Faro is a great jumping-off point for exploring the Algarve and other parts of Portugal, and the Spanish border is less than an hour’s drive away. Whether you’re interested in grand architecture and world-class food, traditional village life, deserted beaches, or fascinating history, it’s all easily accessible as a day trip from this small city.
The Ria Formosa lagoon, a series of lagoons and sandy barrier islands between the coast and Atlantic ocean, is only a few miles east of Faro. A vital nesting ground for many migratory birds, it’s common to see flamingos, cranes, egrets, and several other species in the area. Seafood such as octopus, crabs, and oysters is also abundant in the area, and supplies restaurants throughout the country.
You can explore the mainland section of the Ria Formosa on your own via a long boardwalk, or take an excursion with one of several companies to get out to the islands. Water-based trips include kayaking and catamaran options, along with guided bicycle trips, get you much closer to most the bird life.
Getting There: Boat trips generally leave from Faro harbor, and can be booked through travel agents, your hotel, or direct with the operator. Independent travelers should drive or take the train to Olhão (once an hour, journey time of 10 minutes.) The park starts on the eastern edge of town.
Travel Tip: Take a look around the center of Olhão before heading back to Faro—the attractive white flat-roofed buildings look like they belong in northern Africa, not Europe.
Ilha da Barreta / Ilha Deserta
Just south of Faro, but accessible only by ferry or private boat, Ilha da Barreta is the place to go for unspoiled beaches and no crowds. Accurately called Ilha Deserta (Deserted Island) by the locals, the island has no full-time residents, and most tourists stick to more easily-accessible beaches.
The beach on Ilha Deserta runs for five miles, with a boardwalk running along part of it from the ferry pier, but you won’t need to go far to find an empty patch of sand.
Getting There: A ferry runs from Faro during summer months, costing around 10 euros for a return ticket. The last service leaves at 5:30 pm, and it’ll be a costly speedboat ride back to the mainland if you miss it.
Travel Tip: Pack a picnic lunch if you’re on a budget--the island’s restaurant has no competition, which is reflected in the price of its meals.
Loule: Perfect for Souvenir Shopping
The Algarve is more than the beaches on the coast. If you’d like to take in some history and get a taste of Portuguese life in the Algarve interior, take a trip to Loule.
The town has a Moorish castle and a labyrinth of narrow medieval streets full of craft workshops, but the biggest highlight for many visitors is the historic covered market in the center of town. On Saturday mornings, the regular market expands to include a farmers market as well, and the whole area comes alive with locals and tourists alike.
The covered market is the perfect place to pick up local handicrafts such as handbags, shoes, and metalwork, as well as regional food and drink specialties.
Getting There: Loule is about ten miles from Faro, and easily accessible by car or bus. The journey takes 40 minutes and costs around 3€, but services are limited at weekends. Organized day tours are also readily available.
Travel Tip: The covered market is closed on Sundays, and most government-run sites are closed on Mondays.
Praia da Quinta do Lago: Sand and Flamingos
Praia da Quinta do Lago is a stretch of golden sand backed by delicate wetlands, making for an interesting alternative to other beaches in the area. A 1,000-foot wooden footbridge crosses the marshes, connecting the beach to the mainland, with a restaurant and bar at the beach end for when you’re feeling peckish.
Flamingos and other bird life are abundant in the wetlands, and lifeguards are on duty during summer for those braving the chilly waters. Whether you’re there to swim, sunbathe, or birdwatch, you’ll likely have plenty of space to yourself—the beach rarely gets busy.
Getting There: It takes around half an hour to drive from Faro to the start of the footbridge, or you can walk the two miles along the sand from Faro’s main beach instead.
Travel Tip: Only consider the walk from Praia de Faro on cooler days—it’s a long way, with very little shade!
Tavira lies on the Gilão river, around twenty miles east of Faro. It’s regularly called “the prettiest town in the Algarve,” all beautiful churches, old whitewashed buildings with terracotta roofs, cobbled streets, and small fishing boats bobbing in the current.
Other than a Roman bridge and ruined castle on a hill above town, Tavira isn’t really a place for ticking off major tourist attractions. Instead, it’s ideal for experiencing a relaxed slice of small-town Algarve life that’s largely missing from the resort areas.
