The Algarve is among one of the most famous beach destinations in Europe, inviting thousands of foreigners each year to enjoy its beautiful landscapes, amazing weather, delicious food and wonderful lifestyle.
However, some of the Algarve's most popular beaches, such as Ponta da Piedade and Praia Dona Ana in Lagos, Praia de Benagil in Carvoeiro, Praia da Marinha in Lagoa or Praia de Odeceixe, can sometimes be quite crowded, especially during the high season months of July and August. The good news is the Algarve has plenty of other amazing beaches, some of which are lesser-known!
Among the many to choose from, the island beaches around the Ria Formosa Natural Park are some favourites for many Portuguese families and expats alike who have fallen in love with their crystal clear and often warmer water, a much calmer vibe and landscapes that are simply breathtaking.
What is the Ria Formosa?
The Ria Formosa is a wetland and natural reserve that extends along 60 km from the Ancão Peninsula to Manta Rota. Covering the municipalities of Loulé, Faro, Olhão, Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António, it is formed by two peninsulas (Ancão Peninsula and Cacela Peninsula) and five islands (Barreta or "Deserta", Culatra, Armona, Tavira and Cabanas):
The Ria Formosa was recently voted as one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal and is considered an important habitat for aquatic birds, welcoming over 20,000 during the winter. Its location is a crucial point in the migration routes of wetland birds between Europe and Africa, welcoming several rare species in Portugal.
This natural park also provides excellent conditions for traditional activities such as fishing and salt extraction, both of which are an important source of income for many local families.
Beaches in Ria Formosa
If you want to run away from the more crowded beaches of the Algarve and are looking for some hidden treasures that are just as beautiful, you should definitely visit the Ria Formosa.
Here, you will find dozens of island beaches with clear and warmer waters, and landscapes that can surprise you each day, since they’re constantly changing due to the continuous movement of currents, tides and winds. So, be ready to get surprised every day with new views and small details, which make this region so different and special.
Below are some of the most beautiful island beaches you can find around the Ria Formosa:
Deserta beach (Barreta Island), Faro
"Deserta" means "deserted", and as the name states, the Ilha Deserta is a deserted island in Ria Formosa. So, if you’re looking to relax with no noise or movement around, this is the perfect place to visit! The warm and clear waters are especially appealing in this region.
How to get there: Go to Cais da Porta Nova, in Faro, and catch the ferry to reach the island.
Farol beach (Farol Island), Faro
Praia do Farol is one of the three beaches located in Culatra Island, a region mainly inhabited by fishermen and their families. The residents are spread across three areas: Farol, Hangares and Culatra. There are no cars on this island, and the only way you can reach the beach is by boat.
The beach has restaurants and cafés, several quaint little beach houses and a lighthouse which gave this beautiful island its name ("farol" is "lighthouse" in Portuguese).
How to get there: Go to Olhão and take a boat to the island. You can choose to visit by ferry (approximately 45 min. trip) or catch a smaller boat taxi which is much faster.
Armona beach (Armona Island) Olhão
Praia da Armona is a sea beach located on Armona Island, which is 9 km long. Here you won’t find any cars or roads, and the only access is by boat. However, unlike Culatra, here homeowners usually come only during the summer and visitors rent houses for just a few weeks or months. There is also a campsite with bungalows, which also attract many beach lovers.
How to get there: Go to Porto de Recreio, in Olhão, and catch the ferry boat to reach the island.
Other beaches on the island of Armona: Armona Beach (estuary), Fuseta Beach and Barra Nova Beach.
Barril beach (Tavira)
Praia do Barril is one of the five beaches you can find on Tavira island. This is another peaceful and beautiful spot for those who wish to lay in the sun and enjoy a relaxing day by the sea.
How to get there: Cross the floating bridge over the Ria and take the quaint tourist train that departs near Pedras d'El Rei tourist village, which allows you to enjoy the beautiful scenery that leads from the Ria Formosa wetlands to the ocean. If you prefer, you can also walk along the path that is next to the train line.
What to do: While there, don't miss the Anchor Cemetery, which pays homage to the tuna fisherman that once thrived on this island.
Other Tavira island beaches include: Homem Nu, Naturista, Terra Estreita and Ilha de Tavira.
Ilha de Cabanas beach
Located east of Tavira, Cabanas Island is 70 meters wide and 7 km long. This beach is uninhabited and is one of the quietest in Ria Formosa, which makes it the perfect spot for those who love walking along the sand and enjoying moments of tranquility and isolation from the busy world.
How to get there: You can access this beach by catching a ride on one of the small fishing boats next to the Cabanas waterfront (approx. 5-minute ride).
Amenities: The beach has support facilities for visitors (bars and toilets) and is supervised during the bathing season.
Fábrica beach - Cacela Velha
Finally, don't miss the Cacela Peninsula, a breathtaking stretch of dunes bordering the Ria Formosa to the east.
Here, you will find Praia da Fábrica beach (also known as "Praia de Cacela Velha" or "Praia de Cacela"), considered one of the best beaches in the world.
How to get there: By boat, from Sítio da Fábrica, near Cacela Velha. If the tide is low, you can also go and return on foot.
Things to do: Next to the church square, Casa da Igreja is a restaurant that offers what many consider to be the best oysters in Europe! The tables are outside and long before the restaurant opens (at 4:30 PM) there is already a queue, so be prepared to wait.
The island beaches of Algarve are still considered hidden treasures that only the Portuguese and very few foreigners know about. So, while these places are still yet to be discovered by the masses, enjoy the calm, peace, beauty and isolation!