For being one of my most frequented cities outside of Lisbon, I’ve often reference Setúbal as a geographic landmark to other cities. But now, it’s time I give the stunning city of Setúbal due diligence as your idyllic travel destination!
This little city, situated right on the Sado River estuary about a 45-minute drive south from Lisbon, has failed in attaining a glamorous history. Because of its prime location, Setúbal was an important hub for Portugal’s fishing industry in the early twentieth century. Sardines in particular were the cheapest and most popular fish in Portugal to which numerous factories were built along the banks. Today, none of these factories are still in operation, but some of their ruins still sit on the outskirts of the city. This is why, in recent years, the government and city hall have been making an effort to fix up and beautify the area in order to rid Setúbal of its industrial reputation, while attracting more visitors.
However, there is a good side to having gained a healthy reputation as a fishing center, as you attract fish lovers! Virtually any restaurant you come across in Setúbal, whether it’s “restaurant row” along the port or the strip of restaurants just off the water on the other end of the shore, you are guaranteed to get a great family style lunch for a good price. Sardines are still a favorite among locals, but the dish that Setúbal is now famous for is called, Chocos Fritos, or fried cuttlefish. Thick, meaty slices of this cephalopoda are breaded, deep fried and served with plenty of juicy and tart lemon wedges, thick cut fries (the traditional style in Portugal) and salad. Enjoy this hearty meal with a cold Portuguese craft beer, or try the restaurant’s Vinho Branca da Casa (house white), which is always a delicious young, crisp, effervescent white wine with a lovely fresh mineral and citrus flavor from the local region of Terras do Sado.
When your stomach is satiated, head over my favorite glass walled café MXL Caffe, located in Jardim Engenheiro Luís da Fonseca (also commonly known as Jardim da Beira Mar), offering an incredible view of the river, while enjoying the ambient music mix their resident DJ spins on their wall to wall speakers. MXL also has, by far, the best made Portuguese espresso around, along with some scrumptious cakes which come in giant slices to be shared, or savored on your own!
If the food and beverage haven’t convinced you to visit Setúbal, then maybe I should tell you that one of the best things about this city is that there is always something to see and do here anytime of the year. During the warmer months, Setúbal boasts of having some of the best unspoiled and scenic beaches in Portugal! You can choose from several inlet beaches dotted around the coastline of Serra da Arrábida (Arrábida mountain), such as Praia Figueirinha and Praia Portinho da Arrábida. Or take the ferry across to the beautiful peninsula of Tróia that is now encompassed by the luxurious Tróia Resort, which includes the existing world-famous Robert Trent 18-hole golf course, along with five-star hotels, casino, conference center, country club, and an equestrian center.
For local visitors like myself, I prefer exploring Arrábida mountain, situated within a national park, where you can find some incredible views of the Tróia peninsula. Right above downtown sits the 16th century fortress of São Filipe which also boasts of some awe inspiring views of the area and is free to visit. If you want to stay overnight, head to the Castelo de Palmela for a unique medieval experience, accompanied by gourmet cuisine with a breathtaking view from their fine dining restaurant.
So whether you decide to take a day trip for lunch along the beach, or a luxury weekend trip filled with ample bottles of wine and delicious food, there always seems to be something for everyone in Setúbal.