Visit the Ria Formosa Natural Park to enjoy nature, extensive and isolated sandy beaches, culture and traditional activities in Algarve!

The Ria Formosa Natural Park is a true natural sanctuary, one of the best preserved on the European coast and is located in the south of the Algarve.

In fact, Ria Formosa was even elected one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal!

Therefore, this post is our proposal to discover a different and genuine Algarve – connect to the sea, the lagoon system and nature.

Ria Formosa map

Join us on a visit to the Ria Formosa Natural Park and enjoy paradisiacal places, with islands of great natural beauty and extensive with sand beaches, with mild and cristal waters. As well as, discover interesting places full of history in Algarve.

Ria Formosa Natural Park

The Natural Park was created in 1987 and has an area of ​​18,000 hectares, along 60 km (or 37.3 mi) of coastline. In fact, it starts at Cacela Velha Beach and ends at Quinta do Lago, involving the municipalities of Vila Real de Santo António, Tavira, Olhão, Faro and Loulé.

This vast ecosystem with unique ecological characteristics is part of the Natura 2000 Network. Furthermore, it is considered a Wetland of International Interest, protected by the Ramsar and Berne conventions.

Did you know … there is a dragon in Ria Formosa?

On our gyrocopter tour (from SkyXpedition), we took a photo to prove it!

Vista aérea das salinas e do dragão de Tavira. Aerial view over the Tavira dragon (with salt pans in the background), in Ria Formosa.
Aerial view over the Tavira dragon (with salt pans in the background), in Ria Formosa. Photo taken on a SkyExpedition gyrocopter.

Ria Formosa islands

Ria Formosa has a system that prevents the tidal force from destroying the lagoon, with five barrier islands and two peninsulas. From east to west, you can find the Cacela peninsula, the barrier islands of Cabanas, Tavira, Armona, Culatra and Deserta (or Barreta) and the Ancão peninsula.

All separated by bars (narrow entrances to access the ports), which allow the entry and exit of waters and vessels from the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, there are the bars (Barra in Portuguese) of Lacém, Tavira, Fuzeta, Armona, Faro / Olhão and Ancão (or São Luís).

Entrada da Barra Faro/Olhão (vista do farol) Ilha da Culatra. Barra Faro/Olhão entrance (view from the lighthouse) Culatra Island
Barra Faro/Olhão view from Culatra Island

On the whole, all this system is dynamic, due to the action of wind and sea, which is always changing the shape of islands and peninsulas.

Ria Formosa beaches

Along the Ria Formosa Natural Park you will find several untouched beaches, far from the crowds that usually arrive in the Algarve, especially in the summer.

These golden and fine sandy beaches with crystal clear, calm and warm waters offer good conditions for a family to have a restful vacation!

Vista aérea da Ria Formosa através de um gericóptero.  Aerial view over the Ria Formosa from a gerycopter
Aerial view over the Ria Formosa

On these beaches, take some time to stroll in the sand, discover its plants and animals and also the connection of nature with the sea and the Ria Formosa.
Throughout the post, there will be several specific proposals of beautiful beaches.

Ria Formosa NATURAL Park Code of conduct

Don’t forget that this is a protected area! So that future generations enjoy all that natural beauty, with emphasis on the untouched beaches, it is necessary a conduct that protects the delicate natural ecosystems.

Learn more here about the Code of Conduct for the visitors of protect areas.

Visit Cacela Velha

Cacela Velha is a picturesque village of the Algarve (between Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António), from where you can enjoy one of the surprisingly best views of the Ria Formosa.

With influences both arab and medieval, this village of history and poets was invited by UNESCO to join the indicative list to be considered for inclusion in the World Heritage list.

Vista de Cacela Velha para a Ria Formosa. View from Cacela Velha to the Ria Formosa. View from Cacela Velha to Ria Formosa
View from Cacela Velha to Ria Formosa

From the well preserved historic centre, it’s possible to enjoy the water mirror with little colourful boats anchored in Ria Formosa. The calm waters allow the collection of molluscs and bivalves at low tide.

Near the village church you can see from far the long sandy beach of Cacela Velha (or Fábrica), considered one of the best in the world!

Learn more about Cacela Velha village: must-see Algarve gem at Ria Formosa.

From Fuzeta

Fuzeta, whose name is short for the Portuguese word Foz, which means river-mouth (of the river that flows there).

In brief, is a land of fishermen, who in the past took part in the codfish epic, on fragile boats, in the icy waters of the Newfoundland.

