Situated a short drive east of Faro airport in the eastern Algarve, Olhão is a pretty fishing port reminiscent of the typical North African villages found across the sea in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya. Distinctly Moorish in appearance, it is a striking place of singular beauty and strangeness in the heart of Portugal’s most popular holiday region.
At the end of the 18th century, Olhão was no more than a gathering of fishermen’s huts sprawling onto the beach, but its prosperity changed dramatically during the terrible sieges of Cadiz and Gibraltar when the town’s boatmen took the opportunity to offer their services to besiegers and the besieged alike.
With the many gold coins they earned by this method, the local fishermen replaced their huts with fine houses topped by a spacious veranda accessed via an outdoor stairway to provide a cool sleeping area on hot summer nights. They carefully whitewashed their walls and indulged in the luxury of adding ornamental blue and yellow stripes to emphasize the intersections of walls and framework of the doors.
In that manner, a cubist town was born and today Olhão is still remarkable for its dazzling white buildings and tall palm trees clustered in the many scented squares and gardens.
Interestingly, it was the scene of a historic uprising against the French garrison in 1808 during the Peninsular War. Following the French departure, the local fishermen sent a small vessel known as a caíque across the Atlantic to Brazil to transmit the news to the exiled King João VI, who later granted them a town charter.
The best view over the town is from the top of the bell tower of the Baroque Nossa Senhora do Rosário parish church, built on the Praça da Restauração between 1681 and 1698. At the back of the church is the tiny chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos where fishermen’s wives traditionally prayed (and some still do) for the safe return of their husbands.
From there, the narrow, pedestrianized streets of the old quarter wind down to the waterfront where the marketplace can be found. Early morning is the best time to visit this lively waterfront fish market where the daily catch is noisily auctioned, providing an entertaining spectacle for tourists.
Ferries and water taxis link Olhão to the idyllic offshore beaches of Armona, Deserta, Culatra and Farol, which form part of the surrounding sandbank known as the ilhas (islands).
Ranked among the best beaches in Portugal, the two islands easiest to reach from Olhão are Armona to the east and Culatra to the south, both a 20-30 minute boat trip away. The stretch of water between the islands and the mainland is warm and sheltered with bars and restaurants a common feature along the shoreline.
Forming part of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, Quinta de Marim located 1 km east of Olhão’s busy harbour is a protected area featuring a variety of flora and fauna. An exhibition of agricultural and fishing techniques includes the remains of a Roman salt production plant and a rare tidal mill dating back to the Middle Ages. The area is also an established breeding ground of the web-footed Algarve water dog, a species unique to the region.
A little further east, the regional capital of Faro caters for last-minute souvenir hunters heading for the airport and those seeking cultural attractions in the form of museums and ancient monuments.