More than just the gateway to the Algarve, this charming city has much to tempt you away from the beach, says Nick Boulos.
Why go now?
For many, Faro is a jumping-off point for the Algarve's beaches and golf resorts. However, with more than 300 days of sunshine a year, it's an enticing city-break destination in its own right. Early summer is when the Algarve's capital is at its best: the air is crisp and fresh, and the sea warm enough to take a dip in.
Those planning holidays in southern Portugal during the main summer holidays should also explore the city. Time your visit for August 18-26 and you'll witness the annual FolkFaro festival (folkfaro.com), a lively and colourful celebration of folklore with open-air shows, parades and dances by performers from around the world.
Faro is easily reached from all over the UK: Monarch (tel: 0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk), easyJet (tel: 0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), British Airways (tel: 0844 493 0787; ba.com), FlyBe (tel: 0871 700 2000; flybe.com), Ryanair (tel: 0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), Jet2 (tel: 0871 226 1737; jet2.com) and Thomson (tel: 0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) provide direct links.
The airport is located 5km from the city centre. Bus routes 14 and 16 make the 20-minute journey with the first departure at 5am and the last at 11.15pm. A one-way ticket costs €1.90 but the timetable has gaps in services ranging from 12-85 minutes. They run to the railway station and bus terminal (Rodoviaria) on Avenida da Republica.
A taxi will set you back about €10.
Get your bearings
Faro is located almost midway along Portugal's southern coast. The city was born within old medieval walls that wrap a protective arm around its fortified heart: the 9th-century old town or Cidade Velha. Its neo-classical entrance is the Arco da Vila, designed by Francisco Xavier Fabri. The tourist information centre is adjacent, at Rua da Misericordia 8 (tel: 00 351 289 803 604; visitalgarve.pt; open daily except Sunday).
The newer areas spread north and east from here, including a couple of shopping malls: Galerias Faro and Galerias Santo Antonio.
Hotel Eva (tel: 00 351 289 001 000; tdhotels.pt) is perched on top of the bus terminal. It is one of two four-star properties in Faro and the only one with a pool. The minimalist lobby is white and gleaming while the rooms are more traditional. Many have balconies. Doubles from €94, including breakfast.
The 60-room Hotel Santa Maria (tel: 00 351 289 898 080; jcr-group.com), located in the heart of the new city on Rua de Portugal, offers clean and cosy rooms with free Wi-Fi and a sixth-floor terrace. Doubles from €57, including breakfast.
Tucked away on a quiet street, Hotel Sol Algarve at Rua Infante Dom Henrique 52 (tel: 00 351 289 895 700; hotelsolalgarve.com) is a good budget option (doubles from €40, including breakfast) with friendly staff and spacious rooms. A restoration in 2004 uncovered buried Roman artefacts, including bronze coins and ceramics, which are now on show.
Take a view
The jewel of Cidade Velha is the 13th-century Se on Largo da Se (tel: 00 351 289 806 632; open daily except Sundays; €3). Damaged in an earthquake in 1755, it was built upon the site of a Roman forum and its illustrious past has created an intriguing mix of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance touches. The bell tower, a favoured nesting spot for local storks, offers good views over the city's dusty red rooftops, Atlantic coast and outlying islands, and the square below lined with orange trees. The cathedral's gilded altar and wooden, tiled and marbled chapels and tombs also demand a visit (an additional €3).
Take a hike
Start at the Mercado Municipal, the indoor local produce market on Largo Doutor Francisco Sa Carneiro (tel: 00 351 289 897 251; mercadomunicipaldefaro.pt; daily 7am-3pm) where Faro's foodies stock up on salty olives, cured meats and pasteis (sweet custard tarts).
Proceed west for six blocks along Rua General Teofilo da Trindade before turning left on Rua Dr Rodrigues Davim for the Largo do Carmo, a square dominated by the attractive 18th-century Carmo Church (tel: 00 351 289 824 490; open daily). Pop inside to see the macabre Chapel of Bones (€1), the walls of which are covered with human skulls and remains.
Afterwards, wander down Rua Boavista, a backstreet lined with colourful houses that leads directly to the Capuchos Convent, a monastery used in the 1600s.
