Olhão is a major port and actually the largest fishing port in the Algarve. It is full of character with Moorish-style houses,an influence from the commercial links with Africa. Although Olhão only really became a town of note in the 19th century, it was first mentioned in 1378. At this time it would have been a very small fishing settlement of a handful of people, living in huts made of wood, reeds and straw on the beach. By 1679 it was important enough to need the building of the fortress of São Lorenço to defend it from pirates.
Olhão is a town of many 'faces' - if you approach from the fishing port side it looks, and is, very industrial and, unless you are particularly interested in fishing boats and warehousing it doesn't look very attractive. However, around the corner from the dock the road runs along the water front and there is a long, very pleasant, paved promenade with cool gardens to escape the heat of the sun. If you are driving to Olhão there is plenty of parking along this water front road (Avenida 5 de Outubro)- the stretch in front of the town is paying, but go a little further and just before the road splits into a dual carriageway there is a free carpark on the water front side.
There are two market buildings side by side along the water front, which are a 'must visit' for the huge variety of extremely fresh fish and sea food straight from the port and the vast array of locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables. Olhão is well known for it's fish market, in particular and if you haven't got anywhere to cook some yourself, then try one of the numerous local cafes along the roadside nearby - you won't be disappointed!
The market halls are surrounded by pavement cafes and it's a great place to sit and enjoy the view of the boats moored along the water front in Olhão Marina and the sand spit beach ilhas of Armona and Culatra just a short distance off shore behind them. We have enjoyed lovely afternoons in Olhão, where we walked along the water front and through the gardens, sat outside a jazz cafe watching the boats, people cycling around and local people going about their day.
Next it's time to venture into the historic heart of Olhão and the easiest road to follow is directly across from the gap between the market halls. Here, many of the buildings are the elegant merchant's homes with wrought iron balconies, carved stonework and tile decorations and are such a contrast to the busy port area of Olhão. At the centre of the town at the end of Avenida da República, in the Praça da Restauração, is the church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário, built in 1698 with contributions from the fishermen when it was the first stone building in Olhão. It's a very graceful building with a baroque facade and somehow quite a surprise!
The building behind the church, on the other side of the square, is the Compromisso Marítimo -the fishermen's mutual society, which was founded in the 18th century - it is also home to the Olhão city museum. In a niche above the doorway is a statue of Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Our Lady of the Rosary).
While you are in this area there is another church at the back of the Compromisso Marítimo - the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Soledade which is 17th century and the original church of the then fishing village. In the surrounding narrow, cobbled streets are a wide variety of inviting shops and pavement cafes that tempt you to linger! Well, after the sightseeing you need a break! This historic area of the town is really rather picturesque and gives a totally different view of Olhão from the port and the fishermen's quarter.
Olhão itself doesn't have a beach as it is on the Ria Formosa lagoon system but the ferries for the ilhas run from the quayside near the gardens at the eastern end of the market halls. There are regular services throughout the year, although fewer in number during the winter.
Ilha da Culatra is surrounded by beautifully clear water, with many species of fish, so it is perfect for diving and snorkelling. Ilha do Farol is not a separate ilha, but the area at the western end of Culatra where the lighthouse is ('Farol' meaning 'lighthouse' in Portuguese) and again offers visitors a large expanse of sand and warm water. Ilha da Armona, the closest ilha to Olhão, has a few restaurants and holiday chalets and large expanses of golden sand for a very relaxing day at the beach!
Olhão - History
The town of Olhão is essentially and historically linked to the local fishing industry and only grew into existence as a significant location in the 17th Century. It has about 30,000 inhabitants and was raised to the status of a town as a result of their actions in 1808. On the 16th of June when they revolted against the French occupying army. Then 17 local fishermen successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean without charts in their small fishing boat “Bom Sucesso”. The vessel was 18 metres in length and had two sails and the journey took two and half months. Their successful purpose was to announce to the exiled Prince regent, Dom Pedro, that the French invading armies had been defeated in the Algarve and had retreated northwards leaving the Algarve free for their him to return to Portugal. After his return in November of the same year the village was raised to the status of a town in reward for the valiant trip taken by the fishermen. It was in this town in 1882 that the first canning factory for tuna and sardines was established. Very soon canning factories spread along the coast and it was to become the leading industry for many years in the Algarve.
Olhão - Description
The town lies on the coast reasonably close to Faro and at the end of the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve. Architecturally the town is well known for an older quarter where the flat terraced roofs and straight box-shaped chimneys show a definite Moorish flavour in their style. Another important curiosity to the visitor is the fish market held every day in a long building on the waterfront. Each morning there is a lively atmosphere and the impressively large variety of fish offered by the local catch is displayed to tempt the local housewife.
Olhão - Nearby Locations
Travelling east from Olhão is the small sea village of Fuseta with the ruined remains of a what was once a castle and some older similar architectural style houses. To the north in the countryside is the small village of Moncarapacho with a 16th Century Church with a local museum next door. On the nearby hill named Cerro da Cabeça there is a popular grotto named after the village. From the town of Olhão there is a boat ferry service that takes visitors to the nearby very small islands of Ilha da Culatra and Ilha da Armona. With their un-spoilt andy beaches and virtual lack of construction these islands act as a pleasant contrast to the noise and bustle of the main coast. See Map of Olhao below.
As a word of caution, Olhão is like other larger cities across the world, so take the relevant safety precautions; not leaving possessions visible in the car and don't walk around with too much money for example.
There is quite a lot of work going on in some areas of Olhão, with new apartments being built and older blocks being given a face lift. Some parts are still a little bit shabby, but it is a flourishing town and no doubt over the next couple of years will expand and capitalise on it's very obvious assets - it's closeness to Faro being just one.
Olhão is probably not a town you would choose for a holiday with a young family, but if you were staying on one of the ilhas it is certainly somewhere to enjoy visiting and doing your shopping
Olhão - Algarve - Portugal
Information courtesy of general internet research and algarveuncovered.com, portugal-info.net, tripadvisor.com, algarve-guides.com and many more sources
Villa Rentals in olhao and holiday rentals in the Algarve Portugal in general are big business so you should expect to be treated with professionalism and with courtesy