The village has several cubic houses, with roof terraces, a market and a parish church. Along the riverside there is the fishing port.

Ria Formosa Boat Trip

Here next to the pier, you can, for example, take the boat to the island of Armona, or a water taxi to the beaches, or lagoons nearby.

Cais da Fuzeta, Barco da Passeios Ria Formosa
Fuzeta Pier

We took a Boat Tour with Passeios Ria Formosa, which we really liked! Further ahead, we will give more details.

Near Fuzeta centre, you’ll find Praia dos Tesos (or Fuzeta Ria Beach) for those who do not want to take a boat. The name of the beach (“Teso” in Portuguese means someone that has no money) is certainly due to that (not wanting to spend money on the boat trip!).

Fuzeta Praia dos Tesos
Praia dos Tesos, Fuzeta

Getting to Know the Armona Island

Away from the crowds, Armona Island can only be visited by boat. It is 9 km long, with extensive sand beaches that are practically “untouched” and is also rich in wildlife.

Chapéus de Sol na Praia Ilha da Armona Mar
Armona Mar Beach

Did you know that … there is a Ria Formosa Venice?

At high tide, the waters of the lagoon reach the houses on Armona Island.

Ilha Armona na maré alta - a Veneza da Ria Formosa. 
Armona Island at high tide - the Venice of the Ria Formosa

Armona Island at high tide – the Venice of the Ria Formosa

To learn everything you need to have a spectacular day at the beach or a very calm and relaxing holiday, check out our post Armona Island: Beach getaway in the Algarve!

Explore Culatra Island

Culatra Island is on of the barrier island in the Ria Formosa Natural Park.

This fishermen’s island is popular for its beautiful and extensive beaches, with white and fine sand and cristal clear and warm waters. A stroll around the island allows you to see the rich fauna and flora, the lagoon and the sea. 

Vista para a Ilha da Culatra, do cimo do Farol do Cabo de Santa Maria
Culatra Island

Therefore, on Culatra Island you’ll find everything you need to enjoy a truly peaceful and very relaxing vacation!

Get inspired by this post Culatra Island: an authentic fishermen’s island in Algarve

Discover the Desert Island (or Barreta)

Barreta Island, also called Deserta Island, lives up to its name. It is an uninhabited with only a few visitors, it is about 11 km long and 70 to up 700 meters wide.

Ilha Deserta Faro
Desert Island

This island has a very beautiful beach, which is guarded during the bathing season, where you can enjoy nature in a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere.

Soon all details on how to get there, what to see and do on this island and other interesting tips will be explained here.

Other Places of Interest in Ria Formosa

Given that Ria Formosa has a lot to do and see, the following is our wish list :

  • Tavira Island, with extensive and beautiful beaches and Tavira city, of Phoenician, Roman and Arabic influences;
  • “Faro Island” (Ancão Peninsula) and Faro city, the Algarve’s administrative capital;
  • Olhão, linked to the sea and Ria Formosa, with the Marim Environmental Education Center (headquarters of the Ria Formosa Natural Park).

Getting to Know Habitats, Fauna and Flora

For those who would like to know more about Ria Formosa Natural Park, check out what we discover about the variety of habitats, flora and fauna.

Habitats in Ria Formosa Natural Park

In Ria Formosa Natural Park we highlight the following habitats, with their flora and fauna:

  • Dunes, of sands moved by the action of the wind and between the sea and the lagoon;
Habitat Ria Formosa Dunas
Ria Formosa Dunes
  • Marshes, submerged at high tide and uncovered at low tide (exposing 80% of the bottom of the lagoon), which are full of animal life;
Habitat Ria Formosa Sapal
Ria Formosa Marshes
  • Woods, especially with stone pines and maritime pines.

A diversity of flora and fauna is also found near to the watercourses that flow into the lagoon (rivers and streams of Gilão, Seco, Cacela, Lacém and Almargem), the salt pans and the agricultural areas already on dry land.

