48 Hours In: Faro

This port city near the tip of southern Europe is full of ancient wonders – and the perfect place to enjoy a glass of Lagoa. Cathy Packe reports


Why go now?

The capital of the Algarve is an excellent gateway to Portugal's south coast and Spain's Costa de la Luz, but few people bother to explore this attractive port. Faro's history dates back to Roman times, and the city has retained considerable character and charm.

Touch down

You can fly to Faro from 19 UK airports on a range of full-service and low-cost airlines. Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com), Monarch (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com) and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) offer the widest range of options, while British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow and Gatwick. As a result of the fierce competition, off-peak return fares can be available from as little as £60.

A taxi from the airport into the city centre will cost €8-9 (around £6), and takes about 10 minutes. Buses 14 and 16 (00 351 289 899 740; www.eva-bus.com) link the airport with the stop on the street outside Faro's bus station close to the town's railway station. Airport buses run at least once an hour, sometimes more frequently, from 7.08am to 9.17pm (8.07pm at weekends). Tickets can be bought on the bus and cost €1.50 (£1.10).

Get your bearings

Faro is focused on its small harbour, around which are a couple of hotels and a few cafés. The oldest, walled, part of the city is at the southern end of the harbour; the pedestrianised shopping area is to its east. The tourist office is handily located between the two, at 9-11 Rua da Misericorda (00 351 289 803 604; www.visitalgarve.pt). It opens 9.30am-7pm daily until 30 September, 9.30am-5.30pm Monday-Friday during the rest of the year.

The city has its own beach area, the Praia de Faro, but this long, sandy spit lies well to the west, beyond the Formosa River and the airport; you can reach it on buses 14 and 16, which also serve the airport.

Check in

Accommodation in the centre of Faro is limited compared with the resorts strung out along the coast, but there are two good choices on the harbour. Hotel Faro is at 2 Praca Francisco Gomes (00 351 289 830 830; www.hotelfaro.pt), and Hotel Eva is very close by at Avenida da Republica (00 351 289 001 000; www.tdhotels.pt), perched on top of the bus station (1). Both hotels have similar rates: double rooms from €125 (£89) including breakfast, rising to €144 (£103) from July to September. A cheaper alternative is to head out for a night by the beach. The Estalgem Aeromar at 1 Avenida Nascente (00 351 289 817 542; www.aeromar.net) has doubles starting at €65 (£46) including breakfast.

Take a hike

The Arco da Vila is a 19th-century replacement for one of the original city gates, cut into the walls that were first built by the Muslims in the 9th century. Go through here, and follow the cobbled Rua Rasquinha up to the left, past tiny courtyards and orange trees. Turn right at the far end into the Largo do Don Afonso, a broad expanse dominated by the statue of the 13th-century king, Afonso. Continue south as far as the Largo do Castelo to see the remains of Faro's 9th-century castle. Then return to the cathedral, which is referred to as Se and dominates the old city. Built on the site of the Roman forum, it is a dark but spacious building of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. Inside, the chapels are decorated with the blue-and-white tiles so typical of Portugal and storks can often be found nesting in the bell towers. There is a small museum in the gallery, and across the courtyard is a chapel. The cathedral opens 10am-6pm Monday-Saturday in summer, until 5pm in winter, admission €3 (£2.15). There is no charge on Sundays, when it opens for mass only (at noon).

Take a view

For an excellent view over the city, and across to the beach and the mudflats beyond, climb to the top of the Belvedere tower that is attached to the cathedral (7). Admission is included in the price of the ticket for the cathedral, and the tower's opening hours are the same; there is no admission on Sundays.

Go to church

At the Carmo church on the Largo do Carmo (00 351 289 824 490) is a prominent, twin-towered building whose ornate interior is typical of the Baroque period. Its most surprising feature is the chapel of bones, a small sanctuary across a garden from the main building, whose walls and ceiling are studded with human bones and skulls, apparently as an acknowledgment of human mortality. Mass is held in the church at 8.30am every Sunday; if you want to see the chapel, it opens 10am-1pm Monday-Saturday, and 3-5pm Monday-Friday, until 6pm from May to September. Admission to the chapel is €1 (£0.70).

Lunch on the run

This close to the southern tip of Europe, no one rushes the midday meal – indeed, most of Faro seems to take a civic nap between around 1.30pm and 4pm. Forego the cafés and restaurants immediately around the Largo do Don Afonso and head down Rua Trem to the square at the bottom. The Taberna Modesto is a family-run enterprise, and in the summer months they put a makeshift grill outside. Don't worry about the menu: just point to the sardines browning on the barbecue, and they will be served with a delicious salad and boiled potatoes. These, along with a carafe of wine and a coffee, will set you back €9 (£6.40).

If a printed menu makes you feel more confident, join the crowds sitting at the pavement tables of Pastelaria Gardy at Rua Santo Antonio 16, which serves cakes, pastries and tarts.

Window shopping

Faro's main shopping street is Rua de Santo Antonio, where mainstream outlets like Mango and Zara are mixed with a collection of smaller boutiques. A handful of pedestrianised streets around Santo Antonio, lined with shops and cafés, make this a pleasant area to browse. For a more concentrated retail hit, Forum Algarve is a shopping mall between the city centre and the airport, containing a selection of predictable high-street names.

An aperitif

The marina is an ideal place to watch the sun go down, as you sip a glass of red Lagoa wine (Lagoa is regarded by many as the wine capital of the Algarve), or a bottle of Cintra beer. The Café do Coreto (12) has the perfect location in the middle of the waterfront.

Dining with the locals

Faro e Benfica on the harbour (00 351 289 821 422) serves fresh fish and seafood, as well as Portuguese specialities such as cataplana, a mixture of shellfish, meat and vegetables. There are tables outside, with views across the harbour towards the town centre. Meat-lovers will find more choice along the harbour at the Restaurante Ginasio Clube Naval (00 351 289 823 869), which also has a first-floor terrace overlooking the Formosa River.

Sunday morning: take a ride

Faro is protected by a coastal lagoon, the Ria Formosa Natural Park, as well as several islands. Boat trips (00 351 918 779 155; www.ilha-deserta.com) into the park, including a stop on the Ilha Deserta leave the jetty just beyond the railway line to the south of the marina at 11am and 3pm and last two and a half hours; tickets cost €20 (£14.30). There are also several ferries a day to the Ilha Deserta, for a return fare of €7 (£5).

Out to brunch

A beachside brunch is a good way to while away any Sunday, although you will need to wait until noon before they open the doors at O Costa, at 7 Avenida Nascente at the Praia de Faro (00 351 289 817 442). There is no special brunch menu, but the scrambled eggs – cooked with either mushrooms and smoked ham, or asparagus and prawns – make good breakfast dishes.

Write a postcard

Relax on the sand while you pen your greetings to the folks back home. If you feel fortified after a hearty brunch, walk along the beach towards the north-west (head to the right as you stand facing the ocean) until the crowds thin out and you can find a secluded space in which to pitch your beach towel.

Cultural afternoon

Housed in a former convent in the middle of old Faro, the Municipal Museum (16) in the Largo do Don Afonso (00 351 289 897 400; www.cm-faro.pt) is Faro's cultural highlight – and the ideal place to finish your visit. Exhibits include Roman and Islamic artefacts, but the real treasure is the beautiful Renaissance cloister around which the convent was built. The museum opens 11.30am-6pm at weekends from June to September (10am-7pm Tuesday-Friday); from October to May, it opens 10.30am-7pm at weekends and 10am-6pm Tuesday-Friday. Admission is €2 (£1.40).

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