15 Best things to do in Setúbal (Portugal)

Located on a scenic bay at the mouth of the Sado River, Setúbal is a working city that made a fortune from fishing in the 20th century.

Since then, tourism has come to dominate, and although the city receives many Portuguese tourists, not many overseas tourists come here.

That may soon change when you see what Setubal has to offer in its Manuel monasteries, churches, famous markets and museums.

In nearby areas, things get even better at the pristine beaches of Arrábida Nature Park or the almost tropical Praia de Tróia across the bay.

In the fishing town you can bet the seafood is delicious and there is also a school of dolphins in the estuary, which you can meet on special cruises.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Setúbal:

1. Jesus Monastery

jesus monastery

This stunning building from the turn of the 16th century was designed by Diogo de Boitaca.

He was the architect who pioneered the Portuguese Manuel style, and the Convent of Jesus is the earliest example of this type of architecture.

You can observe the building from the square in front, notice the buttresses decorated with gargoyles and the difference in silhouette between the nave and the apse.

The feature you need to see inside is the beautifully ribbed vault in the choir.

Azulejos are cute too. In the apse they have geometric patterns, while in the nave they show scenes from the life of Mary.

2. Arrábida Natural Park

Arrábida Natural Park

Starting from the western edge of the town, this huge space protects the Serra da Arrábida mountain range, one of the only maquis ecosystems in Portugal.

It encompasses the entire coastline, extending to the village of Sesimbra, 30 kilometers southwest.

So every beach here has a peaceful, natural feel with no intrusive holiday complexes.

Since many beaches, such as remote Praia do Creiro, face south, they avoid the impact of the Atlantic Ocean.

Seasoned hikers can lace up their boots and head to the Serra do Risco, the highest cliff in mainland Portugal, 380 meters above the Atlantic Ocean, and the scenery is worth every step of the way.

3. Quinta da Bacalhoa

Quinta da Bacalhoya

The estate is one of the most beautiful surviving estates of the early 16th century in Portugal.

Located in the northwest of the Arrábida Natural Park, it has been the center of a high-yielding wine estate since the mid-20th century.

So there’s a double charm; you can drop by the quinta with its domes, loggias and magnificent waterside pavilions with arcades and Spanish geometric tiles from the 15th and 16th centuries.

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You can visit the winery/museum followed by a wine tasting in this wonderful place.

4. Mercado do Livramento

Mercado do Livramento

A few blocks up the harbour is the hallowed Art Deco Market Hall, which opened in 1930. Mercado do Livramento appears on the list of the best fish markets in the world (the sign at the market proudly claims). Like the best markets, it feels a bit like a lunatic asylum on busy days, with noisy but friendly vendors happy to help you get the most out of your food purchases.

Come and shop for fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers, cheese and cured ham.

But most of all, come here for the fish and seafood, the variety, you’ll see, and it’s piled on the counter.

5. Troia Beach

Troia Beach

Your trip to Setúbal wouldn’t be complete without a ferry ride to this paradise beach at the tip of the Troia peninsula.

Across the ocean currents, calm and transparent waters lapping soft white sand.

It’s the scene you’d expect in the Caribbean, and your only reminder in Europe is the water temperature, which is always a little cold! There is a hotel and casino complex behind the beach, but due to its remote location (a 90-minute drive from Setúbal), the resort is never crowded with tourists.

6. Igreja de São Julião

St Julian's Church

The main church of Setúbal has its roots in the 1200s, but all the buildings here today are from the 16th and 18th centuries.

It was not until the 1520s that there was an extensive reconstruction in the Manueline style.

At this point, the side doors are finished, with trefoil arches, leaf patterns, and engraved rope patterns.

After the famous earthquake that destroyed much of Lisbon, many of the interior’s designs have changed.

At this time, the choir acquired the lavish gilded woodwork that was the hallmark of the mid-18th century.

In the nave, there is also an 18th-century blue and white glazing depicting the life of St. Julian.

7. Louisa Toddy Avenue

Louisa Toddy Avenue

You can enter the rhythm of daily life in Setúbal on the city’s central avenue, which includes the Mercado do Livramento and many large attractions.

It has two chaotic lanes buffered by a sidewalk with lawns, benches and plenty of foliage.

If you feel hungry, the road is lined with bars, restaurants and bakeries.

Something to jot down in the diary is the antiques fair that takes place on the first and third Saturdays of every month.

