The Ria Formosa Natural Park stretches for close to 60 kilometers (nearly 40 miles) along the southeastern coast of Portugal, from Faro to Tavira. It’s a maze of islands, sandbars, lagoons, canals and marshes that change size and shape depending on the currents and tides. Accessible by public ferries and tourist boats, it’s a natural wonder that no visitor to Algarve should miss.
In total there are six barrier islands and a peninsula, with wonderful white sand beaches, some of them completely deserted. The designation as a natural park means that it’s protected from development, so visitors shouldn’t expect beachfront hotels. These beaches are heaven for those who prefer peace and quiet, and there are spots officially recognized as nude beaches. On the way there, it’s possible to see a variety of wildlife, including chameleons, the world’s largest concentration of seahorses, flamingos, storks and other resident and migratory birds.
A native of these shores is the Portuguese Water Dog, a rare breed that became famous when U.S. President Obama chose it for the family dog in the White House, allegedly for its non-shedding qualities. You can know more about this breed and all about the natural park at the Ria Formosa Natural Park Interpretation Center in Olhão. The site, located at Quinta de Marim, suffers from some neglect, but has 3 kilometers (almost 2 miles) of paths and boardwalks, allowing visitors to observe a variety of animal species. It also preserves an archeological site dating back to Roman times (4th century), and a mansion with exhibitions about environmental protection.
The beaches on the islands are the most popular destinations in the park, and the main gateways are the cities of Faro, Olhão and Tavira. From their piers, you can hop on tourist boats for tours around the park or take a ferry directly to the beaches. These are the tours available: Ria Formosa Natural Park Tours
Beaches in the Ria Formosa Natural Park
Praia de Cacela Velha
The beach on the eastern end of the Ria Formosa Natural Park is in a peninsula and island by one of Algarve’s best-preserved villages. Accessed by boat at high tide or on foot from the village at low tide, it stretches for about 2 kilometers (over one mile) and has shallow and calm waters. International publications have ranked it among the world’s and Europe’s best beaches, but fortunately it has been able to escape mass tourism.
See the Praia de Cacela Velha guide.
Ilha de Cabanas de Tavira
The 7km-long (4 miles) beach of an island between Cacela Velha and the town of Tavira can be reached by boat from the fishing village of Cabanas de Tavira. Because it’s so long, it offers plenty of space and tranquility, and is almost deserted. It has just one restaurant and loungers and wicker parasols for rent in the center of the island, but most of it is one long stretch of dunes. As you cross the lagoon on your way there, you can spot a variety of wildlife.
See the Ilha de Cabanas de Tavira guide.
Praia da Ilha de Tavira
The big but uninhabited island of Tavira is divided into four beaches, and this one is the easiest to reach from the center of town. There’s a regular ferry, which takes you to a pier by a pine forest which you must cross to reach the beach. It attracts families due to its accessibility and variety of restaurants with outdoor seating, plus its volleyball nets. However, keep walking to the right (when facing the sea) and it becomes a deserted island where some people find enough space and privacy to sunbathe nude.
See the Ilha de Tavira guide.
Praia da Terra Estreita
The second beach in the island of Tavira can be reached on a long walk from Praia da Ilha de Tavira or by boat from Santa Luzia, a small fishing village to the west of Tavira. It has a bar and a few loungers and parasols for rent, but hasn’t yet been discovered by many tourists. Backed by dunes with Mediterranean vegetation, it's on the narrowest part of the island.
See the Praia da Terra Estreita guide.
Praia do Barril
Until the second half of the 20th century, this part of the island of Tavira was where a small fishing community lived throughout much of the year. When the fishing industry declined, its abandoned homes were turned into restaurants and then came the tourists. Most arrive on a charming old train originally used by the fishermen to cross a path that connects the island to the mainland, over a lagoon of the Ria Formosa Natural Park. Also left behind by the fishermen were dozens of anchors that secured nets and are now on display on the dunes as reminders of the fishing heritage.
See the Praia do Barril guide.
Praia do Homem Nu
Keep walking west (to the right when facing the sea) from Praia do Barril, and the island becomes one long desert. In about 15 to 20 minutes you’ll find yourself all alone at this official nude beach. Because it can only be reached on foot from the neighboring beach, it’s one of Algarve’s quietest beaches. It’s the western end of the island, and on the very end you’ll find a small lagoon and can see the neighboring island of Fuseta.
