How to plan a cultural city break in Faro
Faro may be known for its beaches, but Portugal’s most southerly city has a vast number of fascinating offerings, from 16th-century colleges and convents and medieval streets to 13th-century cathedrals, says David Lugg
Though my residence in Portugal only began in the summer of 2020, my love for the country is long-standing. On the surface, it’s not difficult to see why – golden beaches, friendly locals and a history as significant as that of any other European nation. Yet many countries can lay claim to one or all of the above. So, why have I chosen Portugal as my adopted home? The answer is not quite so obvious as you would think. Allow me to explain.
Think of anyone notable from Portuguese history and many will recall an explorer or perhaps an international footballer, but the list is likely to be short. The same principle goes for its major cities – Lisbon and Porto roll off the tongue without hesitation, but as for the rest? It’s not so easy. For modern-day explorers such as myself, this relative level of anonymity is far from an encumbrance. On the contrary – discovering the unknown is human nature. It’s exciting. It is what entices us in then lures us back for more. In a world where whoever shouts the loudest gets the most attention, Portugal often finds itself whispering from the periphery, blissfully unaware of the chaos outside its borders.
The city of Faro is the epitome of Portuguese understatement. Located on the Algarve south coast, it is bordered on three-sides by a series of saltwater lagoons and waterways. Having long been used as a gateway to golf courses and beach holidays, Faro once suffered from neglect, but mercifully much of the old town has been restored to its former glory. The airport is just 7km away, so you can be at your hotel by the time the golfers are getting their clubs off the luggage carousel. As with many Portuguese cities, Faro is fringed by characterless concrete, but modern high-rises soon gives way to the historic centre and the adventure can truly begin.
First stop, the Arco da Vila, an appropriately grand, early 19th-century archway that is the main entrance into the old town. Within the arch itself, you can find the remains of an original Moorish gate that connects onto the old city walls. Perhaps more thrilling, gaze upwards towards the belfry and you will likely see three or four enormous nests, home to some of the city’s iconic stork population. Storks are songless birds, but the clattering sound of their bills can be heard reverberating relentlessly across the rooftops. I often find myself stork-staring while the world carries on around me.
The old town is characterised by calçada portuguesa (cobbled streets) and handsome squares with rows of sweet-scented orange trees. The pace is slow and the air is heavy with wonderment as locals and tourists sit drinking coffee, seemingly unaware of life outside the impenetrable city walls. It’s always good to saunter the streets without too much purpose, but a visit to the baroque Carmo church is a must. At the back is a chapel composed from the skulls and bones of more than 1,000 monks. The scene may sound macabre, but it is an oddly moving experience.
Over the years, Faro has seen its fair share of civilisations come and go, each leaving a cultural footprint of varying size. The Municipal Museum is a great place to enjoy a brief history lesson and houses some impressive Roman mosaics and busts. There are also important artefacts from its Byzantine and Moorish occupations. Regardless of its treasures, the building itself is worth the visit having been converted from a 16th-century monastery. The museum may be small, but for a 2€ entrance fee, it would be scandalous not swing by.
The centre of Faro may be old but there is also a young and multicultural vibe that is proud and prominent (especially at weekends). University students mingle outside bars supping craft beer from the local (and excellent) Algarve Rock Brewery, whilst restaurants such as the superb Polish My’o Meu sit comfortably alongside some of the best local Portuguese restaurants. I recommend Pigs & Cows for a modern, highly rewarding meal.
In a world where whoever shouts the loudest gets the most attention, Portugal often finds itself whispering from the periphery, blissfully unaware of the chaos outside its borders
Faro has one more trick up its understated sleeve and it’s a rather special one. A five-minute walk will bring you to the small, yet buzzy marina where you can take a short boat trip to the Ria Formosa – the natural wonder that you’ve probably never heard of. In a nutshell, the Ria Formosa is a vitally important and exquisite natural park. Protected from the sea by five barrier islands, it is home to an extraordinarily diverse range of wildlife. The park is inhabited or visited by well over 200 species of birds, including flamingos, kingfishers and eagles. It is home to otters and badgers and the wonderful common chameleon, though unfortunately it’s no longer as common as the name suggests. Beneath the surface of the water, there is a breeding ground teeming with life. The clarity of the water makes it the ideal home for seahorses, starfish and oysters. The flora and fauna are no less spectacular – the sea daffodils and the wonderful bumblebee orchid are every bit as impressive as the wildlife.
And there’s more! There are magnificent, vanilla-coloured beaches that wouldn’t look out of place on Treasure Island. Regular ferries can take you to Ilha da Barreta, better known as Ilha Deserta (Deserted Island) in around 15 minutes. A great tip is to walk (or cycle) the 7km long Ludo Trail that provides its own unique perspective of the park. It’s rarely busy, but it’s always enthralling. The Ria Formosa is a magical and largely unknown part of Portugal that deserves to be explored. If Faro is the king of understatement, then the Ria Formosa is the ace. Both deserve your time when you next visit the country.
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