Hugging the riverbank west of Lisbon city center is the historic suburb of Belém. A shining jewel in the Portuguese capital’s sightseeing crown, this visually stunning and culturally stimulating destination rewards the visitor with a remarkable collection of historic buildings, world-class museums, verdant parks and gardens and several delightful and enchanting restaurants and cafes.
The best way of exploring this rich and diverse cache is during the morning, before the tour coaches arrive and tourist numbers swell. Belém can be reached by several modes of transport, but the most novel is the number 15 tram. This sleek, modern streetcar pulls up in front of one of the greatest national monuments in Portugal, the beautiful 16th-century Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The 16th-century Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a UNESCO World Heritage site — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Spend time walking the monastery’s fabulously ornate cloisters before seeking out the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the great Portuguese navigator who discovered the sea route to India in 1498 and in whose honor the monastery was built.
In fact, Belém is an area that celebrates Portugal’s golden Age of Discovery, and not far away is another equally cherished and decorative monument – the quirky Torre de Belém. It can be reached through pretty gardens and the pedestrian subway that dips under the main road and railway line, and it's located right on the waterfront.
The tower was commissioned in 1515 and completed in 1521, and it actually rises up from the Tagus riverbed. Its unique design and precious filigree stonework has also merited World Heritage status, and the tower’s curious outline has been adopted as a symbol of Lisbon’s seafaring heritage.
The unusual Torre de Belem — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Kids will love exploring the building’s vaulted dungeon and sizing up the cannons positioned around the walls. Afterwards, they can climb to the top of the fort and walk the battlements, where glorious views of the river can be had.
Built practically under the shadow of the monastery is the Centro Cultural de Belém, one of the country’s top cultural facilities. Known as a live music venue, the center is also home to the Berardo Collection, an impressive exhibit of modern art that includes works by Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. Another great reason to visit is that entry is absolutely free!
Enjoy lunch and a drop of wine at Enoteca de Belem. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
By now, everyone’s probably a bit peckish, and there’s only one place to go – Antiga Casa dos Pastéis de Belém. This is where they serve the famous custard tarts made to a recipe that’s remained a secret for centuries. A couple of these sugary treats should do the trick.
But if you’d rather have lunch and a glass or two of wine, then a better choice is Enoteca de Belém, an inviting wine and tapas bar tucked away in a quiet alley and still pretty much off the tourist trail. The choice of wines is excellent, with just about every region of the country represented.
You can order bite-sized snacks or scan the menu for something more substantial. Either way, it’s a very civilized way to end your morning tour of Belém, and the tram stop back to Lisbon is just across the road.