Many people fly into Faro when starting their holiday in the Algarve, but fail to realise that the region’s capital is a much-overlooked gem of a destination. Instead of simply moving onto one of the more popular resorts, why not take some time to explore this wonderful city?
Faro is surrounded by the Ria Formosa National Park, giving visitors the opportunity to explore its stunning beaches and take boat trips with ease. The city itself dates back to Roman times when it was known as Ossonoba and by the 9th century had been fortified with defensive walls.
Much of this structure was destroyed during an earthquake of 1755, but you can still see remnants to this day, as well as several decorative arches. The oldest area of the city is quite compact, making it easy to explore, while there are lively bars, restaurants and cultural institutions dotted around the whole of Faro.
Entering Cidade Velha – the old town – via Arco de Vila from Faro marina offers the visitor a good first impression of the historic centre. From here you can meander through the cobbled streets until you find yourself in Largo de Se.
This large square is lined with fragrant orange trees on one side and dominated by Faro Cathedral on the other. It was originally constructed in the 13th century, with additions made in the 14th, but much of the interior decoration dates back to the 17th century.
In 1596, the Earl of Essex’s forces ransacked the cathedral and set it on fire, leading to repair work having to be carried out. Another setback occurred when parts of the structure were destroyed during the 1755 earthquake, but the main doorway and two original chapels survived.
For an unusual experience step into the chapel of bones, which was put together in the 18th century with the remains of the monks. Skulls and other bones line the walls with the express purpose of reminding visitors of their own mortality.
From the top of the cathedral’s tower you not only find yourself at the same level as the stalks that nest on the roof, but are also presented with a stunning view. Notice the pyramidal roofs of the 17th century Episcopal Palace and the long white facade of the Episcopal Seminary, built during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Before leaving the Cidade Velha be sure to visit the Museu Municipal, where many of the archaeological finds that have been unearthed locally are now on display. These include the magnificent Mosaic of the Ocean, originally created in the third century, but buried beneath the earth for many years until it was discovered in 1976.
Immediately outside the Cidade Velha is the charming Manuel Bivar Gardens and Faro marina. This areas makes for a nice place to stroll and takes you to the Porta Nova pier, from where you can take a boat to the surrounding islands. It makes for a pleasant journey through the Ria Formosa and the chance to see some interesting birdlife.
Walking away from the sea you will come across some lovely cafes and restaurants on the pedestrianised shopping streets, interspersed with squares of varying sizes. As you continue inland the city becomes noticeably more modern, with offices and apartments appearing on the landscape.