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The Serra da Arrabida and the Parque Natural da Arrábida
The Serra da Arrabida are the lush hills, idyllic beaches and jagged cliffs, which lie between Sesimbra and Setubal. This is a diverse and dramatic region; where rolling hills lined with vineyards, ascend into steep peaks and jagged ridges, and are abruptly cut off by the ocean, to form towering cliffs
. Within these varied landscapes, tourists will discover a region rich with sights and activities. There are quiet hiking routes around the Serra do Risco, scenic mountain roads to be driven, and beautiful beaches to relax on. The beaches of the Serra da Arrabida are considered as some of the finest in Portugal, with sheltered bays of soft white sands, which are lapped by turquoise sea waters.
It is often difficult to comprehend that the untouched and pristine beauty of the Serra da Arrabida is less than a 40-minute drive from Lisbon. The region is even more accessible for tourists on holiday in Sesimbra or Setubal, being just a short cycle or hike away. The Serra da Arrabida will appeal to a wide variety of tourists, but surprisingly the region is often overlooked, in favour of more well-known destinations. This article will provide an introduction to this wonderful area.
Highlights of the Serra da Arrábida
• The paradise beach of Praia do Creiro or the popular Praia da Figueirinha
• The quiet hiking/cycling trails through the lush hills
• The scenic drive along the Estrada de Escarpa
• The view from the Miradouro do Norte
• Kayaking along the dramatic coastline of cliffs, caves and beaches
• The view from Píncaro, a set of 300m cliffs in the Serra do Risc.
• The Lapa de Santa Margarida sea-cave chapel
The Parque Natural da Arrábida and the Serra de Arrabida
The Parque Natural da Arrábida (Arrabida Nature Park), technically covers two regions; the much larger Serra de Arrabida (the hills between Palmela and Sesimbra) and the Cabo Espichel coastline (from Sesimbra to the Cape Espichel headland). This tourist guide is primarily focused on the Serra de Arrabida, for details of the Cabo Espichel, please see this article.
Geography and Geology of the Serra de Arrabida region
The Serra da Arrabida covers 72 square kilometres (the entire Parque Natural Arrabida is 108). Crossing the Serra da Arrabida are four sets of hills; Serra de São Francisco, Serra do Louro (which is combined with the Serra de São Luís), Serra da Arrabida and the Serra do Risco.
Each of the chain of hills extends in an east-west direction, and were formed during the Late Cretaceous period with the collision of the African plate into the Eurasian plate. The Serra do Risco is the most southerly set of hills and has been mostly eroded by the seas to form shear drops and massive cliffs; this is exemplified by the distinctive Píncaro cliffs.
The empty Serra do Louro and Serra de São Luís
The Serra da Arrabida set of hills extend along the Sado estuary, and are of most interest to tourists, offering the finest scenery, all the beaches and the best hiking. Found within the Serra da Arrabida is the region’s highest point, Formosinho, (500m above sea level - GPS: 38.48371, -9.00122), and from here there is a very steep descent to the coastline only 1km away.
The Serra do Louro and Serra de São Luís hills are to the west, closer Palmela and Setubal, and are more rural with quieter paths and tracks. The Serra de São Francisco hills extend along the northern side of the region and the gentle slopes are filled with vineyards. These grapes are used to produce the region’s muscatel wines and the town of Azeitão is a centre for its production.
The entire region is characterised by hills covered in dense evergreen shrubs (Ceratonia silique and Kermes Oaks), which provides a year-round green appearance of the region.
Why as a tourist should you visit the Serra da Arrabida?
The Serra da Arrabida offers some of the finest natural scenery of the region, and is one of the two nature parks within the vicinity of Lisbon (the other is the Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais). Arrabida is a place to escape the hecticness of the capital (or the bustle of the beach resorts), and is a destination to find peace and solitude along a mountain hike or dirt trail cycle. Alternativity, if you have hired a car and are fed-up with endless traffic, then this is the region for a scenic twisting, mountain drive.