See the Praia do Homem Nu guide.
Ilha da Fuseta
Armona Island is often called Fuseta Island on its eastern end. That’s because this side is reached by boat from the fishing village of Fuseta. Mostly frequented by locals, it’s a well-kept secret despite being one of Algarve’s best and most beautiful beaches. When you arrive, keep walking east (to the left) for the more peaceful side, with shallow, calm and clear waters that will make you picture yourself in the Maldives. Just keep the secret to yourself!
See the Ilha da Fuseta guide.
Ilha da Armona
Accessed by ferry from the town of Olhão, this is a 9km-long (6 miles) island inhabited by a small fishing community. The ferry arrives on the western end, by the village, and to reach the beach you have to go down the main street and follow a long boardwalk over the dunes. Most people stay in the area at the end of the boardwalk, to be close to the restaurants and the ferry, but if you prefer quieter beaches, keep walking to the left. After a few minutes, you’ll see nothing but white sand stretching as far as the eye can see. Because so few people come this far, it’s an unofficial nude beach. There’s nothing but unspoiled nature around you, and you’ll just have a few chameleons and birds for company.
See the Ilha da Armona guide.
Ilha da Culatra
The island to the west of Armona also has two names – Ilha da Culatra in the east and Ilha do Farol in the west. Culatra is a small fishing community with about 1000 residents, and although its beach is a popular destination for the people of Faro and Olhão, it’s never crowded. In fact, if you keep walking east (to the left) when you arrive, it’s nearly deserted. The sea is usually calm and you just might spot a few dolphins in the distance.
See the Ilha da Culatra guide.
Ilha do Farol
Named after a 19th-century lighthouse, this part of the island between Faro and Olhão also has a tiny fishing village. Walk through the village, past a number of restaurants offering grilled fish, in the direction of the lighthouse, and you arrive at the beach. In the area by the lighthouse you have wicker parasols and water sports equipment for rent, so it’s where most people stay. For a quieter spot, keep walking east. At a certain point you’ll have the beach all for yourself.
See the Ilha do Farol guide.
There is just a small lighthouse, a few sheds by the pier, and a restaurant on this island. It’s a literally deserted island, with a magnificently pristine landscape that can be admired from a 2km-long boardwalk over dunes. This is Portugal’s southernmost tip and its beach is divided into an official nude beach on the western side and an area covered with parasols and loungers for rent on the eastern end. The northern side of the island, facing the city of Faro, has the calmest waters.
See the Ilha Deserta guide.
Ilha de Faro
It’s not really an “ilha” (island), it’s a peninsula. Because it’s so easy to reach from Faro, it’s the most crowded beach in the Ria Formosa Natural Park. It’s also the most developed, with villas, restaurants and cafés. Follow the boardwalk to the east for the undeveloped, uncrowded and much more pleasant and attractive side of the beach. The waves here attract surfers, but to the north you have the calmer waters of a lagoon.
See the Ilha de Faro guide.
Praia da Quinta do Lago
Quinta do Lago is one of Algarve’s luxury resorts. Never crowded, its beach is reached via a footbridge over a lagoon and has a rather exclusive atmosphere, due to the 5-star resorts and world-class golf courses nearby. A trail (the “São Lourenço Trail”) takes you past pinewoods, lagoons and marshes, allowing you to observe different bird species and breathe in the fresh air of the park.
See the Quinta do Lago guide.
Praia do Ancão
This beach marks the western end of the Ria Formosa Natural Park. It has a natural landscape of pinewoods and dunes that are protected by boardwalks connecting it to Quinta do Lago. Follow the boardwalks to observe a variety of flora and fauna, including different species of birds. The beach is known as a favorite of Portuguese celebrities, who want to escape the crowds and enjoy meals with sea views at the two restaurants elevated over the dunes.
See the Praia do Ancão guide.
