Many a traveler is surprised to find that Faro, though it sits right on the water, isn’t much of a beach town. But even though the sand is far away, Faro still manages to retain the charm of the Algarve. Ancient stone walls enclose the old city, which holds Faro’s history in its many sights; the harbor is packed with boats, illustrating the city’s symbiotic relationship with the ocean. All of the things that make the Algarve unique can be found here. Taste some regional almond sweets…and try to keep them down at the morbid Chapel of Bones.
Faro is a bit more difficult to navigate than most coastal towns because the water is not a particularly helpful reference, as it borders the town from both the south and west. The southernmost part of the city is the old city, which contains many of the sights visitors come to see and can be easily identified by the ancient stone walls surrounding it. Rua do Comandante Francisco Manuel borders the old city near the water. Exiting the old city via this street leads to Jardim Manuel Bívar, a long park area downtown that hosts many events. From the park, continuing left will take you to Avenida da República, which runs to the bus and train station, while heading to the right will take you to a mess of pedestrian streets lined with cafes and clothing stores.
Faro, whose own origins stretch back to the Roman Empire, is rich with history. This legacy means that plenty has been left behind for the travelers to explore. Most of the important sights are found within the ancient walls of the old city, but some of the highlights are scattered throughout newer portions of the city, too.
Pressed for time? Check out our shortlist of must-see attractions in Faro. Click the links to reserve museum tickets or book a guided experience.
Faro isn’t the most tourist-oriented of cities. Pair that with its location on the water and you get some amazing traditional Portuguese seafood. Loads of restaurants and cafes line the pedestrian streets behind the marina, but be wary of multilingual menus and fake-smiling chefs standing out front: the food might still be good, but the prices will probably be unappetizing.
The Portuguese take their food seriously—especially fish. The national and easily the most prevalent dish throughout the country is bacalhau, a salted cod with origins in the sea voyages of the 15th and 16th centuries. While you may be sick of it after a few days, the Portuguese won’t be—it is said that a different recipe exists for each day of the year. Fresh seafood, though, is more than available—particularly in coastal regions like Algarve, peixe espada (swordfish), polvo (octopus), lulas grelhadas (grilled cuttlefish), and a wide variety of shellfish are inescapable.
Meat and pastries are also staples of Portuguese cuisine. For a manly meal, head inland to ranching regions like Alentejo, where hearty meat stews (cozida) are standard fare. For more adventurous travelers (and those on Team Edward), ask for cabidela, a dish made with the blood of pigs or chickens. Portuguese foods are not without their delicacy, though, as evidenced by the ever-popular croissant. While one might not normally associate croissants and the Catholic church, the rich tradition of pastries in Portugal dates back to the monasteries of the Middle Ages—explaining today’s barriga de freira (nun’s belly) and papos de anjo (angel’s chins).
Portuguese wine is the famous grandfather of all alcoholic beverages, known for its quality since ancient Roman times. Most well-known, especially nowadays, is port—a sweet wine grown in the Douro valley often served as an appetizer drink or as a dessert wine. You may just be looking for a buzz, but stop to appreciate what goes into a glass of port—a specialized wine institute certifies quality and production methods. Your high school Spanish may be good, but don’t get caught looking like a tourist—vinho verde isn’t a green wine but a young, un-aged wine often served sparkling. For other drinks, try Tginjinha, a sour cherry liqueur native to Lisbon.
Given its impressive colonial history, Portugal’s cuisine is underrepresented outside its own borders. As the Portuguese people are more than happy to make clear, their Mediterranean-inspired style is similar to that of Spain’s upon first glance but is, in fact, quite distinct. External influences are everywhere—a unique blend of exotic spices often used in even the most basic dishes reflects the nation’s past in the far east, while other dishes show traces of religious diversity and the Judeo-Christian mixture within Portugal itself. Cuisine varies from region to region, but meat and seafood pairings and a rich, filling, full-flavored cuisine is constant throughout. Breakfast is a light affair in Portugal—pop a small pastry or toast and some OJ for your hangover. Meal times are slightly shifted from the American norm—lunch (almoço) is served a bit later in the afternoon and dinner (jantar) is served late, from about 8pm on.
