Setúbal is a harmonious blend of history, nature, and modern vibrancy. As one of the oldest cities in Portugal, its roots trace back to the Phoenicians and Romans, whose influence can still be felt as one wanders through the city’s historic quarters. Setúbal’s strategic location, with its natural deep-water harbour, made it an essential maritime port and contributed to its rich legacy, where tales of pirates, fishermen, and noble families intertwine.
Flanked by the sweeping Arrábida Mountains and the azure expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, Setúbal’s natural beauty is awe-inspiring. The nearby Arrábida Natural Park is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, offering a range of activities from hiking to diving. But perhaps one of the city’s most enchanting natural attractions is the resident community of dolphins that frolic in the Sado estuary, delighting both locals and tourists.
However, Setúbal isn’t solely about history, nature, and outdoor activities. The city has evolved into a dynamic cultural hub, offering a bustling fish market, renowned eateries, and a thriving arts scene. It is famous for seafood and wine, and in recent years, has become a popular destination to move to for those seeking a small city with easy access to Lisbon.
Useful Resources for Your Trip to Setúbal
Here’s our top tips and tricks for getting the best deals for your trip to Setúbal.
- Accommodation: Booking.com and Airbnb are the two most comprehensive websites for finding hotels, hostels, apartments, and other types of accommodation in Setúbal.
- Car Rental: Discover Cars and Rental Cars are the two most useful sites for booking local car rental.
- Airport transfers: There are taxis and Ubers at Lisbon Airport, but you can also pre-book an airport transfer with Welcome Pickups.
- Tours & Things to Do: Both Get Your Guide and Viator list lots of local tours and activities in Setúbal and the region surrounding Setúbal.
- Luggage Storage: Luggage Hero and Bounce are two great sites for finding places to store your luggage in Portugal. More options can be found in our article about luggage storage in Setúbal.
- Public Transport: Cp.pt is the main website for trains in Portugal. For longer distance buses, see Rede Expressos. Flixbus.pt often has cheap tickets between cities in Portugal.
- Flights: Skyscanner and Google Flights are the two most useful websites for finding flights to Portugal. The nearest airport to Setúbal is Lisbon Airport.
What to See and Do
Setúbal Old Town
Nestled along the banks of the River Sado, Setúbal’s old town is a delightful medley of history, culture, and tradition. As you meander through its narrow cobblestone streets, the echoes of its past become vividly clear: from the era of the Moors to the golden age of Portuguese maritime exploration. Characterised by a unique architectural blend, the streets are lined with well-preserved whitewashed houses, their façades occasionally broken by bursts of vibrant colour, especially the warm shades of yellow and blue.
The heart of Setúbal’s old town is its bustling main square, Praça do Bocage. Named after the famous 18th-century poet Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage, a native of the city, the square hosts numerous terraced cafes and eateries, making it an ideal spot for people-watching or simply soaking in the local atmosphere. Another standout in the old town is the Igreja de Jesus, a prime example of Manueline architecture, boasting intricate stone carvings and beautiful azulejo panels inside.
Igreja de Santa Maria da Graça
The Igreja de Santa Maria da Graça, commonly known as Sé de Setúbal, stands as a testament to Setúbal’s rich historical tapestry and the evolution of Portuguese Gothic architectural style. Situated in the heart of the city, this imposing church dates back to the early 13th century, though it has undergone various modifications and restorations over the centuries. Its grand façade, adorned with an ornate Manueline portal, captures the eyes of visitors, revealing intricate sculptural details and motifs. Inside, the church houses a range of artistic treasures, including beautifully crafted woodwork, traditional azulejos (ceramic tiles), and a magnificent Renaissance tomb of the poet João de Sá.
Mercado do Livramento
The Mercado do Livramento in Setúbal is not just an ordinary market; it’s an embodiment of the region’s rich culinary tapestry and a focal point of local life. Housed in a 1930s building adorned with a vibrant facade, the market’s most striking feature is its interior lined with pink and white tiles, known as azulejos. These tiles don’t merely serve an aesthetic purpose; they narrate tales of Setúbal’s fishing traditions, landscapes, and daily life, transforming the market’s walls into an artistic canvas.
