The best independent guide to the Algarve
The best independent guide to the Algarve
Olhão is a traditional and 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 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
The Mercados de Olhão - The daily fish and fresh produce market housed in the neo-Arabic styled covered market.
The Ilha da Armona – The sandbar island south of Olhão, which provides pristine sandy beaches and kilometres of deserted coastline. The island is reached by ferry from Olhão harbour.
The Bairro dos Pescadores - The traditional fishermen district of Olhão, with its unique cubic house and authentic Portuguese atmosphere.
The Parque Natural da Ria Formosa – The saltwater lagoons and protected waterways with extensive bird and marine life. The area can be explored by boat tour, kayak or the nature trails that lead from Olhão.
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. (Note: zoom out to see all of the points)
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
The Jardim Pescador Olhanense and Olhão waterfront
The small Museu Municipal de Olhão details the history of the town
Olhão is not a conventional holiday destination, such as Albufeira, Lagos or Vilamoura. Olhão is a 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, the Ilha da Culatra and Ilha da Armona. These two islands can be reached by the ferry services that depart from Olhão harbour.
The beaches extend along the entire length of the two 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 Ilha da Armona is a tiny village filled with holiday homes.
If you are on holiday in or near Olhão, these beaches will not disappoint.
There are quiet section of beach on Ilha da Armona
It is a 20-minute ferry ride from Olhão to the Ilha da Armona
Olhão market is the vibrant heart of Olhão, and is divided between two neo- Arabic red brick buildings. The eastern covered market houses the largest fish market in the Algarve, and is packed with stalls selling fresh fish from the previous night’s catch.
Within the western building is a fresh 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 Saturdays, there is an additional market that fills the stretches around the covered market. Further details can be seen on the market’s website: mercadosdeolhao.pt
The covered market building was constructed in 1915 and celebrates the Moorish history of the region
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 rudimental 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, 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 replica of the Bom Sucesso is open to the public and free to enter.
The replica of the Bom Sucesso fishing boat
The fisherman’s quarter (the Bairro dos Pescadores) is warren of 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 captured in a series of beautiful wall murals that line the old canning factory, on the Rua da Fábrica Velha.
The cube shaped houses in the fishing district
The Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário is a 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 their families. The bell tower is open to the public (€1.00 admission) and provides wonderful views over central Olhão.
To the rear of the church is the Capela de Nosso Senhor dos Aflitos. Historical, the families of fishermen came to this small chapel to pray for their safe return or to mourn the loss of loved ones.
The simple white-washed façade of the Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário
The Capela de Nosso Senhor dos Aflitos
The saltwater mudflats, tidal lagoons south of Olhão are protected by the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa.
This sandbar and saltwater lagoon ecosystem is an important habitat for birds and small aquatic life. There are numerous wading birds (such as Egrets, Ibis and Spoonbills), and it is a vital 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 ecosystems (mudflats, pine forest and sand bars).
The calm waterways of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa
Olhão, Faro and Loule are all popular day trips in the central Algarve region. Faro is a historic city, Loule is a market town and Olhão is a busy fishing port.
In our opinion Faro is the best destination for a day trip as it contains more and varied sights. Olhão is better than Loule as it offers both a pretty waterfront and a charming fishman district.
Related articles: Faro guide – Loule guide
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