Faro's festa season starts soon, kicking off with the Ria Formosa Seafood Festival (26 July-5 August), continuing with FolkFaro (16-24 August), with the annual candy and dried fruit fair running alongside (17-26 August). These are the real deal: traditional Algarve events that don't pander to tourists.
Faro, gateway to Portugal's most popular holiday area, is oddly bypassed by visitors. The throngs arriving at Faro airport almost invariably head straight for the Algarve's beaches. But they're missing out: Faro is one of the region's most entrancing spots, with a charming old town and a wealth of natural riches in the Ria Formosa lagoon area.
Get your bearings
Faro's pretty centre curves around a colourful marina. To the south is the tiny old town, or Cidade Velha, its Moorish and medieval walls embracing an oval of cobbled lanes. Directly west, lie the outlying wetlands of Ria Formosa. The railway station and bus station are to the north. To the north west is the University of the Algarve, adding a lively vibe in term time.
The tourist office at Rua da Misericordia 8-12, is next to Arco da Vila, the old town's northern gateway (visitalgarve.pt; weekdays 9am-6pm, summer weekends 10am-5pm).
Take a view
Complete with cloisters, gilded woodwork and 17th-century tiles, the cathedral, or Se, on Largo da Se (Monday-Friday 10am-6.30pm; Saturday 10am-1pm; €3) was built on the site of a Roman temple. The original 13th-century church here was all but burnt down by British troops in 1596 and most of the current building took shape after a major earthquake in 1755. Entry includes access to the bell tower from where you'll get a great view of Faro's rooftops. The most sublime look over the sparkling channels and islets of Ria Formosa.
Take a hike
Visitors to Faro should begin with an amble around the old town. From the cathedral, head to the 19th-century Arco da Vila gateway, a grand structure that replaced a ninth-century portal. As you approach, look up to the bell tower which is adorned with storks' nests. Walk down Rua do Municipio; opposite the cathedral is the elegant, 18th-century Episcopal Palace. Saunter past it and along Rua da Porta Nova to the former harbour area. Head down Rua do Trem and along Rua Nova do Castelo to see the remaining part of Faro castle that in the 19th century became a distillery. Follow Rua do Castelo.
Turn right along Rua do Repouso passing the striking, 16th-century Convento de Nossa Senhora da Assuncao, now the Archaeological Museum. Before leaving the old town by the Repouso gateway, pause outside the charming 18th-century chapel of Nossa Senhora do Repouso.
Lunch on the run
Faro's smart three-storey market is a 10-minute walk north east of the old town. It opens 8am-2pm daily except Sundays, with stalls selling vegetables, fish, cheese, Algarve honey and more. O Palhacinho is a popular market café with soup for €2.50 and big plates of croquettes for €7.
Between the indoor market and the old town is a small pedestrian zone lined with cafés and shops such as Mango and Antonio Manuel Modas (stocks Hugo Boss and Escada) on Rua de Santo Antonio. Such tourist shops as exist here sell genuinely hand-made local products: for lace, handbags, cork mats and the like, head to Casa do Arco on Rua da Misericordia and Carminhos Artesanato on Rua de Santo Antonio. For serious retail therapy make for Forum Algarve (forumalgarve.net) on the western outskirts at Estrada Nacional 125, where you'll find Zara, Timberland, Massimo Dutti and more.
Dining with the locals
You're in for a treat at Tertulia Algarvia in the old town at Praca Afonso III (tertulia-algarvia.pt). Set in a restored heritage property, this is the project of a small group of friends who wanted to develop a centre for Algarve culture. After some years of planning they achieved their goal last year: Tertulia Algarvia runs workshops, exhibitions, performances and more as well as offering a shop, café and restaurant. Don't be deterred by the modest looking ground-floor bar area: head up the spiral stairs to find a first-rate restaurant serving Algarve specialities such as octopus cataplana (a casserole dish; €36 for two) and grilled tuna with coriander xarem, a sort of maize risotto (€11.50).
Go to church
Sublimely elegant Igreja do Carmo presides over Largo do Carmo, a short walk north-east of the marina (www.ordem-do-carmo.pt). The riot of gilt inside this 18th-century building makes a glorious backdrop to mass at 9am. The church is also notable for a chapel in the grounds constructed from human bones. The ossuary comprises the remains of about 1,300 monks buried in a cemetery on the site. It is one of several notable bone chapels in Portugal, and is surprisingly unghoulish. But you'll need to return on a weekday to see it (chapel open Monday-Friday 10.30am-12.30pm and 2-5pm; €1).
Take a ride
A boat trip to Ilha Deserta in the Ria Formosa Natural Park wetlands is a breathtaking experience. You pass along shimmering channels between sandy islets; see species of bird and plants found nowhere else; and you might spot dolphins and whales further out. Guided 40-minute tours on a catamaran are run by Animaris (animaris.pt) departing daily from Porta Nova at 11.30am and 4pm, with a choice of return journeys from Ilha Deserta between 2.30pm and 7pm (€25 for the round trip).
Out to brunch
Spectacularly set on the sweeping sands of Ilha Deserta with views across the coast, Estamine restaurant (ilha-deserta.com) is a chic, environmentally conscious option with a focus on Algarve dishes, especially seafood. The menu – and prices — depend on what fishermen have delivered that day, from clams and cuttlefish to grouper and tuna. Leave room for a desert, such as the (very) gooey chocolate fondant.
Catch the 2.30pm or 4pm boat back and you'll have time to visit the serene Archaeological Museum at 14 Praca Afonso III (cm-faro.pt; weekends 11.30am-6pm; Tuesday to Friday 10am-7pm; €2) in the old town. Wander this former convent's cloisters with a striking Roman mosaic as well as other Roman remains, along with Moorish artefacts and Baroque paintings.
Icing on the cake
Step through the doorway of Galeria da Se at Rua da Porta Nova 6, and you're in a different world. Part shop, part studio, this is a haven of antique tiles painstakingly restored by owner and master craftsman Joaquim da Silva Carneiro. Galeria da Se is generally open daily in the summer (9.30am-1pm and 3-5pm).