Olhao

Written By Francesca Pisanu

With its reputation of a fishermen’s town, an industrial past and rugged vibes, Olhão has recently spruced up its image of a tourist destination. Just ten minutes away from Algarvean capital Faro, Olhão is no longer neglected by visitors and makes for a great day trip during your stay in the south of Portugal.

Officially known as Olhão da Restauração, Olhão counts over 40,000 inhabitants. Originally named Olham (probably from the Arab Al-Hain), it gained its status of city in early XVIII century, when a public uprising lead to the expulsion of the French invaders from the entire region; it is said that a group of 17 men sailed to Brazil to inform Dom João IV, the exiled ruler, about the Algarvean success, which lead to the autonomy of Olhão. The boat used by the men was a caíque named Bom Sucesso, a reproduction of which is now docked by the harbour. The town’s status was then elevated to city in 1985, which boosted the local economy leading to the rise of tourism.

Olhão is often called the “cidade cubista” due to the cube-shaped houses in the Bairro dos Pescadores (fishermen’s district), adorned with typical Portuguese azulejos (tiles). To enrich the picturesque scenery of the city centre, the Caminho das Lendas (path of the tales) has been created: interesting graffiti, modern art installations and statues are on display in five different squares, arranged in a walking route – a great way to learn more about Olhão’s culture and traditions.

In a sea of white houses, typical of the region, two mighty red buildings stand out on the waterfront: the twin pavilions of the Mercado (market), built in 1912. All sorts of goods are for sale here – meat, poultry, fruits and nuts, baked goods and especially fish, freshly caught every morning, then delivered to the myriad of restaurants in the city.

The Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário (XVII century) is the main church in Olhão: the interiors boast beautiful frescos and altarpieces, while at the back sits the Capela do Senhor dos Aflitos (chapel), where the fishermen’s wives would pray for the safety of their husbands at sea, also a leitmotif of the famous Fado music.

Cultural highlights of this southern city are the local museum and the monument to the Heroes of the Restoration, as well as the events organised by local associations like Re-Creativa República 14: its XIX century building is used for concerts, pop-up markets, exhibitions and as a relaxed hub perfect for enjoying drinks and tasty petiscos (small plates, snacks).

Those in search of natural beauties can head to Ria Formosa, a salty marsh lagoon rich in wildlife. Ferries depart from the dock at Olhão’s harbour towards the small isles of Culatra, Farol and Armona, home to sandy beaches like Praia da Fuseta, likely to get busy in the summer months.

Food lovers visiting in August will adore the Festival do Marisco (seafood). Clams, squid, octopus, cuttlefish and more can be tasted assados (roasted) or as part of traditional dishes like cataplana or arroz de lingueirão. Don’t forget to ask for a copo de vinho da casa (house wine) to savour the authentic Algarvean gastronomy.

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