11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Setúbal
Tourists to Setúbal shrug off its image as a busy industrial port as soon as they begin exploring this vibrant and energetic city. Set on the north bank of the River Sado, near the mouth of the estuary, Setúbal's affinity with the sea is immediately apparent. From the castle high above the harbor, the vast Atlantic Ocean rolls out towards a steel-blue horizon. In the old town, churches are dressed in pleated stone designed to resemble twisted rope. Along the quay, restaurants serve emblematic dishes like choco frito - deep-fried cuttlefish seasoned with garlic and lemon juice.
The estuary itself is a protected nature reserve, a favorite destination for spirited dolphins and wintering wildlife. Outdoor enthusiasts can hike the beautifully stark Serra, west of the city, and discover hidden chapels and medieval strongholds set amid emerald forests and blankets of flowers. Over the bay, a stylish resort is the gateway to a secluded peninsula fringed by golden beaches and shallow lagoons. Here they farm and fish as the Romans did, and village life is far removed from the city back across the water.
See also: Where to Stay in Setúbal
1 Castelo de São Filipe
Dominating the skyline high above Setúbal is the town's castle. The fort was built in 1595 on the orders of Philip II of Spain and follows a star-shaped design originally drawn up by Italian military engineer Filippo Terzi. Architect Leonardo Torriana, also from Italy, made sure everything fitted into place. Constructed during the period of Spanish rule, the defensive stronghold kept enterprising pirates and English invaders at bay. After Portuguese Reconquest, heavier more robust walls were added, as was a stone tunnel that lead to the interior.
Today, it is tourists that besiege the castle, either to clamber playfully over the weathered bastions, or to stay at the pousada, an upscale inn that's made good use of the 16th-century blueprints. A small chapel lined with wonderfully detailed tiles is worth admiring. But the real draw is the inspiring panorama that takes in Setúbal, the sparkling Sado estuary, and the distant Tróia peninsula.
Location: Castelo de São Filipe, Setúbal
2 Reserva Natural do Estuário do Sado
Ornithologists flock to the Sado Estuary Natural Reserve. The 23-hectare wildlife park is home to an astonishing variety of bird species; around 220 have so far been recorded in areas of open water, the shallow lagoons, reed-beds, and across the mud flats. The estuary is an important wintering ground for razorbill, marsh harrier, flamingo, purple heron, and black-winged stilt, among many others. (Serious birders need to be here from October to February for the best photography opportunities.) Mammals such as fox, badger, mongoose, and the elusive genet roam the countryside. But it's the resident bottlenose dolphin population that captures the imagination of most visitors. The estuary is their location of choice, as it offers both food and shelter. This is good news for those who want to get up close and personal with these graceful and intelligent creatures, with several sightseeing cruise operations based out of Setúbal and Sesimbra, including the Dolphin Watch Tour in Sesimbra.
Address: Porto de Abrigo de Sesimbra, Avenida dos Náufragos, Sesimbra
3 Museu de Arqueologia e Etnografia
This modest museum is big on archaeology, and is also noted for its spirited collection of ethnography. The permanent exhibition reaches far back into prehistory, with simple stone tools from the Paleolithic period among the earliest items on show. More discernible are the Bronze Age pots and Roman coins. A number of amphorae are on display, while the mosaic panels, also the result of Roman handiwork, remain one of the museum's highlights. Visitors should also note the unusual 19th-century devotional paintings on wood depicting holy visions and miracles. Local and regional arts, crafts, and industries make up the majority of the quirky display of ethnography - the traditional costumes are delightful and the assortment of ships and watercraft are the envy of any scale model boat enthusiast.
