For those who appreciate a quieter Algarve, away from the bustling tourist spots but with plenty to do and discover, there's an unmissable region: the Ria Formosa area. Besides the tranquil sandy beaches that line the most beautiful Algarve islands, there are crystal-clear waters, ancient traditions in fishing villages and salt pans, good gastronomy, water sports, bird watching... and endless beauty. It is here that you will find the historic city of Tavira.
Each island is a piece of paradise, a unique refuge in virtually untouched nature. Classified as a Natural Park and elected one of Portugal's seven natural wonders, Ria Formosa covers an area of approximately 18,000 hectares and stretches along 57 km of coastline, from the Ancão peninsula in the municipality of Loulé to Manta Rota in Vila Real de Santo António territory. The so-called barrier islands, some of which are only accessible via boat or water taxi, are not only essential for preserving this entire ecosystem, but they are also serene destinations in an idyllic setting. You can even fulfil the dream of visiting a deserted island by heading to the uninhabited Ilha da Barreta (popularly known as Deserta).
On solid ground, just minutes from the beaches, the cultural and architectural heritage of its charming villages and towns reveals a truly unique historical legacy with strong Arabic influence. Local cuisine focuses on seafood, all of which is harvested in an artisanal way, and oysters and razor clams have a special place at the table in both gourmet restaurants and traditional taverns. This authenticity, highly valued by those seeking a more genuine lifestyle, makes the Algarve's Sotavento region increasingly popular among Portuguese - for whom the Algarve has always been an essential holiday destination - and a growing number of foreigners who, for decades, have chosen this coast not only for vacations but also as a place to reside.
The Algarve has one of the largest expat communities in Portugal with the number of foreign residents increasing by 31% over the last decade and expats making up 14% of the local population, according to the 2021 census. The area is particularly popular with British and Irish nationals who make up 20% of the expat population, but diversification is increasing. The sunniest region of Portugal has also captured the hearts of Americans and the French, who seek to invest in more alternative, lesser-known destinations with greater appreciation potential, especially in the Tavira region.
However, the demand for real estate in the Algarve is not only driven by those looking to relocate. Purchasing for a second home and/or investment is also on the rise among international clients, as non-residents were responsible for 26% of property purchases in 2022, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE) indicators.
The growing appeal of the Algarve, especially the Ria Formosa area, cannot be explained solely by its natural attributes of sun, beach, mild temperatures and pristine nature. The impeccable quality of the new residential real estate projects is a huge driver of demand too as these properties can meet the requirements of even the most demanding buyers.
One of the most notable projects in the region is ‘Casas do Sal’. It is being developed in the village of Fuseta (near Tavira) and its design is inspired by nature, such as the salt peaks of the region’s traditional salt pan that paint the landscape white while keeping an age-old activity alive. Taking cues from the local architecture, the project features cube-shaped houses topped with terraces and traditional chimneys. The project is set against the rare beauty of Ria Formosa and its extensive natural reserve which comprises a unique system of lagoons, dunes, channels, islets, salt pans and salt marshes.
The Most Beautiful Islands
Just minutes from the village of Fuseta, you'll find Fuseta Ria Beach, but if you want to truly enjoy the ocean, the village pier takes you to Fuseta Beach on Armona Island. Here, you can dive in the balmy and calm waters, walk the nine kilometres of sandy coastline to reach restaurants at the western end or enjoy a whole variety of water sports such as kayaking, kitesurfing, snorkelling to observe seahorses, or paddleboarding at sunset.
In the westernmost part of Ria, Ilha Deserta is a paradise of tranquillity and silence and can be accessed by boat from Faro. Located at the southernmost point of mainland Portugal, Cabo de Santa Maria, Ilha Deserta is a biodiversity sanctuary where chameleons and various crustaceans can be found. The water temperature can reach 24°C in the summer and its white sand beach stretches for seven kilometres. Before you explore the island’s beauty, head to the Estaminé restaurant (the only building on the island) and savour the stunning view while enjoying the fine cuisine with the best catch from the lagoon and the Atlantic. Oysters, clams, lobster, octopus, shrimp and prawns are some of the restaurant's specialities. If you still have time, you can enjoy sailing, windsurfing or a boat tour.
Magnificent and memorable places include Tavira Island, the largest and liveliest in the region with multiple activities and various restaurants, as well as 11 kilometres of fine sandy beaches; Culatra Island with its extensive sandy beach and three paradisiacal beaches; and Cabanas Island at the easternmost tip of Ria Formosa, very close to Tavira, which has one of the most renowned restaurants in the region, Noélia.
Be Charmed by Tavira
This calm city has everything you need for daily life, but above all, it has a unique identity making it perfect for an extended visit. Some of Tavira’s main attractions include the historic centre, the traditional architecture, the castle, the charming churches, the Roman bridge, Ribeira Market and the museum. The destination is also the setting of one of the most fascinating activities in the region: the descent from the Gilão River (which crosses the city) to Ria Formosa.
The Fascination of Cacela Velha
From here, a visit to Cacela Velha is a must, and it's not just for oysters and razor clams. Situated atop a promontory, this small village is a symbol of an ancient and authentic Algarve where whitewashed houses lead to the fortress overlooking Ria Formosa and the beach. In this breathtaking landscape, you can hear the silence and feel the sea breeze, all while understanding why several international publications have fallen in love with it, including Condé Nast Traveler and The Guardian, which claim it to be one of the best beaches in the world and in Europe, respectively.
The Authentic Santa Luzia
In a region full of charms and hidden corners, Cacela Velha is far from being the only gem. Just ask those who have already visited Santa Luzia, located two kilometres from Tavira. This small fishing village, known as the “Octopus Capital” offers much more than restaurants specialising in this delicacy. The settlement, established around 1577, proudly maintains the essence of days gone by, which is evident in its traditional houses, the hustle and bustle of its pier, and the authenticity of its fishermen's neighbourhood. In this wilder side of the Algarve, there's a different rhythm to the days: the rhythm of nature in its purest state.