Ria Formosa

Travel advice for the Ria Formosa, the unique lagoon system stretching along the Eastern Algarve coast from Faro International Airport to the village of Cacela Velha near Tavira - scenery, places to visit, ecology, barrier islands, sports & leisure, inland

This lagoon landscape stretches along the Eastern Algarve coast from Faro International Airport to the village of Cacela Velha near Tavira. It is well protected from the open sea of the Atlantic by a chain of islands and peninsulas.The adjacent coastal area, of the so called Ria Formosa, stretches from the Peninsula de Cacela to the Ilha de Faro (Peninsula de Ancão) west of Faro International Airport. This unique nature reserve is a system of lagoons, protected from the open sea of the Atlantic Ocean by a chain of barrier islands. The most important holiday locations are Cabanas de Tavira, Tavira, Santa Luzia and Pedras d’el Rei, Fuseta, Olhão and Faro, the capital of the Algarve. The holiday resorts and hotels are situated on the mainland, whereas most of the splendid sandy beaches, protected by dunes, can be found on the sea side of the islands.


The Ria Formosa between Cacela Velha and Faro

Created in its current shape in 1755 by the last great oceanic earthquake, its sand dunes, islands and spits to the open sea are continuously shaped by tidal changes. Many archeological sites along the present coastline show the remains of Roman and Pre-Roman settlements and installations to catch and process tuna fish.

The scenery undergoes particularly dramatic changes with the spring tides, as the extensive mudflats are exposed at low tide followed by a continuous watery landscape just six hours later.

Chain of Islands

The islands and peninsulas of the Ria Formosa

The Ria Formosa lagoon is a system of barrier islands that link with the sea via 6 inlets. Five of these inlets were naturally made and have changeable aspects but the 6th is an artificial inlet that was created to facilitate access to Faro's port. Most of the popular beaches are located behind long sandy dunes on the sea side of the islands.

 The islands east to west:

  • Peninsula de Cacela in front of the picturesque hamlet Cacela Velha
  • Ilha das Cabanas, accessed from the holiday resort Cabanas de Tavira by ferry boat
  • Ilha de Tavira, accessed from Tavira and Santa Luzia by ferry boat and from the holiday resort Pedras d’El Rei by a pontoon bridge
  • Ilha da Armona, with ferry links from Fuseta and Olhão
  • Ilha da Culatra, accessed by ferry boat from Olhão all year and from  Faro during the summer season
  • Ilha da Barreta (Ilha Deserta), a desert island linked by ferry from Faro only in the summer
  • Ilha de Faro (Peninsula de Anção), connected to the mainland by a one lane bridge near Faro airport  and a wooden pedestrian bridge in Quinta do Lago


The major localities in the Ria Formosa

The best known and prettiest city in the eastern Algarve is Tavira, picturesquely situated on the estuary of the small river Rio Sequa, called Rio Gilão. Located on the coast east of Tavira is the popular holiday destination Cabanas de Tavira.  Further to the west you will find Santa Luzia, which has a well founded reputation for its cuisine with octopus dishes (polvo), caught in the lagoon and also the holiday resort Pedras d’El Rei is found here.

The municipal town Olhão, located between Tavira and Faro, has a long tradition in tuna fishing and the production of canned fish.  It is only relatively recently that modern tourism has evolved here and in the nearby village of Fuseta. The fish market in Olhão is said to be one of the best in the entire Algarve.

Faro, the capital of the Algarve, is situated on the western end of the Ria Formosa. When approaching the airport by plane you get your first impression of the extensive lagoon landscape. The old historic town of Faro is one of the most notable places in the region.

The typical villages of Estoi and Moncarapacho, located a few miles inland, are still almost unspoilt by mass tourism; although several rural hotels can be found in these peaceful surroundings.

Sports & Leisure

Sports and leisure facilities available in the Ria Formosa

Most of the popular beaches are located on the sea side of the islands, therefore visitors need to take a ferry boat and then cross the small islands by foot. It is well worth the effort as you will find endless sandy beaches protected by dunes with plenty of space available.

Water sports facilities are available in the harbors of Faro, Olhão and Tavira and on the Ilha de Faro. A boat tour of the Ria Formosa, guided by a local expert, to observe the many bird species or the shy chameleons should not be missed.

Thanks to the very active Motoclube Faro the city can confidently boast that is the capital of biking, and has a vibrant biker scene. Once a year thousands of bikers from all over Europe and further afield get together for a one week event, culminating in a spectacular biker parade through the city. Another highlight is the annual folklore festival Folkfaro with musicians and dancers from all over the world, performing on several stages in the Algarve.


The ecological importance of the Ria Formosa

The salt marshes, sandbanks, dunes and estuaries of the Ria form an internationally important breeding, wintering and staging area for numerous species of water birds, and many migrating birds stop over here on their passage south. Oystercatchers, egrets, ibis, cranes and even flamingos can frequently be seen wading through the mudflats.

The lagoon links to the sea through 6 inlets. This constant exchange provides the Ria Formosa with the clean, oxygen-rich Atlantic water for which it is famous – and this applies equally to the fish world. Since the mid-eighties, the Ria Formosa has been a nature reserve, where sea water birds can find protected breeding places and many fish species of the Northern Atlantic as well as other marine organisms reproduce.

The commercial use is limited to special areas such as sea salt basins and mussel banks. The excellent water quality, without detectable contamination by industrial effluents, sewage dumping, agricultural and radioactive pollutants, favors the traditional gathering of sea salt. Besides salt harvesting, other activities in this protected area are shellfish farming and small-scale fishing. Conquilhas, or wedge clams, as well as razor shells and cockles are not cultivated, but gathered by professional mariscadores, and sold on to Lisbon, or to local restaurants.


The hinterland of the Ria Formosa: São Brás de Alportel and the Serra do Caldeirão

The hinterland of the Ria Formosa:São Brás de Alportel aThe hintnd the Serra do Caldeirão

As a backdrop to the Ria Formosa you can see the hills of the Serra do Caldeirão, with the Cerro de São Miguel north of Olhão being the most prominent hill visible.  This chain of hills is of great importance to the climate of the Algarve. It is also a popular area for hiking and mountain biking.

The municipality of São Brás de Alportel is situated on the border between the fertile Barrocal area and the Serra. It used to be the wealthy centre of the Portuguese cork production in the 19th Century. In the village and its surroundings you will find many smaller factories. The neighboring Sta. Catarina da Fonte do Bispo is well known for its tiles and bricks handmade from red and yellow clay found in the area. 

Travel advice

Holidays in the Ria Formosa

The hotels and holiday resorts are located on the mainland. On the islands you will just find camping grounds and privately owned simple homes. Most of the popular beaches are located on the sea side of these islands so that visitors have to depend on the ferry boats which commute regularly.  During high season, especially on the weekends, these boats get very busy resulting in longer waiting times in the mornings and evenings.