Inside, the atmosphere is one of frenetic energy, with vendors animatedly hawking their wares and locals navigating the stalls with practised ease. The abundance of fresh produce is eye-catching: from the shimmering array of just-caught fish and seafood, reflecting Setúbal’s coastal bounty, to the vivid colours of ripe fruits, vegetables, and olives. Another star of the market is the region’s celebrated Azeitão Cheese, with several stalls proudly displaying this creamy, sheep’s milk delicacy.
Forte de São Filipe
Perched upon a hill and overlooking the stunning city of Setúbal and the glistening waters of the Sado River, the Forte de São Filipe stands as an emblematic reminder of Portugal’s rich maritime history. Constructed in the late 16th century during the reign of King Philip I, this fortress was strategically built to bolster the city’s defences against pirate invasions and potential threats from Spain. Its robust walls and angular bastions are characteristic of the star-shaped military architecture of the time, reflecting advancements in fortress design to counter the increasing power of artillery.
As one wanders through the remnants of the fort, they can stumble upon the small chapel dedicated to São Filipe, adorned with traditional azulejos, the iconic blue and white tiles that are a hallmark of Portuguese design. These tiles recount various biblical narratives, offering a visual feast to visitors. Yet, perhaps the most compelling aspect of Forte de São Filipe is its vantage point. From atop its walls, visitors are treated to panoramic views of Setúbal’s red-roofed buildings, the meandering river, and the Troia Peninsula in the distance.
Arrábida Natural Park
Nestled between Setúbal and the fishing town of Sesimbra, the Parque Natural da Arrábida is a breathtaking tapestry of verdant hills, rugged limestone cliffs, and serene azure waters. This protected natural area stretches across approximately 108 square kilometres, boasting a remarkable blend of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, making it a haven for nature enthusiasts and those seeking tranquillity away from urban clamour.
The park’s undulating landscape is adorned with dense Mediterranean vegetation, punctuated by fragrant rosemary, lavender, and cork oak trees, which provide sanctuary to a variety of wildlife, from wild boars to rare birds of prey. But perhaps Arrábida’s most captivating charm lies in its coastline. The beaches, like Praia da Figueirinha and Praia dos Galápos, are renowned for their soft white sands and crystalline waters, offering sublime spots for sunbathing, snorkelling, and even diving to explore the rich marine life beneath. The soaring cliffs provide not just dramatic backdrops but also vantage points for breathtaking panoramic views of the Atlantic.
For the culturally inclined, the Arrábida region is steeped in history too. Monuments like the Convento da Arrábida, perched high in the hills, offer glimpses into the spiritual heritage of the region.
Praia de Galapinhos
Often hailed as one of Portugal’s hidden gems, Praia de Galapinhos is a picturesque enclave nestled within the heart of Parque Natural da Arrábida. With its powdery white sands contrasting vividly against the shimmering turquoise waters of the Atlantic, this beach exudes an almost tropical allure. Surrounded by verdant cliffs and dense Mediterranean vegetation, Galapinhos offers visitors an idyllic retreat from the hustle and bustle, with the gentle sound of waves lapping the shore providing a soothing soundtrack. Although its secluded nature ensures a serene ambience, during summer it’s advisable to arrive early to secure a spot on this slice of paradise.
Praia da Figueirinha
Set in the embrace of the Arrábida hills, Praia da Figueirinha is a beloved beach haven in the Setúbal region. Characterised by its expansive stretch of fine golden sands and shallow, crystal-clear waters, it presents an ideal spot for families and swimmers. On days when the tide recedes, natural pools are formed, providing a delightful playground for children. The beach is also equipped with amenities, including sunbeds and eateries, ensuring a comfortable day out for visitors. With its proximity to Setúbal, Figueirinha remains popular, especially in the summer months, making it a lively and vibrant coastal retreat.