Enjoy a leisurely meal at one of the excellent restaurants along the river, enjoy a drink at a shaded bar in one of the town’s many plazas, and keep snapping photos of picturesque buildings until you’ve filled up your memory card.
Getting There: Tavira is a 35-minute drive from Faro, along the A22 motorway. The train takes around the same length of time.
Travel Tip: Check the train schedule before your return trip, as service frequency varies depending on the time of day.
The Western Algarve: History and Rugged Beauty
Lagos is a popular beach destination on the western Algarve coast, with plenty of restaurants, beach activities, and an active nightlife. There’s more to the region than that, however, with plenty for history buffs and nature lovers alike.
Silves, twenty miles northeast of Lagos, was once the capital of the region. A ticket for Silves Castle costs under three euros, a bargain to visit this impressive fortress. Be sure to check out the cathedral as well—this former mosque is now a national monument.
Head to the rugged and isolated Cabo de Sao Vicente, the westernmost point of mainland Europe, which was once believed to be the end of the world. Nearby Sagres is a good spot to grab a meal and visit the 15th-century fort atop a nearby headland.
Getting There: Trains and buses run regularly between Faro and Lagos, taking under two hours, but you’re better off renting a car if you plan to visit several different parts of the western Algarve in a day.
Travel Tip: Pack warm clothing if you’re visiting Cabo de Sao Vicente, even on hot days. The wind off the Atlantic makes the headland noticeably colder than even a mile or two inland.
The capital of Spain’s Andalusia region, Seville makes for an easy and rewarding day trip from Faro. Controlled by the Moors for 700 years, their legacy is easily seen throughout the city.
There’s far more to see than you can cover in a single day, but must-do highlights include visits to the largest Gothic cathedral in the world (entry: €8) and the Alcázar royal palace (entry: €7.50,) currently famous for being a Game of Thrones shooting location. They’re both in the gorgeous barrio (neighborhood) of Santa Cruz, which is an attraction in its own right.
Seville is the home of flamenco dancing, so try to take in a show while you’re there, and be sure to spare a leisurely hour for watching the world go by as you enjoy a drink and tapas at a local bar.
Getting There: Seville lies around 125 miles east of Faro, and it takes around two hours to drive there. The bus takes three hours and costs about fifty euros round trip. It’s worth checking the price of guided day tours as well, as they often don’t cost much more than the bus.
Travel Tip: Seville can get extremely hot in summer, with temperatures regularly well over 100 °F. Try to visit in shoulder season, or be prepared to limit the amount of time you spend outside.
Lisbon: Crumbling Beauty and Great Food
You don't have to choose between the beach or the city for your vacation. Lisbon can be easily visited on a day trip, allowing you to base your beach holiday in the Algarve, but still enjoy the Portuguese capital.
You could easily spend a week exploring Lisbon, but fortunately the old town is relatively compact and easy to explore on foot for day trippers. Be sure to wander through the narrow streets of Alfama, explore the grand, crumbling architecture of the Baixa/Chiado shopping district, and enjoy a drink beside the river at any one of the numerous bars and restaurants.
When you’re getting hungry, the Time Out Market hosts outposts of some of best restaurants in the city in its sprawling food hall, or you could simply follow your nose and drop into a family-run restaurant for a menu do dia (meal of the day).
Getting There: Lisbon is three hours by car or high-speed train from Faro. Day excursions by minivan are also available, with hotel pick-up and drop-off, that visit many of the city’s major sites.
Travel Tip: The hills in Lisbon are steep, and it often seems like everywhere you want to go is uphill. Wear comfortable shoes!
Strategically located on the tip of Spain at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, the British territory of Gibraltar makes for a fascinating, albeit long, day trip from Faro. Enjoy the views of the famous Rock, and check out the Barbary apes, the last remaining wild monkeys in Europe. Don’t get too close, though, especially if you’ve got food or drink – they’ll be only too happy to take it from you!
Gibraltar’s tax-free status means things like cigarettes and alcohol are cheaper there than in Spain. If you want to buy some, you’ll need to change some money, since Gibraltar uses pound sterling as its currency.
Getting There: You can visit Gibraltar by guided tour from Faro, or drive the nearly four hours to the Spanish border (La Linea de la Concepcion) and walk the few minutes into Gibraltar instead. There are no direct public transport links, with buses going via Seville and taking most of the day to get there.
Travel Tip: As you’ll be leaving and re-entering Spain, don’t forget your passport!