The city of Olhão
Welcome to Olhão Uncovered! This is your guide to holidays in Olhão in eastern Algarve, Portugal. For tourist information about Olhão, its island ('ilha') beaches, hotels, restaurants, shops, things to do and in fact, everything you need to know about Olhão Uncovered!
Olhão is a major port and actually the largest fishing port in the Algarve. It is full of character with Moorish-style houses,an influence from the commercial links with Africa. Although Olhão only really became a town of note in the 19th century, it was first mentioned in 1378. At this time it would have been a very small fishing settlement of a handful of people, living in huts made of wood, reeds and straw on the beach. By 1679 it was important enough to need the building of the fortress of São Lorenço to defend it from pirates.
Olhão is a town of many 'faces' - if you approach from the fishing port side it looks, and is, very industrial and, unless you are particularly interested in fishing boats and warehousing it doesn't look very attractive. However, around the corner from the dock the road runs along the water front and there is a long, very pleasant, paved promenade with cool gardens (Jardim Pescador do Olhanense) to escape the heat of the sun. If you are driving to Olhão there is plenty of parking along this water front road (Avenida 5 de Outubro) but do remember to get your pay and display ticket from one of the machines.
There are two market buildings side by side along the water front, which are a 'must visit' for the huge variety of extremely fresh fish and sea food straight from the port and the vast array of locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables. Olhão is well known for it's fish market, in particular and if you haven't got anywhere to cook some yourself, then try one of the numerous local cafes along the roadside nearby - you won't be disappointed!
The market halls are surrounded by pavement cafes and it's a great place to sit and enjoy the view of the boats moored along the water front in Olhão Marina and the sand spit beach ilhas of Armona and Culatra just a short distance off shore behind them. We have enjoyed lovely afternoons in Olhão, where we walked along the water front and through the gardens, sat outside a jazz cafe watching the boats, people cycling around and local people going about their day.
Next it's time to venture into the historic heart of Olhão and the easiest road to follow is directly across from the gap between the market halls. Here, many of the buildings are the elegant merchant's homes with wrought iron balconies, carved stonework and tile decorations and are such a contrast to the busy port area of Olhão. At the centre of the town at the end of Avenida da República, in the Praça da Restauração, is the church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário, built in 1698 with contributions from the fishermen when it was the first stone building in Olhão. It's a very graceful building with a baroque facade and somehow quite a surprise!
The building behind the church, on the other side of the square, is the Compromisso Marítimo -the fishermen's mutual society, which was founded in the 18th century - it is also home to the Olhão city museum. In a niche above the doorway is a statue of Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Our Lady of the Rosary).
While you are in this area there is another church at the back of the Compromisso Marítimo - the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Soledade which is 17th century and the original church of the then fishing village. In the surrounding narrow, cobbled streets are a wide variety of inviting shops and pavement cafes that tempt you to linger! Well, after the sightseeing you need a break! This historic area of the town is really rather picturesque and gives a totally different view of Olhão from the port and the fishermen's quarter.
Olhão itself doesn't have a beach as it is on the Ria Formosa lagoon system but the ferries for the ilhas run from the quayside near the gardens at the eastern end of the market halls. There are regular services throughout the year, although fewer in number during the winter.
Ilha da Culatra is surrounded by beautifully clear water, with many species of fish, so it is perfect for diving and snorkelling. Ilha do Farol is not a separate ilha, but the area at the western end of Culatra where the lighthouse is ('Farol' meaning 'lighthouse' in Portuguese) and again offers visitors a large expanse of sand and warm water. Ilha da Armona, the closest ilha to Olhão, has a few restaurants and holiday chalets and large expanses of golden sand for a very relaxing day at the beach!
Olhão is definitely a city on the up as far as tourism is concerned, with new apartments and the 5* Real Marina Hotel & Spa at the western end of the water front and the Ria Shopping centre with it's 3 floors of shops and restaurants and cinema on the EN125 towards the town centre. There are also several companies offering a variety of boat trips to the ilhas, fishing trips and general coastal cruises as well as the regular ferries. Being close to Faro means short transfer times so you are on holiday before you know it!