two stories, and flat terraced roofs. The roof terraces and flat roofs provided an unimpeded sight of the harbour and allowed the fishermen’s wives to watch for the safe return of their husbands. The design was inspired by Moroccan architecture and are referred to as “cubist” houses.
The fishing heritage of Olhão has been capture in some beautiful wall murals that line the old canning factory, on the Rua da Fábrica Velha, which leads into the fisherman’s quarter.
The cube shaped houses of the historic centre of Olhão
The Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário is the late 17th-century Rococo styled church that stands at the centre of Olhão. The church’s construction was funded by donations from the fishermen and was completed in 1715.
To the rear of the church Capela de Nosso Senhor dos Aflitos, and is where families come to pray for fishermen, either currently out to sea or lost to this dangerous profession. The bell tower can be climbed (€1.00) and provides wonderful views over Olhão.
The saltwater mudflats, tidal lagoons south of Olhão are protected by the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa.
The sandbar ecosystem is an important habitat for birds and small aquatic life. There are numerous wading birds (Egrets, Ibis and Spoonbills), and it is an important resting point for birds migrating between Europe and Africa. The calm waterways are home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of seahorse (long-snouted and short-snouted seahorse), and there are even rare Pond Turtles.
The “natural park” designation also safeguards traditional methods for fishing for shellfish and limits the extent of tourist development along the coastline. The park’s head office is in the Quinta de Marim, and from here is an enjoyable 3km route that encompasses all the different ecosystem (mudflats, pine forest and sand bars) of the protected region.
The calm waterways of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa
Faro is a historic city, which contains a fortified centre encircled by Moorish walls and a pleasant pedestrianised shopping streets.
Both Olhão and Faro provide similar access to the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa and are equally popular for day-trippers. Faro has more to see for a day trip, and is the more unique city to visit, due to its strong Moorish heritage.
The market town of Loule is also a popular day trip location but Olhão, with its harbour and old town, is better than Loule.
If all the Algarve day trips were to be ranked the order would be: Tavira - Silves - Faro - Olhão - Loule
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