The best things to do in Tavira in the Portuguese Algarve? We’ve got you covered! Tavira is one of the cosiest towns on the Portuguese south coast, located on the banks of the Rio Gilão. The old castle town is known for its charming streets, historic atmosphere and bobbing fishing boats. Wander through the old streets and spot locals looking for cockles during low tide in the river. The old center is full of beautiful monuments, but Tavira is also the perfect destination for good (sea) food, beautiful nature and big sandy beaches. We tell you everything you need to know about this castle town and give you the ten best things to do in Tavira in the Algarve!
Where is Tavira and how to get there?
Tavira is located in the east of the Portuguese Algarve. It is only half an hour’s drive from the international airport of Faro. The Spanish border is also only 20 kilometers away. The historic city is located in the Ria Formosa Natural Park stretching from Faro to the border with Spain and consisting of islands, peninsulas, beaches, dunes and saltwater marshes.
Since Tavira is not far from Faro, it is not difficult to get there. The easiest way is by driving yourself with your own rental car which you can pick up at Faro Airport. You can also easily reach Tavira by train from Faro. But an Uber is also available throughout Portugal and is usually not that expensive.
Where to stay in Tavira
Tavira is not a big town, so if you want to stay in the historic center, look for one of the hotels near the castle. The most popular hotel in the old town is the Pousada Convento de Tavira, located in a former monastery from the sixteenth century. All rooms overlook the courtyard or the garden with the swimming pool. The location in the heart of the historic center is just perfect.
Other beautiful options in the city center of Tavira are the charming boutique hotels Colegio Charm House on the west bank with a swimming pool, bar and garden, and Sao Paulo Boutique Hotel on the east bank with a patio, pool and garden.
The highlights of Tavira on the map
The 10 best sights in Tavira
#1 Tavira Castle
The castle of Tavira towers high above the old town. Or castle ruins actually. Not much is left standing than the castle walls, but it’s still one of the city’s most beautiful sights. This strategic hilltop location next to the river probably had a fortress dating back to the eighth century BC. This part of Europe was in the hands of the Phoenicians from the present Middle East back in those days. Later the Greeks, Celts, Cartagens, Romans and the Moors arrived in Tavira and they all had a fortification on this exact spot. The oldest part of the castle that has been preserved dates from the eleventh century. Like almost all buildings in Portugal, the castle was badly damaged by the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Since then, the castle was no longer in use and fell into disrepair.
Only the castle walls have survived the last ages. The old walls, including the typical battlements, have been restored and give its visitors an idea of the size of the old castle. You can visit the castle for free and climb the castle walls for a beautiful view over the city. Don’t expect a charming castle square within the castle walls, but there is an unexpectedly beautiful garden with colorful flowers even blooming in winter.
#2 The Old Town
The historic center of Tavira is on the west bank of the town. It is located close to the hill on which the castle is built. The Old Town has most of the historic monuments and is where you can find the main street of Tavira, the Avenida da Liberdade. The roots of Tavira date back to Roman times and – even further back – the time of the Phoenicians from the present Middle East. You can still find the ancient traces of this in the old town! The Ruínas Fenícias are located on an insignificant side street in the historic center, not far from the castle. The ruins date from the eighth century BC and will be incorporated into a museum in the future, along with other ruins from Roman and Moorish times.
Tip: you can visit the Old Town on foot, but you could also book a tuk-tuk tour! The electric tuk-tuk takes you through the old center and the salt pans outside the city.
One of the most iconic monuments in Tavira is the historic Ponte Romana. This bridge connects the historic center with the eastern bank of the city, where the old working-class quarter used to be. There has probably been a bridge here since the thirteenth century, but it has been constantly renewed and rebuilt over the centuries. The current bridge dates back to the seventeenth century. Today it is a pedestrian bridge and one of the most photographed places in the city. The Roman Bridge is also the place to enjoy the river views at low tide, when local fishermen wade up to their knees to collect cockles on the river bed – especially around the Ponte Romana.
#3 The island and the beaches Tavira
You may not immediately associate a castle town like Tavira with sunbathing on the beach and idyllic island life. Yet you are in the right place for this as well in this historic town in the Algarve. Just off the coast of Tavira is one of the five islands of the eastern Algarve. This island of Tavira – Ilha da Tavira – is 11 kilometers long and has beautiful sandy beaches. The four main sandy beaches are Praia de Tavira, Praia da Terra Estreita, Praia do Barril and Praia do Homen Nu. The Praia de Tavira is closest to the town and the ferry dock and is therefore the most visited. The Praia do Barril has a nudist area, which is one of the few nudist beaches in the Algarve. In addition to sandy beaches, the island also has a camping site, restaurants and beach bars.
If you follow the river from the old center of Tavira, you will arrive at the harbor where a ferry takes you to the island. In high season, a boat also departs from the Old Town. If you don’t feel like taking a ferry, it’s good to know that there is one place where you can walk yourself up to the island. It is west of Tavira and called the Barril Beach Trail, which we’ll explain in more detail later in this blog.
#4 The camera obscura
Right next to the medieval castle is an old water tower. It is a very striking building from the outside with its unique shape and enormous height, but it is even more so on the inside. The tower itself was built in 1931 and supplied the entire city with water. But the tower fell into disuse and was in danger of being demolished. Fortunately, that did not happen, because the building was converted into a camera obscura in 2004.
What is a camera obscura? It is a mirror/lens system, with which the view from around the old water tower over the city is projected in a dark room. So you have a panoramic view of the city inside without actually looking outside. When you visit the camera obscura, you get to see a thirty-minute show. A guide will then tell you exactly what you can see and give you more information about the history of the city. Tickets cost € 5.
