Tavira in Portugal’s Algarve region is just 25 kms from the Spanish border. Tavira sits on the banks of the Rio Gilao and, thanks to its proximity to Spain, its Moorish influences are very much in evidence as you walk around the town.
It didn’t take me long to realise that Tavira is insanely pretty – the river cuts through the centre of town and on each side there’s a myriad of old streets and alleys that probably haven’t changed much in years.
Tavira doesn’t seem to have succumbed to tourism to the same extent as other destinations in the Algarve so, for a relaxing break, it’s the perfect destination.
Here are my highlights.
Tavira Old Town
It’s worth spending a morning (or longer) wandering through the cobbled streets of the old town of Tavira.
Portugal is renowned for its tiles (azulejos) and Tavira has plenty of buildings with stunning tiled facades from the grand churches and municipal buildings down to small fishermen’s cottages.
Take a close look at the doors of many of the houses too and you’ll see door knockers in the shape of hands, another of the town’s Moorish legacies.
Ponte Romana (the Roman Bridge) crosses the river from Praca de Republica and doesn’t actually date from Roman times. It was built in the 17th century (and then again in the late 1980s following a flood) but gets its name thanks to the style of its arches.
The bridge is pedestrian only and, if you stop to admire the view at low tide, it’s likely that you’ll spot a fisherman or two, knee-deep in the water, as well as mud crabs on the riverbank.
If you turn right at Praca de Republica you can walk along the riverfront through Jardim do Coreto. It’s only a small park but is the oldest in Tavira with a wrought iron bandstand as its centrepiece.
The Mercado da Ribeira stands just beyond Jardim do Coreto. Originally the town’s covered market it now houses shops, bars and restaurants and is a pleasant place to sit with a drink (or an ice cream from Delizia) and watch the world go by.
Across the river, the Black Anchor bar on Rua Borda D’Agua da Asseca, is another good spot for a drink with a view.
Castelo do Tavira
Tavira Castle dates from the 12th century although, admittedly, there’s not a lot of it left now after it was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1755.
There’s a very pretty courtyard garden within the castle walls and, despite the fact that most of the castle is in ruins, it is possible to climb the ramparts and watchtower for a fantastic view over the town and down towards the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa.
Safety railings have only recently been added but I’d still recommend taking care when climbing the old stone steps.
The main entrance to the castle is on Largo Abu-Otmane next to Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo and is signposted at various points in the old town.
The castle is open daily from 10am until 5pm during the winter and 10am until 7pm in the summer months. Admission is free.
Just around the corner from the Castle is the Camera Obscura which is housed in a converted water tower.
Access to the tower is via a lift and, once we were in position around a large concave white dish, the guide turned out the lights and plunged us into darkness. Thanks to the magic of a Camera Obscura (in this case a revolving lens) he then projected telescopic images (all in real time) onto the dish, and by rotating the angles we had a virtual 360° tour of Tavira.
The Camera Obscura is on Calcada da Galeria and is open Monday to Friday from 11am until 3pm. Entry is €5.
Ilha de Tavira
If it’s beaches that you’re after then you need to jump on the ferry and head to the Ilha de Tavira.
From the riverfront there’s a ferry every 30 minutes. A return trip costs just €2.20 per person and the journey takes around 20 minutes. It’s also possible to take a water taxi.
On the way, you’ll pass through the salt pans and mudflats of the Ria Formosa – keep your eyes peeled for birdlife as over 200 species of bird either call it home or stop here during their migration.
Once you arrive on the island it’s a short walk to the beach past several beach bars and restaurants.
There are three beaches here on the island – Praia da Ilha de Tavira to the east, Praia da Terra Estreita in the middle, and Praia do Barril to the west.
The beaches are long stretches of golden sand backed by dunes and the sea, certainly while we were there, was calm (and not too cold either considering it’s the Atlantic Ocean).
Praia do Barril
It’s possible to walk to this beach from Praia da Ilha de Tavira (it takes around 45 minutes) but, if you do walk, you’ll be missing out on a kitsch little ride on a miniature train.
We drove to Pedras d’el Rei (just over 5 kms from Tavira) and, from the carpark, walked across the bridge over the lagoon to the train platform. There was quite a queue when we arrived so we decided to walk to the beach and get the train back. A one way trip costs €1.60 per person.
The walk follows the train tracks, crosses the dunes and creeks, and takes around 15 minutes. Along the way you’ll see dozens of fiddler crabs in the mud of the creek. You’ll be able to spot the male crabs as they have one claw much bigger than the other.
Praia do Barril is a former tuna fishing village – the old huts and village houses are now home to restaurants and a museum. The main draw here though, apart from the stunning beach, is to check out the Cemiterio das Ancoras (anchor cemetery).
