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Things to do in Olhão

Fisherman, locals and tourists move at the same slow pace through the narrow, whitewashed streets of Olhão. Charming and full of character, this town perched on the edge of the Ria Formosa feels as though time has paused. 

Ornate chimneys and flat, Moorish-style roof terraces make the old centre of the small city closer to northern Africa and unlike any other town in Portugal. Plus if you’re a seafood fan, Olhão is unmissable.

The Cubist City, a nickname gained from its architecture, is a hard-working fishing town at its core. It’s here in the old laneways that you’ll rub shoulders with local characters who are perfectly rough around the edges, just like this forgotten city by the sea.

Olhão draws me back each summer. It’s easy to relax here where it’s less about doing things and more about living slow and feasting on the freshest seafood plucked out of the icy Atlantic.

Here’s all the things to do in Olhão and around the eastern end of the Algarve for when – or if –  you’re ready to leave your rooftop terrace, hammock or towel.

Also, check out my favourite towns in the eastern Algarve that embrace the slow living and seafood feasting.

1. Go early to the fish market

Twin massive red brick market halls line the seafront and contrast the otherwise entirely white-washed old town. Said to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel himself (yes, the man of Eiffel Tower fame), one is dedicated to fruits, vegetables, cheese and meats, while the other is just about seafood. As one of the country’s great fishing ports, Olhão’s local mercado is the place to shop for the freshest fish, clams, mussels, oysters and crab. Keep an eye out for special delicacies like muxama, an aged prosciutto-like tuna delicacy, cured anchovies and dried octopus eggs.

Personally, I love buying local oysters, prawns and shellfish here, cooking them up back at the apartment or taking the oysters down to the beach for a seriously luxe picnic without the price tag. I usually pick up local salt, homemade piri piri sauce, almond-stuffed dried figs and artisanal cheeses here too. 

2. Catch a ferry to Culatra or Armona sand islands

It’s amazing how many things you can purchase with loose change in Portugal, and a return ferry ticket to paradise is one of them. Bordered by the Ria Formosa wetlands, the eastern coastline of the Algarve is more salty estuary than beachgoers haven, so to reach the wild Atlantic Ocean for a blissful beach day you’ll need to take a ferry from the docks to Ilha da Culatra or Ilha da Armona. Both sand islands have cute towns filled with holidays and fisherman homes, restaurants and bars. It’s the ideal place to spend a day or afternoon.

3. Stay in an old townhouse with a rooftop terrace

The art of slow living in Olhão starts with where you stay. The old town by the waterfront is filled with narrow, multilevel houses topped with flat, Moorish-style roof terraces. It’s here with views over the incredible Ria Formosa that you can watch the sunset while sipping on white wine and shucking oysters you purchased at the market that morning. Bliss. Airbnb has stacks of guesthouses, and if you’re extraordinarily boujee you can stay at Casa Fuzetta (and invite me along). 

RELATED LINK: Where to eat in the Algarve

4. Eat at Chá Chá Chá 

Eating at Chá Chá Chá is eating the seasons. Every morning the restaurant owner Kevin Gould drops into the waterfront mercado to source local fish and fresh produce, using that to design the day’s menu. In summer that means sardines, mussels, figs, tomatoes and anchovies. Gould, a former travel writer, fell in love with Olhão long ago and renovated a heritage space to open this relaxed diner. The food is simple and creative at once, leaning into the day’s produce and moving with the microseasons. Just the type of laidback luxury any vacation calls for.

 5. Go clam picking in the Ria Formosa

The Ria Formosa is a 60 kilometres-long labyrinth of canals, islands, marshland and sandy beaches. It covers much of the eastern Algarve coastline and supports a diverse ecosystem. If you’re a bird lover, board an ecocruise through the estuary to get up close with purple swamphen and other feathered friends. If you’re a food lover, hop on board a traditional wooden fishing boat with a friendly Portuguese water dog and learn about the abundance of shellfish like mussels, clams and oysters up close. You’ll go clam picking, crack oysters and drink wine while surrounded by sunshine and the sea.

6. All-you-can-eat fish barbecue at Vai e Volta 

It’s messy and magic to eat your way through a rodizio de peixe grelhado (grilled fish buffet) while in the Algarve. My favourite spot is Vai e Volta. It’s only open at lunch and €12 gets you limitless grilled fish plus bread, olives, steamed potatoes, tomato salad and açorda de alho (essentially mashed bread and garlic). Metal tray after metal tray stacked with tasty local fish grilled on charcoal will arrive at the table. Generally you’ll receive a mix of all different types of fish, but you can nicely make requests with the waiter at times if there’s something you prefer.

7. Shop local artisans in town

Treat yourself to something lush at a handful of boutiques in the old town. Run (I believe) by an architecture and design firm, in Ze e Maria you’ll find stunning Portuguese-made ceramics, textiles, art, furniture and home goods. My favourite Portuguese ceramics brand, Casa Cubista, is stocked here. The terracotta plates and jugs are made in the Alentejo, inspired by the Cubist city of Olhão. You can also find the ceramics in Pinta Roxa, a store that almost doubles as a gallery for local artists.

