Mosaic-paved pedestrianised streets, an old town ringed by medieval walls and a palm tree- lined harbour give the Algarve’s laid-back capital a more Portuguese feel than most resort towns. As well as its museums, churches (including the fascinating Chapel of the Bones) and al fresco cafes galore, there are also boats and buses making the short trips to beautiful beaches nearby. Praia de Faro is an island connected by bridge, where 5km of golden sand runs along the sea-facing side, the rear overlooking lagoons.
With its orange-tree-lined cobbled streets, the Old Town has plenty of charm; enjoying a fish dinner here as the sun sets over the ancient walls, is one of the best things to do in Faro. Pottering around the antique shops and art galleries is a great way to spend an afternoon. Make a stop for Vila Adentro, a café-restaurant set across two 15th-century townhouses. The interior is beautifully tiled in azulejos depicting moments from Faro’s history. There’s an old well in the floor too, and steps allegedly leading to a secret tunnel, once used to escape sieges.
Eco-tourism has taken off here, with birdwatching, bike rental, hiking, kayaking and sailing all on offer as part of Faro holiday packages. Dolphin-watching trips depart from Faro’s jetty is a great way to get up-close to both marine and bird life. Boats depart below the old town walls and usually offer a chance to skirt around the Ria Formosa Barrier Islands, a protected wildlife area. A tour usually costs between €25 and €45 and takes between one and three hours.
A stroll around the harbour is a delight, with its shimmering waters flanked by palm trees. It’s an idyllic scene, with fishing boats moored alongside sleek ocean-going yachts. At the end of each day this is where Faro’s locals gather to enjoy the attractive town gardens and outdoor cafés overlooking the marina. Head south along Rua Comandante Francisco Manuel, and you can follow the railway line for a lovely seafront walk, with the town walls on one side and the mudflats on the other.
You might think the Algarve is all about that coast, but inland has its own lures, too. In Faro’s Museu Municipal, housed in an impressive 16th-century convent with a cloister, Roman history is brought to life through art. Its highlight is 3 rd -century mosaic showing the Roman god of water, Neptune, and the Four Seasons. There are also Roman statues, exquisite Moorish lamps, vases, and a variety of Baroque and Renaissance paintings. The statues come from the Roman site at Milreu (pronounced mil-rio), 10km north. In the sleepy town of Estoi, it features some of the Algarve’s best preserved Roman ruins. The best part is the bathing complex, with an underfloor heating system and striking fish mosaics – there’s also an apodyterium, or changing room, sporting arched niches for clothes.
From its quaint whitewashed exterior, you’d never guess the ghoulish goings-on inside: Capela dos Ossos, which translates as Chapel of Bones, is one of the more macabre things to do in Faro. At the back of the baroque Igreja do Carm church, you can buy a ticket to view the creepy chapel at the rear. Inside, it’s lined wall-to-wall with the bones and skulls. Created in the 1840s, an estimated 5000 corpses were exhumed, and then used by the Franciscan monks to decorate the walls of the chapel in neat geometric style.
Pencil in a beach day when you’re planning what to do in Faro. The island of Praia de Faro – linked to the city by a bridge – has a long sweep of beautiful sand on its sea-facing side, the other a sheltered lagoon. You’ll find bars, restaurants and villas on this narrow strip, though out of season, you may well have the sand all to yourself. Over four days each July, the area between the beach and the airport becomes a “Biker Mecca” as Moto Clube Bikers Festival hosts Europe’s biggest gathering of bikers. Twenty- four-hour bars and live rock bands always rev up an electric atmosphere.