On a scenic bay at the mouth of the Sado River, Setúbal is a working city that built its fortune on the fishing industry in the 20th century.
Tourism has since taken over, and although the city receives a lot of Portuguese visitors not many overseas tourists make it here.
This may soon change when you see what Setúbal has to offer at its Manueline monastery, churches, acclaimed market and museums.
And in the immediate area things get even better at untouched beaches in the Arrábida Nature Park or the almost-tropical Praia de Tróia across the bay.
In a fishing town you can bet the seafood is delectable, and there’s also a pod of dolphins in the estuary that you can meet on special cruises.
Lets explore the best things to do in Setúbal:
1. Monastery of Jesus
This breathtaking building from the turn of the 16th century was designed by Diogo de Boitaca.
He was the architect who ushered in Portugal’s Manueline style, and the Monastery of Jesus is the earliest example of this architecture.
You can survey the building from the square in front, noting the buttresses adorned with gargoyles and difference in outline between the nave and the apse.
The feature you need to see inside is the exquisite ribbed vaulting in the choir.
Also lovely are the azulejos; in the apse these have a geometric pattern while in the nave they show scenes from the life of Mary.
2. Arrábida Natural Park
Starting on the western edge of the town, this enormous space protects the Serra da Arrábida mountain range, with one of the only maquis ecosystems in Portugal.
It incorporates the entirety of the coastline down to the village of Sesimbra, 30 kilometres to the southwest.
So every beach along here has a peaceful, natural feel with no intrusive holiday complexes.
And as many of the beaches, like the remote Praia do Creiro, are southward facing they avoid the brunt of the Atlantic.
Seasoned hikers can lace up their boots to for an expedition to the Serra do Risco, the highest cliff on mainland Portugal, 380 metres above the Atlantic and with scenery worth every step.
3. Quinta da Bacalhoa
This estate is held as one of the most beautiful early-16th-century properties surviving in Portugal.
It is on the northwestern cusp of the Arrábida Natural Park and since the middle of the 20th century has been the centre of a productive wine estate.
So there’s a dual allure; you can drop by for a guided tour of the quinta and its domes, loggia and splendid waterside pavilion, with an arcade and Spanish geometric tiles from the 15th and 16th centuries.
And you could visit the winery/museum and follow this up with a tasting session in this wonderful spot.
4. Mercado do Livramento
A few streets up from the harbour is the divine Art Deco market hall, which opened in 1930. The Mercado do Livramento has appeared on lists of the best fish markets in the world (as signs in the market proudly claim). And like the best markets it feels like a bit of a madhouse on busier days, with noisy but friendly vendors who are happy to help you get the best out of the food you buy.
Come shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers, cheese and cured ham.
But above all, be here for the fish and seafood, which is as diverse as you’ll ever see, and piled high on the counters.
5. Praia de Tróia
Your trip to Setúbal just won’t be complete if you don’t catch the ferry over to this paradisiacal beach on the tip of the Tróia Peninsula.
Screened from the ocean currents , there is calm, transparent water lapping soft white sands.
It’s a scene you’d expect in the Caribbean, and the only reminder you’re in Europe is the water temperature, which is always a little chilly! There’s a hotel and casino complex behind the beach, but because of the remote location (it would take 90 minutes to drive here from Setúbal), the resort is never overrun with tourists.
6. Igreja de São Julião
Setúbal’s main church is rooted in the 1200s, but all the architecture here now is from the 16th and 18th centuries.
There was a big rebuild in the Manueline style up to the 1520s.
At this time the side portal was crafted, with its trifoil arches, foliate motifs and carved rope motifs.
Inside a lot of the design was changed after the famous earthquake that devastated much of the Lisbon area.
At this time the choir was given its extravagant gilded woodwork, which is a hallmark of the mid-18th century.
In the nave there are also 18th-century blue and white azulejos portraying the life of St Julian.
7. Avenida Luísa Todi
You can get into the rhythm of daily life in Setúbal at the city’s central avenue, which encompasses the Mercado do Livramento and many of the big sights.
It has two chaotic lanes of traffic, cushioned by a pedestrian walkway with lawns, benches and plenty of foliage.
Lining the roads are bars, restaurants and bakeries if you’re feeling peckish.
Something to jot in your diary is the antiques fair, held on the first and third Saturdays of the month.
