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How to visit the Ria Formosa, Algarve? ( the complete guide for 2022)

Are you wondering how to visit the Ria Formosa in the Algarve? You came to the right place.

The South of Portugal may be best known for the impressive rural coastline, but once you have seen the Ria Formosa in the Algarve you will immediately fall in love with it.

The Ria Formosa is a lagoon that hugs the southern coast of Portugal over a length of 60 km from Faro all the way to Tavira. It is a natural park with picturesque white sandy beaches and serves as a protected habitat for a wide array of wildlife. It is a must-visit on every Algarve itinerary.

Nature lovers and bird spotters alike will love this region. It is not for nothing that it received an award as 1 of the 7 natural wonders of the country in 2010.

Here we share everything you need to know when you are planning a visit to this wonderful area.

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In a hurry? Here you will find the most important information about visiting Ria Formosa national park

  • The Ria Formosa Natural Park can be best described as a protected area of wetlands and can be visited year-round.
  • The easiest way to visit the park is on foot and by boat. It is possible to visit the park on your own but if you are interested in learning more about the area, we would recommend you to take a guided tour. Here is an overview of the most interesting tours:
  • Beach lovers should check out Praia da Cacela Velha, Praia da ilha da Culatra, Praia de Faro, Praia do Barril and Praia da Fuseta.
  • The Ria Formosa is full of wildlife it is also a great place for hiking.
  • It’s surrounded by some interesting places to visit.
  • If you plan on visiting the Ria Formosa, we recommend staying in Faro, Olhão or Tavira.
Ria Formosa seen from above
The Ria Formosa hugs the southern coast of the Algarve

Ria Formosa Natural Park

The Ria Formosa plays an important role in the lives of the inhabitants of Faro, Olhão, and Tavira.

Over 170 square kilometers has been designated as a natural park and ensures a nice influx of tourists. Outside the protected areas you will find other activities such as seafood farms.

The Ria Formosa Natural Park can be best described as a protected area of wetlands.

It consists of a combination of salt marshes, fresh and brackish lagoons, mangroves, and sand dunes. On top of the natural habitats, there are also agricultural areas and saltpans that provide a living for the local residents.

The unique blend of natural and manmade environments attracts many different species of wildlife. Wildlife in the park includes birds such as flamingoes and waders, mammals including foxes and badgers, reptiles such as turtles and snakes, amphibians including frogs and newts, and insects such as dragonflies and beetles.

Many birds also come to winter in the Ria Formosa national park because of its mild climate.

The lagoon itself is protected by a belt of 5 barrier islands. These islands are genuine paradises for sunseekers as they have some of the best-unspoiled islands in the Algarve.

The varied landscape of the Parque Natural de Ria Formosa means that you can explore the region in a combination of ways. Further on in this post, we look at the different options in more detail.

A good place to learn more about the park is the official visitor center. The Parque Natural da Ria Formosa Visitor Center can be found a little outside Olhão in Quinta de Marim.

At the visitor center is a 3km interpretative hike with various bird hides along the way. You will also pass a tide mill that has been transformed into a museum.

Flamingos in the Ria Formosa
The Ria Formosa is one of the best regions to spot flamingos.

When to visit the Ria Formosa

The Ria Formosa Natural Park can be visited year-round so there are plenty of opportunities to explore its golden beaches and wetland ecosystems. The best time to visit may depend on your objectives though.

Summer tends to be the busiest season. For a more peaceful experience, it is best to avoid the summer crowds.

Outside of that, you can safely visit every season knowing that you will always be able to observe a wide array of birds and other animals.

The Ria Formosa in the Algarve is great for bird-watching any time of the year.

A considerable number of species come winter in the Ria Formosa and the park is also a nesting site for birds that arrive in spring or spend the entire year in the region.

Birders should check out these guided tours.

Eco-friendly Ria Formosa bird watching tour in a solar boat and the birdwatching day tour.

More about these tours later in this post.

Sunkissed beach in the Ria Formosa
A sunkissed beach in the Ria Formosa

Things to do in Ria Formosa

We already mentioned that the Ria Formosa Natural Park can be explored in several different ways.

The most popular options are on foot or by boat.

