Faro is often overlooked by visitors to the Algarve heading straight to the established resorts dotted along the Algarve coast. They don't realise what they're missing. The region's capital city has plenty for visitors to see and do on a day trip, a weekend break or as a base for exploring further afield.
Faro's historical centre has remains of 9th century architecture, a choice of museums and art galleries and countless street cafés and restaurants. There's also a beach within a ten minute drive.
Look out for the arched entrance to Faro old town at the far end of the marina and next to the tourist information office. Stroll along the ancient cobbled streets past traditional houses, following the signs for the Sé (cathedral). You'll arrive in a large, eye-catching town square lined with citrus trees.
As you wander through the streets of the old town, you'll spot several art galleries and small squares with restaurants. Several of them are grouped around an eatery called Vila Adentro, which means 'the village within' the 9th century walls. The namesake restaurant is lined with beautiful blue and white azulejo (tiled) panels and also serves as a cake and gourmet produce shop.
Another entrance to Faro's historical centre is Arco Repouso, a medieval stone archway with a chapel built into it in the 18th century. Not far from here, you'll find the Municipal Museum, also known as the Archaeological Museum. Housed in a 16th century convent, this is much more than just a collection of broken pots and old rocks. One of the highlights of the museum is the 2nd century mosaic of Oceanus, transferred here from the nearby Roman ruins of Milreu.
Faro's picturesque cathedral dominates the main square of the old town with a history that can be traced back to the 13th century, but the building you see today was reconstructed after the 1755 earthquake which destroyed parts of the city. The views from the bell tower easily compensate for the climb up the steep narrow staircase.
The floor-to-ceiling tiles in the vaulted chapels at either side of the rather unusual altar are just some of the fine examples of artwork in the cathedral itself and the sacristy. There's also a tiny bone chapel in the courtyard if you don't have time to track down the one at Igreja do Carmo.
Faro's somewhat macabre bone chapel is housed in the gardens of Igreja do Carmo (Carmelite church) which is about 1 kilometre out of the historical centre. The skulls that lined the exterior doorway have long since disappeared but the bones and skulls that form the interior walls are still intact. Built by and with the bones of Carmelite monks, its purpose is to remind us of our own mortality.
Admission to the chapel is around €1.
One of Faro's main focal points for tourists is the marina. Handily situated near the entrance to the historical centre and the main shopping streets, this is a pleasant place to relax in one of the cafés and restaurants overlooking the water.
Boat trips of various durations are available from kiosks at the marina, birdwatchers can take a trip around the surrounding Ria Formosa which is a haven for water birds including flamingos.
Don't visit Faro expecting the tourist-oriented clubs and bars of Albufeira and some of the other larger Algarve resorts. Faro nightlife is based around the city's student population and is centred around the streets to the front of the railway station and around the marina. The bars and streets are busy at night during weekends but are largely deserted most weekdays.
For a great cocktail near the marina, head to Columbus on the other side of the park. Or a couple of streets away, there's Bottle Tapas and Wine Bar.
O Castelo is a pleasant lounge bar in the old town for lunch, cocktails or even dinner with a view of the estuary. They have DJs and live music at the weekend and Fado on Monday nights.
O Gimbras is one of the most popular restaurants in Faro, serving a range of local Algarve dishes including local seafood and regional meat and fish stews. It's not the cheapest place to eat in Faro, but the quality is excellent.
There are several good restaurants within the historical centre including Tertulia Algarvia for Mediterranean fare and Restaurante Vila Adentro. Alternatively, you'll find several options in the cobbled shopping streets that lead away from the marina and park. Le Marquis, for example, is a delightful restaurant housed in a 17th century farmhouse with an elegant courtyard dining area. It's not cheap but the food and wines merit the extra cost. Gengibre e Canela (Ginger and Cinnamon) is a popular vegetarian restaurant in the city centre which serves a tasty buffet lunch.