Where to Stay in the Ria Formosa Natural Park
Robinson Club Quinta da Ria
One of Algarve’s all-inclusive hotels is less than 10 minutes from the boat to the beach of Cacela Velha. It’s a family-friendly property, with family rooms, swimming pools for children and adults, and a kids’ club. For grownups, there’s a spa with an indoor pool, a gym, volleyball and tennis courts, and a soccer field.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Robinson Club Quinta da Ria
This is as close as you can stay to the beach of Cacela Velha. It’s right by the boats, and you can even wake up to sea views at the apartments on the top floors. Each apartment has equipped kitchens for you to prepare meals, and all guests have access to an outdoor swimming pool.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Casa Castor
Vila Gale Albacora
For direct access to the island of Tavira, stay at this hotel with its own pier and boats to the beach. Its buildings once housed a fishing community and there’s a small museum showing what life was like here in the past. In the present, it welcomes tourists with contemporary rooms (some with views of the lagoons of the Ria Formosa Natural Park), a restaurant serving Mediterranean and Portuguese cuisine, a spa with an indoor pool, and an outdoor pool.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Vila Gale Albacora
Pedras d’el Rei
The tourist train to Praia do Barril is just a 5-minute walk from this resort. Guests have the choice of apartments or villas, and access to an outdoor swimming pool and to half a dozen restaurants serving international cuisine.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Pedras d’el Rei
Casa Viana Guesthouse
Perfectly located for the island of Cabanas de Tavira (it’s just steps from the pier), this is an excellent choice for budget travelers. The rooms are basic but comfortable and clean, and there’s a terrace overlooking the lagoons.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Casa Viana Guesthouse
Cabanas Beach Club
Here you have modern apartments with one or two bedrooms, fully-equipped kitchens, and a balcony or terrace. They’re a short walk from the pier with the boats to the island of Cabanas de Tavira. The property offers free parking and an outdoor swimming pool.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Cabanas Beach Club
Real Marina Hotel & Spa
Those who want the 5-star experience should stay at this hotel on the Olhão waterfront. It’s within walking distance of the boats to the islands (beaches of Armona, Culatra and Farol) and has rooms with balconies and sea views. Facilities include two restaurants, indoor and outdoor pools, a spa with a variety of treatments and a gym.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Real Marina Hotel & Spa
Eva Senses Hotel
Very centrally located in Faro, by the marina and a short walk from the pier with the boats to Ilha Deserta, Ilha do Farol and Ilha da Culatra, this hotel has spacious rooms with balconies, a panoramic restaurant, a spa, and a rooftop pool.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Eva Senses Hotel
Hotel Faro & Beach Club
Facing Faro’s marina, this hotel has bright rooms (some of them with balconies), a rooftop terrace with a swimming pool and a restaurant, and a spa. In the summer, it offers a free shuttle to the beach of Ilha de Faro, and also provides boat service to Ilha Deserta, Ilha da Culatra and Ilha do Farol.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Hotel Faro & Beach Club
Orbitur Ilha da Armona
This is the only place to stay on any of the islands of the Ria Formosa Natural Park. It’s budget accommodation – a series of bungalows with two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and private bathrooms in Ilha da Armona. Everything you need to make it your home for a few days and enjoy the beach, is found at a supermarket nearby and there are also the traditional fish restaurants of the village.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Orbitur Ilha da Armona
Moinhos das Marés
An historic windmill, built above the salt pans of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, in the village of Fuseta, was restored in 2016 and is now a guesthouse. There are just five rooms, which preserve the original architecture. The location is very peaceful, with flamingos as neighbors. The ferries to the island of Fuseta are down the road.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Moinhos das Marés
Estudios Salinas - Fuseta
Located in the center of Fuseta, by the main church, this property has a rooftop terrace with a view of the Ria Formosa Natural Park. Some of the studios have their own terrace or balcony. The ferries to the beach on the island are a 5-minute walk away.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Estudios Salinas - Fuseta
Hotel Quinta do Lago
This luxury hotel faces the sea in Quinta do Lago. It has its own private area at the beach, a short walk away. The classic-designed rooms include private balconies overlooking the Ria Formosa Natural Park. One of the two restaurants offers more views, as does the bar. There are indoor and outdoor pools, and a spa.
SEE PRICES, AVAILABILITY AND MORE DETAILS HERE: Hotel Quinta do Lago