They both offer an amazing experience but they are not the only ways to enjoy the park.

Here we will list some suggestions for what to do when visiting the Ria Formosa in the Algarve.

Beaches

Numerous beaches can be found within the natural park.

We do not list them all but we decided to highlight some of the best beaches for various interests.

Cacela Velha and its beach
Cacela Velha with the beach during high tide

Praia da Cacela Velha

This beach is separated from the mainland by a wide lagoon. Depending on the tide it requires a boat trip (from nearby Fábrica) or a long hike to get there. That also explains why the beach is usually mostly deserted.

The water in the lagoon is shallow and a little warmer than the ocean. That makes the lagoon the ideal playground for the little ones.

The charming whitewashed town of Cacela Velha is also worth a visit.

If you want to spend a peaceful day at the beach and don’t mind the extra effort this is the place to go. It was named one of the best beaches of the world by Condé Nast Traveler in 2015.

The beach at Ilha da Culatra
The beach at Ilha da Culatra

Praia da Ilha da Culatra

Culatra is one of the barrier islands of the Ria Formosa. The island is inhabited but there are no paved roads and it can only be reached by ferry. It has a truly remote feeling.

The southern side of the island is 1 long beautiful sand strip.

Ferries to Culatra leave from both Faro and Olhão.

Once you get off at Culatra you follow the wooden boardwalk that leads to the beach at the opposite side of the island. It’s a 15-minute walk.

There is a beach bar and if you didn’t bring your own beach supplies you can rent it. Prices here are a little more expensive than on the mainland though.

The rustic town of Culatra is really out of this world and an absolute must-see. While there you can also spend a few quiet hours on the beach.

Sunset at Faro Beach
Sunset at Faro Beach

Praia de Faro

Faro beach is more popular amongst locals than tourists.

Tourists often skip this beach and instead opt for the more picturesque or secluded beaches found in other parts of the Algarve.

Whilst there’s no arguing that other beaches may indeed be more appealing the asset of Faro beach is the many beach bars.

Praia de Faro is an excellent place to watch the sunset while sipping a cocktail on the beach.

Despite its name, the beach is not that close to the city center.

The two are separated by the Ria Formosa.

To get there you would either need a bike or a car.

If you don’t have either you can take the ferry which leaves from the marina (it only runs during the summer months) or the bus.

Barril beach
Barril beach

Praia do Barril

This beach is located close to Tavira.

It got its name “anchor beach” because of the Cemitério das Ancoras, a monument to celebrate the tuna fishing community that once was here.

The buildings that used to make up the small fishing village now house shops and restaurants. All beach facilities are present.

The beach is located on Ilha de Tavira which is connected to the mainland by a pedestrian bridge.

You can park your car at the pay parking lot near the bridge or for free along the street.

From there you can walk the last 1.3 kilometers to the beach or you can take the train that runs every 20 minutes from May to September.

There is usually a pleasantly busy atmosphere at Barril beach but you only have to walk a few minutes in either direction to escape the crowds.

If you continue going westwards for more than 2 km you will arrive at a nude beach.

Praia da Fuseta
Praia da Fuseta (photo credits: Rey Perezoso)

Praia da Fuseta (Mar) & Praia da Fuseta Ria

These lovely beaches can be found a little outside Olhão. They’re usually both referred to as Praia da Fuseta but they are two distinct beaches.

Praia da Fuseta is located on Ilha da Armona, one of the barrier islands of the Ria Formosa.

The beach covers almost the whole southern coast of the island and is thus facing the ocean. To access the beach you need to take a ferry to either Fuseta or Olhão.

Praia da Fuseta Ria is located on the mainland along the lagoon, protected by the island. Thanks to its location in the lagoon, the beach offers many advantages.

The calm waters of the lagoon are ideal for several watersport activities such as kayaking and SUP’ing. Beginning kitesurfers will also love to train their skills in these calm waters before being exposed to the whims of the ocean.

Praia da Fuseta Ria is also sometimes referred to as Praia dos Tesos. The beach is next to the town of Fuseta and there you will also find several shops selling and renting water sports equipment.

