At the eastern end of southern Portugal’s perma-sunny Algarve region, Tavira has none of the brashness and concrete overdose that afflicts many of the resort towns in the centre. With a proud heritage dating back through Islamic Al-Andalus, the Roman era and Phoenician traders, Tavira has an authenticity that lends historical weight to its good looks.
And boy does it have good looks. Built on either side of the Gilão River, just before it enters the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa’s mudflats and beachy islands, Tavira is an impeccable scene of whitewashed buildings and distinctively tiled roofs.
The pace feels a little different here, too – a little older, wiser and less harried – and Tavira’s mellow charm seeps in slowly but surely.
A comfortable bed
The Pousada do Convento de Graça, inside a converted monastery and with the old ruined walls providing an impressive backdrop to the pool, is the city’s star hotel. The high-ceilinged rooms with dark wood floors and decadently smooth bedsheets are built around the cloisters. Rooms cost from €157 (Dh616).
The Quinta do Caracol is a 10-to-15-minute walk from the river, but it’s utterly lovely. A converted farmhouse with almond and orange trees, a “ye olde” waterwheel and apartment-style rooms with kitchenettes, it has real heart. Double rooms cost from €80 (Dh314).
At the budget end of the city’s accommodation, rooms at the Residencial Lagoas are simple, but with surprisingly high-quality king beds, while the basics are done right and there’s a little roof terrace with sunbeds. Expect to pay from €40 (Dh157).
Find your feet
Start at the river on the small but pretty Ponte Romana stone bridge, then nip into the Núcleo Islâmico. This small museum attached to the tourist information office covers the period, from the 11th century to 1242, during which Tavira was under Islamic rule, although it’s mostly archaeology in glass cases.
Then climb the hill towards the Palácio da Galeria, where one exhibition is full of somewhat arresting art installations, and another is a surprisingly gripping exploration of the Mediterranean region and its traditional diet. At the top of the hill, the old castle ruins are ripe for clambering on, while the Torre Tavira, a former water tower, has been turned into a camera obscura. Its ingenious use of mirrors and lenses projects real-time 360-degree footage of the city onto a big white bowl.
Meet the locals
The 11-kilometre-long, dune-backed Ilha de Tavira is the best beach in the Algarve, and the locals know it. They’re more than happy to pile onto the ferry that leaves from the river bank in the city centre with the tourists. Once there, there are two major sections with sunbeds and umbrellas, but smarter sun worshippers know to keep walking 400 to 500 metres to effectively get a big swath of sand and sea to themselves.
Book a table
A Ver Tavira is near the castle on the hill, and its terrace has good views out over the city. It veers away from Portuguese staples, with the likes of albacore tuna cooked with soy sauce, lime green and sesame for €22 (Dh86).
To go Portuguese, though, try Churrasqueira O Manel on Rua Dr Antonio Cabreira. It does classics such as €12 (Dh47) cod fish in olive oil and €7.50 (Dh29) piri piri chicken really rather well.
Nobody comes to Tavira for the shopping, but some of the shops in the streets around the river have some pleasant knick-knacks.
Bli on Rua da Liberdade has floaty tops and dresses, soaps and smellies. Farther down the street, the Casa Alvaro de Campos hosts a shop selling borderline-gaudy clothing, filigree jewellery and those absolute essentials – owls made from leather.
What to avoid
There are a few boat-trip options that go from the river bank near the ferry terminal, but most require minimum numbers before they run. For solo travellers – and even couples – this can get very frustrating, especially if buying tickets on the promise that other people are likely to book for that trip, then turning up on the day to find out it has been cancelled. Don’t book unless you fancy a gamble or the departure is guaranteed.
Tavira is the best hub for exploring the eastern Algarve, and the drive up to Alcoutim along the Guadiana River, which forms the border with Spain, is beautiful. On the way back, the pocket-sized clifftop hamlet of Cacela Velha is about as gorgeous as European villages get. The setting and whitewashed buildings painted blue around the door and window frames make it exceptionally photogenic.
Return flights with Emirates from Dubai to Lisbon cost from Dh4,660. Trains from Lisbon airport to Tavira, involving a couple of changes, cost about €31 (Dh127) and take about four hours. But if you’re exploring the region, it’s better to hire a car and drive – which takes about two-and-a-half hours.