48 hours in Faro

This historic city is the capital of the Algarve, although it is often overlooked by visitors to Portugal. Stroll through the winding streets and shaded squares, and feast on the freshest seafood money can buy, says Ben Ross


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Because there's more to life than golf. Many tourists arriving at the Algarve's airport head straight for "Sportugal", the collection of coastal resorts to the west that includes Almacil, Quinta do Lago and Vilamoura. But Faro, the capital of the Algarve, is more than a stopover between the airport and the fairway – it is a great place in its own right. The city has plenty of places to eat and drink, and you will have the walled old town and pretty marina practically to yourself.

BEAM DOWN

I flew with TAP Air Portugal (0845 601 0932, www.tap-airportugal.co.uk) on one of its daily flights from Heathrow; return tickets start at £152. For a budget alternative, easyJet (0870 6 000 000, www.easyjet.com), flies from Stansted (and, from 15 April, Luton) from £58 return. British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) has flights from Heathrow starting at £150; Monarch Scheduled (08700 40 63 00, www.flymonarch.com) flies from Gatwick (starting 1 May), Luton and Manchester, from £99 return. Local buses make the 25-minute trip from the airport (1) to the city centre every hour (more sporadic at weekends) for a fare of €1.05 (70p). A taxi is quicker, for a fixed fare of €8/£5.50 into Faro (€10/£7 at weekends), plus a surcharge for luggage.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The city centre is compact and easily negotiated on foot. Concrete tower blocks mark the beginning of the suburbs; behind these are occasional glimpses of the foothills of the Serra do Caldeirao, the mountain range to the north. The marina (2) forms Faro's hub. Pedestrianised streets radiate eastwards off the main square, Jardim Manuel Bivar (3). To the south lies the walled old town; to the north, the railway station (4) is the heart of the Algarve network, from Lagos in the west to Vila Real de Santo Antonio at the Spanish border.

CHECK IN

Until recently, the best hotel in town was indisputably the four-star Hotel Eva (5), Av da Republica 1 (00 351 289 001 000, www.tdhotels.pt), which dominates the north side of the marina. Many rooms have balconies overlooking the water. Doubles cost €112 (£78) per night, including breakfast. However, the newly opened Hotel Faro (6), Praca D Francisco Gomez 2 (00 351 289 830 830, www.hotelfaro.pt), with its sleek, modern interior may prove more tempting, despite its less exalted position above a small shopping mall. A double room here costs €115 (£80) including breakfast. Alternatively, further back from the harbour are various Residencials, all of which follow the blueprint of a tiled stairway from the street up to reception and rooms on both sides. Try the Residencial Magdalena (7), Rua Conselheiro Bivar 109 (00 351 289 805 806), where en suite doubles are €35/£24, without breakfast.

TAKE A HIKE

The main tourist office (8) at Rua da Misericordia 8 (00 351 289 803 604, open daily 9.30am-12.30pm and 2.30-5.30pm) has a free walking guide to Faro's architectural attractions, starting with the adjacent Arco da Vila, the neo-classical gateway to the old town. Storks – the symbol of the town – often nest on top. If you'd rather take things more gently, pass through this arch and spend an hour or so exploring the Cidade Velha itself. Winding streets lead up to a small square lined with orange trees and next to this stands Largo da Se (9), Faro's cathedral, which was substantially rebuilt after a huge earthquake in 1755. For €1.50 (£1) you can explore the interior (Mon-Sat 10am-12.30pm; 1.30-5pm), where a plain, vaulted roof contrasts with the riot of gilt and statuary on the side altars.

TAKE A VIEW

The old town's walls stand on Roman foundations, rebuilt in the 9th century. On the harbour-side is the jetty (10) from which, during the summer months, daily ferries take tourists to the sandbar beaches of the Ilha da Culatra and the Ilha da Barreta. Deserted out of season, the wooden pier is nevertheless a great place from which to see the Ria Formosa, the 1,900 sq km nature reserve of salt marshes and lagoons that runs along the coast out to the Ilhas themselves. Far in the distance you can see tiny buildings where you would expect only open ocean. These mark the narrow sandbar of the Praia de Faro: Faro's beach (11).

