With its international airport, impressive shopping centre and ring of high-rise apartments, FARO has something of a big city feel. However, the central area is a manageable size, boasting attractive mosaic-paved pedestrianized streets and marina-side gardens, while its university contributes to a lively nightlife, during term time at least. In summer, boats and buses run out to some excellent local beaches. Originally a Roman settlement, the city was named by the Moors, under whom it was a thriving commercial port, supplying the regional capital at Silves. Following its conquest by the Christians, under Afonso III in 1249, the city later experienced a series of conquests and disasters. Sacked and burned by the Earl of Essex in 1596, and devastated by the Great Earthquake of 1755, it is no surprise that modern Faro has so few historic buildings. What interest it does retain is contained within the pretty Cidade Velha (Old Town), which lies behind a series of defensive walls overlooking the mud flats.Read More
LOULÉ, 18km inland of Faro, has always been an important market town and has recently grown to a fair size, though its compact centre doesn’t take long to look around. Its most interesting streets, a grid of whitewashed cobbled lanes, lie between the remains of its Moorish castle (now a museum housing a range of Roman, Moorish and early Portuguese finds from Loulé and the surrounding area) and the thirteenth-century Gothic Igreja Matriz, with its palm-lined gardens in front.
The attractive old town of ESTÓI, 11km north of Faro, rises behind its church and small main square, and is well worth making an excursion to. The best time to visit is around May Day, when the whole town is decked out for its main annual festival. Buses drop you in the square, just off which you’ll find the entrance to the gardens of the delightful peach-coloured Palácio do Visconde de Estói, lined with spectacular azulejos and tropical plants. The palace itself is now a luxurious pousada.
The main reason for a visit to Estói, however, is the Roman site at Milreu (pronounced mil-rio), a fifteen-minute walk downhill from the square. Known to the Romans as Ossonoba, the town that once stood here was inhabited from the second to the tenth century AD. The surviving ruins are associated with a peristyle villa – one with a gallery of columns surrounding a courtyard – and dominated by the apse of a temple, which was converted into a Christian basilica in the third century AD, making it one of the earliest of all known churches. The other recognizable remains are of a bathing complex southwest of the villa, with its fragmented fish mosaics, and the apodyterium, or changing room, sporting arched niches for clothes.