Praia do Ribeiro do Cavalo
Setúbal’s coastline, known for its stunning beaches, holds many hidden gems, and Praia do Ribeiro do Cavalo is undoubtedly one of its crown jewels. Tucked away amidst the region’s rugged cliffs, this secluded beach is a picturesque haven that boasts crystal-clear turquoise waters and fine golden sands. The dramatic rock formations that envelop the beach create a natural amphitheatre, making it an idyllic spot for sunbathers and nature enthusiasts alike. Its remote location means that it’s less frequented than other beaches, offering visitors a tranquil retreat. However, accessing Praia do Ribeiro do Cavalo requires a short hike through undulating terrains, but the breathtaking beauty that awaits makes every step worthwhile.
The Setúbal Peninsula, long renowned for its stunning natural beauty, has also carved a niche for itself in the world of viticulture. Wine enthusiasts, when visiting Setúbal, find themselves amidst a landscape dotted with vineyards producing some of Portugal’s most distinct wines. The region’s unique terroir, a combination of its Mediterranean climate and varied soil types, fosters the cultivation of diverse grape varieties. This, in turn, has contributed to the rich palette of flavours and textures that characterise Setúbal wines. Take a tour of local wineries, such as José Maria da Fonseca or Quinta da Bacalhôa, and savuor the region’s renowned Moscatel de Setubal wine.
Central to the wine narrative of the region is the renowned Muscat grape, which yields the famous Moscatel de Setúbal, a fortified wine known for its sweet, rich, and aromatic character. This dessert wine, aged and imbued with notes of orange peel, spices, and dried fruits, has achieved international acclaim and is a must-try when in Setúbal.
What to Eat
Setúbal, a gastronomic gem nestled on Portugal’s southern coast, boasts a rich culinary tapestry that reflects its maritime heritage and fertile surrounding landscapes. One cannot speak of Setúbal’s gastronomy without mentioning its most iconic dish: choco frito. This delicacy comprises cuttlefish that is lightly battered and deep-fried to perfection, resulting in a crispy exterior that gives way to tender and flavourful meat within. Most often, choco frito is served in generous portions, accompanied by golden chips, making it a hearty and irresistible dish that is deeply rooted in the city’s traditions.
A journey through Setúbal’s culinary offerings would be incomplete without indulging in Azeitão Cheese. This creamy, semi-soft cheese hails from the nearby region of Azeitão and is crafted using raw sheep’s milk. It boasts a strong aroma and a buttery texture that melts effortlessly in the mouth. Often served with slices of freshly baked bread, Azeitão Cheese is a testament to the region’s dairy excellence and is a must-try for cheese aficionados.
Lastly, no meal in Setúbal would be complete without sipping on the region’s esteemed wines. Setúbal is renowned for its Muscat wine, a fortified wine with a unique profile – a delicate blend of sweetness, acidity, and a distinct aroma of orange blossom and citrus. This wine, often referred to as ‘Moscatel de Setúbal’, has garnered international acclaim and is the perfect accompaniment to desserts or enjoyed on its own as a digestive. With each glass, one can taste the essence of Setúbal’s sun-kissed vineyards and the passion of its winemakers, making it an integral part of the region’s gastronomic identity.
- Flying: While Setúbal doesn’t have its own airport, the nearest major gateway is Lisbon Airport (Humberto Delgado Airport). Upon landing, one can easily continue to Setúbal by train, bus, or car (Oriente bus and train station is just a few metro stops from Lisbon Airport).
- Train: Setúbal is well-connected by rail with Lisbon and other major Portuguese cities. From Lisbon’s Roma-Areeiro, Entrecampos, or Sete Rios stations, direct trains run to Setúbal regularly, offering a comfortable and scenic ride along the coast. For tickets and timetables, see cp.pt.
- Bus: Several bus companies operate routes between Lisbon and Setúbal, with the journey taking approximately an hour. Buses depart from Lisbon’s Sete Rios bus terminal and arrive at Setúbal’s central bus station, conveniently located in the heart of the city. For tickets and timetables, see Rede Expressos or Flixbus.pt.
- Driving: If travelling by car, one can take the A2 motorway from Lisbon, which is a straightforward drive south to Setúbal. The scenic route offers views of the Arrábida Mountains and the Sado estuary, making the journey as memorable as the destination itself.