You really don’t have to go far from Lisbon to find stunning landscapes and some of Europe’s most beautiful beaches. Simply take a day trip south across the River Tagus to the Serra da Arrábida Natural Park and you’ll find white sand and turquoise waters backed by greenery and limestone rocks.
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Scenic drive through Serra da Arrábida Natural Park
With more time, and perhaps a more energetic travel companion, I’d have liked to do one of the many walks in this beautiful green landscape. As it was, my friend and I contented ourselves with a scenic drive and a few hours on one the beaches. I’d consulted a map of the area and planned a route from the coastal town of Sesimbra that looked interesting and appeared to make the most sense.
Adventurous may have been a more appropriate adjective.
All was well until we reached a village where the signs ran out and roads became increasingly narrower. Thankfully, my trusty GPS was still cooperating and I found a road that would connect us to the main route through the park.
Little did I realise we’d be going off road.
As dirt tracks go, this one was in pretty good condition but my friend was convinced we were going to break down in the middle of nowhere and be eaten by boars. (There really are wild boars (javali in Portuguese) in these hills – they even made it onto the beach during a heatwave last summer but they won’t eat you!)
It was quite a relief to get back onto tarmac so we could relax and enjoy the scenic drive along the upper section of the N379-1. Each curve revealed dramatic coastal views so we pulled over at several of the lay-bys to safely admire them and the glimpses of the beaches we were planning to visit.
Perhaps the best viewing spot is Miradouro do Norte. From here, you can see across the valley, past ridges and over to Lisbon on a clear day.
There’s very little to interrupt the greenery of the landscape on the coastal side of the escarpment except a 16th century Franciscan monastery peeking out through the trees. It’s only open from Wednesday to Saturday but it’s well worth trying to organise a visit. Discover what I liked about Convento da Arrábida in this article.
The only serious blots on the landscape are the cement factory near Outão and the ghastly graffiti covered concrete tunnels you have to drive through to get to the lower coastal road and access to the beaches if you’re coming from the Setúbal direction or completing the circuit back towards Sesimbra.
Serra da Arrábida beaches
After the unexpected concrete horrors, it was a relief to stop at Praia Figueirinha for a quick stroll on the beach. This is the biggest and most accessible beach within the Arrabida Natural Park with a wide stretch of sand, plenty of sunshades and parking plus modern facilities including a bar/café/restaurant complex. In summer, they host beach parties with DJs.
Note: If you come in peak season, i.e. 15th June to 15th September, traffic is restricted to these beaches and you will need to use a shuttle bus service. More information here: Arrábida Sem Carros information (right click and translate the page into English if you’re using Google Chrome)
Lovely as it was, I had my sights on a different beach for our picnic. To get to the gorgeous cove of Praia Galapinhos, you need to go down several fairly steep steps which lead you to a small cove encased by rocks.
In April, we almost had the beach to ourselves bar a family who were camped out by the rocks and a sole sunbather at the other end, past the café. This, we decided, was the perfect place for lunch and a bask in the sun.
Note: This was by far my favourite of the three beaches we stopped at.
I kept hearing people wax lyrical about Portinho da Arrábida beach. From above, it certainly looks inviting.
In reality, the beach itself was less appealing, albeit unspoilt and undeveloped. After finding a spot in the small car park by the fishing harbour, we stopped for a coffee in one of a few cafés and restaurants by the quayside. There’s accommodation here, too.
To get to the sandy beach, you need to walk a few hundred metres along a dirt track so if you spot a secluded sandy spot en route to the main stretch of sand, grab it, especially if you want some natural shade.
What to do at Cabo Espichel
After exploring the Arrabida beaches, it was time for a very different, dramatic coastline a few kilometres to the west of the park.
The need for a lighthouse at Cabo Espichel becomes clear as soon as you see the slices of coloured rock that form the edges of the headland and the sharp shapes poking out of the ocean. It’s best to heed the warning signs and stay away from the cliff edges , although the views are quite sensational.
Aside from its geographical features, Cabo Espichel has a few man made points of interest including an imposing convent and church. The complex stems from a 13th century vision of the Virgin Mary riding a mule up the rocks.
It turns out that the ‘footprints’ which backed up the story really belong to Jurassic dinosaurs. Of course, no one knew anything about dinosaurs in those days so the cape gained fame as a holy place and attracted many pilgrims who needed accommodation.