The anchors were originally used by the tuna fishermen to secure their nets and since the decline of the fishing industry the anchors have been arranged in rows on the beach where they are now rusted, worn and one of the most Instagrammable backdrops in the area.
Tavira Salt Pans
The salt pans form part of the Ria Formosa lagoon and, while it’s possible to book boat tours around the lagoon we decided to just have a wander on our own. They’re easily reached on foot by crossing the main road bridge (Ponte dos Descobrimentos).
We were lucky enough to spot flamingos, as well as storks, sandpipers, egrets, avocets and black-winged stilts plus we also got to watch the salt workers in action.
Where we stayed
Our hotel couldn’t have been any better located. Residencial Mares is right on the waterfront, directly opposite the stop for the ferry to Ilha de Tavira. The hotel itself is basic but it had a comfy bed and a great view from the balcony. Check out this sunrise I witnessed on our second day.
The staff were very friendly and there were good hygiene procedures in place – hand sanitisers were dotted around on each floor and the usual buffet breakfast had been adapted to take Covid into account. We pre-ordered our breakfasts on arrival, including what time we’d like to eat, and our food was ready for us each morning on a tray which we could take to one of the outdoor tables.
Where we ate
Portugal is, rightly, famous for its seafood and there are certainly plenty of restaurants to choose from.
This small restaurant is right on the riverfront on Rua Jose Pires Padinha and has both indoor and outdoor seating.
The menu is small but the food is delicious – and there’s plenty of it.
We ordered avocado with prawns as a starter along with a tuna and anchovy salad (which was huge). For his main Mark ordered tuna steak and I chose sardines. With a few drinks the bill came to just under €40.
Aquasul is a little restaurant tucked away on Rua Doutor Augusto Silva Carvalho across the Roman bridge. The interior is full of original artwork and funky mosaics and the menu caters for everyone from dedicated carnivores to vegans.
We had a starter of tempura prawns and then Mark had pig cheeks for his main while I opted for the pizza Calabria (pizza with anchovies). With a bottle of vinho verde between us the bill came to €57.
We spotted this place as we were walking back from the salt pans. It was lunch time and there were big queues to get in so straightaway we knew it must be good and decided to go that same evening. It was definitely a good choice!
We got there around 7.30pm (it opens at 7pm) and there were already people waiting for a table. We popped our name on the chalkboard at the entrance and, after around 20 – 30 minutes, were taken to our seats.
It’s a real ‘no frills’ restaurant and was constantly busy until closing time at 10pm.
There’s no menu here – whatever fish has been caught that day is cooked up on the big barbeque in the centre of the restaurant and brought to your table. With the fish you also get a bowl of olives, salad, boiled potatoes, bread and, my absolute favourite, toasted bread coated in a deliciously spicy tomato salsa. The best bit is that, not only can you eat as much as you like, it’s only €10 per person. House wine comes in a jug or carafe and, at the end of the meal, the waiter brings a big basket of fruit to the table for you to take your pick.
If I could only make one recommendation of where to eat in Tavira it would be this place – no airs and graces just delicious, simply cooked, fresh food in a family atmosphere. You can find it on Rua Vale Carangueijo.
We only spent two days (three nights) in Tavira before heading off to our next stop and, while it was enough to get a feel of the town, I would have no hesitation in coming back as it’s the ideal place to recharge your batteries.
If you’re tempted by a trip to Tavira here’s all the practical information you’ll need.
We’re obviously in the fortunate position of being able to drive to Portugal. However, for anyone outside of Spain the airport servicing the Algarve is in Faro about 35 kms east of Tavira. There is public transport available (trains and buses) but it can take a few hours so an alternative is to book a taxi from the airport which will cost around €35.
If you have your own car, or have hired one at the airport, there’s parking near the Mercado Municipal on Avenida Dom Manuel S.
A word about the toll roads
If you’re coming from Spain and planning to drive on toll roads do your research before you set off (we didn’t!) as Portuguese toll roads are not pay as you go as they are in Spain. There’s plenty of information here on how to pay tolls if you have a foreign licence plate.
The official currency is the Euro. There are a couple of currency exchanges around Tavira, as well as plenty of cash points. However, I recommend getting a Revolut card as it means you can switch currencies easily and generally at better rates than you’d get at a bureau de change.
Tavira is the perfect town for getting around on foot. However, there’s a hop-on hop-off tourist train which runs on a loop around the town throughout the day and, it’s also possible to see the sights in a tuk tuk for a more personalised tour of Tavira.
Despite being direct neighbours with Spain, Portugal is on a different time zone so is an hour behind Spanish time (but the same as the UK).