8. Praia de Albarquel
The closest beach to the town is beneath the pine-clad foothills of the Arrábida Natural Park and begins just below the fort.
It’s a tranquil place where the River Sado meets the ocean; there’s a long strip of golden sand, and this is traced by a big park, which was landscaped in 2008. So even in winter you could come for a walk to stop by the cafe, bring little ones to the playground and soak up the views of Tróia and the natural park.
9. Casa da Baía
This fine 18th-century mansion on Avenida Luísa Todi was converted into Setúbal’s tourist office in 2011. Not only that, but it’s also a promotion centre for regional goodies like wine, sweets and cheese.
There’s a wine shop with a cellar representing the region’s 36 producers and a gourmet store for Queijo de Azeitão and other delicacies.
In the mansion the old cloister is covered and serves as a winter garden, while outside there are glass floor panels that let you see some archaeological remains discovered during the conversion.
And to top it off you’ll get a free glass of Setúbal moscatel when you come.
10. Castelo de Palmela
Barely 15 minutes north of Setúbal is this majestic castle lodged high in the Arrábida to protect the land between the Tagus and Sado estuaries.
There has been a settlement or fort atop this crag since before the Romans, and almost its entire history has been marked by conflict.
Throughout the 12th century it saw some fierce battles between the Christians and Moors, and it wasn’t until 1212 that it definitively came under Portuguese yoke.
Changes were made to the castle until the 1600s, and it’s interesting that the further out you go the more recent the defences, with bastions and revelins on the outer line to ward off artillery attacks.
11. Estrada de Escarpa
On the N379-1 you can delve into the natural beauty of the Serra da Arrábida without leaving your car.
Well, actually you’ll want to get out occasionally because the road has a few magnificent viewpoints.
It’s a 15-kilometre route that will feel a lot longer because of its twisting course, and will take around an hour to complete.
It traces the highest ridge of the range and has views Pico do Formosinho, which peaks at over 500 metres.
Tiny white chapels are dotted along the way, and you’ll pass the 16th-century Arrábida Convent, roosting above the beaches of Portinho and Alpertuche.
12. Museu de Arqueologia e Etnografia
This is very much a local museum but will open your eyes to traditional modes of life around Setúbal until the 20th century.
There are detailed exhibits dealing with old industries like cork extraction, cattle farming salt-farming and fishing, with tools to back them up.
You can also view presentations of local needlework and costumes, and the old trades of lacework, wool-spinning and weaving.
Rounding the museum off is a small collection of artefacts from prehistory to Roman times, with Celtic and Roman ceramics excavated from ancient Cetóbriga which became Setúbal.
13. Forte de São Filipe
Guarding the left bank of the Sado Estuary is an artillery fort that was raised in 1582 to defend the city against raiding Barbary Pirates.
The fort has an irregular star-shaped plan, with protruding domed sentry posts and a tunnel that can be reached via the Portão de Armas.
On top of the exhilarating views of Setúbal and the Tróia Peninsula from the walls, you have to see the chapel , which has a barrel vault and is covered entirely with azulejos.
Up to 2014 the fort was open to the public but contained a Pousada.
Since then it has been closed for renovation, so it’s worth enquiring at Setúbal’s tourist office when you arrive.
14. Dolphin Watching
At the marina you can set sail with a catamaran to find pods of dolphins in the Sado Estuary.
The skipper will be experienced so there’s a great chance of spotting something.
Often you’ll hardly need to pass the Tróia Peninsula before their fins come into view.
It’s also heartening to know that these companies work according to strict rules that govern how much time you spend tracking these creatures.
You’ll get expert advice on distinguishing the different species, and the dolphins will be in playful mood, leaping from the water.
15. Local Gastronomy
As much as any Portuguese city, Setúbal’s cuisine is anchored in the Atlantic Ocean.
Fish is served roasted, grilled, fried, in stews, you name it.
The Portuguese trademark, grilled sardines is big here too and goes with a simple lettuce salad, potatoes and white wine.
Atlantic horse mackerel, bass, and red mullet, which is served in a fish liver sauce, are all wonderful.
Most traditional restaurants will also do choc frito, which is deep-fried cuttlefish with French fries, lemon and mayonnaise.
Finally, Bulhão Pato is clams with olive oil, garlic, coriander and occasionally a dash of white wine.