Faro play | 

The Portuguese city is known for its airport, but we discovered there is so much more to Faro

Faro is far more than just a starting point, with historic architecture, pristine beaches and delicious cuisine to enjoy

Ilha Deserta as viewed from restaurant Estaminé

The four-star Eva Senses Hotel

Cataplana fish stew

Chef Alexandra Caetano

Faro has plenty to explore including its historic cathedral

Bran Castle, Transylvania

Jim GallagherSunday World

It’s 25C degrees and I’m lying on a near-deserted beach which stretches as far as the eye can see.

The water is crystal clear and warm under a vast blue sky, and I have to remind myself this is not the Bahamas but the Algarve.

Regulars to this holiday region are more accustomed to seeing thousands of sun-baked bodies on display but I’m on a hidden gem right on Faro’s doorstep.

Most tourists fly into the Algarve capital and immediately jump in their cars or onto tour buses to travel along this ever-popular coast. But they miss out on Faro itself — a historic city which has many wonderful attractions, including a gorgeous old town.

The four-star Eva Senses Hotel

Today, I’m lapping up the magnificent beach on Ilha Deserta, which is part of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, a series of lagoons and landbanks which start at Faro Marina.

The island is accessible only by boat, which explains the lack of visitors. Just one fisherman lives here, but there is a wonderful restaurant, Estaminé, which has seafood straight out of the Atlantic and views to die for.

We have arrived on the sun-kissed island after taking a nature boat tour with the Animaris company, where guide Joaquin points out some of the 2,050 bird species that call this area home — or who drop in on their way to summer breeding grounds.

We see ospreys, cormorants, ruddy turnstones, little egrets, Eurasian spoonbills, herons, yellow-legged seagulls, sandwich terns and the endangered Audouin’s gull.

After 90 minutes of birdwatching, we are dropped off on Ilha Deserta — it’s not only deserted but also a desert — where we head for Estaminé to enjoy a gorgeous lunch including beach shrimp, oysters and tuna, followed by a delicious sea bass.

Then it’s time for a stroll on the island’s walking trail before plunging into the refreshing surf. We return to Faro Marina with Animaris’ water ferry.

Ria Formosa is a unique lagoon system of islands, marshes and peninsulas, which protect Faro from the open sea. Six different inlets allow the Atlantic to flow in and out, and a boat trip to one of the ‘seven natural wonders of Portugal’ is a must. Ilha Deserta itself is right on the Atlantic.

Back on land, I find that Faro is a great destination for a three-night city break, with much to see and lots of excellent food to sample.

Cataplana fish stew

Just a couple of hours after landing at the airport, which is ten minutes from town, we launch ourselves into a fun class cooking the traditional Cataplana fish stew in the lovely Tertulia Algarvia restaurant right in the middle of town.

Chef Alexandra Caetano gets us chopping and frying onions, garlic, peppers and chorizo before adding thyme, wine and fish stock to a giant pot.

Then comes the Atlantic croaker fish, cut into fillets and placed in the broth skin up, followed by clams, cockles and razor clams.

It’s not long before we are sitting down on an outside terrace to eat the meal we have just cooked. And it’s delicious.

Close by is Faro Story Spot, an interactive museum where you can catch up on the history of the city from the first settlement by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC to the Romans who ruled from the 2nd to 8th centuries.

The Moors, Muslims from North Africa, ruled for another 500 years before being defeated by King Alphonso III in 1249, when Faro became a Christian city and a major port.

Faro has plenty to explore including its historic cathedral

The museum is next to the cathedral, which lies at the heart of the old city and which was once a Muslim mosque. Here too a Roman forum and temple once stood, followed by a medina highlighting Faro’s rich cultural history.

Climb the cathedral tower for great views over the city and the Ria Formosa waterways.

Just opposite is the 16th century Bishop’s Palace, which has a beautiful collection of colourful Rococo wall tiles, so typical of Portugal.

Not to be missed in the old city are the elegant cloisters in the Municipal Museum, a former convent dating back to 1512. The building also houses a giant 2nd century Roman mosaic, which was discovered near the railway station — all 500,000 pieces were removed and rebuilt piece by piece.

The neoclassic Town Arch is the main entrance to the old town and was built over a previous medieval gateway. Today, it is also home to stork families who have made their huge nests on the top, something you will also spot elsewhere in Faro.

It’s hard to believe that up to five years ago, this city of 67,000 people saw little tourism, with arriving visitors immediately heading east or west along the coast. It was mainly an administrative centre for local government, a 10,000-strong university and the hospital.

It only got its own tourism department three years ago and the number of holidaymakers has been steadily growing.

Its three major city centre hotels have been bolstered by additional rooms in 900 registered homes and Airbnbs.

Chef Alexandra Caetano

We checked out all three hotels, staying for the first two nights in the modern 134 room, four-star Eva Senses Hotel which has a great location overlooking Faro Harbour and its huge array of boats.

Its rooftop swimming pool and bar are a huge attraction along with its sky high restaurant, where we enjoyed a tasty buffet lunch of traditional beef and bean soup, and butterfish with roast potatoes.

The ultra-modern and luxurious 3HB Faro hotel, the only five-star in the city where we spent our last night, also has a rooftop pool, restaurant and bar and chic rooms, some with jacuzzis.

Hollywood star Will Smith was a recent visitor and it’s easy to see why this plush hotel, which opened in June last year, has become a hit with red carpet royalty.

We had a sumptuous dinner on the roof: a selection of seafood starters and a main of pork belly with potato gratin and spinach.

Finishing off our trip in the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Faro, we had another fabulous lunch of clams and prawns as a starter and croaker and shrimp as a main.

Then finally it was a quick dash to the airport, and the Ryanair plane home.

TRAVEL FACTFILE

FARO, PORTUGAL See Visit Algarve for more information ■ Discover Deserta Island and boat tours around Ria Formosa. ■ Join a Tertulia Algarvia cookery class, from €80 ■ Stay in Faro at the four-star Eva Senses Hotel; the four-star Hotel Faro; or the five-star 3HB Hotel.


Today's Headlines

More Travel

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices

WatchMore Videos