Last updated on 19-Jul-2019
While travelling around Portugal, a short drive from Lisbon is all it takes to reach the small beach town of Sesimbra, and the city of Setubal. Also nearby is the gorgeous Figueirinha Beach (Praia da Figueirinha) and a couple of other famous beaches in the region of the Arrabida mountain range (Serra da Arrábida). This is such a beautiful area, suitable for adventurers and for relaxing – well worth a visit!
I decided to group these 3 places on the same post because, even though we visited them on different days (and more than once now), they are all in the region around the Arrabida mountains, and part of the Setubal District, which is just south of the Lisbon District, in the country’s western coast.
Let’s start with Sesimbra, a very well-known town (amongst the Portuguese, not so much to foreigners) for summer vacationers and day-visitors, famous for its beaches, fish and seafood restaurants, and animated nightlife. It is located right at the foot of the Arrabida Nature Park, by its western edge. A busy road runs along the boardwalk of the lovely Praia do Ouro (Gold Beach) and the Praia da California (California Beach). The area is full of restaurants, bars, shops, and some tourist attractions, such as the ocean-front Fortaleza Santiago. The town’s hilly terrain away from the ocean provides some stunning views and reminds visitors that the forest covered scenery of the Arrabida is not far.
Due to its privileged location and natural harbour, Sesimbra is an important fishing town, known as a great spot for both professional fishing and sport fishing, as well as a popular diving location. Besides the relaxed beach vibe and natural beauty, we loved it because it also seemed very authentically Portuguese, a great opportunity to get immersed in the culture, great food, late nights, and good value for the money.
Next, a bit about Setubal, the capital of the District. Located on the northern bank of the Sado River estuary, it is a busy port and commercial fishing centre, and its calm bay waters have been historically and strategically valuable since long before the golden era of the Portuguese Discoveries. The city is currently at the heart of the country’s sardine industry and the region is also known internationally for the production of Muscatel (Moscato) grapes and wine. The mountains of the Arrabida also provide an impressive but peaceful backdrop to the scenery.
Although Setubal feels more “industrial” and the port dominates a large portion of the urban landscape, it also boasts a charming historic center with beautifully ornate pastel-coloured buildings and an updated harbourfront where a large number of fresh fish restaurants can be found. Besides the famous sardines and other fresh local fish, most restaurants offer another local speciality – the “Choco Frito” (fried cuttlefish), and it seems to be very popular! We didn’t try it, but we saw it being served at virtually every table around us while we enjoyed a great meal and a beautiful view of the water during our first visit to the city.
UPDATE: Special mention to an all-you-can-eat fish restaurant called Nova Taberna do Pescador (excellent reviews on Google and Trip Advisor). The place is laid back and very popular with locals, the food is delicious and fresh, and the flat price includes unlimited fish, salad and potatoes + drinks, dessert and coffee. We went there for lunch and loved it, will be back for sure!
We only spent a couple of hours in Setubal so far, but we are certainly interested in going back to explore more of the nearby attractions. The city’s proximity to Lisbon makes it even accessible by regular bus service, but it is much less crowded, offering good value for accommodations, food, and services. We believe it is a great “base” from where to access some beautiful beaches, rugged coastline, historic monuments, majestic mountains, wine-producing countryside, and much more available at the Setubal Peninsula!
And speaking of beaches, we have to talk about the lovely place that is Figueirinha Beach (Praia da Figueirinha). The beach is only about 8 km from Setubal, located along the southeast side of the Arrabida Park, and it is simply beautiful! Calm, clear water and a wide stretch of white, soft sand.
We have been there twice so far, both times on really hot days, and the water was cool, but still very comfortable to swim. There is a parking lot (FREE!) but it is not too big and fills up quickly, so plan on arriving early if driving, especially during the high season and on weekends. There is also a restaurant and snack bar, public toilets, and a counter to rent chairs and straw parasols. We noticed many people brought their own chairs, parasols, and coolers with food and drinks, so that would be an option too.
The coastal side of the Arrabida park, where the calm waters are sheltered from the strong waves and currents common in other areas of the country, offers some of the most amazing beaches in Portugal and Europe. While Figueirinha is the largest and the most accessible beach, other options like Galapos, the more isolated Galapinhos (best beach in Europe in 2017!), and Creiro / Portinho da Arrabida (with famous highly-rated fish restaurants) require parking near the road and walking down (or hiking down a steep path) to the sand and ocean below.
Another tip is to drive on the scenic Estrada de Escarpa (N379-1) and enjoy stunning views of hills, cliffs and paradisiac beaches. We found out later that there’s much more to see and do in the Setubal District, and we would love to spend more time there soon.
Ever been there or planning to visit? Send us your comments and questions!