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