Tavira is one of the best-preserved historic towns in Algarve and one of the most pleasant to visit. It has a pretty Old Town and some of the region’s finest beaches. The Old Town is accessed through Porta de Dom Manuel, a gateway from 1520 that stands to the left of the tourism office. It’s a maze of cobbled streets and tiny squares, whitewashed buildings with pyramid-shaped rooftops, churches, and the ruins of a castle. If you visit just one monument, make it Igreja da Misericórdia, which is the finest Renaissance building in Algarve. There’s a total of 21 churches in the city, or 37 if you count those in the surroundings, but only about a dozen are open to the public. If you find them open, take a peek inside, as their plain façades often hide rich interiors.
The city’s coastline stretches for almost 18km, and is part of the protected Ria Formosa Natural Park. It has two islands (Ilha de Tavira and Ilha de Cabanas), with white sand beaches, which are among the best in southern Portugal. Boats take you there through the wetlands, and the journey is an opportunity to observe a variety of flora and fauna, particularly birds -- over 30,000 of them, both resident and migratory, shelter here throughout the year. The beaches are a seemingly-endless landscape of dunes, except for the eastern side of Ilha de Tavira, which is covered with pine trees. In order to preserve the dunes, there are boardwalks between the piers and the beaches.
When walking around the city, notice the traditional doors. They’re called “portas de reixa” or lattice doors, and their origin dates back to Moorish times. They allowed women, who couldn’t go outside their homes without the company of men, to observe the street without being seen. This type of door was maintained even after the Moors were expelled in the 13th century, as they also ventilated the interiors while inhabitants kept their privacy.
Many have hand-shaped door knockers, and this may actually go all the way back to the Phoenicians. Archaeological excavations in Tavira revealed hand-shaped designs in everything from ceramics to necklaces. It’s an image associated with Baal, an ancient god worshipped by the Phoenicians, and over the centuries it was believed that these hands on the doors protected homes from bad luck and the evil eye.
As for the iconic rooftops (known as “telhados de tesoura” or “scissor rooftops”), they don’t cover the entire buildings but rather each individual room. No one knows their origin and they have no particular function, but may have been influenced by Indian architecture, after the opening of maritime trade routes between Portugal and the East, starting in the 15th century.
Monuments and Tourist Attractions in Tavira
There are now several bridges crossing the Gilão River, but this is the oldest. It has seven arches and it’s said that it dates back to the Roman occupation, although it was rebuilt and altered over the centuries, especially in the 1100s and 1600s. It remains one of Tavira’s main landmarks, and as you cross it (it’s for pedestrians only) you can enjoy some of the best views of the city.
Praça da República
Tavira’s main square marks the center of town. It’s found on the riverfront, by the Roman Bridge, and is home to the arcaded building of the Town Hall, the tourist office, and a number of outdoor cafés. At the center is a reflecting pool with fountains and a monument to the victims of WWI.
Jardim do Coreto
From Praça da República you can turn to what is officially called the Jardim Público de Tavira (“Tavira Public Garden”), but is better known as Jardim do Coreto (“Bandstand Garden”). It was laid out in 1890, and its wrought-iron bandstand dates from the same year. This is where locals of all ages meet, and it’s often the stage of special events.
Mercado da Ribeira
At the end of Jardim do Coreto is the city’s former market, which closed in 1999 and is now occupied by shops and eateries instead. The building dates from 1887, and maintains the original architecture, inside and out. It sometimes hosts cultural events.
Rua José Pires Padinha
Igreja da Misericórdia
This is the first monument you see when you access the Old Town through Porta de Dom Manuel. Built in 1541, it’s the best example of Renaissance architecture in Algarve, although most of the interior decoration is from the 1700s. That includes the gilded retable and the blue-and-white tile panels that line the walls. Visitors can go up to the bell tower for a view over Tavira.
See the Igreja da Misericórdia visitor’s guide.
