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When flying to or from Faro, you might have experienced the mesmerizing view that the Ria Formosa offers from above. Shining water in different shades of blue surrounds several strips of land, the so-called barrier islands, scattered all over the coastline; the wow-factor is apparant. An important area to the local population for both conservational and economic reasons, in the last years the Ria Formosa has registered an increasing interest by foreigners and tourists. The number and the kind of tourist activities offered, improved consistently, making this spectacular region the perfect scenario for more than one day trip.
The Ria Formosa is a lagoon located between the Algarve inland and the Atlantic ocean, where barrier islands are protecting it from the strength of the oceanic currents. This creates a unique environment that attracts several animals, including over 20.000 species of birds, all year around. The Ria Formosa extends for 60 km from the beach of Manta Rota, near the Spanish border, to the Praia do Ancão just before Vale do Lobo. Since 1978 it has been protected by Portuguese law under the category of Natural Reserve, to support its diverse ecosystem and beauty.
The lagoon contains two peninsulas and five barrier islands (Ilha da Barreta, Ilha da Culatra, Ilha da Armona, Ilha de Tavira e Ilha de Cabanas). Each of them with a different story to tell. Two of them are particularly easy to access, thanks to the ferry boats that reach them daily from Faro and Olhão: we are referring to the Barreta Island and Culatra Island.
Ilha da Barreta also called Ilha Deserta by the locals, is not inhabited with the exclusion of the only construction on the island, Restaurant Estaminé. It is reachable all year long by water taxi or by ferry boat by the company Animaris and it is a true paradise for bird-watchers and nature lovers. Its secluded beaches are probably the best conserved and the quietest of them all. Its west coast is one of the few official spots dedicated to naturism in the whole of the Algarve
Ilha da Culatra is located in front of the city of Olhão, and reachable all year long from there or from Faro, although only during the summer months. On this island you can find three villages: Farol, that gets its name from the lighthouse, visible from the inland; Hangares, an old marine aviation centre used during WWI, now a destination with few tourists, and Culatra, traditional fisherman village where ‘ the most beer in Portugal is drunk’, accordingly to a local saying. The island is populated by small, colourful houses and a few restaurants specialized in sea-food; here it is still possible to observe the authentic lifestyle of the fishing communities. The beaches here are endless strips of white sand, with some cool bars popular among locals and tourists.
All the islands are reachable by ferry all year long, with special schedules during the summer. In particular, Ilha Deserta and Ilha da Culatra can be visited by ferry directly from the city of Faro, with these schedules. Very popular as well are the private boat tours, where you can enjoy the surrounding nature of the region with the help of a marine biologist.
Not only beach tourism; the Ria Formosa offers a wide range of activities for all ages and interests.
We have already mentioned the boat tours: a rewarding way to explore the surrounding nature from the privileged point of view of a fast boat. Normally lasting half a day, boat tours offer the possibility to observe indigenous and migrating birds and fish in their natural habitat. To make your tour even more interesting, we recommend you choose one with a marine biologist on board: it is the best way to discover all the secrets of the lagoon and, at the same time, respect it.
To explore the Ria Formosa from the mainland, choose a bike tour. The visible strips of land emerge and submerge with the tides, and biking through the trails is the perfect way to watch the landscape changing. Safe for all the family, one of the most popular trails connects Praia de Faro with Quinta do Lago. If lucky enough, you will be able to see flamingos here! Although very shy and reserved animals, they are a resident in the Ria Formosa most of the year round. Definitely, an experience not to be missed! Visit our dedicated page to book your bespoke bike tour.
Tired of all this biking and bird-watching? Enjoy a walk along the waterfront . Both the city of Olhão and the village of Santa Luzia, near Tavira, are perfect for a relaxing stroll near the water. Their small but charming Marinas offer the perfect spot to enjoy the sunshine while having the freshest seafood. We suggest visiting Olhão on a Saturday morning when the fish and farmer market takes place and the city is bustling with life. For Santa Luzia, any day is a good day for a visit. It is mandatory that you try the local speciality, octopus. Taste it at the local restaurants with the view of the harbour or at the traditional food festival that takes place every year in August.
These were our suggestions to explore the treasures of the Ria Formosa and the Eastern side of the Algarve. Of course, there is much more to do and to see in this fantastic region. Let us know your opinion / Give us your feedback, we will be happy to add your contribution to our bucket list!