For most visitors to the Algarve Faro is often a transitional place for arriving at the airport and moving on to a destination resort. However, it is a town worth seeing as it holds many delights. When I lived in the Algarve it was a favourite trip by train for me. Portuguese trains are quite slow but I used to love to catch the 10am train from Lagos and spend two hours or so day dreaming and taking in the views of the countryside while the train slowly chugged it's way, stopping at every station until it finally crawled into Faro.
In Roman times the town was called Ossonaba and then in the 9th century it became the capital of a princedom which was surrounded by defensive walls. It was then called Santa Maria and later changed again to Harune. Completing the Christian reconquest of Portugal in the middle of the 13th century Faro became part of Portuguese territory. In 1540 Faro became a city and in 1577 became the site of the Episcopal Se when the Bishop of the Algarve moved to Faro from Silves.
Today it is still a city filled with history, theatres, galleries, cafes and restaurants, golden beaches, superb shopping facilities and the Rio Formosa nature reserve is close by. The central area of Faro is always bustling with people and is quite compact with all attractions close at hand.
Situated on the eastern side of the marina is the oldest part of Faro - 'Cidade Velha' If you walk by the tourist information office you will pass through an arch (Arco da Vila) at the end of the Manuel Bivar gardens. Follow the narrow cobbled street, Rua Municipio, into a tree lined square and here you will find the 13th century cathedral.
The exterior of the cathedral at first glance doesn't look that grand but when you take a look inside you will be surprised. Like a lot of Portuguese churches there are always beautifully hand painted tiles (azulejos) to be seen and this cathedral is no exception. Some of the carvings are gilded and very intricate when viewed closely. There are several 17th century works of art adorning the walls and even though the building was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake the door and two chapels are original.
If you climb the steps to the tower you will find a panoramic view of Faro and the other buildings in the square. From this point you will be able to see the 17th century Episcopal Palace (which is situated in the square opposite the cathedral). The palace is still the official residence of the Bishop of Faro and one of its most interesting aspects is the style of the roof which is a typical Portuguese pyramid shape called tesouro.
Also situated in the square is a statue of the Marquis of Pombal who was responsible for most of the restoration of the city of Faro after the dreadful earthquake of 1755.
Outside of the old town follow the waterfront and you will come to the marina. This is a pleasant place to stop and have some lunch or a cup of coffee. The marina isn't too large but has its own quaint character and it is peaceful just to sit and watch the boats bobbing around. There are many cafes and restaurants situated around the marina serving seafood, fish, traditional Portuguese food but also pizza and burgers. This area does get busy and service can be slow so be patient.
Around the corner from the marina you will come to Porta Nova pier and from here you will be able to catch a ferry to the islands and beaches. The trip to the Rio Formosa nature reserve generally takes around 30 to 40 minutes but the trip is very relaxing. The ferry is slow and as it potters through the water and marshy outcrops you can sit back and relax while you take in the bird life and just generally chill out.
The beaches around Faro are known as sandspits and they form the outer edge of the Ria Formosa lagoons and marshlands. Praia de Faro is the only one that can be reached by road, the others have to be reached by ferry.
If you wish to take a ferry out to the other islands then these leave from the Porta Nova pier which is east of the marina, follow the railway line past the fire station and you will see the pier.
Ilha Deserta and Ilha da Culatera are the two islands to visit. They are both very beautiful and I have already reviewed these islands in my Olhao review so I won't go into too much detail.
However I will give you the ferry times: Ilha Deserta - 4 crossings a day - 10.00, 11.30, 13.00 and 16.15. The last return is at 18.00 and the ferry only runs from the beginning of June until the end of September. The price of a ticket is 7 euros return.
The ferry to Ilha da Culatera runs more often than to Deserta and there is also a 24 hour water taxi service. The cost of a ticket is 5 euros return.
Both these islands are worth a visit if only just to view the expanse of beautiful golden sand. Restaurants and cafes are available on Culatera but there is only one restaurant open on Deserta. Both beaches are supervised during high season.
If you are not a beach lover then you can always head for the streets after the Manuel Bivar gardens which take you into a pedestrianised area. Here streets criss cross at various angles and cafes and restaurants sit around cobbled squares. As you leave the waterfront behind you enter into an area where the modern office and apartment blocks take over and you become enveloped in the hustle and bustle of a working Faro.
For shopaholics Faro has a shopping mall called Forum Algarve which is situated on the main EN 125 road approaching from the airport side of Faro. This shopping mall has a great selection of cafes, shops and restaurants and a central square which is open air. Every Christmas it is home to a very large silver Christmas tree and an outside ice rink.
Faro has cafes and restaurants all around the town and waterfront so you won't have to worry about finding a place to eat. As you might guess the gastronomy of Faro is based around the fresh fish and sea food that is so readily available. Dishes like stuffed squid (lulas recheadas), Beef de Atum (tuna steaks) often cooked with tomatoes, garlic and onions are some of the dishes served and of course sardines, freshly grilled served with boiled potatoes and a fresh salad. My own personal favourite dish is a stew (estufado) consisting of broad beans (favas) cooked with chourico, smoky bacon, garlic and herbs. It is absolutely delicious served with fresh bread. For the meat eaters a traditional Faro dish is pork with clams (Carne de porco com ameijoas).
Desserts revolve around figs, dates, almond and eggs. Sweet almond paste shaped into flowers or fruits are very typical of this area as 'queijos de figo' are also. These are small fig cakes shaped like small cheeses. Very rich in taste but quite delicious if you like figs.
As with all areas of Portugal there are favourite local dishes that feature on menus but most restaurants will have a choice of salads, omelettes and pasta dishes. Unfortunately Portugal is still a bit slow when it comes to catering for vegetarians.
I know Faro isn't a city most visitors would choose to visit because once arriving at the airport they are always keen to travel on to their beach destination but believe me it is worth a visit as it has its own very special charm.
Summary: A lovely, old town that sometimes get passed by.