From there, turn left on Pinto, right on Braga and left again on Rua Conselheiro Bivar. Continue straight past the delis, jewellery shops and outdoor cafés to the marina.
Lunch on the run
The Portuguese rarely rush a meal, but you can pick up a quick bite at Fim do Mundo (12) at Rua Vasco da Gama 53 (tel: 00 351 289 826 299). At the end of the world (as we know it), choose between grilled sardines (€7) or piri-piri chicken (€5) produced by chef Manuel Dias Jacinto, who's cooked here for 52 years.
There's nothing in Faro to rival Fifth Avenue, but the pedestrianised street of Rua de Santo Antonio is a popular shopping destina
tion. You'll find a number of fashion boutiques, ceramic stores and souvenir stands, while there are shoe shops galore waiting around the corner on Rua Vasco da Gama. Most shops are open 10am-7pm daily, except Sunday.
Some 500 years ago, the spot under the arcades and opposite the Manuel Bivar gardens was the local hospital. These days, as Columbus Bar at Praca Dom Francisco Gomes 13 (tel: 00 351 289 823 337; barcolumbus.com), it offers remedies of a different kind. Inside, pink and green mood lighting illuminates the building's original brickwork, but most opt for an outdoor table to watch dusk set over the palm and jacaranda tress with a glass of Algarvian wine (from €3).
Dining with the locals
Located on the marina and overlooking the old town stands the longtime favourite Faro e Benfica at Doca de Faro (tel: 00 351 289 821 422). But locals don't come for the views. They come for the food — fresh lobster, salty razor clams, and other delicious fishy treats caught in the nearby waters and salt flats. Chatty waiter Carlos takes delight in guiding diners through the local specialities on offer. Try the fish cataplana, a popular stew (€38 for two) followed by morgado (a cake made with pumpkin, fig and almonds).
O Murta at 136 Rua Infante Dom Henrique (tel: 00 351 289 823 480) is a good alternative. The dining room is as rustic as the food. Dishes include tuna steak with stewed onions (€8.50).
A walk in the park
Peacocks roam freely among colourful flowers and shady trees at Jardim Joao de Deus, located opposite the police station on Rua Policia de Seguranca Publica (7.30am-8.30pm). It's a family-friendly park with an aviary of exotic birds to admire and games of mini golf to play (€1).
Out to brunch
Having opened in 1925, Adega Dois Irmaos at Praca Ferreira de Almeida 15 (tel: 00 351 289 823 337; restaurantedoisirmaos.com, noon-11pm daily) is Faro's oldest restaurant. It's also one of the most atmospheric, with walls of hand-painted tiles and old copper pans hanging from the wooden beams also draped with fishing nets. The tasty shrimp omelette costs €8.50.
Returning to Cidade Velha, where the sounds of the city are muted beyond the thick stone walls, pay a visit to the Faro Municipal Museum at Largo Dom Alfonso III (tel: 00 351 289 897 400; cm-faro.pt; 10am-6pm, closed Mondays; €2). A convent in the 1500s and one of the first museums in the Algarve, it now details two millennia of local art and history from preserved Roman mosaics to moody oil paintings by Carlos Porfirio, who is considered a legend of the art world in the Algarve. His creations may be dark aesthetically but they tell heartwarming tales, including one of an Arab lord who planted millions of white blossoming almond trees for his Portuguese wife who dreamed of seeing snow.
Take a ride
... to the beach. You don't have to go far to enjoy a paddle — just 7km away is Faro beach, beyond the airport and swathes of pine. Either catch local buses 14 and 16 from the bus station or rent a bike for a scenic journey of about 45 minutes. A day's rental costs from €9 through Megasport (tel: 00 351 289 393 044; www.megasport.pt) at Rua Ataide de Oliveira 39.
Icing on the cake
Lying just offshore and twice the size of Guernsey, Ria Formosa Natural Park is a protected wilderness of lagoons, tidal flatlands and long slithers of seashell islands that attract 270 species of birds including resident flamingos. Cruise the channels with a naturalist guide in a painted wooden fishing boat. Tours with Formosamar (tel: 00 351 918 720 002; formosamar.com; from €10) leave throughout the day from the marina and last between 45 minutes and two hours.