The Serra da Arrabida is rapidly becoming a location for adventure sports and activities including coasteering, climbing, diving and mountain biking. Unique activities include:
Exploring the Serra da Arrabida by public transport
The Serra da Arrabida has very poor public transport and is incredibly difficult to explore without the use of a rental car. There is excellent public transport from Lisbon to Sesimbra, Setubal and Palmela, but almost no bus services cross the nature park. Even the bus from Sesimbra to Setubal passes along the northern edge of Arrabida through the town of Azeitão. The only real options are either to rent a car or join a small group organised tour.
Related articles; Lisbon to Setubal - Lisbon to Sesimbra
The beaches of the Serra da Arrabida
The beaches of the Serra da Arrabida are absolutely stunning, offering fine golden sands, calm turquoise seas and the beautiful backdrop of the Arrabida hills. These beaches are sheltered from the power of the Atlantic Ocean making the waters ideal for snorkelling and families.
The Estrada de Escarpa
There are three main stretches of sands within the Serra da Arrabida; the Portinho Arrábida, Figueirinha and Albarquel (Setubal). The Portinho Arrábida beaches (Praia do Creiro, Praia dos Galapinhos and Praia dos Coelhos) are the most beautiful (if you can find car parking). The Praia da Figueirinha is the largest beach of the coastline and a good location for a beach day or with families. The Praia de Albarquel is always crowded with day-trippers from Setubal, and as the waters open out on the Sado estuary, they are not as clean as the other beaches.
For a full guide to the beaches of Setubal, please click here.
Local’s hidden sight - The Lapa of Santa Margarida
The Lapa of Santa Margarida is a small chapel hidden within a sea cave (GPS: 38.46996, -8.98677), close to the village of Portinho. The chapel (more just an altar) is often blighted by graffiti but its secretive setting of a sea level grotto is worth the 200 steps down to it.
The Estrada de Escarpa
The Estrada de Escarpa (N379-1) is one of the most scenic roads in Portugal. The 15km route enters the Serra da Arrabida from the north and loops round to the port town of Setubal. The road is spectacular as it first provides stunning views over the rolling hills and a sheer drop of Serra do Risco cliffs. The route then climbs into the steep hills and passes the Convento da Arrabida before following the natural ridge (the Miradouro do Norte) with wonderful views north (Lisbon) and south (Sado estuary).
There is a return route which follows the coast and passes the Praia da Figueirinha. This entire loop takes around an hour, but there are many great places to stop and admire the view. For a detailed map of the circuit, please see the map below. The connection to the lower road is around the ugly (but luckily hidden) cement works.
Sights of the Serra da Arrabida
The 16th century Convento da Arrabida lies to the southern edge of the Parque Natural da Arrabida and is situated high in the hills above the regions two beaches. The Franciscan monastery’s brilliant white is at complete contrast to the lush greens of the pine forest while from the convent there are great views over the coastline. In the surrounding hills there are five small chapels for the monks to obtain complete isolation.
The Convento da Arrabida set in the Serra da Arrabida
Popular walking and hiking routes
There is a challenging hiking trail to the summit of Formosinho, the highest point of the Serra da Arrabida at 500m. The return hike takes around two hours and there is a path from the Convento da Arrábida. A difficult hike but stunning views at the top.
There is a popular route that follows the jagged hills and cliffs of Serra do Risco (Risk Point). The walk starts close to the stunning viewpoint of Miradouro Mina de Brecha da Arrabida. This route is popular with mountain bikers.
A much longer 13km route is called the Rota Moinhos (windmill path) due to the number of traditional windmills. This hike starts from the village of Palmela and is comparatively well signed.
Where to have Lunch, barbecue or picnic
The Parque de Merendas da Comenda is a pleasant area which has been designed for families wishing to have a picnic or family BBQ. There are tables and benches in the shade of the tall pines, and there are permeant BBQ pits, for those who wish to cook their own food. The park is popular with Portuguese families and is a great place to interact with the locals. The park is to the west of the Serra da Arrabida on the N10 road just past the huge concrete factory, which luckily cannot be seen.
The pretty Figueirinha beach between Setubal and Sesimbra