Commonly cited for having some of the best beaches in Europe, The Algarve in Portugal is home to miles and miles of stunning coastline.
Despite only being a three-hour flight from Manchester, The Algarve isn’t somewhere we’d visited before now. In fact, we have only been to Portugal once, when we headed home from Brazil via Lisbon for 48 hours. That is one thing worth noting about Portugal – if you fly TAP Portugal long haul, you can get up to 5 nights free in Porto or Lisbon without paying a stopover fee!
The Algarve is a popular tourist spot, so there was no shortage of hotels to stay in. After much research I settled on the small fishing town of Olhão, mainly due to its tranquillity and location. Only 15 minutes from where we flew to in Faro and with easy access to a number of island locations, Olhão seemed like the perfect spot for our short 4 day stint in the Algarve.
The purpose of the trip was to celebrate the end of Joelle’s time at her workplace, where she’d been for almost 11 years, and for her birthday, so were just after a few days of relaxation in the sun.
As it happens, Olhão was the perfect fit and we were both pleasantly surprised with how beautiful it was, and the sheer volume of restaurants and bars for such a small town. While we were there, we stayed in the Hotel Cidade de Olhão which I can highly recommend. The rooms were comfortable and clean and the pool area was a really nice space to spend a few hours in the sun. It was also a mere 5 minutes walk to the main street, and 10 minutes walk to the port.
We arrived to Faro in the late afternoon, so after checking into our hotel we headed down into the town to grab a bite to eat. I’m relatively new to the vegetarian way of life, but will eat fish if there isn’t the option for veggie goodness. Veggies and vegans take note: your choice will be limited. We settled on a fish platter which was…interesting.
Where to visit
One of the main draws of Olhão is its close proximity to the Ria Formosa. A maze of canals, islands, marshes and barrier islands, stretching 60 kilometres along the Algarve coast, the Ria Formosa is one of the “seven wonders of Portugal”. We took the time to visit a couple of the barrier islands and their beaches, including Ilha Da Culatra and Ilha Da Armona.
Ilha Da Armona
We only spent half a day on Ilha Da Armona, and it was more than enough time to explore the island. In the summer months, ferries leave Olhão to Armona every hour from 7:30am onwards, and cost €3.80 return. After a 20 minute ferry, we arrived on the island and straight into the town centre. It’s worth noting that prices for food and drink are considerably higher than prices on the mainland, so it’s worth picking up water and snacks to bring with you. We learned this the hard way.
There are kayaks available to hire from an outlet on the island, but we took a walk through the beautiful village and to the Atlantic side of the island to the beach. This meant colder sea water, but less people, as the stretch of beach on the Atlantic side of the island is huge. The walk took about half an hour in total, and was uncovered the entire way. It’s safe to say we were ready for some water and a sit down by the time we got there. As is the general theme with most of this trip, we spend the afternoon on the beach relaxing, reading and napping, before heading back into the town for one of the best toasties I’ve ever eaten, and to get the boat home.
Ilha Da Culatra
Ferries to Ilha Da Culatra from Olhão are less frequent – closer to one every two hours from 7am. Again, it was an absolute steal at €3.80 return, though the journey was a little bit longer at half an hour. It was much of the same on Culatra – we walked to the Atlantic sea side of the island and treated ourselves to a sun umbrella. The beaches here in my opinion were much more beautiful than those on Armona, and the handy beach bar was in great position when we were ready for an ice lolly to cool down.
We didn’t have lunch on Culatra as we’d learned our lesson from our trip to Armona, and had bought enough snacks from the supermarket to keep us going. In summary, the beaches on both islands were beautiful and well worth the trip.
Heading back to Olhão from Culatra took a little longer than expected as the ferry heads to pick up in Farol before heading back to the mainland – which became an hour-long journey all in all.
Eating and drinking in Olhão
I think Olhão might be a hidden foodie destination, we found so many great places to eat and drink in the town. If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, the two market halls on the port front are the perfect place to pick up fresh fish, fruit and veg.
In terms of eating out, there are a multitude of options. Off the back of a recommendation from my friend, Nick we headed to a backstreet tapas bar one night. Just off the main road, I don’t think we would have found it had it not been for his recommendation, but I’m glad we did. Tapas e Lendas offered outdoor seating and live music, but the real winner here was the food itself. It was honestly some of the best tapas I’ve had in a long time, and service was impeccable. To the tune of €35 we had 6 tapas dishes to share between us, a glass of wine each and bread and olives to start. If you eat out once in Olhão, it should be here.
Apart from Tapas e Lendas, Restaurante Sabores da Ria in the main square offered good fresh fish dishes. Prego@Fundo, also in the main square was a good sports bar – useful at the time as we needed somewhere to watch the Women’s World Cup. Round the corner from the main square was a really great craft beer place – Saaz craft beer. The staff here were incredibly friendly and knowledgeable, and spoke to us in great depths about the rising craft beer scene in The Algarve. To our surprise, one of the staff members even rolled off a couple of names of Manchester-based craft breweries, which we were extremely impressed with!
Overall, I would highly recommend Olhão for a quick getaway. The small Portuguese streets are lovely to wander in the sunshine, the food and drink is great, and there are a number of islands within short reach. I think we’ll be back one day!