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July 30, 2017

La Bicyclette & Bicicletas: Bicycles in Olhão

bicycle headerA city who’s best days are behind it? Not a chance…

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.

Bicylces for rentAll 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.

indoor bicycles

Interior of La Bicyclette

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.

June 1, 2014

Santos Populares – Popular Saints

June in Lisbon means grilled sardines and Sto Antonio and the feast days of the santos populares (“popular saints” or “people’s saints”)…

The feast days of the most popular saints in Portugal — St Anthony, St Pedro and St John– are all in June, and every year this is an excuse for Lisbon (and much of Portugal) to turn the month into one big party.

Sto Antonio (St Anthony) is said to have been born in 1195, in Lisbon, and his saint’s day (June 13) is  a municipal holiday. He is held to be the patron saint of matchmaking and on the June 12th each year the St Anthony weddings are held. Dozens of couples vie for the honor of participating in the group weddings (since 1997, those selected can opt for either a religious or purely civil ceremony). Around 15 couples are chosen to be the Noivos de Santo Antonio, and the festivities are paid for by the city.

(The grey-haired gentleman who appears repeatedly in the video–kissing people, handing out statues and making a speach at the end–was the mayor of Lisbon at the time the video was made.)

St Anthony’s Day is also the height of the arraiais, or street parties, that the festas populares are best known for, and which pepper the city throughout the month of June.
Look for streamers strung over the roads, music in the streets – often live – and fresh sardines grilled over charcoal, served on a slice of hearty bread. The most famous festivities are in the Alfama, but almost every neighbourhood has their own arraial for the Popular Saints.

The biggest party, though, is on the Avenida da Liberdade, where people gather to watch the marchas populares, in which the bairros (neighbourhoods) compete with coreographed march/dances down the Avenida. This year the marches will be held on June 12th, and if you happen to be in town that evening, you should stop by, since it really is quite a spectacle. The whole event will be televised, as well, but it loses much of its flavor that way.

The weeks of the Popular Saints are an excelent excuse to visit Lisbon, since it’s the time of year when the Portuguese–normally a private and somewhat reserved people–are the most open and friendly. I’ve even seen Portuguese families invite total strangers and tourists to share their dinner of grilled sardines.

May 17, 2014

Meo Out Jazz

Stop by the Praça Martim Moniz, Saturdays at 5pm this summer, for Meo Out Jazz: live concerts in a newly-hip setting.

Despite its central location and delightful fountains, the Praça Martim Moniz has a reputation for being scrungy, and even a little shady after-hours. 

But the city of Lisbon is trying to change that. A year or so ago, they set up kiosks–with shaded dinning areas–selling food from around the world, in the hopes of playing on the Praça’s already international flavour. (The area is thick with shops owned by Chinese and Indian merchants, as well as ethnic grocery stores.) 

New funky sculptures (including a colourful dragon winding in and out of the pavement), help brighten the area, as well. In the summer there are lounge chairs by the fountain and music piped in.

Meo Out Jazz 2014This year the city has gone one step further, bringing Meo Out Jazz to the square. Every Saturday afternoon this summer, live outdoor concerts have been organized in the Praça Martim Moniz, starting at 5pm.

Other Out Jazz locations include the gardens around the Torre de Belem, and several different parks around the city. Click here for the full program.

January 16, 2014

Ria Formosa Natural Park

The Ria Formosa Natural Park is a nature reserve which sits along the eastern Algarve coast line and boasts some of the best unspoiled secrets of the Portuguese holiday destination. Encompassing 60km of the coast between the Faro and Manta Rota regions, the park is bursting with sites and activities to satisfy the most demanding Algarve visitor.

It hosts a number of beautiful and secluded islands including Barretta, Culatra, Armona and Tavira. The sandy beaches of each make up the outer edge of the park and form a coastal dune barrier which protects a shallow, warm-water lagoon from the Ocean. The Ria Formosa region is still used for mussel and oyster farming and there are two rivers that run into the lagoon all year round. The rest of the waterways dry up during the summer but the lagoon is the still the only place in the Algarve to see a fully restored tidal mill. The islands can all be reached either by car, foot or by boats that sail regularly from the major coastal towns. They each have their own cafes and bars, many on the beaches themselves, as well as a wealth of fishing heritage. The island of Barrill even has a coastal train which is great for kids.

For nature lovers, the Ria Formosa Park prides itself on playing an important part in the conservation of many varieties of fish, flora and birds, like the Sultan Chicken – of which only 20 remain. The park has been involved in preserving the cultural heritage of the area for some time too; from restoring the tidal mill and Roman salting tanks to recovering a traditional tuna fish boat, all of which are open to visitors.

