Visit the Ria Formosa, the Algarve’s original lagoon

La Ria Formosa, une découverte des richesses de l'Algarve

Are you in Portugal’s Algarve region and looking to discover one of its natural beauties? Visit the Ria Formosa and read our dedicated article!

Located in southern Portugal’s Algarve region, the Ria Formosa is one of those natural wonders we love to admire.

A natural park that has been protected for several decades, the Ria Formosa boasts fabulous biodiversity, making it an ideal place to observe migratory birds.

An important economic source for the Algarve and Portugal, the lagoon is home to shellfish and seafood farms, which have led to the development of local cuisine. It’s also a major tourist attraction for the region, which comes as no surprise given the beauty and scenery of the lagoon.

This article aims to give you all the information you need to visit the Ria Formosa, as well as some ideas for original excursions.

The Ria Formosa, a protected natural park and an important economic zone

La Ria Formosa, un parc naturel protégé et une zone économique importante

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Heinz Schulte

Created in 1987 and covering an area of 18,400 hectares, the Ria Formosa Natural Park is a lagoon made up of six islands stretching 60 kilometers from Garrão to Manta Rota in southern Portugal. From west to east, they include Faro Island, the only man-made island, Barreta Island, Culatra Island, Armona Island, Tavira Island and Cabanas Island.

The ecosystem of this wetland is protected and highly diversified. In particular, it is a protected nature reserve and breeding ground for endangered migratory birds. Other emblematic animals of the Ria Formosa include the Portuguese water dog, Europe’s only chameleon, and the sultana talobus, a black bird that is the emblem of the national park.

The Ria Formosa specializes in salt extraction and shellfish farming (oyster, shellfish, clams, razor clams…). Aside from income from tourism, these specializations have made the Ria Formosa the Algarve’s main economic zone.

The Ria Formosa, discovering the riches of the Algarve

La Ria Formosa, une découverte des richesses de l'Algarve

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Sopotnicki

To visit the Ria Formosa is to discover one of the most beautiful regions of Portugal, some would even say of Europe. Seen from the air, the lagoon is separated from the sea by several dunes and an estuary, itself made up of a labyrinth of canals, islands and sandy beaches. A geological complexity that’s easy to navigate, with sublime panoramas and dream beaches.

Here, you can rediscover the joys of nature. Each island has its own particularities, and there’s something for everyone, from those who prefer the beach to those who prefer nature, parties or even a place that’s almost deserted. It’s even possible to hike by the sea.

The Ria Formosa also showcases local specialties. You can visit an oyster farm, discover a renowned restaurant to taste the region’s famous fish soup, stroll through a traditional fishing village or bask on a beach untouched by human activity.

In short: unforgettable moments for all those who enjoy the Ria Formosa! What if it were your turn?

What to see and do in the Ria Formosa?

Que voir et que faire à la Ria Formosa ?

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Marcin Krzyzak

Visiting the Ria Formosa means discovering six islands, each quite different from the next. Let’s take a quick look at the essentials of each island, from west to east.

Faro Island is the lively center of the Ria Formosa. It’s the ideal island for eating out, discovering the region’s culinary specialities, staying in and enjoying the beach. The island boasts the most beautiful beach on the Ria Formosa, the Quinta do Lago.

Barreta Island is nicknamed Deserta by the locals. At 8 kilometers long, it’s an idyllic, peaceful place to rest, where only the beach, sand and ocean are on the horizon. Deserta is also home to Cabo de Santa Maria, the most southerly point in Portugal, easily recognizable by its wooden signs.

If you want to discover traditional fishing villages, Culatra Island is another must-see on the Ria Formosa. It is home to Culatra, the region’s most authentic traditional fishing village, and Hangares, with its important oyster culture, which can be visited.

Armona Island is 9 kilometers long, and lies between deserted Barreta and lively Culatra. There are two beaches (Praia de Fuseta, Praia de Ilha de Fuseta), a campsite and accommodation for visitors.

Tavira is another island not to be missed, with its cemetery of tuna boat anchors lined up on the sand. Tavira is also the only island in the Ria Formosa where you’ll find real trees and a little train to get around.

Finally, the island of Cabanas is for those who want peace and quiet and time on their hands. Here, all you need is a restaurant and amenities close to the island’s only beach for a peaceful day out.

How to visit the Ria Formosa

Boat trip with dolphin watching

Balade en bateau avec observation des dauphins

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Michael Schroeder

  • 💰 F rom €55 per person, generally available from May to October.
  • 👍 The activity’s plus? The chance to watch dolphins and rest on Barreta Island.

This excursion takes you away for a day to discover the rich biodiversity of the Ria Formosa.

The departure point is Cais da Porta Nova, just outside Faro‘s old town. Accompanied by a guide, you board a small motorboat to explore the surrounding area for around 9 hours. Once underway, you’ll have the joy of being both close to the coast and in the middle of the ocean all day long.

The first step is to discover a magnificent site located between the islands of Faro and Barreta, where the Ria Formosa flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Then, just a few dozen meters away, you’ll be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of dolphins in their natural habitat! For many, this is the unforgettable moment of the day, a childhood dream come true. But the day is far from over.

Your skipper then takes you to the island of Faro for a short stopover, followed by a lunch of local specialties on the island of Culatra. After lunch, a visit to the Hangares oyster-farming area is organized. After Culatra, it’s on to Deserta for a long stopover with the possibility, weather permitting, of lounging on the beach and snorkeling!

