O is for Olhão


I had always thought that my “O” post would be about Obidos, a medieval walled town in Central Portugal that stole my heart a couple of years ago.  But much has already been written about this tiny, charismatic place, so, with my Algarve affinity, it seemed better to introduce you to somewhere local and lesser known. (Unless, of course, you are a biker?)  Welcome to Olhão!

An aerial view of Olhão and the lagoons of the Ria Formosa (from Wikipedia)

An aerial view of Olhão and the lagoons of the Ria Formosa (from Wikipedia)

From its situation on the Ria Formosa, it was always obvious that Olhão would make a fine fishing port, but for many years its growth was resisted by neighbouring administrator Faro, who wanted to keep fishing rights to itself.  Autonomy was persistently refused and even permission to build a simple stone house.  Hamlet status was finally achieved in 1765 and Olhão formed a self-supporting “Maritime Commitment”.  Both before and since, it has been inseparable from the sea.

The natives of Olhão were never ones to run from a fight, and they occupy a special place in Portuguese history.  The first successful uprising against French occupation took place here on 16th June 1808, and was the beginning of the expulsion of the Napoleonic army.  The Portuguese king, João VI, was at that time exiled in Brazil.  A group of fishermen from Olhão set sail across the Atlantic, in a simple fishing boat, to bring the news of the French defeat to their king.  In recognition of this, Olhão was rewarded with village status.

A replica of the caique, Bom Sucesso (Good Fortune), sits modestly on the waterfront.

Azulejo tile representation of the sailing to Brazil (from Wikipedia)

Azulejo tile representation of the sailing to Brazil (from Wikipedia)

Would you cross the Atlantic in a boat like this?

Would you cross the Atlantic in this boat? You would need Bom Sucesso!

The town’s growth was enabled by a large spring or olho de agua (eye of water), for which the town was named, Olhão meaning big eye.  The arrival of a tuna factory, and fish preserving industry, transformed Olhão into a wealthy town, with fine merchant’s homes.  The fishing industry declined, of course, but today Olhão is again doing battle with Faro, attempting to lure away a little of the lucrative tourist trade.

The tourist train- all aboard!

The tourist train, outside the Real Marina Hotel on the long promenade

If you’ve seen any of my previous Algarve posts, you might know that a large part of the attraction of Olhão is the access it gives to the islands of the lagoon, Armona and Culatra, paradise for beach lovers.  From the harbour there is a lengthy promenade overlooking the marina.  In the centre of this stand distinctive twin market halls, one for fish, the other fruit and vegetables.  On Saturday mornings the market spills out onto pavement stalls in a flurry of activity.  Remember the bikers?  In July, when the Bike Festival arrives in Faro, the overflow spreads along the waterfront gardens in Olhão till there’s barely a blade of grass to be seen.

The other time when Olhão is exceptionally busy is when the Seafood Festival takes place, around the second week in August.  The smell of sardines mingles with the sound of Fado and a great time is had by all.  The waterfront is usually closed to traffic at this time, creating a little havoc in getting around.

Olhão waterfront with the twin towers of the market halls in the background

Olhão waterfront with the twin towers of the market halls in the background

Can you make out the lighthouse at Farol on the island of Culatra between those masts?

Can you make out the lighthouse at Farol on the island of Culatra between those masts? It’s a long way out.

It's the strangest feeling when you're out there in the shallows, far from shore

It’s the strangest feeling when you’re out there in the shallows, far from shore. The locals hunt endlessly for shellfish.

Every kind of craft comes idling home

Every kind of craft comes idling home

The most peaceful of spots, unless it's windy.

It’s a peaceful spot, unless it’s windy, when the masts vibrate wildly.

To this day, I can get lost in the maze of streets behind the waterfront.  Olhão is unique in the Algarve in that it has cube-shaped Moorish style houses which do not, in fact, date from the occupation of the Moors.  They are instead the result of the town’s fishing and trading activities with the countries of North Africa.  Try to visit Nossa Senhora do Rosario, the town’s main church, situated just behind this warren of streets.  Igreja Pequena, the Little Church, was the first stone building in Olhão, and this is the second.  Both were financed by the efforts of the local fishermen, at that time living in little more than mud huts themselves.  The view from the Bell Tower reveals the special construction of the cubist houses.

White stone steps lead up to a second small roof terrace, the mirante, traditionally used by fishermen to evaluate the marine conditions before going to sea.  The women of the house go up there to watch for them.  A chapel at the rear of the main church is open day and night, to pray for their safe return.

