48 Hours In: Faro

The capital of the Algarve has much to offer visitors, including an atmospheric old town, lively bars and great fish restaurants. Cathy Packe explores Portugal's south coast gem

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Why go now?

Faro is often treated as a mere gateway by sunseekers heading towards the beaches and golfers heading for the fairways. But the capital of the Algarve is a delightful destination in its own right, with plenty to offer for a short break – especially in September, when the weather is still warm but most of the crowds have gone home.

Touch down

Links are excellent: Aer Lingus (0870 876 5000; aerlingus.com) from Gatwick and Belfast; Bmibaby (0905 828 2828; bmibaby.com) from Birmingham, Cardiff and East Midlands; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet. com) from Belfast, Bristol, East Midlands, Liverpool, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and Newcastle; Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Exeter; Flyglobespan (0871 271 9000; flyglobespan. com) from Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow; jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Blackpool and Leeds/Bradford; Monarch (08700 40 50 40; flymonarch.com) from Birmingham, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Bournemouth, Prestwick, Stansted and East Midlands.

A taxi from the airport to the city centre costs around €12 and take s about 10 minutes. Buses 14 and 16 (00 351 289 899 740; eva-bus.com) take a little longer, and run roughly once an hour from outside the terminal, depositing passengers on the street across the road from the bus station (1). Tickets can be bought on board, and cost €1.65.

Get your bearings

Faro's focus is the harbour; everything else is within easy striking distance. To the north is the railway station (2); east is a pedestrianised quarter, full of shops and cafes; to the south is the original walled city. To the west, beyond the airport, is the beach area, Praia de Faro – a long sandy spit that faces out towards the Atlantic. You can get reach this stretch of seaside from the centre on the airport buses, 14 or 16, and staying on until the end of the line, a journey which takes about 25 minutes from the harbour.

The tourist office (3), handily located at the bottom end of Rua da Misericordia (00 351 289 803 604; visitalgarve.pt), opens 9.30am to 7pm daily.

Check in

Faro's two main four-star hotels dominate the harbour area, and there is little to choose between them in terms of facilities or cost. The Hotel Eva (4) at Avenida da Republica 1 (00 351 289 001 000; tdhotels.pt) has double rooms for as little as €102, including breakfast, although until the end of September, expect to pay €150.

Close by, at Praca Don Francisco Gomes 2, the Hotel Faro (5) (00 351 2899 830 830; hotelfaro.pt) offers double rooms from €103, €151 in high season. These rates include breakfast, as well as a boat trip into the Ria Formosa Natural Park. A highlight is the rooftop bar and restaurant, which offers a panoramic view of the surrounding area. The hotel is installing a small spa, to be in operation by next summer.

Three blocks inland, with an excellent location and an attractive interior courtyard, is the Residencial Algarve (6) at Rua Infante Don Henrique 52 (00 351 289 895 700; residencialalgarve.com). En-suite doubles with air-conditioning start at €48, including breakfast.

Take a hike

Explore the old walled city. Start by making your way through the imposing Arco de Vila (7), a 19th-century replacement for the original, ninth-century gateway. The wall, large sections of which still surround the old city, was built by Muslim conquerors anxious to repel an attack by a Christian army.

Stroll up the street in front of you to reach the heart of the area: the cathedral, or Se (8). The original temple dates from the 13th-century and was built on the site of the Roman forum of Ossonoba. The €3 admission to the complex includes entrance to the cathedral itself, the museum of religious artefacts and relics upstairs, the bone chapel in the courtyard and the stumpy bell tower, the 68 steps of which lead to the best view in town: a panoramic vista that encompasses the red tiled roofs of the town, boats bobbing in the estuary, distant planes landing and taking off and, on the horizon, the beaches of the Algarve. The cathedral opens only 10am-1pm on Saturdays, but 10am-6.30pm from Monday to Friday (until 5pm from October to March).

Outside, leading off a sprawling square, is a choice of cobbled streets, all offering fascinating glimpses of everyday life: courtyards, pots of flowers, washing hanging out to dry.

Wander down the Rua do Trem, stopping perhaps to look at the current exhibition of paintings in the Galeria Trem (9) (00 351 289 804 197) at the far end, and to breath in the smell of sardines, grilling over a barbecue, which often wafts across the square from the Taberna Modesto (10). From here the city slopes gently down towards the sea. Turn left and admire the most impressive section of the walls, and the Arco do Repouso gate (11).