Over the years, various additions were built, including an aqueduct and a water temple which now lies in ruins, surrounded by glorious wild flowers. My favourite building at Cabo Espichel is the Ermída da Memória (Chapel of Memory), a simple whitewashed building with an azulejo panel inside that depicts the story of the vision.
Dinosaur tracks and walking trails
There is a 5 km circular walk that you can do near Cabo Espichel but we just didn’t have time. If you’re interested, you could try and get hold of the leaflet for PR1 – SSB Chã dos Navegantes from a tourist information office, although I’d be more inclined to enlist the help of a guide.
Instead of going for a walk, we set off again in search of dinosaur tracks. Not the Pedra da Mua ones attributed to the Virgin Mary at Cabo Espichel as they are a bit tricky to get to. If you want to see them, I’d suggest going with a guide or try your luck with the PR2 – Maravilhas do Cabo leaflet.
We went for the quick and easy option of seeing the dinosaur footprints from the cretaceous period at Jazida dos Lagosteiros (signposted off the N379 between Cabo Espichel and Sesimbra).
I know I should have more respect for something so old but I have to admit to feeling underwhelmed. The footprints are set in a couple of large slabs surrounded by discarded sheets of stone from the quarry that was once in operation here. It’s free to visit though so I can’t complain.
Practicalities for visiting Arrábida
You’ll have more freedom if you go by car, whether you rent one yourselves or use a driver/guide. As you can see from the map above, there are a lot of green hills. If you are driving from Lisbon, Azeitão is a nice place to stop to visit a winery and possibly a tile factory . Find out more about Azeitão in this post.
Another option would be to include Palmela in your route. The castle is fun to roam around and one of my favourite Lisbon wineries is on the outskirts of town.
If you’re just coming to Arrabida for the beaches, you don’t necessarily need a car, in fact it could be more trouble than it’s worth. Because parking is a nightmare in summer near the Arrabida beaches, there are special regular bus services running from both Lisbon and Setúbal between July and mid-September. See the timetable information here (in Portuguese).
Day trips from Lisbon to Arrábida Natural Park
Since it’s so close to the capital city, there are an increasing number of tour operators running day trips from Lisbon like this one.
If you are most interested in the wine from this area, try this small group tour, which visits two moscatel wineries in the area, takes you to some scenic spots and allows time in Setúbal.
Click on any of these tours to check availability and get more details:
Where to stay in Arrabida and surrounds
Casa da Adôa is a cosy guesthouse with traditional furnishings and decor plus a friendly, helpful owner who will do his best to make sure you have a comfortable and enjoyable stay, right by the harbour and beach in Portinho da Arrabida. Read verified reviews and check availability
For 5-star luxury amid greenery and vineyards, Hotel Casa Palmela ticks all boxes and more. Relax in spacious, tastefully decorated rooms that contain original azulejos and reproduction furniture. The onsite restaurant means you don’t have to venture from this little oasis unless you want to. Check photos and availability.
Towards the Setúbal end of the natural park and just 9 minutes walk from a beach is Quinta dos Moinhos de São Filipe. Some of the accommodation is actually inside former windmills while there are other rooms in a small but modern complex in a rural setting with great views across the Troia peninsula. There’s a outdoor pool if you can’t be bothered to head to the ocean. See photos and pick a room or villa.
Casal das Oliveiras is another option at the Setúbal edge of Arrábida Natural Park. Manuela will make you feel most welcome in her rural home with outdoor pool and stunning views. If you pay the extra for breakfast, you won’t go hungry! Check photos and prices.
Looking for a Portugal guide book?
Click on the links below to see my top picks via Amazon
My first choice would be a DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Portugal, partly because I’ve contributed to them in the past and partly because I like the pictures, maps and layout.
The Frommer’s Portugal Guide is written by two well-respected journalists who live in the Lisbon area, one Portuguese and the other British. Having met them both, I would certainly trust their recommendations.
I also like Rough Guides’ approach to travel guides and their Portugal travel guide is no exception.
As for Portuguese phrasebooks, the best of the bunch is probably the Lonely Planet Portuguese Phrasebook & Dictionary, which has sections on eating and drinking as well as all the functional language you’d expect and help with pronunciation.
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