Most visitors to Faro simply pass through on their way to the resorts of the Algarve – which is excellent news if you do stop over.
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You get this atmospheric town with its beautiful medieval architecture and stand-out seafood to yourself. Come for the beaches, of course, but stay for this enjoyably unpretentious, pretty historic town and its natural surroundings.
If you only have a half-day in Faro, make your first stop the unforgettable, if slightly macabre, Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones). This little church, on the grounds of the bigger Igreja do Carmo, has an interior covered with the bones of over 1,000 monks who lived in the city in the 19th century. It’s a beautiful and powerful, if slightly unsettling, place.
Next, make the 10-minute walk to the Old Town, the most beautiful part of the city, where there are several attractions within easy walking distance of each other. Begin with a visit to Faro Cathedral – or the Sé in Portuguese – the most impressive of the Old Town’s buildings, and one of the most historic. As a place of worship, this dates back to 1251, although much of the building was destroyed by an earthquake in the mid-1700s.
Next up, make the short walk to the Igreja de São Francisco, a baroque church and convent dating back to the 18th century. Also not to be missed is the Museu Municipal de Faro, where archaeological exhibits take you through the city’s long history. The museum dates back over 100 years, while some of its artefacts go back thousands, with Roman artefacts and more.
After all that sightseeing, you’ll have worked up an appetite, so head to one of the Old Town’s traditional restaurants to try some Algarve specialities like steamed clams or grilled sardines. A good choice is Dois Irmãos, one of Portugal’s oldest restaurants.
If you’re tired out after your journey, there’s nowhere better to begin your weekend in Faro than with some relaxation on Praia de Faro, one of the finest beaches in the Algarve. While many foreign tourists forego the beach in Faro itself, it has always been popular with Portuguese visitors – always a good sign – and offers three miles (5km) of golden sand to explore. It’s a great place to relax and sunbathe, or try a variety of water sports, from surfing to kayaking.
In the afternoon, head inland to Faro’s Old Town for a bit of sightseeing. Much of the beautiful architecture here dates back to the medieval period, when the Moors ruled this part of Portugal. Historic buildings include Faro Cathedral, the oldest parts of which date back to the 13th century, and the baroque Igreja de São Francisco. Stay in the Old Town to spend the evening, with a wide choice of traditional Portuguese restaurants to choose from and some great live music – head to O Castelo to hear fado, Portugal's popular folk genre.
The next morning explore some more of Faro's fascinating history with a visit to the Capela dos Ossos, or Chapel of Bones. Back in the 19th century, the bones of 1,250 of Faro’s monks were exhumed and used to build this little chapel, making for a memorable and slightly spooky aesthetic, with rings of skulls facing out from ascending circles in the walls. The chapel is on the grounds of the Igreja do Carmo, a rather more conventional but very beautiful church, which is well worth a visit on its own.
On your final afternoon in Faro make time to visit the Jewish Heritage Centre to gain an understanding of a lesser-known part of Faro’s past. The site includes a cemetery, with traditional Jewish engraved marble slabs rather than headstones, and a small museum with some artefacts from the earliest Jewish presence in Faro, in the wake of the Inquisition. To finish off your weekend in Faro make for the lively Rua do Prior, down near the harbour, where you’ll find several lively live music bars.
Begin your week in Faro by immersing yourself in the city’s history, with a walking tour around its beautiful Old Town. The best place to start is the Sé, the city’s historic cathedral. While much of the present structure dates from the mid-18th century, having been rebuilt after a devastating earthquake, the oldest parts were built in 1251. The result is a beautiful hotchpotch of Renaissance, medieval and Gothic styles. Next, make the short walk to the Capela dos Ossos, perhaps Faro’s most memorable attraction: a chapel made from the bones and skulls of over 1,000 monks from the 19th century.
Days two and three
Spend the next couple of days venturing out of the city to explore the beautiful nature reserve of the Ria Formosa, a region of wetlands, lagoons and islands running parallel to the coast. This area is rich in marine and bird life, and boat trips are a great way for birdwatchers to spot storks, spoonbills, flamingos and many more. If you’re feeling energetic then the perfect way to explore the reserve is on a stand-up paddle boarding tour; Algarve SUP runs several tours daily from its headquarters in the south of the city.
Days four and five
After an action-packed couple of days, return to the city and spend some time relaxing on the beach at Praia de Faro. With three miles (5km) of golden sand, there’s plenty of opportunity for sunbathing here, while more active pursuits such as surfing and paddle boarding are also on offer. For a quieter experience, take a boat out to the aptly named Ilha Deserta, where you’ll find largely empty beaches.
On your penultimate day, make another short excursion out of the city, this time to the village of Estoi. This place is famous for the Palace of Estoi, a rococo masterpiece with distinctive pink-hued walls and beautiful ceramic tile decorations. The palace dates from the 19th century, but has been restored to its original glory and is now the site of a luxury hotel, which you can visit as a non-guest.
Older still is the Villa of Milreu, one of the Algarve’s finest Roman ruins. Vestiges remain here of a Roman temple and bathhouse, with mosaics dating back thousands of years.
Spend your remaining time in Faro ticking off some of the remaining sights. The Jewish Heritage Centre is home to a beautiful cemetery and a charming little museum telling the history of Jewish people in Faro. The Museo Municipal, meanwhile, takes a more extensive look at the region’s past from prehistory to the modern day.