Address: Avenida Luisa Todi 162, Setúbal
4 Igreja de Jesus
Admirers of Manueline architecture will be smitten by the filigree masonry that decorates this church. The monastery, which stands forlornly to the north of the old town, is one of the first buildings in Portugal built in the Manueline style - the Portuguese version of Late Gothic that flourished in the 16th century during the reign of Manuel I. Designed by the architect Diogo Boitac in 1494, the church stands as a suitable monument to the burgeoning tendency to use maritime motifs in architecture, such as plaited colonnettes to resemble twisted rope inspired by Portugal's Age of Discovery. Use your imagination and the interior columns resemble giant sticks of candy, the intricate ribbed vaulting decorating the ceiling like a giant spider's web. The adjacent convent has been turned into a museum that includes a noted collection of Portuguese and Flemish paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries. The highlight is the 14-panel depiction of the life of Christ by Jorge Afonso.
Location: Praça Miguel Bombarda, Setúbal
5 Castelo de Palmela
The Moors defended it with frightening ferocity before Christian forces eventually conquered it, and the castle at Palmela is still in remarkably good shape since hostilities ended in the 12th century. Strategically positioned over this quaint hilltown, the fortress underwent a facelift in 1423 when King João I expanded and strengthened the walls and then transformed much of the building into a monastery. Today, this is a stunningly attractive pousada, a hotel of cultural significance. The castle's formidable ramparts can still be explored, and visitors can climb the 14th-century keep to capture envy-inducing views of the surrounding Serra da Arrábida: on a clear day even distant Lisbon is brought into focus. For the best images of the castle, wait until dusk when floodlight bathes the walls in a copper wash. Palmela itself is fairly unremarkable, although any walk should include a visit to the church of São Pedro where some fine 18th-century azulejo (tile) panels adorn the interior.
6 Parque Natural da Arrábida
The wild and undulating Serra da Arrábida Natural Park melds a verdant swathe of beautiful countryside with a dramatic Atlantic Ocean coastline. One of the great natural attractions of the area, the spectacular scenery comprises a pristine landscape rich in cook wood, pine and eucalyptus forests, thickets, meadows, and blankets of aromatic shrubs. Hikers will have a field day following the marked footpaths. Cyclists, too, will enjoy the empty lanes and secluded nature trails. Precipitous limestone cliffs, hidden caves, and half-moon coves help define Arrábida's coastal character. Pockets of golden sand attract sun-seekers, and a crystal-clear sea lures scuba divers and snorkelers and other water sports enthusiasts. A popular destination is Portinho da Arrábida, reached by vehicle down a steep narrow road. Its pocket-sized beach overlooks the rocky outcrop of Pedra da Anixa. Nestling above the hamlet is the Museu Oceanográfico, a fascinating Sea Museum and Marine Biology Center housed in the 17th-century Fortaleza de Santa Maria. The park's rugged and untamed environment deserves thorough exploration and this is best achieved by joining an exciting Arrabida 4X4 Tour, a small-group guided tour of the region by jeep.
Address: Museu Oceanográfico, Fortaleza de Santa Maria, Portinho da Arrábida
7 Explore nearby Sesimbra
Scenic Sesimbra sits in a sheltered south-facing bay under the slopes of the Parque Natural da Arrábida, about a 40-minute drive from Setúbal. Combining fishing village character with a lively, seasonal resort vibe, the town boasts an attractive old center - a warren of cobbled lanes radiating from the 17th-century Fortaleza de Santiago, once the seaside residence for the Portuguese monarchs. The fort's handsome terrace is open to the public during the day. Fronting a wide sandy beach, the esplanade is lined with a plethora of cafes and one or two excellent seafood restaurants, and makes for a pleasant walk. Exemplifying Sesimbra's vibrant personality is the fleet of fishing boats bobbing in the harbor, the Porto do Abrigo. One of the other rewarding things to do in Sesimbra is the trek up to the restored Moorish castle, set high above the town. The fabulous panoramic views from the sturdy battlements are worth the steep, huff 'n' puff hike, and there's a café to relax in afterwards.
