Just a hop, skip and a tram ride away from the centre of Lisbon is Belém, a veritable treasure chest of tourist attractions. In Belém, Portugal’s Age of Discovery lives on – in the majestic Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the iconic Torre de Belém and the imposing Padrão dos Descobrimentos.
Breakfast pastries from Fruta da Vila (Travessa de São João da Praça 40) in hand, we ambled round Alfama before heading over to Praça da Figueira to catch the tram (which confusingly looks rather more like a bus) to Belém.
Already, crowds of tourists were milling about outside Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, and a queue was snaking out of the door. We promptly joined it and, since we wouldn’t be in the area again anytime soon, bought ourselves a boxful of pastéis de Belém. Some made short work of theirs at the counter; others, like us, took them away to the nearby park to devour in peace. Ordinarily, custard tarts are something I steer well clear of (I much prefer jam or fruit tarts), but when in Belém . . .
Lightly dusted with cinnamon (or sugar), even I had to admit that these mouthfuls of flaky pastry and creamy custard were decidedly moreish.
Lengthy queues are, it would seem, synonymous with most of Belém’s attractions, and Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was no exception (€10 adult; €5 student). Construction began in 1501, and with funds flooding in from the so-called Vintena da Pimenta (a 5% tax on trade from Africa and the Orient), the architects and sculptors dreamed big.
Diogo de Boitaca drew up the plans: a vision in golden limestone, featuring maritime motifs (a nod to the naval expeditions of the time). Over the years, other architects and sculptors put their stamp on the monastery: Juan de Castilho brought in elements of Spanish Plateresque style, an intricate, highly decorative style which evolved from the silversmith trade; Nicolau Chanterene and Diogo de Torralva drew on Renaissance motifs; and Jerónimo de Ruão added classical elements to the design.
For nigh-on four centuries, the monks who lived there prayed for the king’s soul and supported the seafarers who departed from the nearby port. In 1833, the monastery was dissolved, and over a century later, in 1983, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the Torre de Belém.
Despite the crowds, the cloisters were surprisingly peaceful, and we whiled away a couple of hours wandering round the complex. On the lower level, intricately carved columns opened up into delicate arches; upstairs, turrets, gargoyles and fantastic beasts abounded. Before we left, we popped inside Igreja Santa Maria de Belém: from the upper choir, there’s a dizzying view of the high-vaulted ceilings above and stained-glass windows below.
Our stomachs rumbled; Pão Pão Queijo Queijo (Rua de Belém 124) beckoned. The lunchtime rush was in full flow, but their fresh baguettes were well worth the wait. Fuelled on falafel baguette (or in Laurence’s case, sardine baguette), we ventured over to Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Discovery Monument).
Sitting on the bank of the Rio Tejo and emulating the prow of a ship bound for far-flung lands, this sculpture celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Inaugurated on the five hundredth anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death, it’s teeming with VIPs (that’s Very Important Portuguese), including explorers, monarchs, scientists and artists.
A little further on, we reached the Torre de Belém. This UNESCO-listed fortress once served as a means of defending Lisbon’s harbour; over the years, the structure was strengthened and a bastion and tower added. Incorporating both Manueline and Moorish design elements, the Torre de Belém is arguably a keep which screams style over substance (it fared pretty poorly in battle; in 1590, troops stationed there were forced to surrender after only a few hours exchanging fire with Spanish forces).
We swung by Museu Coleção Berado, part of the Centro Cultural de Belém, to check out the contemporary sculptures on its terrace; entry to the museum itself is €5. We then shared a couple of scoops of melon and pineapple gelato at Gelato Davvero (Centro Cultural de Belém), before catching the tram back to Lisbon.
Back in the city centre, we headed up to Miradouro da Senhora do Monte to watch the sun go down (with a can of iced tea in hand). Vistas from this pine-shaded viewpoint are second to none, and we both agreed it was well worth huffing and puffing our way up the hill for them.
We rounded off the evening with tea at Bonjardim (Travessa de Santo Antão 12), a roast-chicken joint which was recommended by the likes of TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet, and didn’t fail to hit the spot.
- Tram #15 will take you from downtown Lisbon to the doors of Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (where the famed pastéis de Belém are made) in just thirty minutes. Catch it from Praça da Figueira and alight at Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, right outside the bakery. Single tickets cost €2,90 (October 2018).
- If you can’t bear to join the lengthy queue for Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, head to the neighbouring Museu Nactional de Arqueologica and buy one of their combi tickets which grant you access to both attractions and enable you to skip the queue at Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.