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Sado River

Discover the Sado River and Estuary for a day of bird and dolphin watching

The Sado Estuary Natural Reserve, or Reserva Natural do Estuário do Sado in Portuguese is a nature reserve near Lisbon. Following the A2 or A12, you reach the Sado River in under an hour. If you love nature, visiting the Estuary and the Sado River is a must!

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This Sado River Guide includes:

What is the Sado River and the Sado Estuary Natural Reserve

Rio Sado, or the Sado River, is a 175 kilometres long river in Portugal. It’s the only river in Portugal that flows from south to north and is a significant river in the country. Rio Sado springs in the hills around the village of Ourique and makes its way towards the Sado Estuary Natural Reserve. There it enters the Atlantic Ocean, close to the coastal city of Setúbal.

The Sado Estuary Natural Reserve is 239.71 km2 and is one of 30 nature reserves in Portugal. The landscape contains the Sado River, marshlands, sand banks, and salinas (salt pans). It’s no surprise this is a favourite spot for birds, and many different species can be spotted here.

Sado River Map with things to do

Sado River Ecotourism

The Sado River and the Sado Estuary are a paradise for nature lovers. Ecotourism is thriving here, and many options are described below. The Mourisca Water Mill (Moinho de Maré da Mourisca in Portuguese) is a good starting point. Inside you’ll find a small museum about the mill, and from the small docks, you can embark the boats. There are several walks around the mill from where you can already spot many birds. Let’s have a look at all options!

Sado River boat tours

A Sado River boat tour is one of the most popular tours around the Sado Estuary. The boat tours are perfect for spotting dolphins and birds. Sado boat tours leave from Troia, Setúbal, and the Mourisca Water Mill. Let’s have a look at the different options.

Sado River bird watching

Especially in winter, the Sado Estuary is a favourite spot for birds. You’ll spot mainly waders but also flamingos, kingfishers, rails, and herons. At the Mourisca Water Mill, bird leaflets and books are available, so you know exactly which ones to spot. Don’t forget to bring binoculars or a camera! From the docks, boat tours depart during high tide. It’s best to make a reservation beforehand to know which timetable is applicable. Tip: call Carlos Migues´l on (+351)910723964 to reserve your spot or check their site MiraSado. Bird-watching tours also leave from the docks in Setúbal. Most boat tours last around 3 hours; your guide will point out many birds along the way.

Wild dolphins at the Sado Estuary

The Sado Estuary is home to 30+ bottlenose dolphins, a unique phenomenon! This colony is one of the only three colonies in estuaries in Europe! There are multiple boat tours to observe the Sado dolphins without disturbing them. A boat tour on the Sado River is a fabulous way to discover Costa da Serra da Arrábida and Tróia. The bottlenose dolphins are wild animals, and it’s not 100% given that you will see them. The success rate, however, is high, and it will be an unforgettable experience. Most tours last between 2,5 to 3 hours and depart from Tróia and Setúbal.

Alcācer do Sal

The Sado River crossed the town of Alcācer do Sal on its way north. The picturesque town is part of the Setúbal District, and the area has had settlements for the last 40.000 years! It was during the Mesolithic Period that people started to settle around Alcácer. So, to say Alcācer do Sal is a historical city is an understatement! The medieval town has several sights, such as Castelo de Alcácer do Sal, which now hosts a fascinating archaeological museum. There is also a gorgeous pousada where you can stay the night!

Another interesting sight is Torre do Relógio, with a beautiful view over the Sado River. From Alcācer do Sal, you can easily reach Praia da Comporta, a favourite beach of many on the Tróia Peninsula. Other stunning beaches are Praia da Malha da Costa, Praia do Carvalhal, and Praia da Galé – Fontainhas.

Road trip suggestion for the Sado Estuary

Start your journey in Alcácer do Sal and follow the road towards Batalha, Comporta, and Costa de Galé. You’ll have the opportunity to stop at some beaches here, and it’s a great way to discover the Tróia Peninsula. From Tróia you can take the ferry to Setúbal. You can enter the ferry by walking, bike or with your car. Then, continue your journey to the Mourisca Water Mill for a short hike or a boat tour on the river Sado before returning to Alcācer do Sal. Need help with car rental in Portugal? Read the complete guide!