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8. Al Baquer Beach

playa de albaquer

The closest beach to town is at the foot of the pine-covered hills of the Arrábida Natural Park, starting below the fort.

Tranquil place where the Sado River meets the sea; with a long golden sandy beach and a large park behind it, beautified in 2008. So even in winter, you can come for a walk, stop at a café, take the kids to the playground, and enjoy the view of Troia and the natural park.

9. Casa da Baia

Casa da Baia

This beautiful 18th-century mansion on Avenida Luísa Todi was converted in 2011 into the Tourist Office of Setúbal. Not only that, but it is also a promotional center for regional delicacies such as wine, sweets and cheese.

There is a wine shop, cellars representing 36 producers in the region, and a gourmet restaurant serving Queijo de Azeitão and other delicacies.

The old cloister inside the mansion is covered up as a winter garden, while the outside has glass floors that allow you to see some of the archaeological remains found during the remodel.

Best of all, when you come, you’ll get a free glass of Setúbal moscatel.

10. Palmera Fort

fort palmera

This imposing castle is located less than 15 minutes north of Setúbal, on the heights of Arrábida, to protect the land between the Tagus and Sado estuaries.

Long before the Romans, there was a settlement or fort on this cliff, and almost its entire history has been marked by conflict.

Throughout the 12th century, it witnessed fierce battles between Christians and Moors, and it was not until 1212 that it finally came under the yoke of the Portuguese.

The castle didn’t change until the 1600s, interestingly, the further you go out, the closer the fortifications are, with forts and revelry on the outside to defend against shelling.

11. Estrada de Escapa

Estrada de Escapa

On the N379-1, you can gain insight into the natural beauty of Serra da Arrábida without leaving your car.

Well, you actually want to get out once in a while because there are some stunning views on this road.

It’s a 15km route that feels longer due to its twists and turns, taking about an hour to complete.

It follows the highest ridge of the mountain range, with views of Pico do Formosinho at an altitude of more than 500 meters.

Dotted with white chapels along the way, you’ll pass the 16th-century Abbey of Arrábida, which perches on the beaches of Portinho and Alpertuche.

12. Museu de Arqueologia e Etnografia

Museum of Archaeology and Ecology

This is a very local museum, but an eye-opener about the traditional way of life around Setúbal until the 20th century.

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There are detailed exhibits dealing with old industries such as cork extraction, cattle raising, salt farming and fishing, and the tools to support them.

You can also see displays of local needlework and clothing, as well as the ancient industries of lace, wool spinning and weaving.

Rounding out the museum is a small collection of artifacts from prehistoric times to Roman times, with Celtic and Roman ceramics excavated from ancient Setobriga, which later became Setubal.

13. Fort San Felipe

Fort San Felipe

Guarding the left bank of the Sado Estuary is a fort built in 1582 to defend the city from Barbary pirates.

The fort has an irregular star-shaped floor plan, with prominent domed sentries and a tunnel accessible via Portão de Armas.

In addition to the magnificent views of Setúbal and the Troia peninsula from the walls, you must also see the chapel, which has a barrel vault and is completely covered with enameling.

Until 2014, the fort was open to the public, but contained Pousada.

It’s been closed for renovations since then, so it’s worth asking when you get to the tourist office in Setúbal.

14. Dolphin watching

dolphin watching

At the pier, you can set sail on a catamaran and look for a pod of dolphins at the mouth of the Sado River.

The captain will be experienced, so there is a good chance that something will be discovered.

Usually you hardly ever need to go through the Troia Peninsula for their fins to show up.

It’s also heartening that these companies work by strict rules that govern how much time you spend tracking down these creatures.

You’ll get expert advice on distinguishing the different species, and the dolphins will be in a playful mood, jumping out of the water.

15. Local Food

Grilled Sardines

As in any Portuguese city, the cuisine of Setúbal is dominated by the Atlantic Ocean.

Fish is grilled, grilled, fried, stewed, you name it.

A Portuguese trademark, grilled sardines are huge here too, served with a simple lettuce salad, potatoes and white wine.

Atlantic horse mackerel, sea bass and red mullet with cod liver sauce, all great.

Most traditional restaurants also make choc frito, which is a deep-fried cuttlefish served with french fries, lemon and mayo.

Finally, Bulhão Pato is clams with olive oil, garlic, cilantro, and an occasional dash of white wine.

Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Setubal, Portugal
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