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Grab a bite from Gardy (12), the takeaway patisserie at 33 Rua de Santo Antonio, where, among a vast selection of sweet and savoury pastries, a ham and cheese croissant costs €1.50 (£1). Otherwise, sit out at the road-side tables of Gelataria Fiesta, just down the street at No 26, which serves similar pastries, alongside every conceivable shade of ice-cream (€2/£1.30 per portion).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The best museum is the Museu Arqueologico (00 351 289 897 400, open Mon and Sat 2.30-6pm, Tue-Fri 10am-6pm, closed Sun, €2/£1.30 for adults, €1 children), behind the cathedral (9). Converted from an old convent building, the museum's cloister leads to various Roman and Moorish archaeological exhibits, the finest of which is the Mosaic of the Ocean, uncovered – and badly damaged – in 1974 during building work in the town.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Tiny lace and antique shops mingle with the predictable clothing stores that line Rua de Santo Antonio and Rua Vasco de Gama, the pretty pedestrianised streets that form Faro's main shopping area. But for a real flavour of Portugal, head for Rui Garrafeira (open Mon-Sat 9am-8pm) at Praca Ferreira de Almeida 28 (13), a small wine shop with a window stuffed full of vintage port (commanding prices of up to €900/£600 per bottle) and a fridge crammed with fine cheese.

AN APERITIF

Sip a chilled, pale port in an open air café – but remember to pace yourself for the night ahead. At around 6.30pm everything goes quiet, as the locals gather their strength. Then suddenly at 8pm the restaurants all fill up. Only at 10pm does any self-respecting bar even think about opening; clubs kick off at around midnight. Faro's late-night venues are concentrated around the Rua Conselheiro Bivar (14). Try the neon-lit Diesel Bar (15) at Travessa Sao Pedro (Wed-Sat 11pm-5am) if you fancy a midnight cocktail.

DINNER WITH THE LOCALS

Ninety per cent of the seafood caught in Portugal comes from the waters off Faro, and there's an ever-present whiff of chargrilled sardines as you walk round the town. Adego Dois Irmaos (16), at Largo Terreiro do Bispo 13-15 (00 351 289 823 337), displays the morning's catch in the window. Inside, a starter of fish soup costs €1.75 (£1.20), while grilled tuna in onion sauce costs €7.50 (£5). Alternatively, tucked behind the customs house at the marina is the cosy Republica (17), at Avenida da Republica 42 (00 351 289 807 312). A main dish of grilled prawns costs €14 (£9); grilled bass is €11 (£7).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The Church of the Venerable Third Order of Our Lady of Carmo (18) has a beautiful gold and tiled interior (Mon to Fri 10am-1pm, 3-5pm; Sat 10am-1pm; 8.30am mass on Sundays). But the church – a twin-towered baroque confectionery – has a macabre side. In 1816 several stonemason brothers of the order "built without charge" a Chapel of Bones, covering the walls and ceiling with the remains of monks buried in the adjoining cemetery. From Mon-Sat, a €1 (70p) ticket entitles you to a viewing of the chapel, which has an eerie feel to it.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Faro's oldest coffee house is Cafe Alianca (19), Rue Dr Francisco Gomez 6-11, a huge, T-shaped room with entrances on three sides of the block, and tables spilling out on to the road. Prints of pre-tourism Faro line the interior, which dates back to the Twenties. An omelette costs €4 (£2.70); salads start at €3.65 (£2.50) and it's open from 8am-8pm daily.

TAKE A RIDE

With the ferries to the Ilhas out of action until summer, the only easily accessible beach is the Praia de Faro (11), a long sandbar connected to the mainland. Catch the No 14 or 16 bus from opposite the bus station (20). A one-way ticket costs €1.05 (70p). The area behind the beach is heavily built up, and at the weekend hordes of locals head out to catch the sun. Nevertheless, a few minutes' walk should see you nicely secluded, although the water may be too cold for all but the very (fool) hardy at this time of year. Check the timetable before you set off; the service on Sunday runs approximately every hour and a half.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

...will involve marzipan. Almonds are a local delicacy, and shops are full of sweet nutty treats. The best place to sample them is Gardy, Rua de Santo Antonio 16, the popular sit-down café that is opposite its takeaway sibling (12). Here, tiny marzipan cakes in the shape of turtles, rabbits and pink pigs are served with coffee for €1.10 (80p) a piece.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Buy an ice-cream from the booth at the Jardim Manuel Bivar (3), and settle down to write home on one of the chairs set out on the neat grass. On Sundays stalls set up under the palm trees to sell handbags and trinkets.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Faro's streets often open out on to small squares, where you can survey the comings and goings from wooden benches under carob and oleander trees. For a walk in the park, first make your way eastwards to the end of the central avenue of the Praia de Faro, where a sign announces the beginning of the Natural Park of Ria Formosa, home each year to vast numbers of migrating birds.

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