Another popular option would be the food hall at Forum shopping centre - a great place to take the kids if you want to escape from the sun. You'll find a wide range of cuisines and everything from snacks to main meals here, including Joshua's Shoarma Grill, which has plenty of vegetarian dishes including falafel. Vegetarians should also check out Alef Burger Bar where unusually for the Algarve Veggie burgers are available.
Locally caught fresh fish is the speciality of the restaurants in the marina - look out for "Arroz Marisco" which is an Algarve seafood and rice stew.
There are lots of shops in the pretty cobbled streets leading off Praça Dr Francisco Gomes near the marina. You'll find clothes and shoe shops, hardware, groceries, crafts and souvenirs here. Some are high street chain stores, others are unique shops that have served the local population for decades if not longer.
If you prefer a more modern approach to shopping, Forum Algarve is a large covered complex with an outdoor plaza and a large supermarket. There's also a large children's park and play area near the entrance.
Faro's food market (Mercado Municipal) is open weekdays and Saturdays. The colourful array of local foods including fruits, vegetables, fish and meat offers an interesting insight into local produce. The market is mainly used by locals and doesn't really cater for tourists but pointing and gesturing will enable you to buy whatever takes your fancy. Go in the mornings for the freshest choices.
Faro's main beach is a long, sandy spit with the beautiful and peaceful Ria Formosa estuary and wetlands on the other side. Faro beach is popular with the Portuguese in summer although you need to be careful when swimming here as the water gets deep very quickly.
You won't find too many tourists in the cafés and restaurants that run most of the length of the beach (except for during July and August), but you will encounter plenty of fresh fish and seafood. Arrive in the morning and you'll be able to watch the fishermen at work. Later in the day, it can be difficult to park in high season.
Another beach option is to take a boat trip from Porta Nova pier in Faro's old town to Ilha Deserta. Here you'll find 11 kilometres of beach and a boardwalk hiking trail as well as a popular seafood restaurant.
The Palace of Estói is a 19th century palace on the outskirts of Faro with attractive gardens and azulejo panels. The palace has now been renovated as a hotel, making it an ideal location for a relaxing few days in the sun.
Milreu Roman ruins are within a kilometre of the palace so if you're staying there, you could walk to them. The entire site was once a family villa and working farm. You can see the remains of the temple and various rooms and bathhouses with some attractive mosaics. In the 16th century, a medieval farmhouse was built over the ruins and you can go inside to see what lies beneath.
Olhao is a typical Portuguese fishing town around a 20 minute drive to the east of Faro. With no beaches it is not overwhelmed with tourists. It has a renowned fish market and is a good destination if you want to get away from the resorts and have a taste of the real Algarve.
Rio Formosa Nature Reserve (Parque Nacional do Ria Formosa) is ideal for nature lovers, especially birdwatchers. Boat trips are available throughout the year and tickets are available from kiosks at Faro marina. You can also explore the reserve on foot, by bike, horse, jeep or Segway.
The town of Loule is a 20 minute drive to the north west of Faro. Loule is a renowned for its beautifully restored neo-Moorish indoor market which is open Monday to Saturday, and Sunday mornings. Unlike other markets, this one caters to both locals and tourists. You'll find plenty to tempt you from fresh fish, local meats, fruit, vegetables, nuts, traditional Algarve sweets and cakes to colourful Algarve ceramics.
Parking in Loule can be difficult, especially on market days, so it may be advisable to get a bus.
Unlike the coastal area, the interior landscape of the Algarve is typified by gentle rolling hills. Produce that grows in the fertile area to the north of Faro includes olives, citrus fruit, tomatoes and figs. You'll also see plenty of pine forests and cork trees.
In the winter and early spring this inland region is green and lush but it becomes hot and dusty by late May when the rainfall ends. Most of the wildlife vanishes during the heat of summer. In late autumn, spring and winter, however, there is an abundance of birds, rabbits, lizards and butterflies. If you plan to walk or cycle in the Algarve, it's best to avoid the hot, dry summer months between June and September.
Hotel Eva overlooking Faro Marina is the perfect base for a trip to Faro. For more accommodation see our guide to Faro hotels