Flora in the Ria Formosa natural park

The Natural Park is undeniably a place of great biodiversity of flora, which varies depending on the habitat:

  • In the dunes, the vegetation is resistant due to the dry environment, the proximity of the sea (with wind loaded with salt and sand) the high thermal amplitudes and the very permeable sand soils (resulting in the excessive loss of rainwater). Here you will find plants with interesting names, such as cottonweed plant, sand couch-grass, sea bindweed, cretan bird’s-foot-trefoil and sea holly;
  • In the salt marshes, the sediments deposited there due to tides create substrate for the plants. In marshes there are, among others, glassworts, small cord-grass, rushes and other vegetation varieties;
  • In the woods there are stone and maritime pines, cork oaks and wild olive trees. There are also strawberry trees, rockrose, gorse, seagrass and various aromatic herbs, such as rosemary and thyme.
Flora Ria Formosa. Ria Formosa's Flora
Ria Formosa’s Flora

Fauna in Ria Formosa natural park

In the Natural Park there is a wide diversity of animals.

Birds in Ria Formosa

It is a very special area for numerous species of birds that seek it, either for nesting, migration or wintering.

Aves da Ria Formosa birds
Spoonbillls, White Stork and Oystercatcher

Among the rarest birds is the purple swamphen, which is moreover the symbol of the Ria Formosa Natural Park. Because it’s rare, we weren’t able to take a photo 😢!

Aves na Ria Formosa Garça Branca, Pilrito comum e Gaivotas
Egret, Sanderling and Sea Gulls in Ria Formosa

Fishes, Molluscs, Crustaceans in Ria Formosa

In the Natural Park there are several species of fish, as well as mollusks and crustaceans, which come here to feed and reproduce. Among the fish, we highlight the most enigmatic – the sea horse, in addition there are sea basses, gilthead seabreams, white seabreams, plaices and eels.

Among the most well-known molluscs, we highlight oysters, clams, pod razors, cockles, wedge clams, mussels and shells. The more important crustaceans are the crabs and the shrimps.

Caranguejos Ria Formosa
Crabs in Ria Formosa
Concha na Ilha Deserta ou Barreta
Huge Shell on Desert Island

Mammals and Reptiles in Ria Formosa

Among the mammals, stand out the otter, the badger, the weasel, the genet, the mongoose and the fox.

Portuguese Water Dog

The Portuguese Water Dog, formerly called Algarvian Water Dog. It is a rare breed, very active, friendly and with keen sense of sight and smell.

Portuguese water dogs have long fur and paws with an interdigital membrane, which makes them undeniably excellent swimmers and divers. On the boats, they used to help navigators and fishermen to catch fish or something that fell into the sea, and they also used to receive an equal share of the fishing catch, like any other crew member.

Do you remember the Obama’s dog?

In fact there were two Portuguese water dogs at the White House (“Bo” and “Sunny”). Why? Due to the fact that one of the daughters of the former US President was allergic to dogs, the Portuguese Water Dog was considered a suitable breed as it has no undercoat and thus does not release as much fur as other breeds.

Cão de água português. Portuguese water dogs
Portuguese water dogs

Of the reptiles present in the Natural Park, the most popular is the chameleon, which is threatened with extinction, followed by the tortoises. We don’t have pictures of the chameleons but they surely live there:).

Gain an overall understanding of Ria Formosa activities

In Ria Formosa, various activities of economic interest to the Algarve region are carried out.

shellfish harvesting and oyster and clam breeding

Mariscadores na Ria Formosa. Shellfishers at Ria Formosa
Shellfishers at Ria Formosa

In the salt marshes (salt water swaps) and at low tide, men and women can be seen engaged in shellfishing – harvesting shellfish and bivalves.

Apanha de Ostras e Bivalves. Breeding of Oysters and Bivalves, in Ria Formosa
Breeding of Oysters and Bivalves, in Ria Formosa

You can also see the beds of oysters or clams.

fishing, salt and sand extraction (for oysters)

Sardine and tuna fishing were important activities in Ria Formosa. These activities were linked to the canning industry and the extraction of salt, and is still possible to see several salt pans today.

On our tour we also saw boats heading for fishing in the Atlantic Ocean. Other boats were extracting sand, draining the bars entrances – sand that is necessary to be placed in the oysters beds.

Pesca e Extração de Areia na Ria Formosa. Fishing and Sand Extraction in the Ria Formosa
Fishing and Sand Extraction in Ria Formosa

Navigation, Turism, Agriculture, fish farming and Others

However, in addition to these activities, there are also others of importance, such as navigation, tourism and agriculture (which includes the production of citrus fruits, dried fruits and olive groves).

In the old salt pans, fish farming is also carried out (with gilt-head bream, sea bass, withe sea bream and other fish).