#5 The churches of Tavira
Did you know that Tavira is home to more than thirty churches? There are 36 to be exact, so there are church towers rising above the Tavira skyline everywhere. With this many churches in one town, you understand that you’ll have to visit at least one of them when exploring Tavira.
Tip: buy a €7 combination ticket to see Tavira’s three best churches.
The main church is the Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo. The name already reveals that you can find this church building next to the historic castle. The white plaster facade with a striking bell tower is creates a special building that clearly stands out. The church is built on the ruins of one of the largest mosques ever built by the Moorish occupiers in the Algarve. In the thirteenth century the area of Tavira was conquered by the catholic Portuguese king from the Moors, after which the mosque was replaced by this church.
The Igreja da Misericórdia is one of the most famous churches in the city. The church building dates from the sixteenth century and is popular with tourists because of its special interior. The church interior is characterized by enormous tableaux with azulejos, the blue-white tiles for which Portugal is famous. You pay €2 for a ticket to see the azulejos inside of the church.
The Iregja de Santiago is a third church that attracts many visitors. This church also dates from the thirteenth century and was probably also built on the foundations of an old mosque. The church is the starting point for the Portuguese pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
Like all of the Algarve, Tavira is also very popular with travelers. And where tourists are to spend their holiday money, the concentration of restaurants is of course also very high. In short: for fine food and drinks you are more than in the right place in Tavira.
#6 Restaurants in Tavira
On the east bank of the city you will find the old working-class district, where the best restaurants in Tavira are located. A lot of fish and seafood is served, as you can expect from a coastal town like this.
We can also recommend you some great restaurants on the west bank, like Come na Gaveta. Vegetarians and vegans should visit Selvagem and if you’re on a strict travel budget, you’ll be delighted by the low prices in the breakfast and brunch spot Flavour Café on the river bank.
#7 The Barril Beach Trail
We already mentioned a trail bringing you to Tavira Island without using the ferry: the Barril Beach Trail at Praia da Barril. It is a short walk from a parking lot and over the pedestrian bridge to the beach. A railway line with a tourist train also runs from the bridge, for those who do not have the energy to walk or simply prefer the cute little train. Especially on hot summer days, we can recommend you to take the train. But if you have the energy, the short hike is well worth your efforts.
The entire route is only 3 kilometers round trip. You’ll pass a beautiful part of the saltwater marshes and other landscapes which are part of the Ria Formosa nature reserve. The trail will bring you to the sand dunes and a beautiful stretch of beach. Don’t miss the Cemitério das âncoras, the cemetery of anchors, which sits dramatically along the coastline here. It is a reminder of the old fishing village that once was located here. When less and less tuna remained in the Portuguese sea, the local fishermen had to give up their profession. Their anchors remained on the beach ever since.
#8 Ria Formosa Natural Park
Between the coastal towns of Faro and Tavira in the Algarve lies the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, one of the most beautiful places in Portugal. While the coast in the west of the Algarve consists of orange cliffs and picturesque bays with sandy beaches, the coast east of Faro is much different. It has a maze of water ways, islands and peninsulas. Together they form a beautiful nature reserve, the Ria Formosa.
The Ilha da Tavira is part of the Ria Formosa, as is the whole area south of Tavira. It is a special lagoon between the mainland and the sea, where you can visit islands, saltwater marshes, sandy beaches, pink lakes, sandbanks, peninsulas, dunes, villages and salt production areas. Many bird species have their home here and the other special flora and fauna also attract many visitors. Be sure to set aside enough time to explore this natural park as well when visiting Tavira and the Algarve.
#9 The Forte de Santo Antonio
The Forte de Santo António de Tavira is one of the city’s historic defenses. It is also called the Forte do Rato or Forte da Ilha das Lebres, which translates to ‘mouse castle’ or ‘fortress of the hare island’. In the sixteenth century, the fortress was built in a strategic location at the estuary. Or strategic location? The coastline changed so much during construction that the fort was no longer in such a suitable location once it was completed.
The fort was therefore never used very intensively and was completely abandoned in 1840. It fell into disrepair and only ruins remain. But they are so well preserved that you can perfectly recognize the angular shapes of the old fortress and the high walls still clearly show what an impressive building once stood here.
Tip: near the fortress is the Praia dos Tesos, a small and idyllic sandy beach where you should definitely take a look.
#10 The pink lakes and flamingos
The Romans already knew how to extract salt in the area of Tavira and that is still done here. These salt pans – or salinas – can be found all around the city. If you walk from the old town to the ferry or if you driveto the Forte de Santo António, you will pass endless plains with saltwater pools.
The salty seawater is collected in shallow basins, where the burning sun slowly evaporates the water. A thick salt crust remains on the bottom, which is then removed by hand. Usually, the basins are filled with seawater in the spring and the water evaporates during the summer. So in the fall, you can see how the salt crust is removed from the bottom. The plains are most beautiful when there is still a layer of water in them. The concentration of both salt and minerals in the water is then very high, creating pink lakes! These pink lakes surrounding Tavira are a spectacularly beautiful sight you don’t want to miss. We were in Tavira in January and there were still pink water in some of the basins during our visit.
And if that isn’t enough pink, these salt pans also attract many special birds. Including pink flamingos! You don’t even need a lot of luck or binoculars to spot the flocks of flamingos in the saltwater pools or the surrounding areas. Spotting flamingos is something not to be missed when you visit Tavira.