Igreja Pequena- the Little Church,1st stone building in Olhao

Igreja Pequena- the Little Church, and the first stone building in Olhao

Roof tops of the cubist houses

Roof tops of the cubist houses, from the Bell Tower of Nossa Senhora do Rosario

Typical merchant's house

One of many fine merchant’s houses

Approaching Olhão along the EN125, the urban sprawl is not at all attractive.  You might never think that this world existed.  But take the trouble to dip down to the waterfront, and you will find an Olhão with real character.

Just before I finish, I should mention Quinta de Marim.  2kms east of Olhão, just off the EN125, on the Ria Formosa a link to the Roman occupation of the Algarve can be witnessed.  A tidal mill overlooks fish salting tanks and the salinas for producing salt, which were a very important industry in Roman times.  Today it’s an education centre and a very soothing spot from which to witness the natural world.

If you have enjoyed this piece, you might like to take a look at some of my other personal A-Z’s.  The original idea came from Julie Dawn Fox, a fine writer who lives in Central Portugal.  Click on the header or the links to see what’s out there.



  1. When I read early in this piece about the cube-shaped houses I didn’t imagine they would actually look so modern and minimalist! Are the majority of those houses decades old already?
    And how remarkable is it that those folk managed to sail to Brazil in that boat. What a feat.
    I’d have to say, Ms. Jo that your posts about Portugal are the ones I like most. There’s just the right amount of history in them, written in a way like I’m just walking along with you and you’re pointing out the sights to me, hehe. I enjoyed reading this. 🙂

    1. You have no idea how nice this is to hear, Tita! There are times when I wonder what I’m doing chasing my tail with the challenges, but I do love putting the A-Z’s together. And I love having you come on a walk with me.
      Yes, they are pretty old. Not sure if they would still construct new in that style now, yet it seems a shame to let this tradition go. There are some absolutely beautiful tiled houses mixed in too. Olhao’s an odd mix. It’s not somewhere I’d want to live but it is quite fascinating.

  2. Thank you for sharing once more your love of Portugal with us, and for this interesting info Jo. Olhao definitely seems like a place worth visiting.

    1. I’d love to poke around in the corners a bit more, Paula, but we’re often destined for the islands when we’re there. Me and my water wings!

  3. I would love to meander through this town and discover all its treasures. Those merchant houses look particularly interesting.

    1. Olhao is a right old hodge podge, and not everyone’s cup of tea, Suze. We first went there to an everything-under-one-roof furniture store when we bought the house, and couldn’t find our way back out again! One time we got stuck in traffic during the fish festival and almost had to abandon the car there. It’s definitely not Michael’s favourite place, but it does have character.

    1. It’s such a contrasting place, Madhu! The modern side is mostly unappealing. The waterfront is great, but when the bikers or fish festival come to town everything grinds to a standstill! But there are some very genteel Portuguese parts too, and those I really love.

    1. You’re so welcome, Amy! I’m busy trying to book flights to Poland with my dad- sometimes I don’t know where my loyalties lie. But it’s nice to have a choice.

    1. It’s one of those places that I could l linger for much longer, Ad. Lots of interesting back streets and photo opportunities, but invariably when I’m there, so is Michael, and his tolerance for these things is much shorter.

  4. I love Olhão, but I’ve probably said that before. We can never go past without spending a few nights at the camp site out near Quinta de Marim – until we’d had enough of the mosquitoes from the marshes. I loved it precisely because it wasn’t touristy. Although the last time we went, we were surprised to see a lot of flash-looking new-build apartments.

    We spent a week there one May (the one when Tony Blair won the election so 1990 something or other), and planned to go up to Lisboa, but just spent the week locally, it was so relaxing, and there is so much to do and see.

    We did try to go into Quinta de Marim at one point, but we were told it was private, so it’s obviously changed.

    A lovely post for me 🙂

    1. You probably wouldn’t like it now, Rough. While not the height of commercialism, it is trying. Well, economically it has to, doesn’t it? The same is true for Tavira. But it is still a place full of character, if you go looking beyond that.
      I’ve put a link here to Quinta de Marim: http://www.your-perfect-algarve-holiday.com/quinta-marim.html The tidal mill is interesting to see. The place was deserted when we were there but we picked up a leaflet and followed the walking trail. That was a couple of years back so we’re due a revisit.

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