Praia da Fuseta Ria is a very family-friendly beach that is also ideal for those who are keen on doing some water sports. The beach features all necessary facilities and numerous restaurants can be found within walking distance in the town of Fuseta. The only real drawback is that the beach does sometimes get crowded.

A curlew, Ria Formosa is an excellent bird watching area
A curlew, Ria Formosa is an excellent bird watching area

Wildlife

The Ria Formosa is full of life.

Most of the activity is in the water or in the air but those who carefully pay attention can spot other wildlife as well.

The European Chameleon

This area is one of the few places in Europe where you can still find the European Chameleon.

Unfortunately, these animals are very shy which makes them very hard to spot. Your best chance of photographing them is during September when they leave their hideouts to lay eggs on the soil.

Birds

Most visitors are drawn to the Ria Formosa in the Algarve for the birds.

Birders love the place because of the colorful line-up of feathered friends.

More than 300 species can be seen in these wetlands. Numerous bird-watching cabins are spread throughout the park and the birdwatching is very accessible.

The Purple Swamphen

The Purple Swamphen is a resident of the area and can be seen year-round. It is the symbol of the National Park. Other birds that can be found are the Little Tern, the Audouin’s Gull, the Black-winged Stilt, the Grey Plover, the Sardinian Warbler, and many more.

The bird population rises in autumn and winter when migratory birds come to winter in the region.

The Ria Formosa covers an area of 179 square kilometers consisting of different kinds of vegetation. If you want to get a specific species on your camera you will have to do some research in advance as certain species prefer specific areas of the park over others.

However, if you are not picky, a visit to the Ria Formosa cannot go wrong.

A good starting point is the Ludo and Quinta Do Lago region near Faro airport.

It is one of the breeding grounds for the Purple Swamphen and an excellent area to spot flamingos as well.

The Ria Formosa is excellent for bird spotting
The Ria Formosa is excellent for bird spotting
Flamingos

Flamingos can usually be found from November to March although there are some that stay in the region year-round.

They love the algae found in the shallow salty waters and are thus commonly found near the salt pans.

It is in fact their diet that makes them pink because they are white when they are born.

It shouldn’t be that hard to spot birds yourself.

The best hours to do so are early in the morning and around sunset. If you want to learn more about the birds and the ecosystem of the Ria Formosa you should join a guided birdwatching tour.

Dolphins

The Ria Formosa is also a great spot to see dolphins. If you’re lucky you might see a school of dolphins passing by while relaxing on one of the beaches of the barrier islands. Those chances are relatively small though.

You have more chances of spotting these cute animals by joining one of the dolphin-watching tours.

Most tours are done with Zodiac boats and leave from Faro.

For about 2 hours you will cruise along the coastline of the barrier islands and look for dolphins, minke whales, and other marine wildlife such as sea turtles.

The Ludo trail passes some salt flats in the Ria Formosa
Salt flats in the Ria Formosa seen from the Ludo trail

Hiking

The Ria Formosa is vast, so it should come as no surprise that there are many hiking trails.

Here’s a selection of some of the best trails, starting with our absolute favorite.

Ludo trail

The Ludo trail is situated in between Faro and Quinta do Lago.

The trail passes salt flats, a golf resort, and of course the wetlands that are a fixture in the Ria Formosa Natural Park.

The trail offers excellent opportunities to spot birds.

It passes through the nesting area of the Purple Swamphen and you have high chances of seeing flamingos foraging in the salt pans.

You will likely also see herons, magpies, Black-Winged Stilts, Hoopoes, as well as loads of other birds.

We recommend starting the trail early in the morning.

Not only because this will considerably improve your chances to see these amazing birds, but a large part of the trail is also exposed and it can be really hot in summer.

Be sure to bring enough water.

The trail is a 7 km long loop and almost completely flat. It should be suitable for strollers and if you don’t want to hike it you can also come with your bike.

If you want to try something completely different have a look at this segway tour.

São Lourenço trail

The São Lourenço trail partly overlaps with the Ludo trail.

It is surrounded by the golf course on one side and the wetlands on the other. Naturally, the habitats and birds that you can see are similar to those of the Ludo trail.

You can extend the Ludo trail by incorporating the other part of the São Lourenço trail.