Combining the Sado River with Parque Natural da Arrábida

Not far from the Sado Estuary is another nature park. Parque Natural da Arrábida is located on the other side of Setúbal, and you can visit both areas in one day. Arrábida Nature Park is full of gems such as Portinho da Arrábida, the winemaking village Azeitão, the Convent of Our Lady of Arrábida, beaches and Espichel Cape on the Atlantic coast.

Other things to do close to the Sado River

A list of things to discover south of Lisbon:

✓ The city of Setúbal

Palmelo Castle (you can sleep here also!)

✓ Convent of Our Lady of Arrábida

✓ Praia de Galapinhos

✓ Portinho da Arrábida

✓ Praia dos Penedos (hike)

Castelo de Sesimbra

✓ Sesimbra town

Cabo Espichel

✓ The Tróia Peninsula

✓ Alcācer do Sal

How to get to the Sado River and Sado Estuary

The Sado River and estuary are close to Lisbon. You can take an epic drive over the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge from the city centre and follow the A2 towards Setúbal. If you take the 17-kilometre-long Ponte Vasco da Gama bridge, you follow the A12 to Setúbal. Both routes take less than an hour to get to the Sado Estuary.

Another option is to take a bus or train to Setúbal. The easiest way, however, is by car if you wish to spend time in nature. Cycling and hiking are also an option, and (aside from Parque Natural da Arrábida, which is hilly) the roads are flat. Need a car? Take a look at car rental prices below with DiscoverCars and book your spot!

Tours from Lisbon

If you don’t have a car but still want to spot dolphins and birds and enjoy a day in nature, there are some tours that depart from Lisbon. If you’d like to book a private tour with Discover Portugal, please get in touch through the Contact page to check availability.

Hotels nearby the Sado River

With so many things to do in the area, it’s worth staying the night. If you like a city vibe, Setúbal and Sesimbra are lovely. If you want to be surrounded by nature, there are fantastic options for you along the estuary.


As much as cities are lovely, an ‘escape’ to nature is sometimes needed. You can go hiking, cycling, dolphin watching and birdwatching, and there are many other places to visit nearby. The Sado River and Sado Estuary are perfect if you’re close to Lisbon! For more nature, don’t miss Parque Natural da Arrábida and its stunning beaches. Or discover towns like Sesimbra and Setubal or go wine tasting in Azeitão.

Written by Marga

Written by Marga

Content creator, travel writer and photographer

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I’m Marga, the blogger and photographer behind this site! I live in Lisbon, and I’m a cat-mum to 13-year-old Savage. I love coffee, cheese, a good book and exploring this beautiful country. I write about Lisbon and the rest of Portugal, and I hope this website will help as an inspiration for your holiday.

12 Responses

  1. I love river estuaries for the ease of cycling, the fabulous bird watching and the pretty views – but I have to admit, I didn’t expect dolphins as well! What a gorgeous area!

  2. Your posts are certainly add some new spots to our travel plans when we return to Portugal. A boat tour on the Sado River sounds great. I may not be a bird watcher but my eyes would be peeled for dolphins. A fun day trip from Setubal with so much to see and do.

  3. We love to pair the busy-ness of a city trio with a quieter side trip. Thanks for putting this on my radar. It looks amazing!

  4. What a great dose of nature – such a great balance to city exploring! I love Portugal and this makes me want to return!!

  5. The Sado Estuary looks like a nature lover’s paradise. Certainly a place I would like to spend a day or two at. Thanks for sharing this article.

  6. The Praia de Galapinhos is stunning! I’ve always wanted to go dolphin watching before, what an amazing experience. I’ve done a lot of bird watching before so that is right up my street!

  7. What a spectacular place! I have been to Lisbon several times, but this is my first hearing about the Sado Estuary Natural Reserve. I love places with a body of water since it’s relaxing, so I have to park this post for when I revisit Portugal.

  8. I had no idea that there were dolphins in the Sado estuary! I would love to see them next time I’m in Portugal!

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