Why Olhão and the Ria Formosa make a perfect short break!

June 21st, 2024 |

Olhão and the Ria Formosa

The Ria Formosa Natural Park stretches along 60 kms of the south-east Algarve coast - you can see its whole expanse as you fly over and into Faro airport to land. 

Protected from the open ocean by a labyrinth of barrier-islands and pristine stretches of sand, its lagoon and tidal marshlands are a sanctuary for over 200 species of waterbirds, seahorses and chameleons amongst others. 

Just a few kilometers east of Faro the old fishing town of Olhão, is the perfect location if you're dreaming of a few days break by the sea, but don’t want to spend every moment on the beach. 

The islands of Armona, Culatra, Farol and Deserta are easy to get to – you can either take a small ferry which runs multiple times per day during the summer or a river taxi.  They all go from the same place, just 150m east along the waterfront from Olhão market.

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Ilha de Armona

The nearest island to get to, Armona is 9 kilometres in length and up to 1 kilometre wide and has about 50 permanent residents who live mainly from fishing tourism activities. The size of the island makes it perfect for a full day out, with a long slow lunch at one of its beach bars and a beach walk too, before or after your meal.

Armona does attracts quite a few visitors during the high summer months, due to its paradise beach of fine white sand and shells, washed up by almost transparent sea water. But as the island stretches for many kilometres, if you are willing to walk a bit more, you will have the beach almost to yourself.

When you arrive at Ilha de Armona, you will walk through the village’s main street which has some simple eateries, cafes and shops where you can stock up on essentials before you hit the beach. 

There are two different parts of beach to this island, and they each have very different water temperatures: the side that faces the ocean is remarkably colder than the water channel between the island and the mainland. 

Praia da Armona Ría faces the mainland and is where the boats will drop passengers off. 

Praia da Armona Mar is the beach that faces the ocean and consists of a long stretch of sand as far as the eye can see. 

A wooden boardwalk from the centre of Armona will take you straight to the Atlantic side of the island (Praia da Armona Mar) which is the best part and perfect for swimming despite the colder water temperature. The footpath is about 1,5 kilometres long and the walk to the beach will take approximately 20 minutes. 

On this side of the island there are also a couple of beach bars  – either will make the perfect spot for some fresh grilled fish and a bottle of chilled white wine.

From here, you can walk all the way to the eastern tip of Armona, which is also known as Fuseta.  Make sure to stay for the sunset though (it will not disappoint) but don’t miss the last boat back to the mainland! 

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Traditional Architecture

Back in Olhão, walking around and looking out for its typical architecture elements is also a must. The town’s narrows alleyways and winding streets with pastel-coloured cubic houses of Moorish characteristics, are fun to explore.

At the highest point of this fishing port town (the top of the main church tower) you can enjoy a unique urban panorama - the hundreds of “açoteia” roof terraces built on top of the old fishermen quarters were originally designed for drying fish and fruit. 

Algarve Platibanda 3

As the towns industrialists and ship-owners grew rich from the fish processing business and trade, they decorated their homes with “azulejo” tile façades as well as adding ornamental freeze bands to the top of houses known as “platibandas”. This traditional Algarvian architectural style of crowning the facade was meant to hide the roofs behind it, whilst the more detailed and brightly painted “platibandas” were used to symbolize the status of its wealthy property owner.

Another traditional Algarve symbol are the lace-like chimneys that rather resemble minarets - a reminder of the Arabic influence in the region even though they first appeared in the 19th century long after the moors disappeared. They were once made by skilled masons and each unique in its design. Many modern houses of today will feature similar styles, but these are now mass-produced, and it is hard to find anyone skilled enough to build an original chimney.

The Market

Olhão’s great quayside market, sells fish straight from the sea as well as a wide variety of locally grown produce. And just outside, there are also some great little shops selling handmade baskets and pottery. After strolling through the various stands, sit and enjoy a beverage at one of the many surrounding cafes, whilst watching the typical hustle and bustle of a market day. 

Olhao Market Building

Must not miss

There are many eateries to choose from within the town’s Moorish maze of streets, but our favourite is Chá Chá Chá at Travessa do Galibéu 19 (tel +351 918 727 242). You can sit outdoors or indoors as the mood takes you, choosing from a daily menu of delicious market-to-plate Mediterranean style cuisine. Be sure to book however, as it is extremely popular.

Cantinho Opala concept store and deli/café is located at Rua do Comercio 106-108. Due to open soon, it is a unique space set inside an amazing, converted merchant house, first established in 1889. The Morales family originating from Ayamonte in Spain, lived above the shop for many years, and ran their business downstairs. The building has been lovingly restored to its former glory by current owners, and Olhão has gained a new place to socialise with like-minded people, browse the shop, and eat some delicious home-made food. You can also host a private dinner or event for up to 70 guests.

Or just sit at any Olhão cafe and join in some local gossip!

Olhao Locals

Tavira nearby

A bit further east between and the Spanish border, is the charming old town of Tavira and the Gilão River, which reaches the sea through the inlets and lagoons of Ria Formosa Natural Park. 

Tavira Island has a long, sandy beach, plus salt pans that attract flamingos, spoonbills and other wading birds. In the centre, medieval Tavira Castle has city views and Santa María do Castelo Church houses the tombs of 7 knights killed by the Moors.

Fresh fish and seafood including oysters and clams, regional wines and sea salt extraction are central ingredients of the delicious local gastronomy!

Where to Stay?



Capacity: 8

Bedrooms: 4



From €5,357 for 5 nights

“Exquisite Waterfront Villa is just the place to fine-tune the art of doing nothing, other than enjoying cooling dips in the secluded swimming pool or outdoor meals with stunning views over the Ria Formosa Natural Park.”

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Capacity: 4 + 2

Bedrooms: 2



From €710 for 3 nights

"Amidst Olhão’s cubic Moorish architecture, this gem of a townhouse with a rooftop plunge pool, is perfect for a couple getaway or small family holiday."

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Capacity: 6/12

Bedrooms: 6



From €5,700 for 6 guests/4 nights

"Enjoying panoramic views of the Ria Formosa, this beautiful waterfront property comprises two houses each with a heated pool, fully serviced by a resident housekeeper and private cook."

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Capacity: 22

Bedrooms: 12



From €11,500 for 5 nights

"A luxurious and stunning townhouse with rooftop swimming pool and terrace, ideal for a large group looking to celebrate a special occasion or for a corporate get-together."

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