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In the city’s walled old town, Faro’s most unusual sight is the Baroque Carmo Church (Igreja do Carmo). The church itself is built in the traditional Portuguese style, but you’re in for a surprise if you take the door to the right of the altar: it leads to a macabre bones chapel (Capela dos Ossos), its walls decorated with bones disinterred from the adjacent cemetery long ago.
In the land of the living, the Algarve Living Science Centre is a family-friendly interactive museum with enough hands-on science and technology activities and displays to keep youngsters (and big kids) entertained for hours.
If you’re looking for something more relaxed, try a boat trip out to the nearby Ria Formosa Nature Reserve, a beautiful protected stretch of lagoon full of marine life and sea birds.
Central Faro remains relatively untouched by commercialism; independent boutiques and small traders still holding sway over international chains such as Zara. The main concentration of shops is located on and around the central Rua de Francisco Gomes. While the locally-produced crafts and artisan nibbles are probably of most interest to visitors looking for souvenirs, it’s worth popping into some of the local hardware stores and marvelling at the array of goods slowly disappearing from independent retailers Europe-wide. Faro’s market (open every morning except Sunday) is a good bet for picking up fruit, vegetables, cheese and cooked meat if you’re staying in a local apartment.
If you’re looking for a serious shopping experience, head to the huge Forum Algarve shopping centre on the outskirts of Faro: retail outlets there include popular European chains Stradivarius and Springfield, as well as home-grown stores.
Food in Faro is relatively cheap, and served in famously abundant Portuguese portions. If you’re looking to satisfy your appetite for traditional Portuguese cooking on a budget, try popular Adega Nova: its wooden beams and cosy interior make stepping inside like stepping into the countryside. Hefty plates of steak and chips, grilled sardines and the perennially popular Portuguese staple of salt cod are all good options here. For something more upmarket, Faz Gostos in the old town has both a beautiful setting and an extensive menu making the most of locally-sourced ingredients to create interesting international dishes (from €12). Vegetarians’ needs are catered for by lunch-only restaurant Gengibre e Canela, an inviting café serving excellent value daily dishes.
Thanks to its significant university population, nightlife in Faro is vibrant but low-key. Start your evening with a cocktail on the terrace at Columbus, before moving on to the area around central Rua do Prior. It’s particularly lively at weekends, with venues such as late-opening Upa Upa Café Bar bustling with both students and a more mature crowd.
To add a touch of luxury to your holiday at a reasonable price, head just outside Faro to the Palacio de Estoi. The nineteenth-century palace-turned-hotel boats a quiet yet convenient location, a large garden and a swimming pool. If you’re on a tighter budget or prefer a central location, São Filipe Guesthouse and Residencial Adelaide combine comfort and value, while the Faro Youth Hostel meets backpackers’ needs.
Within the old city walls lies Faro’s old town (cidade velha), a quiet corner of streets untouched by the modern developments which have transformed the suburbs. Accessed through the eighteenth-century town gate, the Arco da Vila, this mini-maze of lanes and squares flanked by orange trees and whitewashed houses is perfect for an afternoon wander. In addition to boutiques and restaurants, the old town is also home to sights including Faro’s cathedral: climb the bell tower to see the resident storks and take in a view over the roof tops to the sea beyond.
Located in the Eastern Algarve, Faro is within easy reach of plenty of ‘island’ beaches: spits of land jutting out into the Atlantic, accessible by boat. The town’s own beach (Praia de Faro) can also be reached by road. More solitude can be found on the sandbank islands of Armona and Culatra, reached from the nearby town of Olhão. The bustling town of Olhão and its excellent value, no frills fish restaurants are worth a perusal before hopping on one of the regular ferries out to the islands.
Combining easy access to one of the Algarve’s best beaches (the Ilha de Tavira) with a picture-perfect Roman centre, the town of Tavira has something for everyone. Just a half-hour drive from Faro, Tavira’s low-key nature prevents its obvious tourist appeal from spoiling its charms: set on both sides of the bank of the River Gilão, Tavira’s centre is ideally-sized for a stroll punctuated by frequent stops at its boutiques, local artists’ galleries and internationally-influences restaurants such as Aquasul.
The Algarve isn’t renowned for fado (traditional Portuguese music) performances, but it’s worth checking with the tourist office for occasional concerts. To hear a variety of live music performed by local artists in a relaxed setting, head to Bar ChesSenta on Rua do Prior.
If you’re visiting in spring or autumn, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s only suncream you’ll need to protect yourself from the elements – pack an umbrella too!