The park recently set up a project for the breeding of the native Portuguese water dogs and park visitors can stroke the dogs at specialist kennels as well as talk to the handlers and learn more about them. The dogs have been associated with the Algarve since the breed was used by fishermen and are famous for their ability to swim, dive and even jump out of the water onto the boats.

And if you want to get even closer to this picturesque park you can take the 3km nature trail, which can take up to three hours to walk. It takes you right through the heart of the Ria Formosa, from the salt marshes and Roman ruins to a traditional villa built by local poet Joao Lucio. Or, if you fancy exploring the park by yourself take a picnic and take advantage of all the hideaways and secluded areas that are just waiting to be discovered.

The visitor centre is the hub of the park and is situated at Quinta da Marim, Olhao. From Olhao take the EN125 signposted “Ria Formosa” and the centre is through marked gates on the left. The temperate Algarve weather in March or indeed at just about any time outside of the main holiday season is ideal for exploring this beautiful park without working up too much of a sweat!

August 8, 2013

Lisbon with Teenagers: entertaining teens in Lisbon

Traveling with teens can be a challenge because… well, because teens can be a challenge! But there’s no reason why you can’t have fun in Lisbon with teenagers.

I was 17 when I first visited Lisbon, for a week, with my parents and 4-year-old brother (joy of joys). But I ended up having a great time. I love history, and my parent made sure to hit all the important historical sights: St Jorge’s Castle (which houses an active archeological dig) and the Alfama, Belém (where Vasco de Gama launched his ships), and the Moorish castle in Sintra.

But despite my parent’s efforts to plan a trip everyone would enjoy, my very favorite days were:

The day I planned myself: Sometimes it’s not what you do, so much as how you do it. My parents took advantage of the fact that I was longing to be grown-up by having me plan the activities for a whole day: what to do, where to eat and how to get there. To do the same, have your teen search for things that interest them in Lisbon, whether that’s beaches or science or Lusitanian horses or history. Of course, you may want to supervise just a little, to make sure they don’t plan something totally crazy! (My little brother planned a day, as well. We went to see the dinosaur tracks in the Serra de Aire. And I have to admit, that was actually pretty cool, too.)

The day I spent by myself: Sure, we go on family vacations to be together. But being together can be more fun if you have some time apart, too. My parents let me spend a whole day by myself at the Park of the Nations while they took my little brother to the zoo. I bought my own ticket to the Oceanário, ordered my own lunch at the shopping center, and generally felt super -grown-up for being on my own in a foreign city. Obviously that kind of freedom may not be appropriate for some (younger!) teens, but even a shopping trip becomes much more exciting if you stay at the door and let your teen browse and even buy their own. Think about what your teen is allowed to do at home and consider giving them similar freedoms in Lisbon, at least for a day. Make sure they have a cell phone for emergencies, of course!

Here are more ideas for activities in Lisbon that may appeal to teensagers, for time on their own or together as a family:

  • Go to the beach (and schedule a surf lesson!): If your teen is wondering why their friends get to go on “cool” vacations, while they’re stuck with some old city, take them to the beach, and show them that old can still be hip. As a plus, younger siblings will probably love it, too.
  • Hang out at the skate park at the Park of the Nations (link to site in Portuguese, but with a map): Or, better yet, take your younger kids to play in the park nearby, while your teen hangs at the skate park. (The whole riverfront on that side of Lisbon is one long park.) We’ll be happy to find a loaner skateboard for you, if you let us know ahead of time.
  • Bike rentals at the Park of the Nations: If your teen likes sports, but skating isn’t their thing, rent bikes at the kiosk between the Vasco de Gama shopping center and the river. You can bike all along the Tejo there, enjoying the view and the lovely parks. Take a picnic lunch!
  • Go shopping in the Baixa Lisboeta: Tell your teen to think of the Baixa as a big outdoor shopping mall. While they’re in Berska, H&M or whatever little store strikes their fancy, you can admire the more historical sights, have coffee at one of the many outdoor cafes on the Rua Augusta or duck into the MUDE (it’s free, so don’t worry if you don’t have time to see everything).

Whatever your teen’s interests, they’ll almost certainly find something they’d like to visit. Turn their tech-savy to your advantage and have them search online for activities that sound cool to them. Nothing worth having comes easy, and visiting Lisbon with teenagers can be great fun, too!

What is/was your best idea for things to do with teens in Lisbon?

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