Faro has a large student population, so even though the town isn’t huge, its nightlife is still worthwhile. The nightclubs tend to be open only on weekends, while the bars are usually open every day. Students wander down toward the water at midnight or later and stay out all night. Most of the popular bars and nightclubs can be found on Rua do Prior or on the adjacent streets near the bus station.
Eventually, you might get tired of museums and hunger for a little action (that is, if you aren’t too full on yummy seafood). Whether playing some pickup soccer with local kids or shredding the Atlantic coastal waves, these activities are not just good for burning off those pastries but also for connecting with locals, even if you don’t speak the language.
Portuguese athletes have garnered major achievements in the areas of track and field and running—but to be honest, you probably didn’t come to Portugal to find a jogging buddy. There are a number of more interactive and culturally involved sports, and yep, you guessed it—futebol is the most popular. The country has been graced with a number of major stars in the past, such as Eusebio, Luis Figo, and Nani, not to mention today’s all-star and cover boy, Cristiano Ronaldo. Although one of the top-ranked European teams, Portugal’s national side doesn’t often win major competitions and historically has had disappointing results in the World Cup. That being said, the locals are obsessed with the sport and will gladly welcome you into the cheering section at the local bar—just make sure you don’t mention the success of neighboring Spain. If you can’t tell a punt from a corner kick, don’t worry—there are tons of other options for recreation. Not for the faint-hearted, bull fighting occurs around the country but differs substantially from the Spanish version in that the men face the bull completely weaponless. In coastal regions like Algarve, fishing and water sports like surfing, scuba diving and snorkeling, windsurfing, and sailing are all options. Who knows, if your moves are good enough, the fish might not be the only thing around to catch.
You are almost guaranteed to encounter fado, a traditional genre of music generally characterized by mournful tunes and haunting lyrics. This may sound a bit depressing for your riotous Euro-trip, but in Portugal, you’re bound to run into it either in restaurants or on the street. The two main centers for fado are Lisbon and Coimbra, a small university city in the center of the country. Despite some regional differences, the two styles share much in common: all fado is meant to embody a sense of saudade, most approximately translated into English as a feeling of permanent loss and the emotional damage it causes (cheery, no?). Typically, this manifests itself through romantic, tragic lyrics and tearful melodies. Singers can be male or female (men are more frequent singers up north) and are often accompanied by the twang of a traditional Portuguese guitar. Fado’s origins are unclear—some trace it back to the early 1800s as the music of the urban poor, while others claim that the genre arose in the 15th century among the lonely wives of men at sea. In any case, the tradition remains strong and has given rise to a number of internationally recognized stars, the most beloved being Amália Rodrigues. Whether you’re interested in learning more about Portuguese culture or just need a good cry (we all do sometimes), seek out some fado in Lisbon or Coimbra.
Like any good Catholic country, Portugal celebrates classic holidays like Good Friday and Christmas, albeit with their own special twist. However, you didn’t come all this way to hunt for Easter eggs. The holidays and festivals listed below are unique to Portugal, so you can get the enlightening, cultural travel experience you came for.
Introductions are incredibly important in Portugal. In pretty much all social interactions, make sure to keep both politeness and formality in mind. Handshakes are standard for most first time greetings, with a slightly relaxed grip the norm (just don’t go limp fish). Among women or younger Portuguese, light touches or a kiss on each cheek is also customary.
In general, the Portuguese are very open to foreigners, and, unlike the French, they appreciate attempts to speak the native language. Although the person you’re addressing probably speaks Spanish, don’t assume they do: this might be taken offensively and mark you as culturally insensitive. Portuguese often speak loudly and quickly—don’t be intimidated; this is normal and doesn’t indicate any anger or irritation (usually).
Probably not, unless you want to pay for it. Portuguese restaurants often charge for what might seem to be freebies—for example, the cheese, bread, and olives served at the beginning of the meal. Expect to pay a few euros for these small appetizers. Don’t forget a five to 10% tip if the service charge is not already included.