It’s also possible to combine both trails starting with the São Lourenço trail in Quinta do Lago.

When you do, you can enjoy a well-deserved refreshing drink in the beach bar of Quinta do Lago.

It is located right at the beginning/endpoint of the São Lourenço trail.

The trail itself is a 3,3 km out and back trail with limited elevation changes. It can be done with strollers and bikes.

We recommend doing a combination with the Ludo trail.

A trail in the Ria Formosa

Quinta do Lago boardwalk

The Quinta do Lago boardwalk was opened during the spring of 2021.

It starts in Ancão where you also find a large parking lot and it connects to the Ludo and São Lourenço trails in Quinta do Lago. It is 4.8 kilometers in length.

The coastal boardwalk is a great place for a leisurely stroll and you can easily combine it with the two hikes mentioned above.

Interpretative hike at the visitor center in Quinta de Marim

As already said above, the official visitor center of the Ria Formosa is located in Quinta de Marim.

At the visitor center, you can learn more about the park and hike the 3.5 km interpretative trail.

The trail lingers between pine forests and marshes and offers numerous opportunities to see passerines and other birds.

Birds that are commonly spotted include the kingfisher, waders, and the Eurasian coot.

There are three bird hideouts and you also pass a tide mill that worked until 1970 and has now been converted into a museum.

This is also where you can find RIAS, the wildlife rescue center of the Ria Formosa.

They watch, among other things, over the survival of the European Pond Turtle in the Algarve. A species that is seen as endangered since 2005.

The rescue center has a small reception area for visitors where you can learn more about their projects.

The boardwalk leading to Culatra beach
The boardwalk leading to Culatra beach

Hike the Ilha da Culatra trail

Culatra is a place unlike you’ve seen before.

There are no roads and no big shops of any kind. The inhabitants need to take the ferry to buy their groceries.

As soon as you get off the ferry you feel that life here moves at a slower pace.

We already recommended the island for its untouched beach. In addition to that, the island also boasts several kilometers of deserted hiking trails.

The boardwalk from Culatra to the beach will cross the vast dune system and several salt marshes.

Once at the beach, as you continue following the coastline you can spot lots of birds including the spotted redshank, the dunlin, and the common curlew.

It is also possible to walk from Culatra to Hangares or even all the way to Ilha do Farol where you could take the ferry back.

Salt pans in the Ria Formosa
Salt Pan in the Ria Formosa

Tavira Saltpans

The Tavira Saltpans are another birding hotspot in the Ria Formosa. It is a vast region that offers many opportunities for hiking.

Near the mouth of the River Gilão, there are mudflats and scrubland that attract species like the Black-tailed Godwit and the Caspian Tern.

This is also where the ferry for Tavira island can be taken.

The island has no saltpans but can be a good birdwatching spot nevertheless.

Depending on the season you can find the Melodious Warbler, the Sardinian Warbler, and the Redstart.

Across the river is a region known as Arraial Ferreira.

The area consists of salt marshes and scrubland mixed with farmland and saltpans.

You will also come across the ruins of Forte do Rato.

Birds that are commonly observed here include the Little Stint, the Spoonbill, the Caspian Tern, and many others.

There are no signposted trails in the Tavira Saltpans but it is almost impossible to get lost. Hikers can explore the region by walking around the salt fields while being amazed by the birds they see.

Tavira Portugal
Tavira

Places to visit in Ria Formosa

Here we share a list of places that are worth a visit in the Parque Natural de Ria Formosa.

Tavira

We absolutely love Tavira as we think that it showcases the charm of the Algarve and the Ria Formosa without the tourist crowds.

There are beautiful historic places worth exploring with their old-world charm.

The old town is absolutely worth a visit. The buildings here are some of the most aesthetically pleasing around. They’re sure to impress.

Tavira is also known for its castle dating back to the Almoravid Dynasty in the 1000s.

To explore the Ria Formosa you could use hotel Albacora as your base. This charming hotel is located right inside the park. Formerly a tuna camp, it now offers guests all the comfort they could wish for for a wonderful stay in this beautiful region.

If you prefer staying in an apartment or vacation home in Tavira, click here. 

