The scent of freshly-caught fish wafts on the sea breezes along the coast of Olhão, a charming seaside town filled with white-washed buildings, except for the large, red-brick municipal market where you’ll find the origin of the fishy scent. Olhão is one of south Portugal’s most peaceful destinations, where you’ll find islands with beautiful beaches and other many excellent reasons to spend a weekend or longer in this Portuguese gem.
Freshly caught fish and shellfish are brought to Olhão’s market regularly, and customers have a plethora of different types to choose from, including bream, eels, clams, and octopus. From the quantity of fish to the fishmongers themselves, who chat with customers as they clean their fresh catches, a visit to the market is sure to overwhelm the senses and leave first-time visitors with unique memories. As the largest fish market in the Algarve, it is open daily but most of the action happens early in the morning, so be sure to go early. The fish market’s twin building is where fruits and vegetables are sold, and on Saturdays, tables are set up outside where vendors display a number of extra items, including crafts.
As the largest fishing port in the region, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Olhão is an ideal place to chow down on delicious seafood. Expect simple plates like grilled sardines with potatoes, or colorful mixtures made in cataplanas, copper pots used for steaming fish and shellfish. If you plan on visiting the Algarve in August, stop by Olhão in the summer to go to the Festival do Marisco (Shellfish Festival), where you can indulge in clams and local seafood during the day and listen to live bands playing in the evenings.
Much of Olhão’s architectural heritage has been influenced by North Africa, particularly the square-shaped white houses and flat roof terraces. Outdoor staircases lead to rooftop viewpoints where you’ll be able to gaze across the town and its neighborhoods, which date back to the 1800s. You may even forget that you’re in Portugal and believe instead that you’re in Morocco.
A short 20-minute drive is all it takes to reach Faro, the capital of the Algarve. Art galleries, a Roman wall, and unique churches are just a few examples of the sights and historic landmarks waiting in Faro.
Olhão is one of southern Portugal’s traditional towns that is still considered to be “off the beaten path,” and aside from the occasional visitors seeking out the municipal market, it mostly remains off the radar of tourist crowds. Locals enjoy meeting at the neighborhood tascas and cafés and are happy to share stories with those few in-the-know visitors who stay to explore the town.
Ria Formosa, a natural park (since 1987) that is characterized by wetlands and lagoons, is one of Portugal’s “Seven Natural Wonders” and a must-visit destination in the Algarve. This is a beautiful place to practice your nature photography while watching locals collect shellfish. Around the park are barrier islands and a ferry that leaves regularly from Olhão to a couple of the park’s islands.
One of Ria Formosa’s biggest highlights is its bird watching experience. Migratory and aquatic birds make up part of the beautiful scenery as they fill the wetlands and skies with a variety of colors. Among the more unique species are lovely pink flamingoes.
Ilha da Armona and Ilha da Culatra are two islands near Olhão where you will find some of the area’s most lovely beaches, and the latter is home to year-round residents and has several restaurants and cafés. Ilha do Farol is located west of Ilha da Culatra and Ilha Deserta is a small sandy beach with nothing more than a small restaurant.
From the beautiful white homes to the green Ria Formosa Natural Park and the lovely islands, as well as the fish market and traditional azulejo-decorated cafés, Olhão is a photographer’s dream.
Boat and nature tours are common on this side of the Algarve, and some excursions take tourists on snorkeling trips to see the many underwater species. Why not look for some seahorses while swimming? Later, you can try to count how many different birds you see from the boat.
Even in the middle of summer, when Portuguese locals flock to the area’s beaches, it is hard to feel overwhelmed or stressed in Olhão. The eastern end of the Algarve, in general, is known for being laid-back and very different from the hustle and bustle of the west side (with the exception of the area around Sagres). The best time to visit is arguably the fall months, especially during September and October, when the warm sun provides ample beach days but the high season has ended.