Olhão is best known for being the Algarve’s largest active fishing port, not as a tourist destination. Its 15 minutes of fame happened some 210 years ago, during the Napoleonic wars*. It is highlighted in the international press by a 2009 article in the Guardian entitled—I kid you not—“Nothing doing”. (Wherein the author correctly concludes that doing nothing in Olhão and the surrounding islands is pretty awesome.)
In the last year or two there has been something of a renewal. The economy is improving all over, Portugal is fashionable, and the rest of the Algarve is full. Olhão may be the last bit of the Algarve where there’s still room to wander and wade, without stepping on someone’s toes—or their beach towel.
All kinds of tours, walks and rides have sprung up along the waterfront. While you wait for the ferry on your way to Casa Armona, you can schedule a walking tour, a boat ride, and even rent bicycles to explore the islands and parks around the city. Many of these activities take advantage of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, a large natural reserve just east of town where you can observe all kinds of marine birds and aquatic wildlife.
At Seahorse Bike Rental they have bicycles for all ages, from toddlers riding in a seat on the back, to grandmothers taking the second seat on a tandem. Prices start at 10€ for a 1-day adult rental, with discount for children or multiple days. They also offer tours either by bike or on foot, so that there are options for all kinds of visitors.
Because there are more tourists per fisherman this year—but still not so many that you can’t spot a fisherman or two (or five) at almost any café. Even in a hip place like the vintage-y, kitsch-y La Bicyclette, I think I saw one: drinking a freshly made orange-carrot juice, served in a bottle with a checkered lid, complete with a hole for the straw.
Tucked in between two shops, with a storefront barely wider than the door, La Bicyclette has a surprising interior. The original brickwork arcades have been restored and are played up with partially plastered walls that give the café a carefully curated “ruined” air. The decoration is eclectic, featuring glass lamps, doillies, bicycles tires and wooden produce boxes… and yet the whole thing works. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to linger. Plus the freshly made juices are truly delicious.
La Bicyclette and Seahorse Bike Rentals are just two examples of the new restaurants, cafés, bars and activities that have either opened or expanded recently. Ferry workers and café waiters sport matching staff t-shirts. There’s a new feeling in the air. A feeling of change. A general air of upgrading everything.
But not so much that you would need shoes on a regular basis. I mean, maybe some havaianas. But nothing else.
* In 1808, the people of Olhão started a revolt against the French forces that eventually led to Napoleon’s explusion from the Algarve. A group of fisherman in a tiny boat sailed all the way to Brasil to give the news to the court-in-exile there. As a reward, the king Olhão officially promoted to a town, or “vila” (instead of a village, or “aldeia”). See Wikipedia’s history of Olhão for more.
Disclaimer: all recommendations are our own, and we receive no compensation for them. Not even free juice.
I mean, I wouldn’t say no to free juice if it were offered, because it’s really good juice… but the free-ness wouldn’t influence my recommendation, either way.