Cacela Velha
Looking at Cacela Velha beach from the viewpoint behind the church

Cacela Velha

Cacela Velha is a supertiny white-washed village along the Ria Formosa lagoon.

The old town only has a handful of streets, all of them well-conserved and still in their original Algarvian style boasting colorful accents.

The village is situated on a hill and from the viewpoint behind the church in the old town you have distant views over the Ria Formosa. You also overlook the pristine beach of Cacela Velha.

The town is a fishing community and local fishermen still supply the restaurants in town with their daily catches.

In the restaurants, you can feast on squid, clams, prawns, and more delicacies that are coming straight from the ocean.

Some restaurants have cozy rooftop terraces with impressive views.

Murals Street art Olhão Algarve Portugal
Olhão also counts dozens of beautiful murals

Olhão

Olhão proclaimed itself as the capital of the Ria Formosa.

It is a good base to explore the lagoon thanks to ferries and numerous water taxis departing from its port. You will also find several tour agencies along the waterfront boardwalk.

Still, that is not the only reason the town deserves a place on this list.

The port city is full of character and there are so many interesting sights. Dotted across the cobblestone streets are numerous beautiful murals.

Some depict the town’s rich history while others are of a more modern kind.

Make sure you get a bite at the local fish market, Olhão is known for its delicious octopus dishes, and take a stroll along the coastal boardwalk and the Avenida da Republica.

The Faro Harbor in Portugal
The Faro sign at the marina

Faro

Faro is the capital of the Algarve and the only place in the Ria Formosa that deserves to be called a city. Most tourists arriving at Faro airport directly flee from the city to spend their vacation in one of the resort towns.

Yet Faro also has a lot to offer.

At the heart of the city, next to the marina, is the historic old town. The streets here are lined with well-preserved facades, museums, and churches. At the Igreja do Carmo you will find the macabre yet fascinating bone chapel.

Tours to further explore the Ria Formosa are leaving from the Faro Marina.

Here is an overview of more amazing towns in the Algarve. 

Exquisite villas in Quinta Do Lago
Quinta do Lago seen from the Ria Formosa

How to visit the Ria Formosa

The Ria Formosa covers a vast area. It features countless beautiful places spread across the Algarve coast from Faro to Tavira.

The park is unlike some other national parks where you have a unique starting point and a well-defined scenic route.

This park’s beauty is somewhat hidden in several scattered spots along the coastline. Exploring the Ria Formosa will take multiple excursions and a combination of activities if you want to fully appreciate it.

Some people limit their visit to the visitor center and the interpretive trail but that only shows a small part of the park’s wonders.

We encourage you not to stop there and also visit the barrier islands and the other coastal regions.

It is possible to do this on your own but there are also numerous organized tours you can take. These tours make your visit less complex and have the added advantage that you will also learn about the ecosystem, allowing you to appreciate the beauty of the area even more.

Here are some exemplary tours.

Ria Formosa boat tours

Boat tours are amongst the most popular options to visit the Ria Formosa.

Most tours depart in Faro and Olhão but you will also find tours that start in Fuseta and Tavira.

The trips can range anywhere from a few hours to a full day. A typical journey will include cruising the Ria Formosa channels with stops at some of the islands.

Make sure to bring your swimsuits as there usually is time for a refreshing dip as well.

Book your tour around sunset to see the lagoon come alive with birds.

Ria Formosa catamaran tour

This tour starts in Faro and passes through the Ria Formosa channels. There is also a stop at the Farol and Deserta islands.

Guests loved this tour to 2 amazing islands. You will enjoy the great scenery, see wildlife and learn more about the Ria Formosa. Some guests say that the time they could spend on the islands was a bit short. But overall an unforgettable experience.

Check prices and availability:
Ria Formosa catamaran tour

Ria Formosa bird watching tour in a solar boat

Birders should check out this eco-friendly tour. You will explore the Ria Formosa in a solar boat to see and learn more about the birds that nest in the area.

You will get a pair of binoculars.

Guests say that the solar boat is perfect to discover the Ria and that the guide has deep knowledge about the area and the nesting birds.

Highly recommended.