Tavira’s castle was originally erected by the Moors, but King Dinis rebuilt it in the 13th century. It was nearly destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, and remains a ruin to this day. The interior has been landscaped and is now essentially a garden. There are beautiful views over the city from the ramparts.
See the Tavira Castle visitor’s guide.
Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo
Built by the castle in the 13th century, this is Tavira’s main church. Although it was damaged in the 1755 earthquake and largely reconstructed, it preserves the original gothic portal, a couple of gothic and Manueline (Portuguese gothic) chapels, and 17th-century tile panels. The altarpieces reflect the styles of the different periods after the reconstruction, mainly the rococo and the neoclassical. This is where Paio Peres Correia, who conquered Tavira from the Moors in 1242, is buried, along with seven knights who died in the battle. Their tombs can be seen in the main chapel. There’s also a display of sacred art, which includes sculptures and paintings, dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The large clock outside on one of the towers was added in the 1800s.
The church is open to visitors on weekdays and Saturday mornings.
Igreja de Santiago
Located just a few feet from Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo, this is a similar whitewashed church, dating all the way back to 1270. Like all other buildings in Tavira, it had to be rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, but lack of funds kept the exterior plain. Much of the art inside, including altarpieces and paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries, was brought from other churches and convents that closed in the city over the years.
It’s open on weekdays and Saturday mornings.
Rua Dom Paio Peres Correia
Igreja de São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo
This early-16th-century church belonged to a brotherhood of fishermen and had to be rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake. The exterior is plain, but it features a magnificent painted ceiling from 1765, rich Renaissance and baroque altarpieces, and 18th-century images venerated by the fishermen. One of those images is that of Our Lady of the Waves (“Nossa Senhora das Ondas”), which is the second name of the church. It was all beautifully restored in 2014, when the monument opened to visitors for the first time in many years.
Rua Dr. Marcelino Franco, 19
Igreja de São Francisco
The Convent of St. Francis, built in 1250, was one of the most important buildings in medieval Algarve, but was devastated by the Great Earthquake in 1755 and again by fire caused by lightning in 1881. Its domed church preserves some of the original gothic architecture, but is mostly a baroque reconstruction. One of the chapels is richly decorated with gilded woodcarving and images of saints used in the traditional Holy Week procession.
Praça Zacarias Guerreiro
Igreja do Hospital do Espírito Santo
Erected in 1454, this church was part of a hospital and also became known as Igreja de São José (St. Joseph’s Church) in 1721, after a miracle attributed to an image of the saint. In the early 18th century, King João V declared it a royal church, which explains the royal coat of arms on the portal. It was rebuilt in 1752 in the baroque, rococo and neoclassical styles, and not much of the gothic original survives.
Praça Zacarias Guerreiro
Tavira Municipal Museum
Tavira’s main museum is divided into different branches, but the main one occupies a 16th-century palace called Palácio da Galeria. It opened as a museum after a renovation in 2001, and presents exhibitions related to local history and culture, as well as contemporary art. Excavations revealed Phoenician remains (7th to 6th centuries BC) related to religious rituals, most likely dedicated to Baal, the god of storms or thunder. The building preserves gothic, Renaissance and baroque elements, including on the elegant façade from 1746. A second branch, located next to the tourist office on Praça da República, focuses on the city’s Moorish past. It’s very small but presents a curious collection. The highlight is an 11th-century vase with human and animal figures around the rim, whose significance led to a loan to the Louvre Museum in Paris, but is now here on permanent display.
It’s closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Largo da Misericórdia
Edifício André Pilarte
One of the few buildings to have survived the 1755 earthquake, this one dates back to the 1500s and is said to have been erected by André Pilarte, who was responsible for the building of Igreja da Misericórdia (see above). Inside it preserves some Manueline and Renaissance features. You’ll likely find it closed, but it sometimes opens for exhibitions.
Rua Dom Marcelino Franco