Lunch on the run

You may already have been enticed by the barbecued sardines at Taberna Modesto (10): fish, potatoes, salad, dessert and a drink set you back just €12. If not, stay in the old city and grab a table at the Cidade Velha (12), tucked against the walls of the cathedral, for a good selection of omelettes, salads and sandwiches.

Cultural afternoon

Before you leave the old city, head towards the Largo do Don Afonso, named after a 13th-century king whose statue dominates the square. Here you will find Faro's cultural highlight, the Municipal Museum (13) (00 351 289 897 400). Located in a former convent built around a lovely Renaissance cloister, it contains exhibits related to the city's Roman and Islamic heritage.

The museum opens 10am-7pm Tuesday to Friday (until 6pm October-May); and 11.30am-6pm at weekends, 10.30am-5pm in winter. Admission €3.

Window shopping

The pedestrianised centre of Faro is also its commercial hub. At its heart is the Rua San Antonio, whose fashion offerings include branches of Zara and Mango at opposite ends of the street. But for a real local experience, head to nearby Praca Ferreira de Almeida and the Supermercado Garrafeira Rui (14) (00 351 289 821 586). Although it has a few groceries, it stocks an astonishing collection of Portuguese wines, the cheapest selling for almost nothing, the most expensive costing around €4,000 for a bottle of port. The owner will point out his oldest bottle, a madeira made in 1795, and will also advise on interesting and unusual wines to buy.

An aperitif

The locals come out late – typically 10pm onwards – for an evening's drinking, which is likely to take place in one of the many bars in Rua Conselheiro Bivar or the neighbouring Travessa Jose Coelho. But if you prefer your drinks to be served a little earlier, order a well-chilled white port, a typically Portuguese aperitif, from a harbourside bar: either the Clube Naval (15), or the ice cream parlour close by, both of which have lovely views of the harbour and the city.

Dining with the locals

There is no shortage of good restaurants in Faro. For fish, try the long-established Faro e Benfica (16) (00 351 289 821 422), overlooking the harbour, where main courses cost around €14. In the old town, the Mesa dos Mouros (17), near the cathedral, serves cataplana, the Portuguese speciality, whose name describes the cooking dish and the meat or seafood steamed inside it. And for a typically local experience, it is hard to do better than the popular Adega Nova (18) at Rua Francisco Barreto 24 (00 351 289 81 34 33), where main courses start at around €6.

Sunday morning: go to church

The Igreja do Carmo (19) is a wonderfully ornate baroque structure, whose prominent twin towers dominate the skyline. Mass is held here every Sunday at 8.30am. But you will need to visit on a different day if you want to see the church's most curious attraction. In a courtyard, accessible by going through the vestry, is the bone chapel, a small sanctuary whose walls and ceiling are studded with human skulls and bones in acknowledgement of man's mortality. The chapel opens 10am-1pm Monday to Saturday, and 3pm-6pm Monday to Friday (until 5pm in winter); admission costs €1.

Out to brunch

There are few better places to contemplate the day ahead than the Cafe Coreto (20), on the water's edge in front of the Jardim Manuel Bivar. A hearty breakfast omelette will cost you €7, scrambled eggs on toast cost €7.50.

Take a ride

To reach the beach at Praia de Faro you could hire a bike from the office on the ground floor of the Clube Naval building (15) (00 351 918 720 002; formosamar.pt) on the harbour. Alternatively, there is sometimes a bike-rental kiosk at the bottom of Rua 1 de Maio (21). Charges start at €2.50 an hour, €12 for a day. The ride out to the beach takes about an hour at a fair pace.

The Icing on the cake

The sand spit and islands that protect the coastline around Faro comprise the Ria Formosa Natural Park, a marshy area teeming with birdlife. This can be explored by taking a trip on one of the traditional wooden boats used until recently by the local fishermen.

Trips are operated by Maritimo Turistico (00 351 918 779 155), and offer a variety of options. For a brief glimpse of the area, take the 45-minute trip into the estuary, which costs €10.

Longer excursions depart daily throughout the year, and offer the chance to stop at the uninhabited Ilha Deserta, as well as the island of Culatra, with its lighthouse and small settlement of fishermen's cottages. Tickets can be bought from the office on the ground floor of the Clube Naval building (15). Boats depart from the jetty by the Porta Nova (22).