Check prices and availability:
Eco-firendly bird watching tour

Ria Formosa segway tour

This segway tour takes place in the Ludo – Quinta do Lago area of the Ria Formosa.

It is a one-hour and a half tour that covers part of the Ludo and São Lourenço trail.

You also cruise along the streets of Quinta do Lago where you will be amazed by the superb villas, many of which are owned by international celebrities. On the way back you ride across a section of the Quinta do Lago boardwalk.

This Ria Formosa Algarve segway tour takes in many of the best hiking trails found in the Ria Formosa.

If you don’t like hiking, or if you’re here during the hot summer season, it’s a great way to enjoy the region without breaking a sweat.

We did this tour ourselves and had lots of fun. If you are looking for a different way of exploring the area, this is the tour for you.

Check prices and availability:
Ria Formosa Segway tour

Ria Formosa birdwatching day tour

This birdwatching day tour brings you to different areas of the parque natural de Ria Formosa. You will be accompanied by an experienced guide.

This is a great tour for those that want to explore the Ria Formosa on foot accompanied by a guide.

Check prices and availability:
Birdwatching day Ria Formosa

Where to stay for visiting the Ria Formosa

Here we share a list of the best places to stay when you plan on visiting the Ria Formosa.

Faro

Faro is the capital of the Algarve so it should come as no surprise that the city boasts a huge range of vacation homes as well as hotels in different price categories.

The advantage of staying in Faro is that many boat tours, as well as land tours, leave from the city.

Here is an overview of the best Airbnbs, vacation homes, and apartments in Faro.

Quinta do Lago

Quinta do Lago is an artificially created resort to attract a well-heeled clientele. Perfectly maintained wide boulevards replace the charming cobblestone streets.

The villas try to outdo each other in size and beauty and spread across the resort are numerous golf courses.

Quinta do Lago is centrally located in the Ria Formosa and boasts a number of 5-star hotels.

A stay in Quinta do Lago will certainly be different from a stay in one of the historic towns. However, you can be assured that you will not be lacking in luxury.

Tavira

We already mentioned how much we like Tavira. The town has everything you could ever want to find in a quintessential Algarvian town without being overly touristy.

Tavira is located at the eastern edge of the Ria Formosa and counts several quaint cafes and restaurants. It prides itself on being the Venice of the Algarve.

In Tavira, you can rent apartments, townhouses, and beach villas. Some are large enough to accommodate a family outing.

There are also several hotels. We stayed in the Vila Galé Albacora, a former fishing camp that has been turned into a hotel. The hotel is located in between the salt pans. Some of the trails mentioned earlier leave from the parking of the hotel. The old town of Tavira is a stone’s throw away.

If you prefer staying in an Airbnb, apartment, or vacation house in Tavira, click here.

Read Also:

Didn’t find what you are looking for? Here we share an overview of the best vacation rentals in the Algarve.

If you traveling with your family, check out our list of family resorts in the Algarve or read our complete post on where to stay in the Algarve.

If you are traveling with your loved one, check out these amazing Algarve resorts for couples. 

 

FAQ you may have about Ria Formosa

Can you swim in Ria Formosa?

Most people prefer to swim in the ocean waters of the beaches on the barrier islands but it is also possible to swim in the waters of the Ria Formosa itself.

This water tends to be a tad warmer and also calmer.

A good family-friendly beach in the Ria Formosa is Praia da Fuseta Ria.

Flamingos

Where are the flamingos?

These majestic elegant birds can be seen in several spots in the Ria Formosa.

A number of them usually stay year-round but to increase your chances it is better to come during the autumn and winter months.

These are, according to us, the best spots to see flamingos:

  • Ludo trail: Flamingos love the salt pans along the Ludo trail and they can usually be seen all year at this location
  • Tavira, at the mouth of the Gilão river: Here also you can find several salt pans with flamingos at both sides of the river.

Conclusion

The Ria Formosa is an incredibly stunning region in the Algarve. It is home to a wide range of animals, on land, in the sea, and in the air.

One of the best aspects of this natural park is its accessibility.

Thanks to the boardwalks, well-maintained hiking paths, and organized boat tours everybody is able to enjoy the pristine beauty of this region.

If you are looking for more great places to visit in the Algarve, click here.