Set on a curving turquoise bay just 40 km south of Lisbon, Sesimbra is both an attractive fishing town and popular tourist resort within easy reach of the capital.
Protected from north winds by the slopes of the surrounding Serra da Arrábida mountains, it was occupied by the Romans and later the Moors before the new king of Portugal rallied his forces and took over the town soon after the nation was first formed.
Residents of nearby Lisbon flock here at weekends to relax on its long sandy beach and dine in the excellent beach-front fish and seafood restaurants following an appetising evening stroll along the town’s extensive promenade. A popular choice of dish is the locally-caught swordfish (espadarte) which is cooked to perfection on the many charcoal grills lined along the pavements.
Built along the cliff, the oldest part of Sesimbra is a maze of steep alleys and narrow streets leading down to the port. In the centre of town, the 15th-century church of the Misericórdia contains a painting of Nossa Senhora da Misericórdia by Gregório Lopes, one of the most important Renaissance painters in Portugal.
Overlooking Sesimbra bay and its picture-postcard beach setting, the fort of São Teodósio was built in the 17th century to help defend Sesimbra and the mountainous coastline towards Setúbal against the perils and dangers of opposing fleets. More accessible in the centre of town is the austere-looking Fort of Santiago set right on the beach and home to the town’s excellent maritime museum.
Silhouetted on the hillside high above the town stands Sesimbra’s restored five-tower medieval castle that was once a Moorish fortress captured by Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, in 1165. Housed inside the crenellated castle walls, the 12th-century church of Santa Maria features fine 17th-century altarpiece carvings and many splendid 18th-century azulejo wall tiles. Visit the castle in early evening to marvel at the shimmering sunset from its ancient ramparts and soak up the long views down the Tróia Peninsula and beyond.
12km west of Sesimbra lies the flat promontory of Cabo Espichel, a wild enchanted place with magnificent views northwards to Lisbon and the mouth of the River Tagus. Flanked on both sides by pilgrims’ lodgings, the weather-beaten church of Nossa Senhora do Cabo built in 1701 features fine Baroque paintings and a frescoed ceiling.
The roads two mountain roads connecting Sesimbra with Setúbal cut through some of the most spectacular scenery in the whole of the Lisbon region, including the Serra da Arrábida mountain range, much of which is a now protected area with restricted access. Clearly visible from Lisbon, Arrábida’s great limestone ridge is unique for its unusual soil (more than 1,000 different species of plant have been recorded there) which is home to world’s oldest living examples of Mediterranean vegetation.
A short drive east of Sesimbra brings you to the lovely little curved bay of Portinho da Arrábida, a picturesque beach setting considered to be one of the natural wonders of Portugal. Nestling on the southern slopes of Serra da Arrábida, the charming little town of Azeitão is famous for its wines, olives (azeite means olive) and deliciously creamy sheep’s cheese, queijo de Azeitão.