I have to admit, I had no idea what I was signing up for when I decided to volunteer in a hostel on the Algarve on Portugal’s south coast.
Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised that I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to work in a hostel called Le Penguin, but on further research, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Faro itself. I kept reading the same thing: everyone flies into Faro, but no one actually stays there. It’s the administrative city of a region otherwise known for its beaches and resorts; the entire image I’d envisaged for my trip, and it seemed like I was going to be living in the complete opposite.
To my surprise – and relief – I actually really liked Faro and it didn’t take me long to warm to it, so I think it’s well worth a day or two if you visit the Algarve.
My first impression was made by the fading glow of a sunset over the picturesque marina, a view that was going to become very familiar over the next three weeks. I then began to follow what seemed like overly convoluted directions towards the hostel (turn right, then turn left here, take a right somewhere at the end, then immediately turn left and follow signs for a supermarket) and found myself in a cute, cobblestone square flanked by restaurants and bakeries. A little train shuffled past along the road, and my eyes lit up because as you guys probably know by now, I love anything silly. Maybe it wasn’t going to be bad after all.
Welcome to Le Penguin, by the way, my home for over two weeks.
The hostel was totally laid back, which is how I came to know Portugal to be as a whole, and I loved my time there, but equally I loved exploring the area (which is something SOME of the other volunteers didn’t even really do, looking at no one in particular Aaron!).
So naturally, the first thing I did in the morning was have a look around town, and within a day I had seen more of the city than most people I worked with!
OBVIOUSLY the first thing on my list was riding that train. Come on, guys, did any of you NOT expect that? I found it at the marina just as it was gearing up for its first tour of the day. Almost like fate.
It’s actually a really good tour, it lasts about 45 minutes and only costs 2.75 euros. The only problem was they provided quite a lot of info on each place… wait, you’re thinking surely that’s a good thing, right? Well, they told us everything in Portuguese. Then, five minutes after we had left a place, it started on the English translation. So I missed a lot of it because it didn’t really make sense half way down the road. But it was an enjoyable journey and I saw the vast majority of the centre plus a bit more.
It also gave me my bearings to go back and explore some of the Old Town on foot, which is definitely worth a wander with its narrow cobblestone alleys and squares (quite bumpy on the ol’ train!).
I hate banging on about cobblestones, but Portugal really does have them on another level (literally in Lisbon, because the roads are pretty steep, ho ho!). Virtually the entire centre of Faro is covered in them. They’re a bit slippery, actually, because they’re so smooth, but they instantly add character even in the most run-down streets. Perhaps it’s because they smooth out the rough edges.
And Faro does have some run-down streets, but I never, ever felt unsafe there. And that was including accidentally getting lost when I wandered out of a club at 3am, realised half way down the road that I had no idea how to get back to the club where all my friends were, and subsequently had to navigate my way back to the hostel by myself. And with many, many other late night shenanigans, I never encountered any problems. Yep, I think it’s safe to say you don’t have to worry too much in Faro (apart from slipping on the cobblestones).
My favourite discovery of Faro was the Capela de Ossos, or Chapel Of Bones. The bone church in the Czech Republic has been on my list for years, so when I read about this one, I was pretty excited to visit. I found out later that there’s actually a more famous one in Portugal (Capela dos Ossos in Evora), but this one is really cool, too.
By cool, I mean in a very creepy and morbid way. Does anyone else like walking around cemeteries? In the same way as that, this chapel is morbidly fascinating.
But what really took me by surprise was the actual church itself. Capela de Ossos sits unassumingly behind the Carmo church, which looks fairly indistinct from the outside.
But the inside is insane. I’ve never seen a church this gold before. It almost reminded me of the temples in Asia!
The church is free to enter, but you have to pay 2 euros to visit the chapel of bones. No one even checked my ticket, but I was happy to pay it anyway.
Within a few days, I thought I had exhausted everything there is to do in Faro (except a boat tour of the islands in the natural park – they’re expensive and I don’t feel like they’d be worth it, though feel free to disprove that). I’d been to the beach, which although it was nice, was nothing like I pictured the Algarve to be. I’d been disappointed by all the parks that seemed to be recommended. But in one of my final days in the city, I happened to read something about hanging out with peacocks in a park that was just two blocks away from the hostel! How the hell had I missed that?
So here’s a peacock on a bench.
No, really, it’s just a park, but the peacocks were pretty cool.
My highlights are definitely the old town and the church/bone chapel. The nightlife is great because Faro is a university town (if you want something totally different, go to Fabrica which is a quirky mix of an art gallery and a club, otherwise there are tons of pubs, clubs and live music venues in town), and the town centre has a really nice feel to it. Plus, every single night the sunsets were out of this world! I could probably dedicate an entire photo post to Faro sunsets.
I get that the Algarve is popular with the type of tourists who might not even leave their resort, but if you want a little bite of culture and Portuguese life, Faro is definitely worth a little visit by car or train!
(Plus if you fancy staying overnight, Le Penguin is a decent little hostel, and I hear their staff are pretty cool, too!)
Like this? Pin it!