Places of Historical Interest in Ria Formosa

In the Ria there were peoples, such as Romans and Arabs, whose heritage goes beyond the archaeological remains discovered. We can also find their presence in various activities, such as agriculture (vegetable gardens and citrus production) or in the disposition of urban centers.

From the rich historical heritage along the Ria Formosa, we highlight the coastal defense forts (Cacela Velha, Rato Fort in Tavira e São João da Barra Fort or Conceição Fort in Cabanas), as well as the watchtowers (Aires Tower and Bias Tower in Fuzeta).

Torre de Aires Ria Formosa. Aires Tower in Ria Formosa
Aires Tower in Ria Formosa

In the Natural Park there are also Palatial houses, rural farms, chapels, tide mills and much more.

Other Activities To Do in Ria Formosa

One of the best ways to discover this part of Algarve is by boat or by car. In case you need to rent a car, search for a good deal at Discover Cars. This car rental platform will help you finding the right price, in a quick and simple manner. Click here to access.

VisiT The Marim Environmental Education Centre – ICNF

On a visit to the Marim Environmental Education Centre – CEAM , at Quinta do Marim in Olhão, you can see Roman salting tanks, a sea mill and an older water-wheel. In fact, here is the headquarters of this protected area!

There is also here a circular and easy interpretation trail.

Moinho de Maré Quinta do Marim, Olhão.  Tide Mill Quinta de Marim, Olhão
Tide Mill Quinta de Marim, Olhão

Take a boat Tour in Ria Formosa

Taking a boat trip along the Ria Formosa, stopping in paradisiacal places, is another suggestion for a superb activity.

We had a pleasant experience with the company “Passeios Ria Formosa”, which helped us to better understand and value this natural sanctuary, that is Ria Formosa.

The tranquil boat trip took us to visit the main barrier islands and it was very instructive.

Boat Tours Ria Formosa, barco da Passeios Ria Formosa
Boat Tours in Ria Formosa

Thus, we saw extensive beaches, natural pools where you feel like staying, quiet villages along the waterfront, animals, oyster farms and the collection of clams, and much more.

Finally, our guide, Mr. Roberto, was very attentive, professional and a true Ria connoisseur.

Kayak in ria formosa

Among the leisure activities that can be done int the Ria Formosa, for sport lover, we suggest a Kayak trip.

Kayak na Ria Formosa
Kayak in Ria Formosa

Golf at Quinta da Ria

Inside the Natural Park is Quinta da Ria development, which enjoys a spectacular view over the Ria Formosa, the sea and surrounding beaches.

Golfe na Quinta da Ria
Golfe na Quinta da Ria, na Ria Formosa

This resort has two 18-hole golf courses (Quinta da Ria and Quinta de Cima), an academy and a golf practice course for learning and improving skills. Next to the courses is the renowned Robinson Club Quinta da Ria hotel.

Tours with a Local Guide

Do you want to go on a tour with a local guide? Check here to find the available tours for this part of Algarve, through our partner Get Your Guide.

Ria Formosa Island Accommodation

The islands of Armona and Culatra have several guest houses. On Deserta Island there are no places to stay overnight.

Camping in Ria Formosa

On Armona Island there is an Orbitur Campsite and on Tavira Island there is another one.

House Boat in the Middle of the Ria Formosa

We stayed on a House Boat of the Passeios Ria Formosa, specifically, in “Barra Nova” which is located near the entrance to Barra da Fuzeta (which divides Armona Island from Tavira Island).

This new boat, which has full-length mirrored doors (which allowed us to see outside and not be seen inside), unexpectedly offered us excellent comfort conditions.

In fact, it was very clean and well decorated. It had a double bed, fully equipped kitchenette and bathroom with a spacious shower area (hot water).

Barco Casa Fuzeta Passeios Ria Formosa
House boat in Ria Formosa
Feriados Portugal 20121 Jantar a bordo do Barco Casa da Passeios Ria Formosa, Fuzeta
On board dinner

Having our meals on the boat’s terrace, was a wonderful experience, but really unique was watching the unforgettable sunsets and sunrises.

Other special experience was feeling all the life on Ria Formosa, the tidal movements and watching the birds and the fish around the boat.

Final, we took a rowing boat (also available), went to the shore and on the other side we took advantage of the extensive and almost desertes beach, strolling along the sea.

Nothing was missing, even surprisingly we got 4G network!

Pin this post to enjoy Ria Formosa to the fullest and whenever you want.

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Other Places to Visit in Algarve

To learn more about other LikedPlaces, go to our Destinations in Portugal page.

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