Lifestyle & Culture

Miriam Thaler: The perfect day trip from Lisbon includes stunning beaches, incredible landscapes and tracking dinosaurs

Photo by Miriam Thaler

I know you have learned to be wary of superlatives – and who can blame you for it! The self- acclaimed “best restaurant in town” has proved too often to be superlative only when it comes to pricing, the “most secret bar” has morphed into a second home for Lonely Planet devotees a decade ago. But if I offer you now, a quick getaway from Lisbon – the “perfect day trip.” I still suggest you hear me first, and thank me later!

I will lead you to small, lively fishing towns, through breathtaking nature, stunning beaches, a lighthouse and an old pilgrimage church on wind-ridden cliffs, take you for a walk to see dinosaur footprints and round it all off with a delicious meal.

Sounds good?


The view from Arrábida Natural Parque (Photo by Miriam Thaler)

Setúbal, stunning views and cuttlefish

Our first stop in the morning driving by car on our day trip from Lisbon is Setúbal, a small charming town at the Sado River estuary that has been famous for much of the 20th century for its sardine fishing and industry and which is visited today mainly for its closeness to a number of dr amy beaches and the city’s culinary specialty, “choco frito”, fried cuttlefish.

But the city center itself is not to be sneered at either as it makes for a truly enjoyable stroll through small alleyways and little squares, where we can find ourselves a café to have a second breakfast before we drive on.

From there we hop on the car again and continue our tour towards Parque Natural da Arrábida , a foresty, hilly green paradise that harbors some of the most beautiful bays and beaches in Portugal. To get a bird’s-eye perspective of the landscape, we follow the sign boards to the Convento da Arrábida to take the scenic route. There are several lay-bys alongside the street inviting us to stop to enjoy the stunning views.

Once the winding road leads us below again, we follow the sign to Portinho. Especially in the summer months parking tends to be scarce and we will have to park the car alongside the road and walk down the rest of the way, until we reach the minuscule, picturesque village that is guarded by a small seventeenth century castle that hosts an equally small oceanographic museum.

But the true selling point is the beautiful beach that lies cradled between the hills. In summer we can take a few hours to lie down in the sand and take a dip in the ocean, in any other season we take a walk along the beach and if we feel like it is time for a bit of history, we can climb up a little the road at the end of the beach to see a small archeological excavation site where the Romans used to produce salted fish.

Cabo Espichel

We just have to make sure to be back at our car again at about two hours before sunset to drive on towards Cabo Espichel, a windy cape (bring a jacket!) adorned with a still functioning lighthouse and Santuario de Nossa Senhora, a 17th century sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary that had been a highly visited pilgrimage destination throughout the Medieval ages until the early 20th century. Most of the edifices still visible today date back to the 18th century.

The church is flanked on each side by long arcaded buildings that once served as pilgrims’ hostels and now paint a vista that could very well be the scenic backdrop of an Italo-Western and in fact has a star turn in the Madonna music video above.

The sanctuary at Cabo Espichel (Photo by Christian Thaler)

It is easy to get caught here by the sight of the sun slowly melting into the ocean, but let’s not dwell too long on the beauties of twilight, lest you miss out on a clear-eyed view of an even more ancient attraction: Dinosaur tracks!

About 500 meters back from the parking lot at the sanctuary we see another small parking possibility on the left and a signboard pointing to the Pedra da Mua. We leave the car and walk down a dirt road in the evening light through green hills, with steep cliffs and the serene ocean to our left. After about 15-to-20 minutes we reach the end and have a stunning view of the sanctuary standing majestically on its cliff at a distance of about 400 meters. And it is exactly below this sacred place on the steep rock that you can detect, what looks like footpaths crisscrossing.

A 14th century legend has it that two men saw the Virgin Mary on a giant mule riding up the cliff, leaving these prints. However, centuries later, these tracks have been found to stem from gigantic four-legged Sauropods (those herbivores with the long necks!) that strode the prehistoric landscape in the Jurassic era.

Now, let’s make our way back to the car before nightfall and head for Sesimbra, the final destination of our day before returning back home. Sesimbra is yet another charming town, with labyrinthine alleyways, a long beach promenade and most importantly for our purposes: a famously wide plethora of excellent fish and shellfish restaurants.

Let’s find ourselves a place in one of them (it is hard to go wrong here since they all have access to fresh fish every day). After a lavish meal we might still go for a short postprandial walk through the small streets or on the promenade, wave goodbye to the ocean and only then drive back to a Lisbon patiently awaiting us.

About the author:

Miriam Thaler is a PhD student in Culture Studies in Lisbon. Exploring foreign places and getting to know different people, their stories, ways of life and worldviews has always been her passion. After finishing school she lived and worked as a volunteer for one year in the South of Chile.

Her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology brought her to Munich and Paris. Iceland called her during her Masters for an ethnographic research stay and the shooting of a documentary. 

Read more about Lisbon – including the restaurant scene – here in Dispatches’ archives.

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