The great suspension bridge over the River Tagus opens the route to the scenic wonders of Lisbon’s southern shoreline, but the attractions are by no means confined to the coast.
This enchanting subregion known as the Setúbal Peninsula comprises nine municipalities, namely Alcochete, Almada (famous for its Rio-style statue of Christ), Barreiro, Moita, Montijo, Palmela (home to an old hilltop castle visible from miles around), Seixal, Sesimbra and Setúbal, each blessed with its own unique charms and characteristics.
A principal feature of the Setúbal Peninsula is Serra da Arrábida, a verdant mountain range embroidered by a boundless seascape that’s home to a large swathe of very rare Mediterranean flora.
Now a protected area (known locally as the Parque Natural da Arrábida), it harbours many picturesque settings, most notably the curved beach of Portinho da Arrábida which was selected as one of the country’s Seven Natural Wonders during a vote by the Portuguese people.
Lying in the shadow of the Arrábida Mountains lies Azeitão, a charming town set at a crossroads with many fine old manor-houses. It is also a centre of wine production where you can taste and buy first-class muscatel wine and some of the tastiest cheese (queijo de Azeitão) in Portugal.
Once an important Roman port, the city of Setúbal (indicated on the Google map below) is the beating heart of the Setúbal Peninsula and a city bursting with tourist interest. It is a popular day-trip destination for people visiting Lisbon due to its close proximity less than an hour’s drive (or train ride) to the south.
Setúbal’s star attraction is the 15th-century Igreja de Jesus, a lovely old church designed by the French architect Boitac (of Jerónimos Monastery fame). It boasts a remarkable interior with stone columns carved like twisted rope in Portugal’s unique Manueline style.
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Spread around a sandy bay, the old fishing town of Sesimbra is set against a picture-book backdrop of limestone hills topped by an ancient castle (pictured above). Some of the best fish and seafood restaurants line the town’s long seaside promenade where locals and tourists alike dine alfresco throughout the long summer months.
At the south-western tip of the peninsula lies Cabo Espichel, an imposing promontory with a landmark lighthouse built in 1790 and an old pilgrimage sanctuary linked to a vision of the Virgin Mary in the early 13th century.
On a clear day, the views from Cabo Espichel are stunning, with sandy beaches as far as the eye can see and Lisbon clearly visible in the distance. Don’t miss the massive dinosaur footprints (pegadas de dinossauros) embedded into the cliffs not far from the sanctuary.
Running down the western edge of the Setúbal Peninsula is the Costa da Caparica, a stretch of golden Atlantic coastline that runs uninterrupted for over thirty kilometres, making it the longest continuous beach in Portugal.
The eastern part of the Setúbal Peninsular comprises the Sado Estuary to the south and the Tagus Estuary to the north, both designated nature reserves that attract a wide range of waterfowl, including storks, flamingos, herons and egrets, among many other bird species.
The Sado Estuary is also famous for the large number of bottlenose dolphins that reside in its crystal clear waters, whose charcoal-grey dorsal fins can often be spotted from the shore, but are best viewed up close on boats operated by the many local cruise companies.
South of the estuary lies Tróia, which is definitely worth visiting for its white sandy beaches and the chance to see the ancient ruins of Cetóbriga, the old Roman port city that was engulfed by the sea following the great earthquake and subsequent tidal waves of 412 AD.
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