Devastated by a succession of earthquakes over the centuries, Setúbal is rich in relics of the past and nowadays is one of the busiest ports on Lisbon‘s southern shoreline.
Once a thriving fish-salting and sardine-canning centre, legend has it that the city was founded by the patriarch Tubal, son of Japhet and grandson of Noah.
Ideally located at the point where the River Sado spills out into the Atlantic Ocean, Setúbal quickly developed during the Age of Discovery when King Afonso V sailed from its port in 1458 for Morocco, where he conquered Alcácer Ceguer.
In the 19th century, Setúbal grew into one of the country’s most important commercial and industrial centres, subsequently gaining city status in 1860.
The most noteworthy monument in the city is the 15th-century Church of Jesus, founded by Justa Rodrigues Pereira, the nurse of King Manuel I. With its rope-like stone ribs decorating the ceiling, it marks the beginning of the Manueline style in Portugal.
The monastic quarters adjacent to the church house a museum that boasts one of the largest collections of 16th-century paintings in Portugal.
Featuring impressive 18th-century azulejo glazed tiles, the 16th-century cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria de Graça was originally founded in the 13th century as a small Renaissance-Gothic chapel.
From the Fortress of São Filipe on the top of a hill overlooking Setúbal, there is a magnificent view of the river and the beautiful Tróia peninsula. King Filipe II of Spain visited Setúbal and built the fort in 1582 after annexing Portugal. The star-shaped bastion houses an exquisite small chapel tiled with scenes from the life of São Filipe by Policarpo de Oliveira Bernardes, a master tile-maker.
Setúbal was the birthplace of Bocage, arguably the greatest Portuguese poet after Luís de Camões, and there’s a statue of him in the city’s main square that also bears his name.
Setúbal inherits the name but not the site of the Roman city of Cetóbriga, much of which still lies beneath the sands of the River Sado. Located a short ferry ride across the water from the city centre, Cetóbriga was destroyed by an earthquake and subsequent tidal wave in 412 AD. Described by Hans Christian Andersen as the ‘Pompeii of Setúbal’, the ruins are idyllically set on a sandy stretch of the picturesque Tróia Peninsula and visitors can marvel at the collection of houses, factories, baths, mausoleum and necropolis dating back 2,000 years.
East of Setúbal lies the pretty little town of Azeitão on the old Setúbal-Lisbon road at the foot of the Arrábida mountains. Dotted with country palaces, running fountains and narrow alleyways, it is famous for its wines, olives and creamy sheep’s cheese, the latter prized as one of the best in the country.
Further east stands the Convent of Arrábida nestled on one of the verdant slopes of the surrounding mountains. Boasting magnificent sea views, it was founded in 1542 by Franciscan friars with the help of the 1st Duke of Aveiro and comprises several chapels, a church and a number of monks’ cells.
An additional attraction for visitors to Setúbal is the large pod of three dozen or so bottlenose dolphins swimming in the Sado Estuary, a very rare sight in European waters.