The return journey takes the same route, to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings and the horizon once again. Back in Faro, after a long day at sea, you’ll look back on the unforgettable moments offered by this ticket to the Ria Formosa.

Birdwatching boat trip

Balade en bateau pour observer les oiseaux

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Taniaaraujo

  • 💰 F rom €30 per person, available all year round.
  • 👍 The best part? The chance to observe migratory birds in their natural environment.

Migratory birds are an integral part of the Ria Formosa. This excursion lets you observe them in their natural habitat!

The tour departs from Faro, meeting at the Ginásio Clube Naval in Faro’s marina. For 2 hours, you’ll discover the biodiversity and riches of the Ria Formosa. The first stop is the island of Faro, ideal for birdwatching. Then it’s on to Praia de Faro Este, a deserted, idyllic beach where you can take a dip if you feel like it!

The adventure continues to the island of Culatra and the village of Olhão, passing between the islands to observe the biodiversity. Finally, the boat heads for Faro through the canals, to complete your escapade while enjoying the natural beauty of the area.

Boat trip to watch the sunset

Balade en bateau pour admirer le coucher du soleil

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Rjc9666

  • 💰 F rom €20 per person, accessible all year round, weather permitting.
  • 👍 The best part? Admire the natural riches of the surrounding area and the sunset.

Departure from Faro at the end of the day, meeting at the Ginásio Clube Naval. Your skipper will take you to the boat, which runs on solar energy. Once on board, soak up the lagoon’s natural environment. You can then enjoy your getaway in silence, admiring the magnificent panorama of the Ria Formosa, Faro and the ocean in the distance.

Your skipper will take you through the natural channels between the islands, so you can soak up the scenery and admire it up close. The highlight of this excursion is the chance to watch the sublime suns et from the best possible vantage point. You’ll have a front-row seat!

If you’re lucky, you’ll also have the chance to observe migratory birds in a protected area. Once the sun has set, return to Faro marina, where you can enjoy your evening at leisure.

How to get to the Ria Formosa

The first port of call for visiting the Ria Formosa is the Algarve region, whose largest city is Faro.

By plane

Faro airport is just a few kilometers from the Ria Formosa. This makes it the ideal landing place. What’s more, during the high season, there are direct flights from many French cities: Paris, which is served all year round, Lyon, Nantes, Bordeaux, Marseille, Nice and Toulouse. In other words, you’re spoilt for choice!

Please consult our partner Skyscanner to find the right combination.

By train

If the Ria Formosa is part of a longer stay in Portugal, and you’re already in Lisbon, getting there by train may be an excellent idea.

Faro is a 3-hour train journey from Lisbon, costing less than €25. Trains are fairly modern, so don’t hesitate to try your hand at rail travel.

By boat

To visit the Ria Formosa, a boat is an almost compulsory option.

If you’re in Faro and your visit begins on Faro Island, you can reach it by car or on foot.

From Faro, all islands except Cabanas are accessible by ferry. From the village of Olhão, it’s possible to reach the islands of Culatra and Armona. As for Tavira and Cabanas, they are more easily accessible from the villages of Tavira and Cabanas! These are the villages that gave their names to the two islands.

No matter which island you visit, there’s always the ferry option and the private boat option. The former is very economical (less than €2 per trip) and longer; the latter is more expensive but quicker and accompanied by a guide.

Are combined tours available?

Existe-t-il des visites combinées ?

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Jose y yo Estudio

As mentioned above, there are combined tours with the Ria Formosa, including biodiversity observation.

Another option is to visit Faro’s pretty old town.

Good addresses

Les bonnes adresses

Photo credit: Shutterstock – aniad

Accommodation

When it comes to accommodation, travelers have several options.

Ria Formosa

It is of course possible to stay directly on one of the islands, especially if you want to stay for several days. Hotels, apartments, campsites… the choice is yours! The choice is mainly between a quiet location (Cabanas Island, for example) or a more lively one (Faro Island).

There are plenty of Airbnb accommodations to choose from, and you’re bound to find what you’re looking for! Alternatively, you can use a hotel comparator to get the best deals.

Faro

Faro is the ideal location for many. It’s the airport town and often the starting point for visiting the Ria Formosa. Here are two accommodations selected by Generation Voyage.

1. Modern family apartment in the city center
Appartement familial et moderne dans le centre-ville

Photo credit: Airbnb

This inimitably styled apartment is a real favorite! We love the decor and the wooden staircase. Everything is sublime, well-equipped, well-appointed and modern. An ideal base for a family or group of friends.

2. Apartment with large balcony in the city center
Appartement au grand balcon dans le centre-ville

Photo credit: Airbnb

Those looking for a semblance of luxury can visit this apartment with their eyes closed. It’s very bright, with a huge balcony to soak up the sun. And this rare gem, perfect for four people, is very affordable!

Restaurants

If you’re in Faro, the Ria Formosa restaurant, part of the Hotel Faro, offers quality cuisine based on fresh, refined products. The restaurant has a terrace, and the view is magnificent. The service is also top-notch, and some of the staff speak French.

The O Castelo and Faz Gostos restaurants, located close to the port, are also among the most renowned.

Spotlights

Deserta, with its Cabo de Santa Maria, is unique for its landscape where there’s nothing on the horizon but sand and water. A magical place, perfect for meditation. In a word, THE spot on the Ria Formosa!

Located close to the airport on the island of Faro, the Ludo Trail is ideal for hiking and observing biodiversity, including migratory birds.