RELATED BLOG: My favourite towns in the Eastern Algarve

8. Eat French-style sweets at Kubidoce

You don’t expect to find a brilliant patisserie in a small place like Olhão, but there on the not-so-chic newer main avenue lies Kubidoce. Expect a counter stuffed with classic French and traditional Portuguese sweets at a level of quality hard to find even in the capital Lisbon. The young owner and master baker Filipe Martins and his team make everything from scratch – every cake topping, every cream – and the kitchen uses no white sugar. There’s also slow ferment sourdough bread and space to sit in with a coffee.

9. Join an olive oil tasting

You’ll be hard pressed to find a dish without olive oil or a restaurant without table olives. All dishes in Portugal start or finish with the humble olive. Near Olhão, Monterosa Olive Oil in the small village of Moncarapacho offers tours and tastings. Lock in the experience to taste the season’s best oils, learn the secrets of picking a good olive oil, even in the supermarket, and see how they farm up close.

MOnterosa olive oil farm azeite algarve

10. Swan about Estoi Palace

Slip past the reception at the hotel of Palacio do Estoi and wander into the gardens to explore the most incredible tiled staircase you will ever see. It was love at first sight for me. The azulejos lining the grand staircase and surrounding gardens deserved their own feature, so I made it my first ever #tileoftheday post. The town of Estoi is a 15-minute drive north of Olhão. 

Estoi Palace, Algarve, Portugal

11. Buy up local tinned fish

A fishing town long intertwined with the sea, Olhão is one of the major tinned fish hubs in Portugal. While there were once hundreds of companies across the country dedicated to the art, the industry fizzled but has been making a hip comeback in recent years. While you can’t visit the factories themselves, there are a couple of factory stores where you can buy at the source – check out Loja das Conservas Manná and Faropeixe.

12. Get friendly with Fuseta

The summer of 2021 we spent a week in Fuseta, a 10-minute drive from Olhão. This small fishing village near Olhão isn’t particularly significant or cute, but that’s part of its understated charm. Here it was easy to join sweary fishermen at the bar or drop into the local market. We ate at one restaurant three times – Casa Corvo – and I’m not sure I’ll ever eat better, fresher, sweeter prawns ever again. Closer to the open ocean, Fuseta has a beach that doesn’t require catching a ferry or water taxi to.

Fuseta, Algarve

13. Say bom dia to Tavira town

If I had to pick a favourite Algarve town after Olhão, I’d probably say Tavira. This white-washed gem dates back to the Bronze Age and it was here the Phoenicians made one of their first settlements. Wander over the Roman Bridge, tour the castle gardens, Roman ruins, and through cute squares before taking a ferry out to Ilha de Tavira. I find the old centre interesting as each room in a historic Tavira house has an individual roof – cute.

Tavira, Algarve, Portugal

HOW TO REACH Olhão

From Lisbon

It takes three hours to reach Olhão in a car from Lisbon. If you need to take public transport, the train takes four hours and you’ll need to switch onto the Algarve line once you reach Faro.

Closest airport

Olhão is less than a 20-minute drive from Faro Airport, where cheap flights land daily from the UK, France, Germany, Belgium and throughout Europe.

Planning a trip to the Algarve? Read my guide on where to eat in the Algarve, what to eat in the Algarve and this guide that covers my favourite things to do.

I’m an Australian travel writer and food journalist who has been living in Lisbon since 2018. I started this blog as a place to share and record my love of Portugal.

Comments:

  • Jo Holland

    August 23, 2022

    We have just come back from Olhao for the 5th year running, we always stay for 3 weeks each summer. We have eaten in pretty much every restaurant and I used to be a chef (my own food blog is still floating round the Internet somewhere). I think it’s unfair that the first restaurant you recommend here is one owned by an English guy. Not least because the food is merely alright, certainly not fabulous, but because there are so many more far better, far cheaper locally owned places. Prezares for example is amazing, as is Terra I Mar and Ammar I Mar, O Bote outshines it easily, too. You also missed Cicada de Frango for the best Piri Piri chicken you’ll ever taste. All the restaurants on Culatra are wonderful, serving fresh, inexpensive fish and seafood dishes but Joao Farol is probably the best (booking is essential and you’ll need to work out how to do it in Portuguese)
    Other things to do in Olhao include watching authentic Fado at Republica, having an amazing cocktail at R Famous or simply wandering round the historic City of the Dead orcthe ornate cathedral which gives Olhao it’s city status . If you’re there in August you can catch the biggest Pirate festival in Europe, the breathtaking Festival do Marisco (seafood festival – seafood stalls, live music, children’s entertainment) and the Festival to honour the Lady of the Sailors, a 3 day party involving decorated boats, a feast, music and a procession.

    reply...
    • Niall Reynolds

      August 25, 2022

      THANKS for the info. Hope to visit in October…know of any festivals or events 19 Oct onwards. (10 days). Or where to find such information.

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