The Algarve is often seen as a patchwork of smallness – some pretty ghastly resort towns mixed with cute fishing villages and other settlements that are little more than a castle. Faro, therefore, offers something that nowhere else in southern Portugal can manage – a proper city, with a life that seems to extend beyond keeping visitors happy. Night-time energy feels organic rather than forced and seasonal; Phoenician and Roman pasts get a chance to shine without being drowned in identikit concrete development.
The beach being on an island well away from the city centre can be off-putting for most, but this is a strong part of what keeps the local feel so unusually dominant for the area.
A comfortable bed
Right by the marina, the Eva is generally regarded as the top choice in town. The rooms are bland, but the lobby goes for all-white minimalism, and the 25-metre by 10-metre rooftop pool, with views across the Parque Natural de Ria Formosa, is a massive drawcard. Double rooms cost from €83 (Dh341).
The recent refurb at the nearby Hotel Faro has given rooms a crisp, bright look, but the faux-wood lino floors give the nagging feeling of being done on the cheap. The rooftop views are marvellous, though, and the free shuttle service to the beach club (and airport afterwards, if desired) is a great USP. Rooms cost from €102 (Dh420).
Stay Hotel is a solid three-star option – the rooms are bigger than they need to be, although costs are kept down by charging €6 (Dh25) per (optional) room service. Rooms cost from €45 (Dh185).
Find your feet
Starting on the gorgeous black-and-white mosaic-tiled pavements around the marina, head into the small-but-cute walled old town. Here, the SÃ© is a squat, doughy-looking thing from the outside, by cathedral standards, but inside it’s an absurd carnival of baroque gilding, carving, lacquering and engraving. The short trudge up the tower – only 68 steps – offers the best views of the town and the marshy islands beyond.
The nearby Museu Municipal de Faro is inside a former convent. The building is arguably more memorable than the displays, although remnants of the Roman history of the Algarve are well-preserved and the huge Mosaic of Oceanus (2nd to 3rd century) is fabulous.
Outside the city walls, the Museu Regional do Algarve on Praça da Liberdade has lots of stereotypical “ye olde peasant way of life” stuff, but the black-and-white photos of the towns and villages before the tourism boom are wonderful.
Meet the locals
The Parque Natural de Ria Formosa, a lagoon-like estuary that divides Faro from the Atlantic Ocean, is a complex network of tidal flat islands and a hugely important wetland for birds. Formosamar is among several companies offering boat trips around there to see the storks, spoonbills, egrets and more. The best ones are the €25 (Dh103), two-hour, nature-focused trips on simple wooden boats, where binoculars are provided for keen birdwatchers.
Book a table
Faz Gostos in the old town serves up local classics, such as the €19.50 (Dh80) wild sea bass casserole with clams and shrimps, with attentive service and a touch of old-school class.
The split-level Adega Nova manages to pull off rustic atmospherics with pots, pans, old clocks and antique pistols all over the walls. Again, seafood is the main draw, with the monkfish rice rather good value at €14.50 (Dh60).
The pedestrianised streets in the city centre have a decent smattering of chains, designer outlets and indie shops. Grapheria on Rua de Francisco Gomes offers some gorgeous stationery – particularly pens – for example.
In the old town, there are a few galleries, the most charming of which is the chaotically disorganised Galeria da SÃ© on Rua da Porta Nova, opposite the cathedral. It has no sign on the door, but sells some lovely tile art.
The Igreja de Nossa Senhora de Carmo on Largo do Carmo is a splendidly gaudy church, but the chapel at the back is truly something different. The bizarre Capela dos Ossos is made from the bones of thousands of monks. Skulls, knee joints and elbow bones cover the walls and ceiling in what has to be one of the most macabre interior-design statements in the world.
What to avoid
Several boat tours head out through the Parque Natural de Ria Formosa, all offering something slightly different, with different journey times. Pick carefully, as some just offer slightly unsatisfying tasters of several spots – such as milling around on a sand island for half an hour without enough time to properly enjoy the beach, or an hour’s lunch break in a pretty enough village with not enough to see. If it’s just the beach you want, take one of the €10 (Dh41), 35-minute catamaran ferry rides to Faro Beach with Animaris.
Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Lisbon from Dh3,660 return. From Lisbon airport, take the Metro three stops to Oriente station, then take a train to Faro, which costs from €22 (Dh90) and takes about three hours.
Source: art & life