8 Convento da Arrábida
Enjoying the most idyllic setting of any sightseeing attraction in the area, this 16th-century monastery is half-hidden among the trees of the Serra da Arrábida. Founded in 1542, the whitewashed cluster of buildings replete with terracotta roofs in fact surround two monasteries. The ruins of the old convent sit on the uppermost part of the hillside and are in sad decline; the later building - in much better shape - occupies land further down the slope. The newer Franciscan retreat overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and the spectacular views are reason enough to venture out to this secluded destination. A tour of the premises, however, will reveal the four chapels and a series of tower-like shrines, probably used for meditation, that lie within the grounds. A number of cells, hewn out of the limestone rocks, can also be visited. The monastery's interior is, for the most part, unremarkable save for the gilded woodwork and azulejo (tile) panels that embellish the walls.
Address: Serra da Arrábida, Azeitão
9 Drive or Take a Ferry to Península de Tróia
Opposite Setúbal is the long, thin Tróia peninsula, actually in the Alentejo region. Easily accessible by car or passenger ferry, this inviting destination has the best beaches in the vicinity: the swathes of golden sand on the western edge stretch the entire length of the spit. Sitting at the northern tip is Tróia itself, an exclusive resort made up of hotels, apartments, a marina, and a nearby golf course. Stylish cafés and bistros line the boardwalk. The peninsula's eastern flank is dotted with traditional fishing villages and overlooks the warm, shallow waters of the protected Reserva Natural do Estuário do Sado, a haven for birdlife and schools of friendly bottlenose dolphins, which can be observed during specialized sightseeing cruises that pick up passengers at the Tróia pontoon. Rice paddies are everywhere, cultivated next to reed-beds and marshland. The Romans felt at home here and founded Cetóbriga to farm fish. Further south at the heel of the peninsula is picturesque Comporta, known for its nesting white storks and a top-rated beach where a collection of wood-decked restaurants specialize in grilled fish and seafood.
Location: Tróia peninsula
10 Day Trip to Cetóbriga
The Romans founded Cetóbriga in the late 3rd century AD in order to establish a fish-salting business, and the town flourished. Traces of the stone tanks used in the process are still clearly visible, as are foundations of the many houses and commercial premises that sprung up in and around the town center. The ruins of baths, several villas, and a number of tombs are also evident, as is patchy mosaic and marble lining. Cetóbriga was a busy port, and while the factories used for making condiments have disappeared, vestiges of the columns that would have supported the roofs are discernible. Information panels in Portuguese and English enhance the sightseeing experience by explaining the town's history and the industry that generated its wealth. Elaborate artist's impressions illustrate how the complex would have looked and help recreate what was undoubtedly a bustling and enterprising community. You can visit independently or as part of a pre-booked guided tour.
Location: N253-1, near the Cais Sul car ferry terminal, Tróia peninsula
11 Tour the Sites of Évora
Around a 60-minute drive southeast from Setúbal, the Alentejo's stunning regional capital is one of Portugal's most historic and appealing cities. Culturally rich and blessed with a noble heritage, Évora's old center comprises a fascinating assortment of monuments and museums, a treasure trove of visitor attractions embraced by medieval walls and thousands of years of history. Standing at its very heart is the graceful Roman Temple, a suitable place to begin exploring. The handsome Palácio dos Duques de Cadaval, impressive Sé or cathedral, and the highly regarded Museu de Évora are all within easy walking distance.
Where to Stay in Setúbal for Sightseeing
We recommend these great hotels in Setúbal with easy access to the top sights in town:
- RM Guest House - The Experience: luxury bed-and-breakfast, great location, wonderful hosts, stylish rooms, delicious breakfast.
- RIO Art Guesthouse: mid-range boutique hotel, friendly staff, eclectic decor, free breakfast.
- Luna Esperanca Centro: affordable rates, central location, complimentary breakfast with city views.
- Hotel Ibis Setubal: budget-friendly hotel, drive to city center, family rooms, outdoor pool and sundeck.
More Must-See Destinations near Setúbal
Its close proximity to Lisbon makes Setúbal and the surrounding area a rewarding excursion option, but it's worth checking our itineraries page for other tourist destination ideas. Journey south on the motorway for two hours and you're in the Algarve, known for its fabulous beaches and resorts and a collection of excellent golf courses.