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Places

Experience Olhão – a Portuguese pearl

Despite its location on the crowded southern shore of Portugal’s popular Algarve region, the coastal settlement of Olhão stands out from its neighbors.

Olhão has no beach – sun worshippers have to board one of the many water taxis or small ferries in its port in order to reach the sandy isles that form a natural barrier between the town and the open waters of the Atlantic.

The vibe downtown is decidedly different, too. That’s because Olhão is the Algarve’s principal fishing port. Instead of towering ocean front hotels with shiny lobbies, there is a century-old seaside market in red brick heaving with locals eyeing the bounty of the sea (red mullet, bream, cuttlefish to name a few) and vendors shouting out the daily specials to passersby. If one ventures inland to explore its maze of streets, which sport picturesque designs on the cobblestones, there’s a feeling of being transported to a North African medina. Alleys and uneven pedestrian lanes are filled with a collection of traditional buildings infused with a Moorish influence. One often stops to admire the stunning tiled facades in colorful patterns that compete with whitewashed buildings and box-shaped chimneys.

Wandering the streets, you come face to face with striking 19-century residences that haven’t suffered the concrete building boom that has blighted much of the Algarve coast in recent decades. In some cases, these stunning townhouses have been lovingly restored inside to host guestrooms – Casa Opala and The Marmalade House are two fine examples.

Once the bags have been unpacked, you should venture upstairs and discover a world of rooftop living – terraces and patios with views of the surrounding area are a popular feature and make a great venue in which to sip a sundowner or snooze in a hammock. In the evening, simply venture out to one of the many local eateries to enjoy a seafood stew or sardines – the season begins in June – in quaint surroundings that shun the party atmosphere typically found at beachside destinations.

Here are seven things you shouldn’t miss when you’re in Olhão:

Where to stay

This historic townhouse with a Moroccan riad feel, boasts a courtyard with hand-painted blue tiles, graceful white columns and grand wooden doors. Reserve one of its nine charming bedrooms and then retreat to its split-level roof terrace for delightful views of whitewashed roofs and the nearby Ria Formosa Natural Park.

Convento

10 Travessa António Bento, Olhão

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Pinta Roxa

At this charming little shop on the town’s seaside promenade run by a schoolteacher, you’ll find prints, jewelry, homeware from local brand Casa Cubista, which does a modern take on traditional ceramics, and model fishing boats in various sizes.

Pinta Roxa

28 Avenida 5 de Outubro, Olhão

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Recreativa

Housed in a beautiful 19th century building that has been carefully restored, the cultural center is a hub of activity, with musical performances featuring fado and jazz, art exhibitions and film screenings. Drop in at the bar for an espresso or draft beer and unwind on the back patio.

Recreativa

14 Avenida da República, Olhão

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Saaz Craft Beer Lounge

While wine is the favored drink of the Portuguese, craft beer has been gaining ground. Fans of microbreweries may sample the local offerings from Saaz, including the house India pale ale, or experimental libations such as the Ginja Sour, a fruited lager beer with cherry aromas.

Saaz Craft Beer Lounge

42 Rua do Comércio, Olhão

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Chá Chá Chá

Tucked away in a cozy little square, the entrance is marked by vintage signage hanging above the entrance. Ideal for lunch, the easy-going eatery serves up great plates of fish, from marinated anchovies with lightly soused pink onions, to monkfish or a simple salad of pitted fruit, goat cheese and sweet mint. For dessert, there’s the orange and almond polenta cake.

Chá Chá Chá

19 Travessa do Gaibéu, Olhão

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7imeio Wine Bar

For an evening cocktail on the promenade, 7imeio is the perfect watering hole. Inside, there is a forest of bare light bulbs suspended from the ceiling, while outside, there’s ample seating to watch the world go by. Pair drinks such as a white port cocktail with the house tapas (croquettes, spicy chicken wings) or order from their imaginative sushi menu.

7imeio Wine Bar

38/40 Avenida 5 de Outubro, Olhão

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Casa Fuzetta

Owner Tara Donovan worked hard to breathe new life into a historic townhouse in the heart of Olhão’s old town. The result is a superb retreat for friends and family in search of a chic getaway. The residence features 12 bedrooms, two kitchens, a rooftop pool and plenty of space to lounge. Ideal for groups in search of a sunny spot with privacy to celebrate an anniversary or family reunion.

Casa Fuzetta

7 Travessa Heliodoro Salgado, Olhão

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